I enjoy the experience of watching something transform before my eyes into an occasion akin to a fine theater performance, where all the contributors assume a role, giving the moment depth and deep human interest. With the inaugural Santa Fe Connext event, held at the St. Francis Auditorium in Santa Fe, we had just this: a grand expression under the name Earth Dialogues.
Four-hundred-and-fifty people had gathered at the sold-out event. The leading roles were obvious: Oscar-winning actor-director, Robert Redford; Pulitzer-prize winning author and subject of an upcoming American Masters PBS program, N. Scott Momaday; and director, actress and Connext co-founder, Jill Momaday.
The supporting role fell to Connext co-founder, Chris Webster, who opened the evening with a word about the newly established organization, invoking it as a means “for dialogue, entertainment and education to generate positive ideas and initiatives for the community of Santa Fe and the world beyond.” And also, “to bring people together to perform and share experiences related to the many diverse and extraordinary components of our community.”
One might think of the Earth Dialogues as a two-act play. Act one consisted of a spoken-word piece written by Momaday and Redford, first performed a few weeks prior at Carnegie Hall in New York City.
Act two comprised a question-and-answer time hosted by Momaday’s daughter, Jill. Both acts provided deep thought, but more importantly, practical action points for the pursuit of community, creativity and environmental conservancy. If there was one real star of the evening, it was planet Earth.
The spoken-word dialogue was originally part of a larger multi-disciplinary piece called The Way of the Rain, conceived by artist Sibylle Szaggars Redford. The Way of the Rain (http://thewayoftherain.org/) illustrates “crucial environmental dilemmas through performance art,” the introductory comments stated. With murals by the Portuguese-American artist Carlos Vierra as a backdrop, the dialogue lasted roughly 25 minutes in a call-and-response format between Redford and N. Scott Momaday.
Highlights included the illumination of ideas such as “the harmony of nature,” “beauty” and the “destruction of nature,” possibly leading to “extinction.” Questions were asked: “What is our responsibility?” Some answers were provided: live in harmony with humanity and nature, pursue humility with the Earth, and reverse our history with the environment by seeking to heal and not harm. As Redford read, “Nature is our brother, an essential part of our existence.”
The reading was both poetic and practical, providing moments of contemplation and consideration for further thought. The moral might be summed up as: People must assume responsibility to care for the Earth, because the Earth is sacred and in need of specific attention.
Act II consisted of questions posed by Jill Momaday. The first was, “When did you become aware of the vastness of the universe?” Redford responded by telling a story about when he was three years old riding a tricycle around his Los Angeles neighborhood. His parents gave him the boundaries in which he could ride. While riding, he’d go far enough so his tire went just beyond the boundary. He learned at a young age the world is vast, beyond his imagination. Later, he’d stare at the stars, asking “Where am I in this?”
For Momaday, it was seeing the stars while living on the Navajo Reservation. He remembers hearing ceremonies, surrounded by fires. On a particular night he was struck by the vastness of the night and the immensity of the universe.
The second question was, “What inspired you to become an artist?” Momaday talked about his family. His mother was a writer, his father an artist. He wanted to be like them. Early, he gravitated towards writing, but later picked up art while teaching in Russia. In the loneliness of a differing culture, Momaday learned art could console.
For Redford, it began in third grade. His teacher quickly learned he’d bore easily. So she gave him creative tasks, allowing him to draw out his ideas. Redford stated, “In a way she saved me. She gave me life. From her I learned art is essential.”
After some comments between the two men about a common love of horses, Jill Momaday’s next question was, “What qualities do you look for in creative endeavors, and how do you choose your projects?”
Redford was specific: one, a good story; two, characterization; and three, the story conveys emotion. Picking up on the importance of story, Momaday elaborated on the significance of narrative, likening it to a story of which all humans are a part, a quest for something or someone that has been with us since the beginning of time.
The final question revolved around the love of nature and the environment. For Redford his love of nature derived from a trip he took to Yosemite—after a minor bout with polio—and later working at the park during summer months for three years. He said, “I don’t want to just look at nature, I want to be in it.” Momaday shared an experience he had that captured his respect and awe of nature.
And finally, when asked what people can do to offset the environmental trials faced on Earth, the answers were engaging as well. Redford: “Don’t let technology rule our lives. Instead, go out and engage in nature, experience it. With knowledge comes respect.” Redford also felt the polarization within our country and world has been demoralizing. His hope is that people can come together to stand for something that is important to us all—the very ground we walk upon. Momaday thought the deadliest factor facing Earth is pollution, the corruption of the Earth: from plastic in the oceans to smog in the atmosphere.
With that, the Earth Dialogues came to a completion.
There are a few key items that I gleaned from the event. My walk-away points were as follows:
Community matters. With people gathered from various places around northern New Mexico, a community communed, conversed and connected around a certain cause—the environment. When conducted with respect and understanding, community is compelling, acting as an allure for others to join the conversation. And the Earth Dialogues did just this.
Creativity is a key to the environmental crises. Sometimes creative dialogue goes further than brute facts. With humor, poetic insight and personal testimony, the Earth Dialogues helped put a face to the facts concerning the destruction of the Earth, affording us to hear from the soul of people impassioned by the cause.
It’s not just information that is needed today; it’s transformation. We need to articulate and act, know and go, digest and do, read and repair. Action must follow the accumulation of knowledge. We must enact the impulse and work for change. On a personal level, I’ve yet to regret switching our household energy to solar, our lawn to xeriscape, ramping up our recycling program and other cost- and earth-efficient means to be a good guardian of creation. Individual actions affect our community and world. And the challenge provided by Momaday and Redford will hopefully help put my feet on firmer ground. After all, when we see creation repair as part of our calling as citizens on Earth, we’ll find that stewardship is a type of prayer with care.
Brian Nixon, D. Phil., a member of the International Press Association, is writer, musician, artist and clergyman.
He resides in Albuquerque with his wife and family.
To contact: Twitter @BnixNews