Stepping on the Bioneers Stone
Steppingstones come in many forms, some are people that inspire new awareness; some are experiences that guide us to a more meaningful purpose to our lives; some are actual stones that secure our footing as we cross frigid mountain streams; all are slippery requiring our unfettered attention as we seek to find our balance while negotiating life’s often perilous journey. These are my reflections from my first Bioneers Conference in October 2001.
As the morning dawned, silent, frosty and serene, the waking sun peeked its golden warmth between the gentle sway of the trees dispersing the remaining shadows and glistening dewdrops still lingering from the waning night. I inhaled deeply embracing the power of the wisdom emanating from the stillness of this ancient dance. The Marin Headlands are beautiful this time of year. It is early morning and I am seated amongst an ancient procession of northern pines intermingled between the stately beauty of a grove of eucalyptus trees reflecting on how welcoming nature is when you mean it no harm.
The eucalyptus trees migrated here long ago perhaps in the bowels of some ancient ship and planted its roots deep in the strangeness of this new land. While there are no koala bears here to feast their delectable leaves, they have attracted new compatriots here that sing the joy of this newfound friendship.
It feels appropriate that this place of such majestic and breathtaking beauty, placed like a rare and precious jewel along this rocky wind-swept coast of California’s Pacific shore, would be the setting for a group of visionaries and dreamers to meet and plant the seeds of transformation for a world torn asunder by greed, war, selfishness, and violence; violence towards each other and towards the environment. It is a fitting place to meet to seed a vision of a world guided by the wisdom of our deep interconnectedness with nature and with all of the human family.
The call of the Bioneers, as well as its challenges, was one that promised an inclusive embrace of all humanity in its myriad racial, cultural, ethnic and gender manifestations. The invitation was to consider the expanded body that we are embedded in—the environment in which we live—and our sacred responsibilities to it in spite of the socially constructed identities that divide us.
Awakening to Biomimicry
A few months earlier, I awakened at 4 in morning (having left the radio on all night), to visionary activist Caroline Casey’s radio show. The voice that I heard was that of Janine Benyus, who was Caroline’s guest. As close as I can recall this is the essence of what she said: “The lotus blossom rises out of the murky water of the swamp unsoiled, the biomimic asks the question what is the cellular structure of its petals that will not to allow mud to cling to them and can we mimic this phenomena in the way we design the outside of a building or of an automobile. Nature has had millions of years to perfect its designs… instead of trying to always create new ways why can’t we learn to copy what nature has been doing already for millions of years…” mimicing nature’s design techniques, how brilliant!
As we walked into the Marin Civic Center Complex where the conference was being held, I could not help but remember the Marin Courthouse shootout in 1970 when a 16-year-old Jonathan Jackson sought to free his brother Black Panther George Jackson from prison by force of arms. I witnessed the throngs of hopeful visionaries of every persuasion, young and old, gay, straight, white, black, native, Hispanic converging upon the conference grounds. I thought of how much things had changed yet remained the same since that tragic day in August 1970. Here there were no guns or talk of violent revolution yet the enthusiasm and zeal of the sixties were present just in a different and more expansive form.
In the midst of all the excitement and energy I could not help but think of what young Jonathan had laid down his life for had today grown into the prison industrial complex; there were more black and poor people in prison in America than any other nation in the world. I felt both sadness for this hideous reality and hope as the culmination of history's pain and the joy of the present moment swirled around in my mind.
"I did not realize at the time but from that moment on my life would never be the same."
As we entered the main hall, people were already dancing in the aisles to the contagious African rhythms of a multi-racial group of women playing congas and djembe drums. My sadness dissipated as I joined in the greeting, handshaking, and hugging frenzy that swept across the cavernous auditorium as we laughed, danced and dreamed of a new, sustainable and just world coming into being. The energy was both breathtaking and electric; this morning, no doubt, would become one of the most exciting and memorable moments of my life. This was my incomparable introduction to my first Bioneers conference. I did not realize at the time but from that moment on my life would never be the same.
I arrived at the Bioneers conference as a kind of bastard child of the turbulent sixties. “Awakening” at the very tail-end of the civil rights movement, I was one of the early founders of the Black Student Alliance movement in Los Angeles; a collaborator with the antiwar movement and an active supporter in the Black Panther Party underground. The demise of the movement was followed by years of despair at being unable to find my “activist” footing in society without compromising my life commitment to social justice.
Connecting Social Justice and the Environment
Entering the world of the Bioneers, it felt as if my life had come full circle; like being born again into the “save the family of life” movement. If it was the biomimicry of Janine Benyus that lured me to the Bioneers then it was the masterful weaving together of the environmentalist movement with the social justice movement as articulated by the legendary JL Chestnut, a civil rights attorney whose law firm had won the largest lawsuit in US history for Black farmers, that informed me that this Bioneers community was indeed my own.
Chestnut spoke with such eloquence and power that an awesome silence swept across the room. His presence was mesmerizing and electric, and he spoke of the southern black farmers and their triumphant lawsuit over the US Department of Agriculture. For me, he provided the last piece of the puzzle of that memorable weekend, the interface of racial and social justice. The environmental movement was calling me, but I did not quite know how I fit in without losing my identity as a person committed to racial, environmental and social justice.
I felt somewhat out of sorts and out of place being (at the time) one of the few non-white people at this conference and so far away from the inner city life I was accustomed to. But it was Chestnut who welcomed me home being an African-American. He spoke in a language that I was familiar with. He masterfully wove the social justice and environmental movements together in seamless form. He helped me to realize that these were not two different movements but one.
I jumped to my feet shouting and cheering along with the other two thousand Bioneers in that auditorium as Chestnut challenged the Bioneers to take on social justice as an integral and vital aspect of the environmental movement. When he said the same consciousness that destroys the rain forest is the same consciousness that enslaves human beings, I knew at that moment that the yearning that had been stirring around within my soul for years had been answered, not completely, but I could see the light. I had finally found the path to the persistent calling for new and viable approaches to my activist passions.