In 2002, a scientist named Dr. Kirsten addressed the “bumblebees can’t fly” myth in a forum called This Week in Science:
For the longest time people just couldn’t understand how these big fat aerodynamically impaired insects could get off the ground using such proportionally itty-bitty wings. Finally, scientists realized that there was much more involved . . . . It has something to do with the way they use their wings and the lift generated by vortices that swirl behind the moving wing edges.
“The way they use their wings”
The Chautauqua Institution is a bumblebee. Founded in 1874 by a wealthy Ohio businessman and a Methodist minister, it had—and has—the motto, “Every man has the right to be all he can be, to know all that he can know.”
Let those words sink in. Linger over them. They were extraordinary in 1888, when John Heyl Vincent (the minister) spoke them as part of a Founder’s Day speech. They are extraordinary now. They reflect idealism that cynics would call hopeless, naive, doomed. Such a bumblebee could not get off the ground.
The cynics are wrong, however. Chautauqua opened its 137th season last week—still flying.
The institution is in the southwest corner of New York on Chautauqua Lake. It hosts 170,000+ people in its nine-week summer season. Its year-round population is about 150.
Chautauqua provides recreation, education, arts, and religion in any combination you chose (all, some, none). Its mostly Victorian cottages and inns are set close together, a legacy of the days when those cottages were tents. It is a walking/biking community because cars can barely get around the place.
This safe and respectful collision of divergent ideas, political viewpoints, age groups, and faith traditions is a rare occurrence on the planet.
While I was there, I did these things:
- Sat 10 feet from Alan Alda while he participated in the reading of Roger Rosenblatt’s one-act play Blueberry.
- Got refreshed and inspired by the brilliant preaching of a brilliant man, The Very Rev. Alan Jones, dean emeritus, Grace Cathedral, San Francisco. (In a world populated solely by fundamentalists and atheists, there is no place for me. But as Rev. Jones made clear, the world is bigger than that, and so is faith.)
- Heard symphony, pops, piano, and “chamber blues” music. (Chamber blues grows on you.)
- Saw ballet and acrobatics.
- Listened to good conversations among good writers.
- Drank Presbyterian coffee while discussing regional snowfall with people who retired to the area because they love it so.
- Browsed the very good bookstore and bought books I would not have bought at home.
- Walked and walked and walked.
- Had more excellent conversations than I can count.
- Spent many deliciously idle hours on the shady hotel veranda, looking at the lake.
Monday through Friday I took Special Studies course #1414: The Seeker in Search of the Way. The instructor was Kay Lindauer. The subject was an Irish epic story called “The Salmon of Knowledge,” which traces a hero’s quest. The story is very, very old (~200 AD), but is familiar and resonates in the heart.
When I left on July 4, my car’s GPS recalculated the route four times in the mile or so to the gate. The GPS was baffled because it had only its preprogrammed maps for guidance. I knew to ignore its nervous advice. Being there is the one and only way to understand Chautauqua.