If you’ve been hiking in Fahnestock State Park this summer, maybe you’ve seen it. That rotary phone attached to a wooden signboard along the Appalachian Trail—that’s the Telephone of the Wind. The phone is the work of Millet Israeli, a local grief therapist. The phone, which is not connected to any temporal telephonic network, allows users a way to connect with departed loved ones.
Millet was inspired by Itaru Sasaki, who built a telephone booth in his garden outside of Otsuchi, Japan, in 2010 to talk with a dead relative. After a 2011 tsunami killed a tenth of the population of Otsuchi, the Telephone of the Wind became a place of comfort to the tens of thousands of people who have since visited to connect with deceased loved ones.
“In Japan, there were no grave sites to go to because folks were swept away,” says Israeli, who connects what happened in Otsuchi with what she witnessed at the beginning of the pandemic in her patients. “People were losing loved ones without a proper funeral. The absence of concrete ritual was causing a great deal of chaos around grieving,” says Israeli. “There was a pause button pressed on their mourning because they couldn’t launch into it properly. I was encouraging a lot of personal rituals—sending a letter off into the river, planting a tree. Concrete ritual is important to the mourning process.”
Since being installed in May, Israeli has been collecting stories of folks who’ve stumbled upon the wind phone and connected with her via Instagram (@wind.phone.ny). One woman, through-hiking the entire Appalachian Trail, received a call from her dad that her grandfather had unexpectedly died. Completely devastated, she stumbled on the phone just a few moments later, and was able to talk to her grandfather.
“I’ve been so moved by hearing people’s stories, seeing how willing people are to reveal that part of themselves on a public platform,” says Israeli. “I see so many people struggling to talk about their grief. The phone is a reminder that the relationship with our loved ones continues even though they’re not still here.”