Sheryl and I have made a pilgrimage to Chautauqua Institution almost every summer since we’ve been married, staying a week or two on the grounds to soak in the arts and thoughts and imagination of the place and its people. We talk of going elsewhere some summer, but when the time comes to make reservations for next year we can’t help ourselves. We make plans to return once more to the lake and its thrall.
This year we returned for one last long weekend after the season had ended to commune with the numen of the place on its own terms, without the rich layers of stimulation and reflection that the seasonal residents and visitors add. The concert and lecture venues are closed. The last die-hard seasonal residents are readying for their return to other homes. Institution crews are preparing the place for its long sleep, while private ones are preparing to haul away debris and close up houses for another winter. It’s only the first of September, but the place feels later than that, like late autumn: early November, perhaps, with its pensive air.
The grounds are quiet now, quiet enough for a spider to reweave its web at the north end of the rattling footbridge and reclaim space from which it has been exiled by the press of human traffic. So much happens here during the summer, so many people come and go, it takes a lot of intent and effort to see beyond what we two-legged ones bring and glimpse the creatures who make their permanent homes here. It’s easy to forget the creatures into whose space we intrude every summer, to think the values we bring, as lofty and ennobling as they are, are what make Chautauqua precious. We can so easily forget that long after we’ve gone, the spiders and other denizens of forest and lake remain to own the place.
Wordsworth, seeing perhaps in the flux of the River Duddon what caught my eye and heart here, reminds me: “The Form remains, the Function never dies; / While we, the brave, the mighty, and the wise, / We Men, who in our morn of youth defied / The elements, must vanish . . . .” Yet it’s enough, he wrote, “if something from our hands have power / To live, to act, and serve the future hour . . . .”
We go our ways; the spiders remain. And though they own the place where we but visit, in our brief and fleeting time we have power to serve the future hour.