COLUMN BY MICHAEL E. HILL
I can hardly catch my breath after the remarkable first week we’ve just experienced at Chautauqua. From the opening night concert to the thought-provoking and moving experiences across all our pillars, it was exhilarating to be back with you all. If you’re joining us for the first time this summer (or ever!) as we start Week Two, we know you will add to our tremendous start and make it better by connecting and reconnecting with Chautauqua.
Speaking of reconnecting, this week we explore “The Wild: Reconnecting with Our Natural World.” Since the middle of the 20th century, study after study suggests that humans have become more and more disconnected from the nature surrounding us. As always, our work centers on asking critical questions, including: Are we in greater need of nature than ever before? What are the physical and mental health benefits we find through reconnection? We’ll consider various movements in art, architecture, education, faith and urban planning that aim to reconnect us to our natural world.
Our guides this week read like a who’s-who in this quest to reconnect. Bob Inglis starts us off. The founder and executive director of republicEn.org, a nationwide community of conservatives that promotes free-enterprise action on climate change, Inglis was elected to Congress in 1992, representing Greenville-Spartanburg, South Carolina, in two stints. He is joined this week by Sally Jewell, former U.S. secretary of the interior; Kelsey Leonard, a water scientist, legal scholar, policy expert and enrolled citizen of the Shinnecock Nation; and Terry Tempest Williams, author of many books about the intersection of nature and humanity, including her most recent, Erosion: Essays of Undoing. We conclude our week with Brandon Stanton, author, photographer and founder of the street portrait blog “Humans of New York,” bringing his status as one of today’s most influential storytellers to our inquiry of reconnection.
Our Interfaith Lecture Series theme follows the same path of “Reconnecting with the Natural World.” People and communities of faith worldwide are increasingly returning to an embrace of our spiritual-existential relationship with all of creation. In tandem with this return, religion now appears to be entering a post-dualistic, Earth-based spirituality and connection with the divine, arising out of the awareness that nature is our primary holy scripture, written on our sacred earthly home.
Victoria Loorz leads our interfaith inquiry, offering her perspectives as the founder of the first Church of the Wild and later the Wild Church Network. Her companions on the journey this week include Faithkeeper Oren Lyons, a member of the Onondaga and Seneca Nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and the Grand Council of Chiefs of the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy – the Haudenosaunee; Fred Bahnson, the award-winning writer and author of Soil and Sacrament: A Spiritual Memoir of Food and Faith; Sophfronia Scott, novelist, essayist and a critical reflector on Thomas Merton; and John Philip Newell, a Celtic teacher and author on spirituality.
There’s so much more to look forward to in our second week together: Ray Chen performs with the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, the Chautauqua School of Dance Alumni All-Star Ballet Gala, Robin Wall Kimmerer with her beloved Braiding Sweetgrass for the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle in the Hall of Philosophy, and a performance by the Broadway “rockstar” Renée Elise Goldsberry, who originated the role of Angelica Schuyler in the runaway phenomenon Hamilton. These performances accompany the opening of our Chautauqua Theater Company’s production of Indecent, Chautauqua Opera Company & Conservatory’s production of Thumbprint, and the wisdom of our chaplain of the week, the Rev. Randall K. Bush, interim head of staff for Woods Memorial Presbyterian Church in Severna Park, Maryland.
Some of you may be aware that our strategic plan, 150 Forward, includes directed efforts to increase the census (number of people who attend the grounds during the season). One strategy in this arena is to engage and invite local and regional communities to get to know us and our programs. I am pleased to share that we are celebrating Buffalo Day on Tuesday, July 5. In addition, we are also working on building a relationship with the Indigenous communities in our region, and Tuesday will be our inaugural Haudenosaunee Confederacy Day.
We also return to our various traditional Fourth of July celebrations at Chautauqua. From the Community Band performance and picnics on Monday afternoon to quiet time spent with family, we celebrate the founding of our nation, all while coming off a week that challenged us not only to closely examine America’s history, but also what we hope for our future. I personally look forward to the CSO’s annual Independence Day Celebration concert with our amazing Principal Pops Conductor Stuart Chafetz, one of the most popular events in the Amphitheater every season.
During Week Two, as we celebrate American independence, I am struck by the polarization of our nation and how much work we have yet to do to realize the best hopes and ideals of our democratic society. I am aware from our Week One conversations that there are many among us whose circumstances and struggles might put them in a place of worry and despair — and that, in turn, might not lead to feelings of celebration for a future that seems unknown at best, and fearsome at worst. I continue to believe that what is “ours to do” is to continue asking questions throughout each week: questions of who we want to be and what work remains. These questions will bring out the best versions of ourselves.
These same questions and the possible paths forward presented by our speakers each week are best explored when we maintain dialogue with those with whom we agree and those with whom we disagree, and everyone in between. And, as we formulate answers, we move toward our roles in building tomorrow, here and in our home communities. When we entertain the notion that the great experiment that is America — the great experiment that is Chautauqua — is an unfinished canvas, we can recommit ourselves to doing our part to make the next brushstroke a thing of beauty. And for that spirit of discovery, reflection and engaged dialogue leading to positive action, we have much to celebrate.
Happy Week Two, Chautauqua!