Bozeman welcomes Rick Bass and the Bioneers

 I went to Bozeman's Best of Bioneers festival yesterday, and my head is reeling. It's amazing to spend an afternoon with such extraordinary thinkers, speakers, and activists, people who get stuff done in the realms of environmentalism and global awareness.

Bioneers has to be one of the most active and hopeful environmental groups out there. They bring together creative and active people who are working to save the environment and the people who live in it. You can follow some of their work through their fine weekly radio broadcast.

This event started with a bang, courtesy of Montana's one and only taiko group, which made me think of the traditional Japanese drumming groups we saw when we were in Japan. It also brought to mind Sendai, where we lived, decimated three weeks ago by earthquake and tsunami and now threatened by nuclear contamination. It was an oblique but fitting reminder, on this day dedicated to the environment, of how vulnerable the environment is, and we with it.

The afternoon included videocasts of speeches by Michael Pollan, author and food activist; Winona LaDuke, Ojibwe activist and politician; Jessica Rimington youthful founder of One World Youth Project; and John Francis, founder of Planetwalk, and author of Planetwalker: 22 Years of Walking; 17 Years of Silence.


Then there were the live speakers: the founders of Gardens from Garbage, which has introduced large-scale Bokashi composting to schools in Great Falls, and writer and environmentalist Rick Bass, a soft-spoken man who can spin a sentence out longer than just about anyone I know without feeling the need to apologize, and who does not have his own website, modest man that he is, but whose most recent project, together with another great writer of the northwest, David James Duncan, is Heart of the Monster, a book produced in a record two or three months to expose and oppose plans by ExxonMobile to ship megaloads (three stories high, over half a million pounds, over 200 feet long) across Idaho and Montana to the oil sands of Alberta, Canada. Sorry about that.

Here are a few highlights:

According to Pollan, fifty or sixty years ago, a calorie of oil would produce two calories of food. Now, he says, one calorie of food requires ten calories of oil—in the form of pesticides, fertilizers, as well as fuel to harvest and transport the food itself. He also points out that farm subsidies work against diversity, which is essential for a healthy and sustainable agriculture: one farmer he knows (I think it was a corn farmer) actually planted some tomatoes, an outrageous act for which he ended up paying thousands in fines. And then there's the fact that cheap food is not healthy food, so as Pollan says, “the leading product of our agricultural system is patients for our health-care system.” Ouch.

LaDuke is hilarious, as well as very persuasive. She and her Anishinaabe (Ojibwe, Chippewa) peoples near the Great Lakes of Minnesota, for whom wild rice is not only their most important food, but a relative, have been fighting to stop the farming of “wild” rice. As she puts it wryly, “I think ‘wild' should mean something.” They've also been struggling to prevent genetically engineered “wild” rice from being introduced and farmed. They'd also kinda like it if they could get paid decently for the rice they do harvest wildly, a goal LaDuke took on several years back when she and a cousin went out and intentionally drove up the price by offering twice what the buyers were offering: a dollar for a pound of rice that would be sold for ten dollars a pound, instead of fifty cents. Gutsy.

Jessica Rimington's organization One World Youth Project focuses on pairing schools in the US with others abroad, so that American students can learn about another culture in some real and felt way, so becoming better citizens of a global society. Given the appalling ignorance of most Americans about the rest of the world, anything which makes something beyond our borders real and interesting to young people is important and exciting.

As for John Francis—well, I, personally, am really glad he started speaking again, because he does it so well. He mostly told the story about how a massive oil spill in San Francisco Bay became the catalyst for his decision first, to start walking (no more vehicles that required fossile fuel) and then, to stop talking. During his seventeen years of silence (I mean, really—seventeen years!) he managed to earn a masters and a PhD. I am proud that it was a Montana University that allowed him to audit classes, then gave him credit for them when he found the money to pay for them later.  

The first live speakers were Michael Dalton and Mary Jane Ahrendes, a couple who has introduced large-scale Bokashi composting to the schools of Great Falls. This is amazing—I've never heard of large-scale Bokashi composting, and it's possible that these two are the first to develop it—and the implications are huge. This is going to require a whole post in itself. Here's their site, Gardens from Garbage.

And finally, we had, live before us, Rick Bass, one of the finest writers working in the English today, a Texan transplant that Montana is proud to call its own. He lives in one of the most isolated areas in the state, which is to say, in the country: Lincoln County, in the valley of the Yaak River, where he struggles to make “wilderness” an acceptable goal, instead of a fighting word. He spoke about what is special about the West, and about our deep, abiding, and often unacknowledged need for wilderness. Here's just one of several important questions that arose from his talk: why was the Forest Service established as part of the Department of Agriculture? Makes you wonder.

It was a heck of an afternoon, and it's going to take me a long time to absorb everything I heard and started to learn.

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