Conversation series at Ashokan Center explores eclectic range of topics

Jay Ungar and Molly Mason.

The Ashokan Center started its new Catskill Conversations series with a sold-out October 1 talk, “Foraging & Feasting,” that saw author Dina Falconi and illustrator Wendy Hollender speaking about the principles that have made their book of the same name a regional hit. Attendees were taught to identify and gather wild edibles and medicinals, how to make beautiful, scientifically accurate drawings of the foraged plants, and also got to prepare all they’d foraged in the Center’s bright, homey kitchen.

Coming up at 2 p.m. Sunday, October 29 at the Center, 477 Beaverkill Road in Olivebridge, will be the second event in the series, “Shout it Out!,” with Saratoga-area soul singer Garland Nelson leading an interactive program on the evolution of black vocal music from slavery to soul. Participants will learn old ways of using vocalization, call and response, and percussion to build excitement, to relate old stories. Slides, film clips and recordings will help the Soul Sessions lead singer explore and examine the foundations of African music and its seminal importance to all music everywhere today.

And on November 19, the final installment of this first outing of Catskill Conversations will feature Ashokan Center founders and board CEO and vice president Jay Ungar and Molly Mason joined by author and historian Rosemary Nichols (Freedom’s Price) celebrating Remembrance Day, the anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, with a program about Ulster County’s Civil War regiments through readings and music, as well as selections from Ungar & Mason’s Grammy award winning score to Ken Burns PBS series The Civil War.


“One of the initial motivations for this series was our feeling that the Ashokan Center is an amazing venue for various groups of people to explore varied interests, a way to get away from the world at large and delve into some subjects with heart and brain,” Ungar said this week about the Catskill Conversations’ genesis. “We make the events interactive, with plenty of social time so everyone can get to know each other, share time and thoughts, and hopefully explore things further in the future.”

Mason noted how the couple’s belief in such interactive exploration arose out of the nearly four decades they’ve been running Music and Dance Camps.

“People from all over come together and get a relaxed feeling as they have time to talk in ways that are getting rarer these days in this world,” she said. “The Catskill Conversations are a way of offering that experience to people who are local, and not just those who come in from all over the country for camps or retreats. This is for our neighbors, a way of saying, ‘Let’s take this afternoon and replicate this other experience in new ways.’”

Ungar and Mason said they were in the process of planning future Catskill Conversations, speaking with climate scientists, economists, arts professionals, experts in alternative energy and sustainability, and “people from other brands of music,” while also hoping to hear from the community for conversation topics. They pointed out how booked the Ashokan Center can get with school groups, retreats and their own camps that people often don’t have easy ways to simply drop in and experience what’s been happening at the site for the past 50 years. They hope to formalize the series’ continuing schedule in the coming months.

Also in the coming week is a Wednesday, November 1 gala celebration in New York City honoring 50 years of activities at the site of The Ashokan Center, previously known as the SUNY New Paltz-affiliated Ashokan Field Campus, along with a special salute to Jay and Molly and all they’ve done for the place, beginning when Ungar first started running his Ashokan Fiddle & Dance Camps there, which Mason later joined as a full partner in designing and running these popular programs, which are still running strong. The event, which will include cocktails, live music, farm-to-table appetizers by chefs John Novi and Bill Warnes, will lead up to a number of key salutes to Ashokan and the couple that helped save it when the old field campus was being closed down, then brought it to its newfound, new campus glory. Expect words and/or music by Burns, Tom Chapin, John McEuen, Joe Martens, Natalie Merchant, Paul Winter and many others.

“For 50 years, Ashokan has introduced children to the natural world,” read the invite to the Mercer Street event, fast selling out as of press time, but with some tickets still available.

“Ashokan was a pioneer in outdoor environmental education when it was started by SUNY New Paltz in 1967,” Ungar said while charting he and Mason’s “right place, right time” opportunity to move it forward a decade ago. “Our motivation was the fact that the world needs outdoor environmental education and local history, we need these experiences, these options for exploring nature, to have the world we want to have in our future.”

The Catskill Conversation events, on Sundays October 29 and November 19, start at 2 p.m. and run about three hours each, with an admission fee that’s less if tickets get ordered early. For tickets to the 50th anniversary gala, in New York City on November 1, order early online at See that address for more information on all Ashokan Center events.