Floyd County in southwestern Virginia may be one of the last places in the country where you can drink water straight from a rushing mountain stream. “It’s pristine water,” says Mara Eve Robbins, a cofounder of Preserve Floyd, an advocacy group launched in 2014 to protect this corner of the Appalachian Mountains from the proposed Mountain Valley natural gas pipeline. “When I was 10 years old I could beat all the boys at arm wrestling because I carried water for a family of five from a spring about 50 yards away from our house.”
Pure and plentiful freshwater has become a potent symbol here in recent years as local communities fight the Mountain Valley and another proposed project, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Green-lighted by the Trump administration last year, the conduits would carry fracked gas underground for a combined 900 miles through West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina. According to analysis by NRDC and the consulting firm Downstream Strategies, in Virginia alone the projects would cross waterways over 1,000 times.
But now, in an eye-catching act of resistance, Robbins and dozens of other activists are celebrating the state’s rivers, streams, and creeks with custom-made flags representing each of the at-risk wetlands and waterways. So far, the collaborative effort, organized by the Water is Life. Protect it. Coalition, has invited some 50 community groups to put their marks on long streamers of blue ripstop nylon that have been cut into the shape of swallowtail pennants.
As their designers intended, the long and skinny pennants bend and twist in the wind like a river or stream that meanders through the mountains. Some of the flags were decorated by local children, others will map the course of waterways through the wild, and some have even been ritually dipped into the ponds and reservoirs they represent. The wooden poles the pennants hang from are also significant, gathered from the many miles of forest already cleared by pipeline construction crews. The artists have dubbed them Phoenix Poles, “murdered” trees that have risen again.
“The flags create a unifying symbol of the allegiance that these protectors have to their own waterways,” says NRDC artist-in-residence Jenny Kendler, who launched the Virginia Water Flags project with Robbins and Kay Ferguson, an arts and community organizer in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The blue pennants also act as a rallying cry for frontline communities who have been locked in battle with government entities, corporate lawyers, and even law enforcement since the projects were announced four years ago. “Many of them [feel] buried right now; they’re beleaguered,” says Ferguson. “They are in the shadow of big equipment digging up their neighbor’s land, or their own land, and they are tired.”
For Ferguson, the flags are a gift given in recognition of the communities’ hard work and an encouragement to carry on. “When you come together and exercise the incredibly inspirational power of creativity, it lifts the heart and refills the wellsprings of energy,” she says. “Because it’s a common act, you feel, ‘We are not alone.’”
In time, the Virginia Water Flags organizers hope to expand the project into one called 1000 Flags 1000 Waters, with flags representing all of the Virginia waterways at risk as well as those in neighboring states and beyond. “They’ll represent this body of water,” says Kendler, a Richmond native now based in Chicago. (Her recent sculpture Birds Watching, an array of reflective signs representing the eyes of birds endangered by climate change, is on display at the Storm King Art Center in upstate New York.)
It’s no mistake, she points out, that the water flags also resemble the pennants flown by troops on a battlefield. “This is really about whose side you are on,” says Kendler. “Ideally, we wouldn’t want to conceptualize this as a conflict metaphor, but unfortunately that’s what it is—a fight for our land and our water, the health of our children, and the future of our whole planet.”
For more information about 1000 Flags 1000 Waters, email inquiries to Jenny Kendler at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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