"The mentality that treats nature like a slave also oppresses people and pollutes our environment" J.L. Chestnut
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.
Memories and reflections of my first Bioneers Conference October 2001
By Dedans Gills
As the morning dawned, silent, frosty and serene the rising sun spread its golden warmth between the gentle sway of the trees dispersing the shadows and dewdrops that still lingered from the cold dampness of the passing night. I inhaled the sweetness of their silent breath while embracing the power of the wisdom emanating from the gracious stillness of their ancient dance. The Marin headlands are beautiful at this time of year. It is early morning and I sit amongst a regal procession of northern pines intermingled between the pale green beauty of groves of eucalyptus trees.
I silently reflect on how welcoming nature is when you mean no harm. The eucalyptus migrated here long ago perhaps in the bowels of some ancient ship planting its roots 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.
How appropriate, I thought, that this majestic place of such breathtaking beauty placed like a rare and precious jewel along the rocky and windswept coast of California’s Pacific shore.
It would be the perfect 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 directed towards each other and towards the environment into a world guided by the wisdom of our deep interconnectedness with nature, and all of the human family.
The call of the Bioneers, was one that that cried out for an inclusive embrace of all of humanity in its myriad of racial, cultural, ethnic and gender manifestations along with its expanded body, the environment in which we live, and our stewarding responsibility to it and all the sentient beings who dwell within.
It had only been a few short months before in Los Angeles waking up to the visionary activist Caroline Casey’s radio show at four in the morning, (It actually aired live at two in the afternoon in Berkeley) that I first heard the voice of Caroline’s guest Janine Benyus as best as I can remember this is what she said: “The lotus blossom rises out of the muddy waters of the pond unsoiled, the biomimic asks the question what is the cellular structure of its pedals not to allow mud to cling to them and can we mimic this phenomena in the way we design, let’s say, the outside of a building or the shell of an automobile. Nature has had five million years to perfect its designs instead of trying to create new ways why can’t we learn to copy what nature has been doing already for millions of years…” I thought, to mimic nature’s design techniques, how brilliant! I lay in bed envisioning designing one’s life based on that same principle. Janine’s language was both poetic and conscious expanding. The word biomimicry alone seemed to have brought about a shift in my awareness inspiring me in that moment to explore in new ways connections between phenomena that I had never thought about before. In the process, it opened up whole new and previously unimagined realms of possibility. Excitedly I jumped straight out of bed fumbling around in the darkness for a pen and paper not wanting to miss a single word. I didn’t even bother to turn the light on. In total darkness I scrawled out the word biomimicry and what I thought was the correct spelling of her name, G-e-n-e B-e-n-o-u-s, before settling back into bed. It was as if the universe had come into the quiet of my room and spoken directly to me. With my mind racing with excitement I watched the dawning of a new day and listened with new interest as the morning birds sang, with what appeared to be renewed gusto, to the glory of the rising sun.
Later that day after work I went to one of my favorite bookstores, The Bodhi Tree, and purchased a copy of Biomimicry and spent the next two weeks reading and underling almost every page. At the time I was living in Los Angeles working as a live-in counselor at the Bimini House, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation and transitional living facility that served veterans suffering from post traumatic stress, recoveringalcohol and drug addicts, the mentally ill and the homeless. As you can imagine trying to explain Biomimicry to my clients and co-workers was like trying to explain the theory of relativity in Swahili. It was not translating very well, but that did not calm my excitement. Anyone that I could get to listen I would attempt to enlighten; there is nothing quite as indomitable as the zeal of the neophyte.
It was my good fortune that Janice Ramkalawan my dearest friend and the mother of my eldest son Tranell had invited me to lunch a few days after I had heard Janine Benyus on the radio. Still reeling with excitement all I could do was talk about the seemingly endless potential and possibilities of this exciting new way of solving problems. I am sure she thought I must have been losing my mind, but because she knew where my heart was in regards to serving the downtrodden and marginalized of our society she decided to do her own research.
A few days later she called and informed me that she had googled biomimicry and that Janine Benyus was speaking at a gathering called The Bioneers Conference at Marin Civic Center in the San Francisco Bay area in mid October. She added that she had already ordered tickets for me, her sister Doris and herself. She had also made arrangements for the three of us to stay at the youth hostel in the Marin Headlands; and that she, along with her sister Doris were taking me there because number one it sounded exciting and two they felt that with all this crazy, incessant talk about Biomimicry I definitely needed to be there. I tried to protest, but before I could get a word in edgewise, one of my grandmother’s favorite expressions, she said firmly “Dedan I already made the arrangements we are going end of discussion!” Defenseless and excited I agreed and started making plans. We were headed for the Bioneers Conference in October. Bioneers, I thought, what the hell is a Bioneer? The answer to that question I would soon find out.
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 mature 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 history.
I felt both sadness for this hideous reality and hope as the culmination of histories pain and the joy of the present moment swirled around in my mind. As we entered the main hall people were already dancing in the isles to the contagious African rhythms of a multiracial group of women playing congas and jembe 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 was a bastard child of the turbulent sixties barely wakening at the tail end of the civil rights movement one of the early founders of the black student union movement a collaborator with the anti war movement and a soldier in the black panther underground. After years of despair unable to find my footing in society without compromising my life commitment to social justice as I entered the world of the Bioneers it felt as if my life had come full circle as I was being born again into the most enormous challenge ever facing humanity the save the planet movement.
If it was the Biomimicry of Janine Benyus that lured me to the Bioneers conference then it was the masterful weaving together of the environmentalist movement with the social justice movement as articulated by the legendary JL Chestnut that convinced me to stay. A civil rights attorney whose law firm had won the largest lawsuit in US history it would be Chestnut's exhilarating exhortations that informed me that this Bioneers community was indeed my own. He spoke with an eloquence that was so powerful an awesome a silence swept across the room, his presence was both mesmerizing and electric as he spoke of the black farmers of the south and their triumphant lawsuit against the US Department of Agriculture. For me he provided the last piece of the puzzle of that memorable weekend, social justice. The environmental movement was calling me, but I did not quite know how I fit in without losing my identity as a social justice activist. I felt somewhat out of sorts being one of the small numbers of non-white people at this conference so far away from the inner city life I was accustomed to. However, it was Chestnut that welcomed me home being an African American he spoke in a language that I was familiar. He masterfully weaved the social justice and environmental movements together in seamless form. He helped me to realize that these were not two different movements but one. As I jumped to my feet shouting and cheering along with the other two thousand plus Bioneers in that auditorium as he unequivocally challenged the Bioneers to take on social justice as a necessary and integral aspect of the environmental movement. 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.
Still reeling from Chestnut’s powerful speech I needed to move my limbs and get a breath of fresh air, the lights were subdued while the current speaker was giving their power point presentation I thought this would be an opportune moment to slip out for a moment. It was quiet in the lobby and I seemed to be the only one moving around, as my eyes adjusted to the light I could see someone moving toward me as she got within focus I could see that it was non other than Janine Benyus. My heart pounded as my throat parched, here she was right in front of me with no one else around just me and her…next thing I knew we were fully engaged in conversation…I was telling her my story of how I happened upon Bioneers and how instrumental she had been in that journey. She listened as if we were old friends…respectful of her time I was very brief, but she did not appear hurried at all. She asked me did I have copy of her book and if I did she said she would like to sign it. I ruffled thru my backpack and found my treasured copy of Biomimicry. In my ranting I must have told her about my own past and my current work with the homeless and she wrote these words to me…”Dedan, We’ve been homeless for so long, separated from the place we spring from (and to which we belong). I have a feeling we’re ready to find home again. Thanks for your important work with folks who are close to the core.” Hope this inspires! -Janine Benyus She gave me her card and urged me to stay in contact and then we shook hands and hugged. As I floated back to my seat I thought how magical was that and was this every one’s experience at the Bioneers conference
Later that afternoon I attended a workshop facilitated by JL Chestnut, members of The Federation of Southern Cooperatives and the legendary Iroquois author/scholar and farmer John Mohawk. The workshop was on Revitalizing Indigenous and African American Farming Traditions. After the workshop, a crowd gathered around Mr. Chestnut asking questions. I managed to squeeze in and ask him what he thought about the prison industrial complex and how it seemed to mimic the old chain gang system in the south after the outlawing of slavery. It was as if he was hit by a jolt of electricity he immediately turned to me and said this had really been weighing heavy on his mind and that this could possibly be the next lawsuit that he would file against the government. There were several other people listening as we talked about this great tragedy Afterward a woman came up to me and gave me a book that she felt I should read. It was a book written by a young African American man, Jarvis Masters, who had found Buddhism while on death row in San Quentin Prison. When I read his book later, I discovered much of his writings addressed the debilitating effect that mass incarceration of poor and minority men and women are having on their communities.
Sunday morning the last day of the conference, while searching for my companions, I was walking across the field that led to the dining area and happened upon Rachael Bagby who had did a beautiful and elegant interpretive dance during the morning plenary. I introduced myself and told her that she had danced with the grace of an angel. She asked me what had brought me to Bioneers and I began to tell my story before I was halfway through …she grabbed my hand tucked it underneath her arm and took off like a gazelle her flowing locks streaming in the cold wind like a mighty steed. Her stride long and graceful I struggled to keep up with her while I pondered what was I doing dashing across a field in Marin with a beautiful stranger who had been somehow animated by my words. What had happened was when I told her that I worked with the homeless she realized that there was another person that she could see in the distance that worked with that same population and she wanted to introduce us. She connected me with a young man from New York that worked with that population, gave me one of her music CD’s and disappeared into the crowd. The entire three days at Bioneers would be characterized with these exciting and synchronistic occurrences. It was magic and I breathed in every bit of it.
The evening of the last day of the conference we spent bidding our new found friends farewell we had met oceanographers, community organizers, permacultralist, musicians, biologist, mystics, geologist what we all had in common despite our many differences we all dreamed of a just, balanced and equitable future for our planet and all its inhabitants. It was a lot’s of hugs and some tears we all vowed to work on the many things that we had learned during the conference. It was hard to say goodbye, but after what seemed like hours, we finally made it back to the car to embark on our journey home to Los Angeles.
As we pulled on to hwy 101 headed south we excitedly talked about the conference, all the wonderful people we had met and asked the question out of all what we had just experienced what had we learned. After some discussion in summary, we concluded that: There are some immediate issues that must be addressed otherwise there will not be a future for anyone. First, we must reorganize our priorities to correspond with the reality of our times. The ship is already sinking we do not have a lots of time to rehash old conflicts. We must address what is immediately at hand and out of this engagement the causative factors of all of our old complaints shall be resolved for at their very core they all emanate from the same place.
As we exited the mighty San Joaquin Valley, prolific in its abundance, beautiful in its majesty and awe, we approached the stark beauty and magnificence of the grapevine.Her rolling hills appeared smooth and convoluted as I peered through the car window at the streaking landscape and looked at the mountains in the distance I thought of the native American’s vision quest and how they retreated to the silence of the mountains where they received their wisdom and new revelation. I mused in the quiet of my own mind could these rustic rolling hills convoluted like the human brain be where the center of intelligence and wisdom dwell for this living organism, our home, the mother of all living things, this sacred place we call earth. As we listened to John Coltrane’s hypnotic praise song, “A Love Supreme” flowing from the speakers in the background I dreamed of the earth, the animals, the people and the future…
As we careened the last meandering miles of the grapevines lofty challenge and descended into the toxic smog of the Los Angeles basin, I knew it would not be long before I resumed the drudgery of my mundane life amongst the hypnotized and uninitiated. I thought how would I translate the message of healing, hope and rebirth of the Bioneers to the diminutive world of stagnation and narrowness of vision where I lived. I despaired, how would I begin and whom would I start with? Then they spoke, the mountains, it was a voice that was not a voice but a strong unequivocal and authoritative vibration. They said to me: “START WHERE YOU STAND!”I thought that is exactly what I will do start where I stand!
The sun bowed and exited its radiance behind distant mountains as the half moon rose, cocked ace deuce like the crown of a jazzman’s derby gliding across the blues of the evening sky. I thought what an appropriate ending to the beginning of a new, exciting and no doubt wonderful journey...