UPDATE 3/22/13: Today is World Water Day: Why It Matters
By Pamela Burke
Thanks to Susan Edwards’ new documentary “Marion Stoddart: The Work of 1000,” we get to meet one of America’s most dedicated environmentalists. Sue spent four years piecing together the story of how Marion and her supporters took on the challenge of restoring the Nashua River in New England, one of the most polluted bodies of water in the country.
As we celebrate the 100th Annniversary of International Women’s Day, we honor Marion Stoddart who proved one person can make a difference.
The river in Massachusetts above where you see Marion paddling went from “a hopeless, toxic sludge pit” in the sixties to a waterway filled with fish, birds, and kayakers twenty years later.
I grew up near this river that winds through the center of the state to southern New Hampshire and couldn’t believe how polluted it became. When I heard about Marion’s environmental triumph, I had to find Susan and ask her about her fascinating film and this one woman warrior…
EYE: You spent almost four years working on this documentary. What drove you to do this?
SUE: I became in awe of who Marion Stoddart was, what she did, and how she did it. She told me that one Sunday she heard a person speaking on a radio show say, “One Person Can Do the Work of a Thousand.” That was all it took for Marion to begin her crusade.
She was married with three young children in 1962 and wondering what she could do to contribute to the world. The sixties was a turbulent time with the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights’ Movement, and emerging feminism.
Rachel Carson had just published her best-selling book “Silent Spring” bemoaning the use of insecticide on industrial farming. Marion admired Rachel and her work.
Seeing and smelling the toxic sludge from the Nashua River right in her own backyard, she decided that no matter how difficult, she would restore it to its former beauty. Drought intensified the problem and the river got worse. It took her fifteen years to clean up the mess.
I was so inspired by her that I had to tell the story of how she saved the river.
EYE: How did it get to be so toxic and unhealthy?
SUE: It was in terrible shape then. Noone ever knew what color it was going to be. If the mills were making red paper, it would turn red; if the paper was green, it would be green. Human waste and trash were thrown into it. The river had long been a dumping ground.
Our attitudes toward nature in general and our ignorance about the horrible effects of pollution on people and ecosystems contributed to the problem.
Nothing was done about it because of indifference, fear of job loss, and skepticism. Nobody believed the river could be rescued.
The catalysts for change were individuals like Marion Stoddart who were considered crazy people. They had a vision and knew what was possible.
EYE: What did she have to do to get the ball rolling?
SUE: The worst decade was the 1960s. Marion first set out to learn all she could about land and water resources, laws, and agencies. She organized to get people to sign petitions. She had no training and was becoming known as “that little crazy lady from Groton.” At one point she got death threats. But she had a call to action and wouldn’t take no for an answer.
She presented signatures to Governor John Volpe along with a bottle of contaminated water to make her point. In 1966 Senator Ted Kennedy brought Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall to New England to meet with Marion and hundreds of her supporters.
Marion’s plea was for a swimmable river though she was concerned she would lose her credibility to ask for such a high standard. As a result of her and others efforts, Governor Volpe signed the first in the nation Massachusetts Clean Water Act. That was just one step in the process.
In 1972 the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency mandated that all rivers be fishable and swimmable by 1983. In 1977, trout were spotted in the Nashua River.
“Marion was my hero, but she could be any of us who struggle with family life, and balance.”
EYE: How did you find out about Marion? You’re from another part of the country.
SUE: I’m actually from Missouri. I had heard about her story 15 years ago through the Nashua River Watershed Association’s River Classroom that took people on the the riiver and talked about its history. Then I met her working on a political campaign, and we became friends.
She started to tell me how she felt even through her 79th year that she hadn’t been a good mother or a good wife in spite of restoring the river. She was always bound by guilt that she wasn’t the perfect mother.
I got to thinking that this women is really all of us. Marion was my hero, but she could be any of us who struggle with family life and balance.
When she took on the cleanup, she had reached a low point in her own life. She was really depressed and had a decision to make then. Luckily for all of us, she decided that she would take on this project. It lasted her an entire lifetime.
So I thought this was a compelling message. She was just a little bit younger than my own mother and they both grew up in an era when women were being sedated with all kinds of things and yearning for lives that would be more satisfying. They were still breaking out of the mold.
“One of the things Marion taught me was to ask for what you want and not what you’ll settle for.”
EYE: Were you a documentarian at the time you began this project?
SUE: Not at all. I have a small company that develops websites. I had also been a librarian. One of the things Marion taught me was to ask for what you want and not what you’ll settle for.
I had done three short video clips for the organization that she founded 40 years ago. I said, “Marion, you told me that I should ask for what I want. I want to ask you if I can make a film about you.”
She was very reluctant. I told her that my vision was for it to be a film to educate and inspire women worldwide. She finally supported me once she heard this. We thought this project could help build awareness about protecting what we work so hard to clean up.
“…you don’t have to know how you’re going to do something, but if you have vision and educate yourself, then you will do it.”
EYE: You never made a documentary before and met Marion and just started in?
SUE: Yes, I took my influence from her. She taught me so many lessons. One is that you don’t have to know how you’re going to do something, but if you have vision and educate yourself, then you will do it. I just followed her formula and it worked. It took three years and was finished May 2010.
One owner of a local mill refurbished it and is powering it by geothermal; another is using solar power for heating and cooling.
There is a charter school in one of the mills now. New industry is moving in creating jobs and tax revenues that are helping the city. There’s been a whole transformation.
EYE: What shape is the river in now?
SUE: Marion and I really enjoy swimming in it. It is clean though, as she says, “The work will never be done!”. But there are new threats like runoff from roads, lawns, and contaminents people inadvertently put down their drains. People do fish in the river but you wouldn’t want to eat them.
We have federal legislation which requires the mills to clean up their refuse before it’s discharged into the river. The state has provided funds for waste water treatment.
Paper consumption is different now. In one mill they created an incredible clean process for making paper. Out of tremendous adversity came innovation.
EYE: Is Marion a legend there now?
MARION: A lot of people locally think she is a hero within these 31 watershed communities. And yet, she’s a regular citizen. Through this film I’m hoping she will get the kind of visibility that someone who accomplished what she did should have.
Not only that but it’s how she accomplished it. That’s a tangible lesson on how to create positive social change for people working in environmental arena and beyond.
“This film could inspire the next generation of environmental problem solvers.”
EYE: What do you want for the film?
SUE: I’d like to have a wider audience. I like to see people talking about it and pulling out the key themes that are relevant to what they’re doing. This film could inspire the next generation of environmental problem solvers. I’d like people to extrapolate from this one individual and then create one’s own call to action.
EYE: What is Marion’s legacy?
SUE: To think globally and act locally. She proved you can just be ordinary and make a commitment. It could be to improve a river, a school, or a community. She’s still devoted to the river, and yet it was over 40 years ago that she founded the Watershed Association.
A journalist for the Boston Globe wrote a feature on her and interviewed her son Tom about his mother. Tom said he would never have wanted it any other way. This is another important message from the film.
We carry these ideas like Marion did that we’ve let our children down, that we haven’t spent enough time with them. How many parents and children in their ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s talk about those fears. Through the process of telling a story, other things emerge. The message that came out in this film was that her kids survived just fine.
EYE: Has this been a long road for you?
SUE: This has been my river. It truly has been. I long for women to see this kind of story and to tap into themselves. They can do amazing things. This is really important to me. There are so many unsung heros. They need us to tell their stories.
EYE: Thanks, Sue. Your documentary should encourage people to clean up their environment and to accomplish all kinds of things by committing to their vision. We wish you great luck in getting the word out about the film.
Here’s a list of the film festivals that it has been accepted to:
WOMEN’S FILM FESTIVAL, Brattleboro, Vermont–Festival Runs: March 11 – 20, 2011
LOS ANGELES INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S FILM FESTIVAL —Festival Runs: March 25 – 31
THE TALKING PICTURES FESTIVAL, Evanston, Illinois–Festival Runs: April 14 – 17, 2011
REEL EARTH ENVIRONMENTAL FILM FESTIVAL, Palmerston North, New Zealand–Festival Runs: May 6 – 18, 2011