The first of two dispatches from The 2015 Geography of Hope Conference, of which Orion is a media sponsor.
“The emptiness of the West was for others a geography of possibility,” writes author and poet Gretel Ehrlich about pre-settlement Wyoming, in her essay “The Solace of Open Spaces.” But what began as a geography of possibility—vast stretches of land, untrodden forests, untamed coasts—soon became a geography of self-serving speculation, ruthless destruction, and enforced boundaries. “The integrity of the land as a geographical body, and the freedom to ride anywhere on it, were lost,” she writes. “There is no wilderness left.”
It was Wallace Stegner who suggested that wilderness provides us with the geography of hope, an idea he described in a 1960 letter to the Wildland Research Center, pleading that wild country, “a timeless and uncontrolled part of earth,” be left untouched as “a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures.” Today, though, the opposite has happened: pollution, extinction, desertification, and climate change are worsening. But while we grieve, we must act. As we confront these global catastrophes in both small and big ways, we ask ourselves, where is the hope left in all this? Is there a geography of hope at all?
On the Pacific coast of Northern California, in the little town of Point Reyes Station, a biennial literary conference fittingly called Geography of Hope seeks to address these questions—not with a singular vision or a simple solution but with a multiplicity of voices, and with special attention to the voices of women. The theme of the 2015 conference, which takes place March 13-15, is Women and the Land. It is chaired by Orion friends and contributors Kathleen Dean Moore and Robin Wall Kimmerer. “We will need to mobilize all our human capacities—to celebrate and to grieve, to dread and to take heart, to embrace and to resist, to radically reimagine who we are and how we live,” said Moore. “In the coming time of storms, it may be that this is the new geography of hope.”
The first Geography of Hope Conference, held in 2008, was dedicated to Wallace Stegner, and in subsequent years, the panelists have largely been men—powerful writers connected in some way to the tradition set forth by Stegner. In developing the theme for this year, the conference founder, Steve Costa of Point Reyes Books, and fellow organizers decided to look at environmental issues from the feminine perspective. The presenters at this year’s conference include 16 women and 2 men, running the gamut from writers and activists to an ethnobotanist, a vocal artist, a Buddhist poet, and a Coast Miwok elder (See the full list of presenters here).
Gretel Ehrlich was invited to present at the conference by chair Kathleen Dean Moore. They met under circumstances not dissimilar to Geography of Hope, at the Council on the Uncertain Human Future, also a gathering that focused on women’s relationships to environmental crises and with each other. The council was composed of 12 women. who met periodically over the course of 2014. “I think women are really fantastic communicating with each other,” said Ehrlich, regarding the council. “Women have a sense of seeing the whole,” says Ehrlich. “Women can accommodate complexity. We can hold more in our arms at one time—more diversity, more contradictions, more joy, more sorrow.”
The Geography of Hope conference will be a multi-layered experience, with the hope that the diversity, contradictions, joy, and sorrow made manifest in conversations and interactions will spur people to action. Participants will take guided field trips led by women naturalists, ranchers, and farmers in the surrounding Point Reyes area, enjoy lunch from nearby farms, and attend panels featuring the presenters in conversation with each other and with the audience. One central question that will be asked of participants is: What do we love too much to lose? What will we do to protect it? which is reminiscent of a line by Rachel Carson who wrote “One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself what if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see this again?”
Perhaps a survey of the geography in front of us—through observation, self-examination, deep questioning, and education—will open our eyes to new ways of thinking about the future. Perhaps it will prompt a revision of Stegner’s idea, or demand a renewal, a resurrection of possibilities. “I’m wondering where the hope is in the geography,” says Ehrlich. “That will be my question to myself and to everybody at the conference. I think we have to really ponder that word ‘hope,’—what its real meaning is and the ways it calls us to action.”
For more information about the Geography of Hope conference, please visit the website. Follow this weekend’s events via the Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter pages, and stay tuned to the Orion blog for more from the conference.
Natalie So is a writer, editor, and photographer based in San Francisco. More importantly, she is an avid hiker and a wild plant-eater. She is the editor-in-chief of Edition Local, which tells stories about artists, craftspeople, and the places in which they reside.