The Art of Fighting a Nuke Dump
By Susan Beckhorn
How were the arts used to fight the siting of a radioactive waste dump in Allegany County? Just as David fought Goliath with the only weapon he had, people used every possible means to express their outrage and stop the process. Some were pretty creative. Literally thousands of people asked themselves, “What can I do?” If they had a talent or a skill, they used it.
Like David’s small missile, these efforts were on target and effective. Dozens of artists offered work, from Hope Zaccagni (now an accomplished painter) who designed posters and the iconic mushroom masks, to Suzanne Bloom of Cortland County (now a well-known children’s book illustrator) who drew many cartoons including the “Loves me Loves Me Not” Daisy-morphing into-Radioactive warning symbol. Many T-shirts, buttons, and bumper stickers were created.
Photography documented events as they unfolded. Kathryn Ross of the Wellsville Daily Reporter wrote articles and took countless photographs. Her work forms an important collection. Steve Meyers, the first chair of the Concerned Citizens group and a professional photographer, produced a legacy of stunning images. An excellent summary of the dump fight was captured for history in Kevin O’Shaughnessy’s documentary, My Name is Allegany County.
Using pens as swords, writers contributed mightily. Sun Publishing in Alfred and Vanmark Printing in Wellsville donated paper and printer’s ink like blood transfusions and, in the tradition of our revolutionary ancestors, worked long into the night producing posters, newsletters, and of course, the masks. One publication, edited by poet Walt Franklin was aptly named “The Stone and Sling.” Novelist Megan Staffel researched and wrote a paper on the connection between radioactivity and dairy, which was distributed to dairy farmers, presented to the governor, and inspiried Dale Meisenheimer’s song, “If I was a cow.” Staffel’s husband Graham Marks wrote an article for The Studio Potter. Anna Eskenazi Bush and John Arden-Hopkins, then editor of the Cuba Patriot, co-wrote a musical, “Bump the Dump,” produced at Alfred State College. One of the final choruses resonates today: “Come celebrate, oh Allegany, don’t let memories fade. Hold high the torch of history, pass on the truth we’ve made.”
There was more: A beautiful quilt constructed from squares designed and sewn by many hands was put together by Jenny Kelly and Pat Kaake and displayed in Albany and Washington, D.C. Culinary artists created nourishing hot stews made from local ingredients to sustain protestors during the cold “nuclear winters” of protests. They also put together a cookbook as a fundraiser with both silly and useful recipes. There was an abundance of street theater: When the infamous “Information Van” came into Wellsville, it was blocked with tractors and a manure spreader. In Almond, it was escorted down Main Street to the entrance ramp to Route 17 dragging a box of cow manure scattered with mushrooms (referencing a Siting Commission statement that the Concerned Citizens group was “Keeping people in the dark and feeding them s—). A dead skunk was crammed into its heating vent as a gesture which implied that the siting process stank. In Albany, people from the sited areas staged a “funeral march” from the statehouse, where eulogies were read, to the governor’s mansion, each county represented by a coffin. Fred Beckhorn built the one for Allegany County. Children dressed as angels helped carry a banner of photos of Allegany kids created by Mary Gardner Ruch. And the Grim Reaper was present at many of the protests in full regalia.
A “Night of Rage,” brainchild of Jim Lucey, then CCAC co-chair, was staged at the West Almond encampment on an October evening, advertised by a poster with charred edges. Stuffed effigies of the siting commission were torched. Jack o’ Lanterns carved by Glenna Fredrickson with images of Governor Cuomo lit the stage. All non-violent actions were as carefully choreographed as a dance, from the first circles of singing citizens with locked arms to the seniors chained across the Caneadea bridge, backed by a blockade of farm equipment, and a final blockade of horsemen.
There was music. Says Native American singer-songwriter, Buffy Sainte-Marie (Universal Soldier), “A great three-minute protest song can be more effective than a 400-page textbook: immediate and replicable, portable and efficient, wrapped in music, easy to understand by ordinary people. It’s distributed word-of-mouth by artists, as opposed to news stories marketed by the fellas who may own the town, the company store and the mine.” Local musicians came together with original songs to form B.A.N.D.I.T.S. (Bands Against Nuclear Dumps In This State). Ed Whitney’s Nasty Boys introduced at the first non-violent action in Belmont inspired Cher Appell’s Nasty Girls. The two songs served as a warning wrapped in humor: “We fool around with shotguns—they’re about our favorite toys . . .” The message was, We’re serious. We intend to defend ourselves. Howard Appell’s haunting Caneadea evoked the legacy of the land under our stewardship, as did Irma Howard’s “Keep Free the Land.” Gary Barteau’s Reduce, Recycle and Reuse foretold the way of life humans must adopt to live sustainably. My song Allegany was a channeling of a few phrases: “rise to your feet . . . lock arms and stand . . . no radiation without representation. . .” simple lines, easy to sing and share. The power of the music was clear when my arrest at Caneadea included the seizure of my guitar—clearly a weapon of the people. That moment inspired Never Stop Singing: “when power gives power the right to do wrong, you might get arrested for singing your song . . .”
There were those who said the dump was a done deal, it was useless to fight. But we did fight and while there is still no solution for radioactive waste, we don’t have a dump. We made a difference. To those who gave creative juices and energy, who have not been mentioned here, please know it was not by intention. I urge you to share your part in history and I personally thank you.
AUTHOR BIO: Susan Williams Beckhorn is the award-winning author and illustrator of half a dozen children’s books who grew up in a family where kids, animals, and the outdoors were cherished. Susan lives and writes in Rexville, NY.