While some believe in art for art's sake, others insist that artists and writers hold a responsibility to engage in the world on a political level. Wallace Stegner, writer and environmentalist, definitely stood in the latter camp.
In the early 1960s, Stegner wrote an impassioned letter to Congress in support of the Wilderness Act. "We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in," Stegner wrote, "for it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope."
Forty-five years later, these words have inspired the creation of the Geography of Hope Conference, to be held in Point Reyes this February and March. Germinating in 2008, when Point Reyes Books owner Steve Costa began talking with local author Philip Fradkin about an event to celebrate the publication of Fradkin's biography of Stegner, the idea soon morphed from a small reading event to a two-day literary conference, one that would celebrate the respected writer's legacy while exploring the relationship between place, people and literature.
This year, the conference expands to include outdoor art installations and exhibits, as well as a film festival that runs Feb. 25-27. The literary component of Geography of Hope, co-chaired by former U.S. poet laureate (and Stegner student) Robert Hass and contemporary poet Brenda Hillman, runs March 18-20. The theme of this year's conference is "Reflections on Water."
Costa points to the unique water features in West Marin—the Pacific Ocean, Tomales Bay, Drake's Estero—as inspiration for this year's theme. But he says it is the political element of water that makes it ripe for artistic interrogation.
"Water is one of the most important challenges that we face in terms of the future," Costa says by phone from Point Reyes. "We've been so obsessed with oil for decades, but water is a life force."
The indie-bookstore owner is particularly excited about the conference's venture into film, explaining that the selections cross the gamut from political documentaries to surf adventures: "Unlike other film festivals that have a fairly broad program," he says, "being able to focus specifically on water, you get a deeper appreciation of how film has been an expression of that element."
As the founding director of the Santa Cruz Film Festival, Jane Sullivan brings a wealth of experience in film curation as co-director of the Geography of Hope's film festival. She says that she and partner John Muller screened over 700 films, eventually narrowing them down to 70, with a mix of feature and documentary pieces.
Initially, Sullivan thought the theme of water might be limiting, but the more in-depth she got into what water really is, she says, the broader the scope became: "Rather than only focusing on the heavy duty issues, which is certainly part of the festival—dams, coal mining residue, plastics in the ocean—there is also a playful, spiritual and redemptive quality to water," Sullivan says by phone from Inverness. "It is the great equalizer. Every rich man and woman needs it, and every poor man and woman needs it."
Both Sullivan and Muller are aiming for dynamic panels that allow the audience to interact with the filmmakers as well as scholars, Jungian analysts and even scientific engineers. Sullivan declares that the festival is not elitist and will feature "everyday people who have made changes in their lives." Panelists and performers include Reverend Billy, the crazed preacher from the Church of Life After Shopping, who's conducted unruly protests inside of Starbucks stores nationwide; "eco-sexual" activist and author Annie Sprinkle; and experimental guitarist Henry Kaiser.
San Francisco-based physician and first-time director Nancy Iverson produced one of the festival's featured documentaries, From the Badlands to Alcatraz, which follows the journey of a group of Lakota youth in a week-long training to swim through the cold, shark-infested waters from Alcatraz to San Francisco. She will appear on a panel also featuring Lisa Waters, a woman of the Lakota tribe who's completed the swim two years straight.
"It's so important to address problems and not live in a fairy tale. But it's also important to present and suggest solutions, to not just get stuck in 'overwhelm,'" says Iverson about the conference's positive aim. "There have to be some steps forward as well."
In keeping with the goal of exploring the relationship between people and place, the literary conference offers field trips through the wilds of West Marin, led by naturalists from the area, in addition to readings and panels with authors and poets. On opening night, poets and co-chairs Hillman and Hass will speak about ways stories are told while giving a spiritual connection and context to the weekend events.
"It's a very full schedule for two days," says Hillman. "People will be doing writing, talking and storytelling on these adventures."
Hillman, who calls herself a spiritual eco-poet, completed Practical Water, a collection of poems that dives into hydrology as source of sustenance, in 2009. An environmental and antiwar activist, she says that poets and writers have a responsibility to bring not only beauty but also an ethical hopefulness to the world.
In a thought echoed by many of the conference organizers and participants, Hillman emphasizes the multifaceted approach of the conference and the goal of inspiring others, even if the present day is a fairly depressing time for water as a resource.
"Obviously, Point Reyes is a protected space, but it's still possible to interact with the wilderness, with the wetlands and with the places that we haven't screwed up yet," says Hillman, "to get true sustenance and immeasurable hope from the fact that we are part of the greater it, and not the main it. It's such an amazing life and existence that we have."
The Geography of Hope Film Festival takes place Feb. 25-27 at the Dance Palace Community Center. 503 B St., Point Reyes Station. The Geography of Hope Conference takes place March 18-20 in several locations around Point Reyes Station. Times and ticket prices vary. 415.663.1542.