Peace is the Woodstock Brand

(Here’s my “Walking Woodstock” column from the June 28, 2012 Woodstock Times.)

You see some things a hundred times before you notice them. So it was with the Peace Pole on the Village Green, a modest wooden obelisk that must have been in the corner of my eye for several years before I walked over to take its measure. Tucked in back between shrubbery and a small maple tree, it had escaped my attention drawn to the drumming circles or women in black instead, the lively spectacle that makes this public space such fun. Even the bench bums have more panache in Woodstock.

But I’d given myself the assignment of seeing Woodstock through a visitor’s eyes for a book that Michael Perkins and I are preparing, The Pocket Guide to Woodstock. I imagined stepping off the Adirondack Trailways for the first time and taking my bearings on the Village Green. What did I did see on what happened to be a quiet morning but what at first I mistook for a Buddhist pillar that turned out to be the Peace Pole. A ten foot tall red cedar post, it has metal plates on its sides inscribed with the phrase “May Peace Prevail on Earth” translated into 100 languages, some of which were alien to me. Bislma? Letzeburgish? Nauruan? Wasn’t that a Star Trek episode? But what do I know? I don’t even have a cell phone.

Atop this Tower of Babel stood the peace sign, the circular symbol that transcends languages. How Woodstock, I thought, how much in keeping with peace, love, mud, and Sixties nostalgia. Yet also how noble this particular peace sign looked cast in silvery metal and set like a crown atop this pole, which I later learned had been dedicated on September 21st, 2008, an United Nations International Day of Peace. The Peace Pole, I decided, was the right spot for a visitor to start exploring town.

Once you notice something you see it everywhere. There’s an old peace sign carved in the sidewalk in front of the corner real estate office behind the Village Green. Another large one hangs upstairs like a year round wreath of Christmas lights in front of the building’s veranda. Last winter skaters carved a peace sign in the ice on Yankeetown Pond. On the website for the Wild Rose Inn you can see one raked from autumn leaves. (Innkeeper Marti Ladd and her son spent several hours raking them into a large round pile on her front lawn. Ten minutes after she’d snapped the photo the winds scattered their work. She took solace by thinking of their leaf sign as “ephemeral art.”)

A permanent peace sign woven out of wild vines decorates the white house for the Woodstock Haircutz Day Spa at the bottom of Mill Hill Road. The symbol can be found on candles inside the front door at Candlestock. It’s sold on T-shirts at both ends of the village It appears in business signs for Not Fade Away and Woofstock. It’s incorporated into the logo for the Woodstock Golf Club in which two golf clubs cross to form the upside down Y pattern. Start looking. Surely, you’ll find some that I missed.

The one that really stopped me is painted on the back of the green Little League dugout at Rick Volz Memorial Field. It’s an impressive mural of a peace sign that has both red baseball stitches and the blue and green Planet Earth enclosed within its circle. Christina Varga painted this mural with several young helpers in 2009. (She later had a show at her gallery for which 70 artists created their own variations on the peace symbol.)

My, how the world has changed, I thought, standing there in surprise. Back in 1970, when I played Little League, the peace sign represented what my anxious parents feared for my future: drugs, protests, pre-marital sex. That was the year the John Birch Society claimed that the peace sign was an Antichristian symbol of a broken cross from the Middle Ages. A Republican newsletter likened it to a Nazi emblem. Angry patriots bought bumpstickers with peace signs captioned: “Footprints of an American Chicken.” No, the peace sign was much too controversial to bless my Little League years. But now everyone in Woodstock seems to embrace it, from dopers to golfers. It has become our unofficial town seal.

Here’s what I didn’t know: The peace symbol was created in 1958 by Gerald Holtom, a textile designer from the London area who wanted an emblem to mark a Ban the Bomb march over Easter weekend from Trafalgar Square 52 miles into the countryside to Aldermaston, the British nuclear research facility. He started with an image of the cross, but found that neither church leaders nor march organizers cared for this symbol already laden with conflicting meanings. So Holtom, a graduate from the Royal College of Art who’d been a conscientious objector during World War II, created a simple but unusual design inspired by semaphore flag signals. The letter “N” is signaled by holding two flags downward at 45 degree angles; the letter “D” by holding one flag straight up, the other straight down. Together they signify “Nuclear Disarmament” while forming what we now know of as the peace sign.

To Holtom, they also suggested the stick figure of a person in despair holding their arms downwards, an imagine that reminded him of a Goya painting of a peasant standing before a firing squad with his arms held outwards. Over the years, as his sign became insanely popular, Holtom wished he’d drawn his stick figure with its arms raised upwards in a Y as a gesture of hope.

But how many others have seen a stick figure of despair in this symbol? For that matter, who knows semaphore well enough anymore to read ND in the lines? Holtom’s unintended genius may have been to invent a symbol simple yet abstract enough to float free of its original meaning to serve new causes on behalf of peace. By the early 1970s Greenpeace had incorporated the peace sign into its logo. They weren’t marching in London against the bomb. They were riding zodiac boats in the high seas trying to stop whaling ships.

With the help of his young daughter Holtom made 500 round placards that they playfully dubbed “lollypops” for marchers to carry on their way to Aldermaston. Today, protest marches may be common, but in 1958 this one caused a sensation. Some 5,000 people rallied in Trafalgar Square, a scene photographed by Life magazine, which gave Americans their first glimpse of the circular logo. Months later Holtom met a ceramicist who produced pin buttons for a second Aldermaston march in 1959. The following year a University of Chicago freshman introduced them to American campuses. At first they symbolized the growing Ban the Bomb movement, but in time they were picked up by Anti-Vietnam War protesters and then became the emblem of the Sixties counterculture.

There were two more strokes of genius in this symbol. It was never copyrighted . And it was memorable yet simple enough that anyone could draw their own variation. As Ken Kolsbun and Michael S. Sweeney display in their book, Peace: The Biography of a Symbol, this sign could be drawn with finger paint on a child’s face or with airplane vapor trails in the sky. It showed up on Sixties rock stars’ guitars, combat soldiers’ helmets in Vietnam, and years later on a United States postage stamp. In 1969 the United States Supreme Court decided that students had the right to wear it to school.

Now I’ll confess that I don’t find the peace sign appealing. It looks crude and clunky to me. My erstwhile walking companion, Michael Perkins, likes it even less. To him, the lines look like a rocket with fins. I’m sure that today’s designers, given the Aldermaston march assignment, would have come up with something much snazzier. Who’d settle for a circle with some lines like a bird’s foot? But maybe its crudeness is part of its secret to success. Even I find myself doodling it inside the letter “O” at times. The peace sign is available to anyone. The more I saw of it around Woodstock the more I accepted its enduring appeal.

When I stopped in the Woodstock Haircutz Day Spa to ask about the peace sign woven of vines out front, I met the owner, Lucy Scala, who was happy to share her story.

Was she an old hippie? I asked.

She gave me one of those wide-eyed, are-you-kidding-me looks. “I was an old disco queen,” she replied. In fact, when she first opened her hair salon 20 years ago she feared that she’d chosen the wrong town. Her first flier had insisted that even hippies needed grooming. By now she’s come to believe that most of us are old hippies at heart, no matter what hair styles we wear. What really defines Woodstockers is our creativity.

One day on her favorite walk around Byrdcliffe, she came upon a pile of curved vines lying on the ground. “The little fairies spoke to me,” she said. To fit all the vines into her car she had to open the windows for extra room. That winter, when she had free time, she worked on the vines that had dried in her basement, wetting them for softness and weaving them into the peace sign that now decorates the front of her white building. Several times people have popped in the door to ask about buying it, but she’s not selling. Those little fairies of Byrdcliffe had something other than money in mind when they gave her this inspiration. She’d never made a vine sculpture before and may never do so again. But she’s made her contribution to the Woodstock spirit, and she’s keeping it.

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The Mother Grouse Blog is produced by Will Nixon, author of My Late Mother as a Ruffed Grouse and Love in the City of Grudges available on-line.

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