A few weeks ago, my sister white-knuckled the steering wheel as we crossed the five-mile-long Richmond Bridge that soars above San Francisco Bay between Oakland and San Rafael. Commuters still wove across six lanes of traffic at nearly 9 p.m on Highway 101 in San Rafael. We pulled off the freeway, wound through palm-tree lined streets, and checked into a cozy Airbnb about a mile away from the Marin Center. We were there to attend the 29th annual National Bioneers Conference.
We weren’t sure what to expect. But we were long overdue for a sisters’ getaway. We explored Iceland, Puerto Rico, the Baja peninsula of Mexico, and remote parts of Colorado together when we were in our late teens and early twenties. With jobs and mortgages (and my two small children), our travel opportunities have winnowed over the past decade. The Bioneers Conference looked like an interesting event to attend together.
We didn’t expect it to blow our minds.
I’m still digesting what I learned there, but I’ve compiled a few insights. First, what’s Bioneers, you may be asking.
What’s the Bioneers Conference?
Kenny Ausubel and Nina Simons started the Bioneers Conference in 1990 in New Mexico. It’s a conference committed to “connecting people with each other and with ideas that could positively transform the world.”
They invite leaders from the environmental movement, the social justice movement, and indigenous communities. This year’s keynote speakers included Michael Pollan and Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of #BlackLivesMatters.
In the past, Naomi Klein, Terry Tempest Williams, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Jeremy Narby, Charles Eisenstein, and other inspiring thought leaders have spoken.
Insights From the 2018 Bioneers Conference
Here are a few of the thoughts I’ve been mulling over since the conference.
Old Age Isn’t As Bad As You Think
Do you fear dementia, nursing homes, and loneliness in your older years? Ashton Applewhite wants to dismantle those common stereotypes about aging. Only 2.5% of people will be in a nursing home and 8 of 9 elderly people will stay cognitively fit throughout their lives, according to Applewhite. Moreover, most of us will be happier when we’re old.
Applewhite urges people to stop age shaming. What’s age shaming? It’s making something that shouldn’t be shameful into something that is. It may include:
- Dying your hair
- Not mentioning your age or lying about it
- Slathering on “anti-aging” products
- Dreading your birthday
- Frowning when you see a wrinkle in the mirror
- Scoffing about how old a celebrity looks
It also includes discriminating against workers on the basis of age. Two-thirds of workers report facing ageism at work, according to Applewhite.
Applewhite insists we must challenge negative messages we’ve internalized about aging. After all, ageism is the only discrimination we wage against our future selves.
Besides, most of us intuitively know that aging enriches us. It makes us wiser, more interesting, and more empathetic. Few older people would wish to return to a younger age.
The elderly population is growing. There will be 78 million people over 65 years old by 2035, compared to 76.7 million under 18. Feelings about aging matter. People with positive feelings about getting older are less likely to get dementia, and they live seven years longer on average.
“When we build a better world for old people, we build a better world for all of us,” says Applewhite.
We Can Heal Divisions
It’s a polarizing time. But the Bioneers Conference gave me hope we can heal. The conference celebrates indigenous wisdom and solutions to the world’s problems and brings together leaders from native communities all over the country. More than fifty indigenous leaders shared their fights to save aquifers, springs, waterways, oceans, salmon populations, and forests from oil pipelines and mining contamination.
We’re facing an unprecedented ecological crisis and we need to listen to indigenous voices about how to heal it. Human communities flourished in the Americas for thousands of years. Europeans thought they’d stumbled onto a natural Eden, but Native Americans deserve some credit for the lush landscapes here. They were brilliant land and ecosystem managers. They used controlled burning and other methods to shape the land for their purposes while fostering healthy conditions for all life.
Native Americans are not always thrilled to share their wisdom or customs with non-natives. Colonization brought disease, malnutrition, warfare, and genocide to their communities.
Two brutal examples:
- In 1775, King George II passed a proclamation paying settlers for delivering the scalps of Native Americans. The crown paid fifty pounds for adult male scalps, twenty-five pounds for adult female scalps, and twenty pounds for children’s scalps. The scalps were called redskins (which is still the mascot for the football team of the U.S. capital).
- Between 1879 and 1919, thousands of native children from 141 tribes were removed from their families and placed in boarding schools. Not only were the children separated from their families, communities, and culture; they were “malnourished, overworked, harshly punished and poorly educated,” according to a 1920 report. Hundreds of native children died in boarding schools because of disease and harsh conditions. Native Americans only gained the legal right to refuse their children’s placement in off-reservation boarding schools in 1978.
If Native leaders can come together with the descendants of colonialists to talk about solutions, what other divisions can we begin to heal?
We Should Understand and Honor the Past
Many of the speakers at the conference gave thanks to the Coast Miwok. The land we call Marin County is their ancestral homeland. There were 2,000 Coast Miwok in 1770. By 2000, there were only 170 (according to Wikipedia).
After Bioneers, I’m committed to learning more about the indigenous tribes and nations who lived for thousands of years on lands where I live and visit. This isn’t about idolizing First Nations or thinking their societies were perfect.
It’s about respecting that dynamic cultures once flourished in places we now live. People called these lands home and buried their ancestors on them for generations.
Colonization had the brutal legacy of erasing people, languages, stories, and cultural knowledge. Fortunately, we’re in the midst of a resurgence. The Native American population increased by 26 percent between 2000 and 2010 (compared to a 9.7 percent growth of the general population). And indigenous communities are reviving languages that were thought to be dead.
Want to know who lived where you live now? Check out this amazing map (with the caveat that all maps are colonial artifacts that may misrepresent reality). There’s probably a Native American museum or cultural center near you where you can learn more about your region’s indigenous peoples.
After Bioneers, I’m also interested to learn more about my family’s cultural history, traditions, and homelands. My sister and I plan to go to Scotland in the next few years to find out more about Scottish ancestors on both sides of our family and to Delaware to learn about our Delaware Moor ancestors.
Health Starts in the Soil
When physician Daphne Miller went to an Amazon tributary in Peru to fill in for a doctor there, she was shocked to discover the illnesses she usually treated didn’t exist there. No diabetes. No heart disease. Instead, she found a lot of well old people. What was their secret?
At first Miller was convinced it was their diet. She wrote a book called The Jungle Effect about the healing properties of native diets around the world. Later, Miller realized she was wrong. “It wasn’t their food; it was their soil,” she says.
If you haven’t heard, the nutrients in our food are disappearing. According to one study, we need to eat eight oranges to get the same amount of vitamin A our grandparents got from one. Timothy J. Lasalle, a former college professor and CEO of Rodale, who sat on a workshop panel with Miller, blames tilling for some of those nutritional declines. Tilling means using a hoe or tractor to break apart the soil before planting. Lasalle champions a regenerative agricultural method that combines organic methods with zero tillage.
Josh Whiton has an even simpler solution for those of us who don’t farm. We throw away 1.6 billion tons of food waste every year. Why not transform it into nutritious soil, starting in your own yard? Whiton runs the company MakeSoil.org, which encourages neighbors to share compost bins. Except Whiton doesn’t like the term compost. He suggests neighbors join forces to become “soilmakers.”
When Whiton asked his neighbors in an apartment complex to make soil with him, he was surprised that many of his neighbors had environmental awakenings. Some of them changed their lives entirely afterward.
Whiton contends we treat the planet like garbage when we throw food away. When we start regenerating the earth with it instead, it changes us. “It’s a relief,” he says, “We’re ashamed to be human.” Many people go on to become gardeners or activists.
“Soil makers should have a revered place in our society,” Whiton says.
“Bioneers is a natural antidepressant,” Kenny Ausubel, the co-founder of the conference, said in an interview.
It’s true that I feel more hopeful, inspired, and excited about the future. But I’m also still trying to get my bearings. We were only at the conference for four days, but it felt like entering another culture.
“I feel like we spent a few weeks in the bottom of the Grand Canyon,” my sister said as we drove through Oakland on the way back to the airport. I haven’t rafted down the Grand Canyon, but I knew what she meant. It’s jarring to return to our society. Violence and mass extinction are in the headlines, and my young boys beg me for violent video games and junk food, as most do. These societal norms feel even more wrong after Bioneers.
That said, I’m glad we went. Before we left, we hiked through an oak and madrone forest with stunning views of San Francisco bay. I snapped a picture. Later I posted it on Instagram and typed the caption, “My sister and I hiking in beautiful Marin County.” But I couldn’t leave it at that. Yes, this land has been called Marin County for 168 years. But before that, the Coast Miwok had hunted dear, gathered acorns, and buried their ancestors there for more than 4,500 years. The least I could do was acknowledge them.
Have you traced your family’s history and/or been to their ancestral homelands? Leave me a comment! I’d love to hear about it.