At first, what might seem remarkable is the quiet. Silence becomes more palpable when hundreds of people gather in a room, in quiet anticipation or contentedness, or a private moment of meditation.
Before long, though, the silence will be filled with words and ideas. Passionate speakers will share their insights, the audience will interact at every opportunity and there might just be a break to get up and dance to Aretha Franklin. That’s when the room becomes more than a gathering. It becomes the Geography of Hope.
This year’s Geography of Hope conference, now in its seventh iteration, will take place on March 17 and 18 at the Dance Palace, exploring the theme of “Finding Resilience in Nature in Perilous Times.” The ticket price of $175 includes lunch and dinner on Saturday. Some scholarships are available for those ages 18 to 30, with the goal of cultivating a diverse group of attendees.
Geography of Hope was founded in 2008 by Steve Costa and Kate Levinson, then owners of my bookstore, Point Reyes Books; their nonprofit Black Mountain Circle now runs the festival. According to the organizers, “the conference brings together leading writers and activists…for a feast of readings, discussions, and activities to inspire and deepen an understanding of the relationships between people and place.”
When the bookstore changed hands in 2017, my husband, Stephen Sparks, and I were proud to continue the tradition of sponsoring the conference and offering books by speakers and on related topics. “The conference is a unique and invigorating event, and it aligns with our goals of building community around conversation and the exchange of ideas,” Sparks said.
The theme of resilience seemed clear and urgent in these times, Costa added: “During these fraught days of political upheaval, social turmoil, and environmental assaults, we’re looking for ways to build emotional and spiritual resilience within ourselves, using nature as a touchstone.”
This year’s presenters include Rue Mapp, founder of Outdoor Afro, a network that celebrates African-American leadership in nature; Caleen Sisk, the spiritual leader and tribal chief of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe of the McCloud River watershed, in Northern California; and Peter Forbes, whose work is influential in the fields of leadership development, conservation and social justice. The conference is co-sponsored by Point Reyes Books, the Center for Humans and Nature and the United States Forest Service, with media sponsorship by the High Country News, KWMR and the Point Reyes Light.
The program will explore a variety of perspectives on hope and healing, using the natural world as a lens through which to view humanity’s struggles. Saturday will culminate with music from David Worm of Voicestra, an improvisational choir. On Sunday morning, Peter Wohlleben, author of the bestseller “The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from a Secret World,” will accompany attendees and representatives from the Marin Resource Conservation District and the Marin Municipal Water District in planting native trees to enhance and restore riparian habitat for endangered salmon.
Wohlleben will later appear for a reading and talk hosted by the bookstore at the Dance Palace at 1 p.m. that Sunday, after the conference ends. Tickets for this event are $25 and also benefit Black Mountain Circle.
Laura Scott, a Point Reyes Station resident and employee at the Bovine Bakery, attended the Geography of Hope conference last year with her 14-year-old granddaughter. Scott registered for the conference after hearing bakery customers rave about it for years, hoping it would be an educational opportunity that she could share with her granddaughter. “A lot of it had to do with community connections,” Scott said about the weekend’s themes. “It was a really good experience for [my granddaughter] as far as realizing that there’s a whole world of people out there thinking and writing and talking about these things... We have this little town, and it’s kind of wonderful that Kate and Steve and all the people who help with the Geography of Hope bring the whole world to our little town. It’s a really nice resource.”
The work of the conference will outlast the time spent together at the Dance Palace. Black Mountain Circle will continue to explore the 2018 Geography of Hope theme with events, field trips and opportunities that engage with the topic throughout the year. As Wallace Stegner wrote in his “Wilderness Letter,” which gave the conference its name, “We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.”
And this is what truly makes the Geography of Hope a remarkable event, for its participants will not only gather on the edge, but look in, and do more.
Molly Parent is the co-owner of Point Reyes Books. She lives in San Rafael. Tickets to the conference must be purchased in advance at gohconference.org. Tickets to Peter Wohlleben’s talk can be purchased at ptreyesbooks.com.