Oak strands spin to the music of the wind. Their branches thread weft across warp upon the path, teaching me about systematic patterns. Silver lupines in their last glory conduct an orchestral bouquet from which I learn about eternal schemes. The black lines of the Flatirons strike out, immovable, through the wildflowers. In their proud stance I study the imponderable subject of immortality. Chautauqua Park in Boulder, Colorado embraces those in the perennial quest for knowledge. Hiking along the Royal Arch trail, I imagine the generations of men and women who perused these sandstone layers in search of understanding. I walk in their footsteps, guided by the same goal: to glean from nature its ever-flowing lessons, to seek an education of the psyche.
In the nineteenth century, the Chautauqua adult education movement was sweeping across America. A curriculum of arts and sciences with the simplicity of outdoor life allowed men and women the opportunity to better themselves. Culture and nature were teaching every body, regardless of social or economic status. Time and technology rendered the Chautauqua movement obsolete, yet its essence thrives. Today’s equivalent would be the internet, that unknowable destination wherein all seems knowable, the new democratic experience for everyone everywhere. I speed through its measureless space, detached, spinning the threads of erudition I gather into methodical motifs. I fling my net into its vastness, hoping to catch the scholarly quicksand whirling in its depths. Filaments of symphonies, discourses, literature, and science reside inside for my degustation, universes within its universe. I can cull doctrines from the web that the Chautauqua instructors never imagined.
“Yet, there are things these weather-beaten peaks, these lofty pines, this mantle of poppies can teach me which are undiscoverable by any search engine.”
I flush a dark winged lark bunting out of hiding. I could ascertain its nesting habits, its natural habitat, and its description online, but as it flies I see the way its under-beak glints in the sun, how its feathers flutter and straighten like a miniature aircraft. It does not complain about being perturbed, merely changes its situation. I have been taught the etymology of the yellow daisy and its composite parts by digital experts. Whilst a row of them nod in greeting to me I notice, however, the velvety chocolate of their heads and the parallel grooves etched into their petals. Not one of them seeks obeisance or tribute. A bulbous ridged leaf drops at my feet. Rooting around the internet I will find later that it comes from the cottonwood, one of Colorado’s largest broadleaf trees. Now, I perceive that their tremulous leaves awaken to song at the slightest touch. They do not waste breath on persiflage or regret; they sing a lofty melody. I observe the self-containment of the bunting, the daisy, and the cottonwood. I marvel at their ability to live without want, without dissatisfaction, without sin. If only I could gather their secrets and in doing so live content, existing as I am.
In fields carpeted by bluebells, crowds once congregated to hear the oratory of William Jennings Bryan. As aspens winked in the woods, toes tapped to the symphony of John Philip Sousa. While snow-covered the crags of Green Mountain, heads bent over chemistry, botany, and Latin. They sought to master the art of discovery, these nameless masses. Standing beside the lodgings where they burnt the midnight oil for wisdom, I honor their desire for enlightenment. I too am on a quest, one based in the philosophy of a phrase: “I do not know.” I consider this statement to be magical, full of both humility and possibility. Saying the words, “I do not know” has leveled the playing field for me, cured me of snobbery by making me a student of life, equal to sundry. The sentence has started many conversations with people eager to inform and discuss, blossomed new friendships. “I do not know” has increased the bonds of empathy, because it has let others know that I do not have the solutions but I am willing to discover one with them. “I do not know” should be spoken oftener.
“The American dream is liberation through learning.”
Admitting my ignorance I free myself from arrogance’s shackles to pursue this aspiration. I venture into nature’s class, leaving the books behind for a moment, to grasp how not to discriminate while noticing every particular. I submit to travel’s tutelage, eschewing the late night lamp, to absorb the inconceivability of failure. I register in the school of inexperience, abandoning the play of words I thought I knew well, to create truer poetry for my spirit. I want a life lived in its entirety through reflection, through yearning for comprehension. So I continue my studies as an itinerant, proclaiming wherever I go, “I do not know” so that I may fathom a bit more of this impenetrable existence.
In 1898, the citizens of Boulder purchased eighty acres to set aside for their own Chautauqua movement. An assembly hall and lodgings ensured that whoever wished could come to the Flatirons foothills to study year round through lectures, entertainment, and the wilderness. This is one of the few functioning Chautauqua facilities, providing scientific and literary clubs, offering performances in music and theater, as well as working towards the sustainable preservation of its landscape.
If you have taken any interesting online courses, let us know what you thought about them in the comments below. Is there an instance when you wished someone had said, “I do not know” to you?