Singing, Dancing, and Being Outdoors: TNC and the Hillside Festival

Many of our partners at TNC, including The Metcalf Foundation, 10C, and Canada’s National Ballet School , use the arts to build community. Others, including the Child and Nature Alliance of Canada, Focus on Nature, and the Lawson Foundation, highlight the benefits of being outdoors and cultivating a stronger relationship to the natural world. Through them, we have learned so much about the transformative power of singing, dancing, and being outdoors. One of TNC’s longest standing partnerships is with the HIllside Festival. We’ve been sponsors of the Guelph-based festival and loyal attendees for many years. It is one of the places we get recharged, and we have missed it greatly these last two summers. Next weekend is Hillside’s second virtual music festival. In honour of that occasion, here is a personal reflection on the impact that the festival has had on my life and my friendships. I wrote it right after the last in-person festival in 2019. As I read it now, I am struck by the number of times I mention all those things that we can’t get through our screens – sounds and smells, physical touches and the play of sunlight. Please support this year’s virtual festival if you can, and please support arts and outdoor organizations like the ones I mentioned above.

The Hillside Festival is complete for another year.  I had a great time.  On Saturday afternoon, the sun flooded the space around the Island Stage with energy and joy and a giggling toddler danced with his dad between the picnic tables.  As my friend Jason and his son played together, I was reminded of the times I danced in the same space, in the same way, with Maddy, who is an adult now.  Dancing together is a special type of conversation – so much is communicated that is impossible to put into words! I have been coming to Hillside for 26 years, and so, gradually, I have become more comfortable with the festival’s ability to pull back the distractions of everyday life and remind me how beautiful life is meant to be. How important moments like this one are; somehow both fleeting and eternal.  As I watched, I hoped David would pack away the unspoken messages in his dad’s dance, ready for when he might need them in his life. 

Later, as the sun began to fall and the crowd’s collective attention was drawn more fully into the tent and onto the stage, Noella and I hid together near the back, watching the music.  We stood close so that I could wrap my arms around her and smell her hair. We danced, just a little bit.  She turned towards me and peeked over my shoulder, describing to me what the people behind us were doing.   It was the kind of silly, secret conversation you can only have with the person you love. The kind, I was reminded, that you need to have with the person you love from time to time.  We both knew, at that moment, in that special place, surrounded by dusk and by music, that there will always be certain things that the two of us can only make sense of together.  

On the main stage Sunday night, Bruce Cockburn sang the lead of Wondering Where the Lions Are and we, the crowd, responded back in echo as the sun shone golden behind us, low in the sky, bouncing off Bruce’s road-worn guitar.  After inviting us into dialogue in this way, Bruce – gifted artist that he is – changed conversational keys with his next song.  He reminded us that the beautiful land where we live – that very land we had just been singing about together – is stolen land.  I reflected on the fact that Bruce challenged me to take responsibility for reconciliation for nearly fifteen years before I really heard and understood what he was saying.  It was a good conversation.  One of those conversations that take place very slowly, in many verses, spread over decades.  One that grapples with truths that perhaps can never be fully resolved or even understood.  

There were, of course, many other conversations during the weekend.  They varied in tempo, in style, and in intensity.  Some were short and focused, others meandered.  Some were with strangers and others with old friends. Sometimes I was actively involved.  Sometimes just listening.  We spoke of parenting, and of politics.  We spoke of the power of art and the people we remember. We wondered together what to get for lunch and whether it would rain. We told, once again, the story of that one time, on the Island Stage, many years ago.

As I walked across the land bridge after my festival weekend had ended, the sky shifted key from deep orange to royal blue behind the silhouettes of the trees.  My kids Dylan and Maddy updated me on what they had seen at the Island Stage.  It was a musical experience very different from mine with Bruce, but I think equally meaningful.  Dylan told me Bruce ‘s music doesn’t resonate with him.  He hears more of his own experience as a young Toronto artist reflected in the music of Orville Peck. We agreed to disagree. We teased each other.  It was one of those great, easy, open conversations. One where you can flop down and relax, completely confident that you are safe, and understood, and loved, even if you are members of different generations.  Even if your tastes and experiences are different.  Even if you are less likely than you once were to dance together in the blazing sun.    

As I write, it is Monday morning.  I got up as I always do, kissed Noella as I always do, packed my bag and headed off to work.  But I think, perhaps, that I paused to savour the beauty in these moments a little bit more than I do on a typical Monday morning. I took note, for example, of the indisputable fact that Noella is a world-class kisser.  This morning, I felt just a little bit more awake. A little bit more connected.   Like a tree after rain, I felt renewed.  I’d like to thank everyone involved in conjuring the grand, idealistic, unreasonable, muddy and beautiful conversation that is the Hillside Festival. For telling stories that needed to be told. For reminding me, just in time, just as I needed it the most, that all I really need to do is to step into myself.  To be the change I wish to see.  To love out loud.  To be willing to enter into conversation. To tell my stories and play my music. 

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