Saturday, May 18, 2013

Chautauqua and the "Burned Over Land"

"What is in my mind is a sort of Chautauqua - like the traveling tent-show Chautauqua’s that used to move across America, an old-time series of popular talks intended to edify and entertain, improve the mind and bring culture and enlightenment to the ears and thoughts of the hearer. The Chautauquas were pushed aside by faster -paced radio, movies and TV, and it seems to me the change was not entirely an improvement. Perhaps because of these changes the stream of national consciousness moves faster now, and is broader, but it seems to run less deep. In this Chautauqua I would like not to cut any new channels of consciousness but simply to dig deeper into old ones that have become silted in with the debris of thoughts grown stale, and platitudes too often repeated.

There are eras of human history in which the channels of thought have been too deeply cut and no change was possible, and nothing new ever happened, and “best” was a matter of dogma, but that is not the situation now. Now the stream of our common consciousness seems to be obliterating its own banks, flooding the lowlands, disconnecting and isolating the highlands and to no particular purpose other than the wasteful fulfillment of its own internal momentum. Some channel deepening seems called for."

Robert Pirsig, "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance"

Robert Pirsig wrote the above in the 60's, long before the internet.  I wonder what he would say about that over-flowing river now.  

I began this blog in June of 2007,  when I went to Midland, Michigan on a Fellowship from the Alden Dow Creativity Center to pursue my project "Spider Woman's Hands". It's hard to believe almost 6 years have passed, and reviewing those early posts, I try now to see who I was, where these trails have lead me.  I saved the quote above almost from the beginning of this blog, because I have spent many years in Chautauqua County, New York, and because I felt my creative journey was not just a "personal vision quest", but, in creating a blog and having a show, also my own "kind of a Chautaqua".  It arose from a desire to share my discoveries in the course of my wanderings.  I see that I wrote in August of 2007,
"But this has, now that I think about it, been a Chautauqua for me. Bringing forth what I know and have to share to a new community. It hasn't been easy, and one leaves not knowing what I've left behind.  You have to let it go, and not concern yourself with how many people care about what what you're doing, not care about how much money you make or don't make, not care about what any institution or magazine or even colleague thinks art "is". Ultimately, it has to become your spiritual path, your meditation, but also your voice in the Conversation, your thread that seeks to weave you you into harmony and gathering  depth."
I have always disliked the cliche about art "You do it for yourself".  That's a convenient way to dismiss artists, along with other cliches I've heard a million times.  And a convenient way to justify the  laziness and disrespect of the general public for innovative arts, which often treats artists as somewhere between cute, useless, great for real estate agencies that want to gentrify neighborhoods, and vaguely unpatriotic.  Artists don't get multiple degrees, make economic and other enduring sacrifices, and dedicate their lives to the pursuit of expression  just to "do it for themselves".  They don't congregate in art districts (which are increasingly diminished, thanks to all those real estate agencies who monitor arts districts for profit) because they just want to be isolated.   They congregate for creative discourse, and innovative art districts of the past, and places like the "West Banke" to Soho to the Haight Ashbury were  seminal points of cultural transformation and dissemination, engines of creativity on the cutting edge of culture that reflect and germinate seeds that become an emerging paradigm 20, 30, or 50 years hence.  Artists make art because they want to communicate. With their inner life, spirit,  their communities, their nations, the world. It's a discourse continually seeking response and enlivenment. 

So why am I having this rant?  Well, I don't exactly know, except that 6 years down the road from my fellowship about the Great Weaver, Spider Woman, I find that I myself am increasingly "dis-connected", without the desire I once had to talk about my art or show it.  I don't know if all places are as indifferent as Tucson seems to be, but it's time to cut loose and head for Chautauqua County, to see what  the fertile "burned over lands"*** can germinate in my spirit again, to hang with the mediums at Lilydale, sit around a bonfire at the Pagan Festivals in Brushwood, hear a concerto at the Institute, walk once again in magical Leolyn Grove, and find the Chautaqua spirit again.  And, come July, that's exactly what I will be doing, Goddess willing!

 For anyone not familiar with the term Chautauqua was an adult education movement popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I think the word, which is native American, means something like "place where the fish are".  The first gatherings, and the title of the Chautauqua Institute which is still very active, were named after beautiful Chautauqua Lake. Chautauqua assemblies spread throughout rural America until the mid-1920s, and from rural Pennsylvania to Colorado town had their Chautauqua tents raised close by the railroad stations. The Chautauqua brought entertainment and culture, from violin concertos to storytellers like Mark Twain,  for the whole community, with speakers, teachers, musicians, entertainers, preachers and specialists of the day.  President Theodore Roosevelt was quoted as saying that Chautauqua is "the most American thing in America."  And I think it was............the Chautauqua embodied that generosity that is one of the very good things about America, a  desire to share and disseminate  that is in the American character. 

And somehow I think it's important, as our world becomes both more frenetically "connected" and also more strangely  isolated within all that remember the Chautauqua, our personal "Chautauquas" as well as the generosity and enthusiasm of another era.
Concert at the Chautauqua Institute

***For a good article in the Huffington Post about Lilydale Spiritualist Community (I love Lilydale)

***The "Burned Over Land" refers to the area of Western New York where Chautauqua County is where for the past 200 years all kinds of Utopian experiments and communities, spiritualist and religious movements have come and gone. In the 19th century  the "burned-over land," in  upstate New York saw the strange origins of the  Mormons**, Seventh Day Adventists, the Shiloh Community, as well as the beginnings of American Spiritualism and Lilydale Assembly, and of course the Chautauqua Institute.  The past century saw the first encampments for the Suffragettes, and many of the underground railroads for escaped slaves as well.   Continuing in the tradition of exploration, it's also the home of the  Brushwood Folklore Center.

**OK, I can't resist this bit of strange information, which to me is as weird  and as ironic as the ancient Goddess Yoni Stone at the center of the pilgrimage to Mecca. .    Here's what Wikipedia has to say about the Prophet of Mormonism:

"Joseph Smith, Jr. (December 23, 1805 – June 27, 1844) was an American religious leader and the founder of the Latter Day Saint movement, the predominant branch of which is Mormonism. At age twenty-four, Smith published the Book of Mormon, and in the next fourteen years he attracted thousands of followers, established cities and temples, and created a lasting religious culture.
Smith was born in Sharon, Vermont, and by 1817 had moved with his family to an area in western New York later called the burned-over district because it was repeatedly swept by religious revivals during the Second Great Awakening. The Smith family was not united in their religious views, but they believed in visions and prophecies, and participated in folk religious practices typical of the era. According to Smith, beginning in the early 1820s he had visions, in one of which an angel directed him to a buried book of golden plates inscribed with a Judeo-Christian history of an ancient American civilization."

One of the "revelations" of Smith concerned the appearance of Christ among the native Americans just before the coming of the white men, and of course the famous Golden Plates.  What most people do not know is that 1) the Burned Over zone was ripe with prophets and vision in that era,

2) there was a pervasive religious motif and legend among the native peoples, including the Seneca and the Iroquois, of "Peace Maker", a great spiritual leader who came, like White Buffalo Woman among the Lakota, to unify the tribes and teach the ethical codes.  No doubt Smith interpreted this existing legend to mean Jesus.

 And 3) throughout the Mississippian, as well as more northerly tribes, there was high religious status associated with copper objects, including sacred copper and brass plates, which were probably derived from early contact with Spaniards or French explorers.  Native tribes had not yet developed metallurgy (although there is some evidence of copper axes found among the mound builders), so copper and brass plates would have been highly prized, even considered magical.  Smith, being surrounded by earlier native American lore, would have been aware of the importance of "sacred brass plates" in tribal lore.  (    


Sheila Joshi said...

Fascinating! I always find it so interesting to discover that nothing happens for the first time – eg the Internet as the latest iteration of the Chautauqua Movement, or Joseph Smith’s ideas as an iteration of local indigenous ones.

It sounds like you’re ready for something new. Your trip to the burned over lands sounds like an enviable pilgrimage! I look forward to seeing what you do with it.

Trish and Rob MacGregor said...

Your field and mine- publishing, novels, nonfiction - have weird parallels. I suspect our paths crossed somewhere in the sixties, Lauren, and we just don't know where that point was yet. I am always humbled and delighted when I come here. There's a torch we carry and I don't think it has a name.

Lauren Raine said...

Thanks to both of you for your words and encouragement - may we all continue to make our "Chautauquas"!