Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Woodstock festival, “three days of peace and music” at a farm in upstate New York. Four hundred thousand young Americans attended. Thirty-two acts played, including Joan Baez, Santana, the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. They played day and night, under sun and rain, falling hopelessly behind schedule. Janis Joplin took the stage near two AM, with three major acts yet to follow.
The planning was atrocious. They anticipated fewer than half the number who came, and miles of abandoned cars clogged roads in every direction. Carpenters hadn’t completed fencing, so the festival was thrown open and free to all. Grass turned to mud, food ran out, bathrooms were inadequate, and medical care was lacking. Food donated by local citizens and sanitary assistance from the National Guard, all arranged on the fly, averted potential disaster.
All this raucous mess was received joyously and, yes, peacefully. The event was an emotional exclamation, as our nation limped to the close of one of the most painful decades in its history. After years of mistrust, protest, violence, assassination, and the deepening disaster of Vietnam, in an unguarded moment, young Americans created a metropolis and declared themselves ecstatically, recklessly free. Like Walt Whitman’s “barbaric yawp” or Ralph Waldo Emerson who said, “Sometimes a scream is better than a thesis,” Woodstock was a catharsis bordering upon exorcism.
American history continued its muddy course. Woodstock did not save our soul. But like a man who dreams the outline of perfection, although reality never accords his blueprints, he cannot shake the beauty of the dream, and so all his life bends somewhat toward perfection. Thus the dream of Woodstock flavors our best notions.
These thoughts in mind, and no doubt flavoring my own recent dreams, I hit upon a plan to commemorate Woodstock’s 50th anniversary by cutting a giant peace sign on my land. I have a very large field, and due to wet weather, the hay grew long and messy this summer. I spent two afternoons walking the field, compass in hand, measuring distances and angles, driving stakes to mark paths. Then for three hours on the John Deere, I cut grass. The design was huge, much too large for me to judge, from the tractor, whether it was coming together correctly. Was it actually round, or a lopsided oval? Were the angles sharp and symmetric? My mood alternated between feeling exuberant and feeling foolish.
I parked the tractor and climbed Mt Philo, which stands adjacent to my property. From the observation rail, 900 feet high, the effect was astonishing. The peace sign was perfect and massive, like some stamp of the gods upon the land. We gazed from the mountain, and the green fields shouted “Peace!”
The peace sign measures about 500 feet in diameter and covers over five acres. It wins enthusiastic reactions from people hiking Mt Philo each day. It can be seen from airplanes. In our own messy era, mad with violence — violence in our streets, violence upon the Earth, and violence upon Truth itself — I’ll gladly stick with “Peace!” as my pole star and rallying cry. I feel giddy like John Hancock who, after fixing his massive signature to the Declaration of Independence, passed the quill and supposedly quipped, “There, King George ought to be able to read that.”