‘Twas the night before Mothers Day,
And the elves worked in secrecy,
An ugly fence transforming
Into pleas for peace and beauty.
Ten years ago on Mother's Day the people of Ashland awoke to a gift. The unsightly chain-link fence along the railroad tracks had magically become a multi-colored tapestry of peace. Twenty-seven spirited citizens had gathered in the dark hours to perform the audacious act, attaching the first 67 panels. Amazingly, the stealthy idealists turned an eyesore into an inspirational Mother's Day present.
Mother's Day was perfect for this expression of love because of its origins. Julia Ward Howe, author of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," wrote the original declaration for Mother's Peace Day in 1870. It proclaims with passionate conviction: “Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we teach them of charity, mercy, and patience.” We are urged to find a way “whereby the great human family can live in peace.”
The whole crazy Ashland dream began with Jean Bakewell, who learned about the horror of war as a small child enduring the German bombing of her English hometown. Ten years ago, in grieving the loss of brother and sister-in-law, she walked along the path beside the railroad tracks, looking up to the mountains for grace, when the idea struck. This wired fence the railroad people had erected could be decorated with a long, connected tapestry — a parade of colorful banners expressing people’s hopes for peace. Yes, this could be lovely, she envisioned and mused to herself.
She ran the idea by her partner, Kay. “One of your better ones,” came the reply. They shared the dream over dinner with friends, and now they had a committee — six partners in this wonderful possibility. And the vision seemed ever more right, ever more needed, as our wars drifted from Aghanistan to Iraq, and fewer people even remembered a time of peace.
The 67 panels grew to more than 200. They came from the children of Ashland and from dreamers in far-away countries: poignant, passionate pleas for a more love-centered world. The banners were enjoyed by countless citizens who walked or rode bikes beside them. They were strengthened and repaired to withstand the wind and rain.
Unfortunately, the banners couldn’t withstand the hatred of a few individuals. Some people, who for some reason didn’t like peace messages, ripped them down one night with knives, leaving many in shreds in the mud. “There must be a way to forgive and still triumph,” those who loved the banners whispered among themselves. Transcending hate, the dream could not be crushed. In fact, it grew into an even more beautiful vision. The dreamers imagined a more permanent peace wall, one that would be made out of tiles, created using photographs of the original panels.
The vision became more specific and real. How about right in front of the library? How about jumping through the hoops of the city and getting Peace House involved? How about raising $25,000? It wasn’t easy. It took a lot of soup and donations during art walks, many generous volunteers and much persistence to make the dream a reality. Somehow, with determination and love, the curvaceous, metal-framed beauty was erected and placed in front of the library, just beyond the bus stop. With joy, the women who had worked meticulously on assembling the ceramic mosaic carried the heavy finished sections on their shoulders and fitted them into the frame, proudly amazed at what they had helped create.
The panels on our peace wall express hope in many ways. Some have no words and articulate their visions with simple pictures — children hugging each other, flowers and rainbows, smiling faces and peace signs. Other banners combine images with words. We’re told in varied and powerful ways of people’s longing for peace. “Listen: The Wind cries out for peace …” “Our arms are for hugging.” “Together we dare to love.” “Peace called us here and we came … and we knew at last, peace is in us.”
One panel says, “The smallest kindness shines bright in the dark,” which brings us to today. It seems wrong and foolish for this eloquent testament to our town’s longing for peace to stand in darkness. Because we are trying to establish a “culture of peace” in Ashland and because we live in a time of seemingly endless war, with misguided plans for increased billions to “rebuild our military” while we supposedly can’t even afford to guarantee healthcare for our citizens, as all other developed countries manage to do — finding a way to shine a spotlight on our beautiful peace wall seems especially timely and appropriate. Can you not imagine this colorful, collective expression of hope shining out into the night with beautiful lights? This should be our next goal — and let’s make them solar-powered!
— Ron Hertz lives in Ashland