Marching to the beat of a pacifist drum

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Marching with a mission: Yoko Essel, bearing the “Peace Walk” banner is followed Tuesday morning by Jun Yasuda, Miki Fukui, and Andrew Feron, holding the anti-fracking sign. The walkers, here, on the Altamont-Voorheesville Road, are on their way from Sharon Springs to the State Capitol in Albany.

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Bundled against the cold, Miki Fukui is ready to continue her walk to the Sate Capitol. She holds a drum that sets a beat for the walkers to march to.

The Enterprise — Melissa Hale-Spencer

Charting their course: Jun Yasuda, left, a Buddhist nun and founder of the Yasuda Peace Pagoda in Grafton, and Andrew Feron map out a route that will take the peace walkers to Albany.

GUILDERLAND — The beat of a drum sounded in the clear winter air on Tuesday morning, ricocheting off the Helderbergs as a band of five walked the road that wends its way along the base of the escarpment.

The woman in front, Yoko Essel, dark braids flowing from beneath the earflaps of her fur-lined hat, held a banner that proclaimed “Peace Walk for Earth & Life.”

Behind her was an older woman, a Buddhist nun, Jun Yasuda, founder of the Yasuda Peace Pagoda in Grafton. She is a nun in the small Nipponzan Myohoji sect, which grew after the horrors of World War II and is dedicated to the cause of world peace; it is based on the Lotus Sutra, or book of teachings, by Buddha.

Yasuda presses her palms together and bows her head as she meets a stranger, me, when I stopp to ask about the small contingent, marching in the 5-degree weather.

Walking with her are Miki Fukui, originally from Japan; Sarah Clark from Massachusetts; and Andrew Feron from Rifton. “They’ve made me the spokesman because I speak English,” he says.

The son of a newspaperman, Feron understands the need to spell out names and places but insists, when I press to know where the others are from, “Paying attention to the slant of our eyes is misguided.”

He describes himself as a “green builder” and a “monotheist” and carries an anti-fracking sign. Feron described the pilgrimage this way:

A contingent as large as 22 — “It changes by the hour,” he said — left the village of Sharon Springs in Schoharie County on Saturday, Jan. 4, with a send-off from the mayor. The goal: To arrive at the State Capitol in Albany by Wednesday in time for the governor’s State of the State Address.

Protesters who opposed hydraulic fracturing rallied outside the convention center on Wednesday; inside, Andrew Cuomo did not mention fracking in his address. The energy portion of his speech yesterday focused on reducing costs, modernizing the electric power grid, launching a biomass heating initiative, and expanding the use of solar power.

On Tuesday, as the walkers made their trek, the state’s long-term energy plan was released, giving the public 60 days to comment. Unlike the 2009 plan that sold the benefits of tapping shale gas, the 2014 plan takes no stand on fracking, one way or the other, as New Yorkers remain equally divided.

The new plan notes environmental and health concerns are being reviewed as the moratorium on fracking begun in 2008 continues.

Feron is not mollified. He displays a map, outlining lands leased by companies to drill for gas deposits in Marcellus shale using the controversial high-volume hydraulic fracturing method.

“It’s closer than you think,” he said. “I would want people to know, if future dangers happen, the companies are exempt from responsibility. That’s why they don’t buy the land; they lease it.”

“With the limestone here,” he says, gesturing toward the escarpment, “the underground waters are all connected....This is a global issue.”

The biting cold stops the ink in my pen. I invite the walkers into my home, on the road they trod.

They have been invited in by other residents along their route. “The minister that took us in for lunch in Carlisle is a douser,” Feron said. “Last night, we stayed with a retired water department tester. They find this deeply disturbing,” he said of hydrofracking. Yesterday, when the walkers stopped at a Dunkin’ Donuts for a break, a woman they met there, who sells sprouts for a living, joined the walk, Feron said.

The cold, cold weather hasn’t deterred the walkers. “We persevere,” said Feron. “Our hearts are warm....The energy is stronger than the cold.”

In the shelter of my kitchen, I heat a kettle on the stove and serve them tea.  The Japanese women bow in thanks, humbling me.

As they shed their layers of clothing, I find out more about who each one is and why they are walking on this winter day. I learn that, though they walk together, behind the same banner, to the same drumbeat, each has individual reasons and goals.

The walk is a first for Feron. “I have never been an activist,” he said. But it is a way of life for Yasuda. Born in Japan and mentored in India, she first came to the United States in 1978 to join The Longest Walk, as it was called, for Native American rights.

Yasuda walked over 3,200 miles from Alcatraz Island to Washington, D.C.

Although her words are halting, her ideas flow like a spring river.

“I have been walking the country,” she said, “because native Indian people respect the Earth.” To them, she said, “All living things is sacred...This modern civilization is opposite.”

Yasuda went on to describe her life’s philosophy, “People say, ‘Money, money, money.’ But first our life come from Earth. If no respect to Earth, how you survive? Even if you have money. You damage your mother.”

Pilgrimages were part of the other walkers’ lives, too.

In addition to opposing fracking, Clark has walked in anti-nuclear marches, she said. She walks, she said, because she wants to “bring issues to the fore...I’m trying to preserve the Earth for us and our grandchildren.”

Fukui displays the anti-nuclear pins she wears. “Every year, I go back to Japan,” she said, to protest. She refers to the 2011 earthquake with the tsunami that caused the failure at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. “It’s not going to disappear,” said Fukui of the released radioactive material. “It’s out of our hands...We need an end of nuclear power.”

Describing why she walks, Fukui said, “For me, the idea is peace, to take one step closer to world peace...It’s not only nuclear, it’s not only fracking, it’s pollution, it’s everything.”

Fukui concluded, “For world peace, I would do anything.”

“She always was talking about world peace,” said Essel, smiling at Fukui. “At first, I didn’t think I could do anything myself. But, I realized, if I want world peace, I need to do something.”

She went on, “I always feel sad because Japan is the only country that got atomic bombed. It’s not good for humankind.”

The weather doesn’t bother her, said Fukui. She has walked in extreme cold, as she has this week, and extreme heat, too.

She described the annual observance on Aug. 6, the day the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, where crowds gather before the Genbaku Dome that survived the devastating bomb and is now preserved as a memorial.

“It’s a symbol,” she said of the dome. Some make the pilgrimage there after a long walk. “We pray all day and fast,” said Fukui.

Last Aug. 6, she recalled, was “humid and super hot, painfully hot, burning.” Fukui took it as a lesson. “I was imagining the atomic bomb burning your skin,” she said quietly.

Then, she added brightly, “Today — actually, it’s beautiful.”

For Feron, the solution to America’s exploitive extraction of natural resources lies in the program, known as The Natural Step, developed by Swedish cancer scientist Karl-Henrik Robert, and adopted by such companies as Ikea. Robert’s program defines a system for sustainability of human life on Earth, backed by the king of Sweden and followed by other European countries. He wishes America would follow suit.

While Yasuda may hold similar views, she expresses them in direct, simple terms that feel universal. “This country has a rich natural resource,” she says. She references the technology being used to extract some of those resources, alluding to mountaintops in Kentucky being removed to access coal, or hydrofracking for gas deposits in the Northeast.

“This country try to make money but this is a suicide way, killing life,” said Yasuda. “I go to Kentucky after this walk. They are cutting out mountains for coal.”

She mentions earthquakes in Oklahoma where there were never earthquakes before, and she speaks of the need to preserve the Earth.

She thanks me for having them in my “country home” and says such stops provide energy. I feel, rather, I should be thanking them for the energy that comes from a wider world view.

The travelers, unbidden, rinse their teacups and placed them in my sink before donning their outer clothes and taking up their hand-held drums and mallets, their sign and banner.

“I feel like I have to walk, I have to walk,” says Yasuda.

For her, walking is a prayer. “Step by step,” says Yasuda. As she chants, as she walks, this is what she is thinking: “Thank you for Earth. Thank you to life.”

“This,” she says, “is prayer.”

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