Navigate 3: Movement

The dance between art and nature in the St. Croix Valley inspires many different people to work toward a connected dream.




5 minute read

Published in partnership with Navigate. Read the first and second essays.

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“Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language.” – Aldo Leopold

The St. Croix Valley is scattered with places where art or nature or art and nature can be found and explored. There are wild parks and sculpture parks, bluffs formed by glaciers and potters shaping clay, there are campgrounds and galleries, studios and stages, a river stitching it all together.

The people passionate about these things are also scattered up and down the river. Twenty of them came together on Feb. 11 in Stillwater for the third Navigate workshop. They wrestled ideas and wrangled words and sharpened their visions of a future for this region of water, land, life, and creativity.

While art and nature are woven through the St. Croix Valley, on this day it was also clear that wrestling with big ideas, seeking truth, dancing in debate – it was all part of something paramount: the desire for a refuge from routines, discussing the things that matter most.

Humans and everything else on Earth live in a thin strip of soil and atmosphere, thick as paper compared to the giant globe on which we spin, and the vast galaxy in which we sail. Navigate facilitator Dylan Skybrook, offering definitions of sustainability, says this layer – the “biosphere” – needs to sustain human life indefinitely, and we must make sure it stays healthy enough to do so.

The two formal definitions presented were from The Natural Step and a U.N. commission led by Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former prime minister of Norway. Under her leadership, the group coined the term “sustainable development” and offered a now-popular definition. The Natural Step, founded by Dr. Karl Henrik Robert, is an international nonprofit organization that helps organizations and businesses operate sustainably. Its framework is built on four simple principles.

A key concept in those definitions is the fact that everything in the biosphere is an intricate system, closely connected. Artists and the arts are necessary nodes, connecting people and nature and communities. When creation flows freely through this system, a wondrous waltz begins. The St. Croix Valley has its own special dance.

One of the morning guests, the bearded and soft-spoken Rev. Buff Grace of Ascension Episcopal Church in Stillwater, says it is like we have been inhaling the resources of the valley for 200 years, and now it is time to “exhale,” breathing back out creation.

Tom McCarty, recently-arrived Stillwater city administrator, says “change is constant and inevitable.”

Nancy Kafka, director of Belwin Conservancy in Afton, points out that the definitions of sustainability that Skybrook had referenced were masculine. She says it reflected a philosophy based on finding the least cost and greatest return, and no woman would have a child based on that. Bonnie Ploger says we need to focus on thriving, not just sustaining.

The river, two blocks east, under ice, flowed its perfect path of least resistance to the sea. Animals ate and were eaten in endlessly rational indifference. Lichen grows on limestone and oaks stand on sandy bluffs. It’s so complex that it’s chaotic.

Interconnectedness is at the core of living sustainably, Skybrook says. Humans have to feel like they are part of nature to care about destroying it, and our future.

Potter Guillermo Cuellar says his art is hopeful, since he makes objects meant to last. “People using my pots keep me going.” Someone says art can communicate ways of seeing and feeling.

By sharing a point-of-view, we can work independently toward common visions. This is called a movement.

After lunch, as usual, we walked, alone. It was a gray February day, tolerably cold, and downtown Stillwater was a hive of people, some driving cars, some on foot, getting lunch, running errands, coming and going, trucks beeping. I walked straight up its east-west hill, past the bank, the dry cleaners, the old armory, the financial advisers, up steps past a young teacher and her gaggle of toddlers in snowsuits.

Twenty minutes later, coming back inside with other walkers, rosy-cheeked and smiling, it seemed we each had the same walk, each of us alone. Sharing a place will do that.

What should be done and can be done was the topic of discussion for the rest of the day. This was no simple task. Dancing apart but in the same direction is both simple and bewildering. It takes work and thought to make sense of it. In addition to creating “a shared culture and mindset,” successful movements are built on “trust and an openness to change,” Mark Leach and Laurie Mazur wrote in Nonprofit Quarterly in 2013.

The arts and the local environment are uniquely capable of creating that shared culture, providing that fundamental trust and agility. For example, the St. Croix Valley is full of skilled and successful potters. They form natural communities, since potters need other potters to help load and fire kilns and carry heavy boards of pots and bags of clay. Guillermo says, “Art connects people.”

Responding to continuing differences over the very meaning of fundamental words like “art,” “nature,” and “sustainability,” the facilitators huddle and revise the agenda, splitting the participants into four groups, rather than three, to include a table to talk about “language,” as well as actions, visions, and core values.

I float amid the tables. I think to myself how floating is one of my favorite things. I think of the frozen river. I look out the window at flat mid-winter light and listen to people laboring over ideas.

There is a strong anti-elitism among the Navigate group. They value art that anybody can appreciate and even create. They like the image of art in the natural landscape. Someone mentions that in Ann Arbor, Michigan, there is public art visible only to paddlers on the Huron River.

“The city of Ann Arbor combines art and culture with Canoe Imagine Art, a display of large art sculptures along the river made out of recycled canoes. As if art along the river wasn’t enough, a local artist is working on plans to install art on the river itself, including light reflectors under bridges along the water trail,” Natalie Warren recently wrote in Canoe & Kayak magazine (Natalie recently began working for the St. Croix River Association).

Since the second and most recent Navigate retreat in December, participants had learned that ArtReach St. Croix and Arts Midwest shuffled around some resources, got permission from the Bush Foundation to repurpose funds, and announced a grant program. It will offer up to $3,000 for up to 10 projects that show what an “art and nature region” is all about in the St. Croix Valley during the second half of this year.

These many mini-grants are meant to fan the flames of a smoldering fire. The ethic of interconnectedness, stewardship, wildness, has always burnt here. There was a sense at the end of the day that wood had been split and set on the coals.

people change places
where we go is who we are
trees bending to sun

Questions? Contact Heather Rutledge, ArtReach St. Croix, at, or Sharon Rodning Bash, Arts Midwest, at For comments on this article, Greg Seitz can be reached at

Navigate is organized by ArtReach St. Croix and Arts Midwest. It is funded by The Saint Paul Foundation, Mardag Foundation, Bigelow Foundation, The McKnight Foundation, the Bush Foundation, and Arts Midwest. Additional funding was provided by the Hugh J. Andersen Foundation, Fred C. and Katherine B. Andersen Foundation, the Water Street Inn, and ArtReach St. Croix.


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Navigate 3: Movement