For the first time ever the Cascadia field school stopped in the small town of Ashland, Oregon. The reason for this is that it is half way between Portland and San Francisco, our final destination. Ashland was an opportunity for us to leave behind big cities for a while and explore sustainability in a rural setting. Ashland is most famous for hosting the world’s largest Shakespeare festival, but it is also known for its small town charm, natural healing springs, and incredible local artisans.
The history of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is as unique as Ashland itself. During the Great Depression in 1935 Angus Bowmer, a drama teacher, came to Ashland in search of a job. Upon arrival he was disappointed in the lack of drama programs available in the community and decided to put on a Shakespeare show one summer. It was a major economic success and has occurred every year thereafter. Today, the festival runs from February to November putting on eleven different shows throughout the year, both contemporary and Shakespearean. Due to this festival Ashland has the most actors per capita in the USA! The success of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has produced a spin-off economy based on Shakespeare creating a thriving art culture. Some of the highlights from our time here included the Sunday artisan street market, Oberon’s medieval bar, music in the streets, and many colourful local boutiques.
Ashland was named one of the best small towns in America
During our day off many of us explored Lithia Park, known for its healing waters. People come from far and wide to drink the slightly sulphuric mineral water for its healing properties and to bathe in the cold water of the river that runs through the park. Lithia Park is 93 acres of protected land, and it connects with the Pacific Crest Trail. Other students spent the afternoon exploring the restaurants, boutiques, and street markets. We were very impressed by the town’s ability to keep businesses at the local scale. There were no fast food chains or big box stores in the downtown core. Having a localized economy is an important aspect of building a resilient community. Some of the unique businesses we visited included the Standing Stone Brewery Co. where they have made a commitment to sustainability by sourcing their beer and food as locally as they can. They own a farm just out of town where they grow vegetables and raise beef cattle for their restaurant. Some of us also stocked up on groceries at the Ashland Food Co-op, the region’s only certified organic retailer. They pride themselves on being environmentally and socially responsible by providing ample nutritional information and health and wellness tips.
We didn’t have any structured activities while we were in Ashland. It was a time for us to unwind, explore and experience Shakespeare culture at its finest. The main event of our day off was going to see a Shakespeare production, The Tempest. Watching a Shakespeare play is not like watching any old production because the old English can be a challenge to comprehend. Upon reflection, it made us realize the importance of language and communication in everything we do, especially when it comes to sustainability. It is important to know your audience and to be able to engage and capture their attention and use language that everyone can relate to and understand. During the play we all responded greatly to the humorous acts, similarly making communication fun and easy can be a pathway towards diffusing sustainability throughout society.
Compared to other cities of a similar population we found Ashland to be one of a kind. For a town of only 20,000 people they have built a thriving local economy based around the arts. The success of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is the reason for such a thriving local economy. On festival weekends the number of people in town can increase up to 60-70,000. Despite this huge influx of people, Ashland has a very strong sense of community. Throughout the day we talked to local musicians, artists, and residents. They all said they felt a strong sense of community and agreed that Ashland is a great place for them to call home. This centrality of community is a theme that we have seen throughout this field school and is an important aspect of social sustainability. When thinking about ‘sustainability’, the environment, the colour green, and the negative connotation of having to give up personal freedom come to mind. What we often forget is that sustainability is not an individual endeavour but a collective journey to improve the way we live our lives. We are all in this together. We cannot forget to treat our environment and each other with respect. Change and strength comes in numbers, thus we are stronger when we unite together as the little town of Ashland has shown us. Although sustainability and changing our current status-quo can be intimidating at first, we have learned that sustainability can be positive, fun, and exciting, just like the Shakespeare play.