Who needs artists when you’re trying to save a river? The Haw River Assembly, that’s who.

The Haw River Assembly (HRA) is a nonprofit grassroots organization founded in 1982. Its mission is to protect and restore the Haw River, which flows 110 miles from Forsyth County to the Cape Fear River. The Assembly has its work cut out: The Haw and at least 16 of its tributaries are on the state’s “impaired” list, and the organization’s volunteers spend thousands of hours each year cleaning the river, monitoring its quality, watching for pollution violations, lobbying lawmakers and building a community to share its vision.

Eighteen years after its inception, that community includes dozens of singers and storytellers, textile artists and sculptors, painters and musicians, puppeteers and jugglers. Why are there so many artists involved? Because this group is truly progressive: It sees community activism as a creative process.

The arts flowed into the current of the Haw in 1990, when artist-storyteller Louise Omoto Kessel first approached the HRA with an idea for an annual Haw River Festival: a traveling river celebration of performers and naturalists and volunteers, canoeing down the Haw, performing and teaching about the river as they went.

Kessel had just returned home after three inspiring adventures on the water, traveling on the Hudson River sloop Clearwater, the Circle of Water Circus on the Mississippi and the Soviet American Sail aboard the Te Vega. On each voyage, she had had the intense experience of creating a community of “citizen diplomats” united in an inspiring mission.

“I had become a complete believer in the value of citizen diplomacy,” Kessel wrote in an essay about her approach to the Haw River Festival. Looking back at the projects she had been involved in, Kessel began to discern a “recipe” for success. She found that all of them involved a community of people caring for each other, a sense of purpose, a spirit of service, creative expression of that spirit and physical adventure. As she put it, “Holistic involvement: mind, body, heart, spirit. Activism without creativity and opportunity to be physically involved in an adventure just doesn’t feed the participants enough; burn-out seems constantly too close at hand. Hard work without creativity can tend to be dehumanizing. Creativity together with hard work can be a wonderful partnership, giving the creative process a solid beat to dance to.”

Today one of the Haw River Assembly’s main projects is the Haw River Festival, an annual environmental education program presented in various sites on the banks of the Haw for schoolchildren and the public each spring. For three weeks in April and May, a crew of educators, performers and river lovers bring what they call their “Learning Celebration” to more than 1,500 fourth graders from the counties connected by the river. The children make a field trip to the riverside, where they spend the morning learning about the watershed’s wildlife, cultural history, water-quality issues and conservation needs. During a picnic lunch, they join in songs and puppets shows, games and theater.

The last stage of the festival is the grand finale, held each year Hawside in the mill village of Bynum, where there is more music, clowning, storytelling, puppet extravaganzas, learning stations, river-monitoring equipment, white-water paddling and Art on the Hill–the open studios of Bynum’s artists, including sculptor Clyde Jones.

This spring, just as the world was at its most “mud-luscious” (to quote e.e. cummings), I joined a HRA Learning Celebration in Saxapahaw, to get some hands-on experience for myself.

Turning riverward off the Saxapahaw-Swepsonville Road, I bounced along bumpy Payne Road to its end on the farm of Len Mann, who lets the Assembly use his land for the festival. I parked and started off down the hillside path, where I came to an encampment. Two women were working on the site, which looked like it had been lived in for several days. It had: Every spring, the entire Learning Celebration crew lives in camp together for a week at each Festival site, training, teaching and enjoying each other.

I was greeted by environmental educator Lynn Bossong, the festival coordinator, who guided me along the trail, explaining that the children were in the woods, moving through the learning stations in small floating groups.

As Bossong left me at the first stop, I saw a familiar figure at work. Jef, local mime extraordinaire, was holding up a card showing some animal tracks. “Tell me why a heron might leave tracks like that,” he asked the roiling mass of 9-year-olds. “Can you walk like a heron?”

One of the boys did a heron’s walk, craning his neck and lifting his knees high in the air.

“That’s right,” said Jef. “They have to bring them up high out of the shallow water. Why this wide claw?”

“To keep its balance!”

“Yes. If you stepped in the same mud, you’d be up to your knees!” (Laughter.) As I left, he was playing guessing games with vertebrae, jawbones and the hide of a white-tailed deer.

Moving from station to station through the trees, I stopped at the Corn Station, where Nancy Fleckenstein, a home-school mom, was demonstrating the way Native Americans planted corn in hills with squash and beans. At the next station Native American Bruce Holt was showing his collection of early tools–stone hammers, scrapers and bowls, a turtle rattle, an axe (“A Guilford axe, came up in my son’s yard”). At the Nature Art station, children were crushing different colors of rock to make paint, mixing the pigment with river water. Down by the stream, Lynn Bossong had a group playing a language game with bits of materials they had found on the forest floor.

It wasn’t long before we were all headed back to the campsite for lunch. No sooner had I sat down in the grass than staffers and volunteers joined me to talk about their Haw River Assembly experience. While singer-songwriter Cynthia Crossen, an HRA board member, led a sing-along and Jef appeared to juggle in clown pants and a fake nose, Paul Kinnaird, this year’s safety and logistics coordinator, began to wax poetic.

“Most people think of the Haw from Chicken Bridge on,” he said, “but the upper Haw above Burlington is so beautiful. There’s lots of wildlife and huge swamps.” Pulling out a map, he showed me “the feather,” the Haw and its many tributaries flowing through Forsyth, Rockingham, Guilford, Orange, Alamance and Chatham counties. “The Haw was a dead river in the ’60s and ’70s,” he said. “Not much wildlife, clouds of foam, no birds or fish. Industries used to dump right into it. The Clean Water Act in ’72 changed that, and now effluent is treated. Now silt runoff is the big problem, with more and more land development. Silt to fish is like smoke to us. The more silt, the harder it is for them to get oxygen.”

Rachel Winters, a six-year volunteer and board member, talked about the broadening of the HRA mission: “There’s a subgroup of the board putting work into land issues, like conservation easements. It helps to keep development from happening. We just finished brokering the purchase of the headwaters of the Haw.” The purchase, she told me, was accomplished with HRA grants and donations, and the springs have been placed in trust with the Piedmont Land Conservancy. Said Winters, “The HRA is not interested in being owners of land, but can help with brokering.”

Up front, Jan Burger and Donovan Zimmerman took the stage with a participatory song that had the children standing and swirling in circles, their hands in the air. “The Assembly draws all kinds of people,” said Winters, watching the dance. “It’s an obvious place for artists to come and contribute.”

As the group broke up and the children headed for their buses, I was joined by several teens who have been with the festival most of their lives and are now becoming group leaders. Jesse Crossen said, “I’ve been coming since I was eight and now I’m 18. I help with moving the site; I cook breakfast. I’ve been camping out here since Friday. It’s a chance to do something important. You get treated like a person and you’re not even 18.” Crossen’s schoolmate Emma Blose told me, “I love leading groups of kids around. They’re so enthusiastic about what they’re doing.”

“There’s something joyful about having a shared purpose, forming connections year after year, living together, sharing work,” said Winters. “Every night we do a check-in,” said Cynthia Crossen, joining us. “We sit around in a circle, pass a candle and share how the day went for us. It feels good, particularly for the children.” About a dozen young people pitched in this week, and Crossen claimed that their contribution was critical. “One of the most important things we’re doing is raising the environmental awareness of the crew, a depth of heart and love and knowledge about the Earth,” she continued. “For us environmental activists, it can get really wearying, fight after fight. This is a magical time for us to rejuvenate, to go back into the trenches and work for the river.”

The Assembly’s latest project is the Stream Steward Campaign, Executive Director Elaine Chiosso told me a few days later in the tiny Bynum mill house that serves as the HRA office. “Saving the river one backyard at a time” is the campaign’s motto. “It’s a concept we’ve been talking about for a couple of years,” she said, showing me the logo for the campaign, a human hand immersed in a flowing stream. “We want to put together a simple but meaningful packet of information that would let people understand how the way they impact their own piece of land affects river quality.” She showed me the state’s list of impaired waterways. “You should be able to have body contact with these streams without being harmed. They should be sustaining life in the river. Every river system in North Carolina has some segment that is impaired.” The Haw is now one of the top five rivers with which the state is concerned, due largely to the amount of popular interest stirred up by the HRA. “We definitely spoke up and had a voice in the process.”

The Assembly is getting vocal about plenty of other issues: a golf course development proposed for Jordan Lake, a Greensboro pipeline disaster, the Burlington Sewer Line Project and a dangerous dam situation. HRA’s public-awareness programs helped to stop a proposed mega-development called Hunter’s Hollow in northern Chatham County. The HRA land committee is looking into further conservation projects on Mears Fork just below the headwaters, near Swepsonville where two old dams impede the flow of the Haw, in the Alston Quarter below Saxapahaw, and at Oak Ridge.

Land conservation purchase and public meetings draw a lot of crucial attention to water issues, but quietly, constantly, another activity is going on: The HRA River Watch Project, founded in 1995, engages 150 volunteers in quarterly inspections at 43 sites in the watershed, monitoring the health of the Haw and its tributaries. Program Coordinator Kim Colvin regularly provides River Watch data to state environmental agencies. The annual Clean-Up-A-Thon pulls hundreds of bags of trash from the river each spring. And all this on an annual budget of about $60,000.

“We do a lot with what we get,” said Elaine Chiosso. “We have a board of very active people, a whole range of scientists, enviro-consultants, people who have made themselves experts, artists, musicians. The success of our organization has been, in large part, due to seeking a balance between art and the public-policy issues. Technical documents and public hearings are important, but an organization like ours, trying to protect a river, needs people to act as a voice for that river. It doesn’t get to have a voice or be a lobbyist. If you don’t find ways to create community, excitement and beauty while you’re fighting the hard fight, you burn out.”

The Festival has generated a healthy body of artwork for its community: a songbook of music created for and adapted to the Haw milieu, the growing family of puppets and masks, the gallery of Clyde Jones “critters” and paintings and other artworks auctioned each year, the weavings and quilts created by schoolkids, the stories Elaine Chiosso has written about the region’s cultural history–tales of the native Sissipahaw tribe, the local Quakers and the Underground Railroad, the colorful mill towns along the river’s banks.

“The art provides an opening for people,” Chiosso told me. “They are touched by something they hear or see,” she said, her face lighting with a smile, “and they are drawn in.” Drawn in, perhaps, to the fate of all rivers, which writer Kenneth Grahame once described as “a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea.” EndBlock