A piedmont North Carolinian brand new to coastal California, I’m just getting my feet wet out here and sure didn’t know what to expect at this year’s Bioneers Summit Conference (this past October 17th - 19th). What I discovered has left me profoundly altered. As a Digital Media Ambassador for Bioneers this year, I thought it fitting that I share some reflections from my time, so here's an effusive yet painfully inadequate roundup of my experience, written from a place of resonant gratitude.
When I first scoped out the conference on the web, a name that caught my eye was Severine von Tscharner Fleming. She’s been as a spirit hovering over the surface of the proverbial waters (or soils, if you will) of the young farmer scene for years, so I couldn’t wait to hear what she had to say. In her unassumingly poetic fashion, Severine announced that 400 million acres of farmland will change hands over the next two decades in the United States. “Land is the baselayer of the new economy. We need to reclaim it.” As a farmer, this clarion call served as a major re-up for my sense of purpose.
Bioneers seemed deeply rooted in a land ethic of facilitative stewardship. But the conference also demonstrated that how we encounter each other is as important as our relationship to nature. Alisa Gravitz, CEO of Green America, reminded us that we need to stop wasting our energy telling others how to do their work. “No more arguing about if it’s more important to be on the streets or in the boardrooms,” she said. “We need both.” This was profound to me—a timely reminder that othering goes both ways, and we must extend a hand to the powers that be if we hope to leverage their momentum to achieve positive change. As someone who is regularly disappointed by some of the moral absolutism I encounter in activist circles, this was refreshing.
Speaking of relationships, the presence of indigenous people at Bioneers meant the whole experience was imbued with an essential full-circle vitality. Joanne Campbell of the Coast Miwok tribe—residents of Marin County for the past six thousand years—gave me goosebumps as she welcomed the conference to her ancestral grounds. And hailing from the distant Amazon, Kichwa leader Patricia Gualinga shared the devastating truth of how the developed world’s appetite for oil means the destruction of her lifeways. She asked for our help to #KeepTheOilinTheGround, that the socioecology of her home in the lungs of the earth might be left intact. I've been reading M. Kat Anderson's book Tending the Wild, which describes the stewardship practices of California's original inhabitants, so discussions surrounding the desecration (and revitalization) of tribal lands really stirs this the heart of this European American.
This spirit of purposeful resistance spanned the speakers at Bioneers. Terry Tempest Williams invited us to join her in fighting the exploitation of the tar sands in her beloved Utah, and Arielle Klagsburn demanded that white people must join the opposition to white supremacy that has contributed an epidemic of police brutality. At Bioneers, there was no shortage of indigenous wisdom, strong women, and causes in need of loving champions. I kept asking myself, how could anyone ever be bored?
One speaker who had a big presence at Bioneers was renowned mycologist Paul Stamets. Evoking a touch of Radagast the Brown with his earthy hat made of a giant Amadou mushroom, Stamets’ work using mycelium to heal bees, purify water, produce food, detoxify landscapes and inspire the mind seems nothing short of wizardry—and echoed so many themes of the Bioneers organization of a whole.
In his keynote address on Friday, Stamets unveiled the results of unprecedented research demonstrating how “mycohoney,” neutracuticals made from polypore mushrooms, can dramatically improve the immune systems of bees.
This is profound. It means bee populations given mushroom extract can survive the viral loads and subsequent parasitic attacks that have until now spelled doom not only for pollinator populations but for our own food security. Without a doubt, this research produced by Stamets and his team will have exciting ripple effects across disciplines. What this means for our ability to sustain bee populations and feed ourselves cannot be overstated.
The host of high-quality presenters spanning the sciences, arts, and activism means I could write about what I learned and loved for hours on end. Yet as anyone who has ever attended a Bioneers Summit can attest, some of the best parts of the conference happen off-schedule. Whether cruising exhibitor tents, standing in line for food, or just basking in the pristine San Rafael sunlight, one was bound to encounter new faces with whom to dream up a better world, and share the load as we make that world so. Just as biodiversity is an indicator of ecosystem health, the myriad of minds and messages at Bioneers bodes well for a resilient, robust movement.
As the last talks wrapped up on Sunday evening and the fellowship began disbanding to after-parties and airports, I felt like I needed to be alone in nature. So I borrowed some gear from filmmaker Jonny Kloberdanz, and headed for the hills by the Bay. I found a quiet place to bed down for the night--embarrassingly, my first time camping on my own, let alone without a tent--and let the weight of the past few days settle into my bones as mists tumbled up through the starlight overhead and strange birds hollered in the nearby dark. I awoke to the first real rain in months, and each transformative drop ushered Terry Tempest Williams' earnest words to mind: "This is our alchemical moment."