On Friday, Nov. 14, the Asheville Bioneers kicked off their third annual “Taste of Bioneers” Conference at the Lenoir-Rhyne Center for Graduate Studies of Asheville. In the first of three events to be held this year, wilderness was at the fore.
“The theme for tonight is how we can build better bridges to make our community more sustainable,” said Keith McDade, assistant professor and program coordinator for the college’s sustainability studies. He launched the conference by giving the audience a bit of a background as to what the “bioneers” and the seminar series are all about. “Sustainability is at the intersection of social and environmental issues,” he said. “We’re sharing information in ways where we can learn from each other.”
Because 2014 also marks the 25th anniversary of the Bioneers Conference, the night’s events included a combination of speakers beamed in from the national conference and a series of local panels dedicated to discussing sustainability issues within the community.
The evening’s first speaker came by video — American nature writer Terry Tempest Williams‘s “Why Wilderness Matters” presentation, filmed at the national Bioneers conference earlier this year. Williams asserted, that “Finding beauty in a broken world is creating beauty in the world we find.” Williams discussed how that beauty could be found in wilderness, noted the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act and suggested re-imagining the definition of wilderness. Quoting Henry David Thoreau, Williams posited, “In wilderness is the preservation of the world.”
In her own words, Williams went on to say, “Wilderness is not an abstraction or an idea — it is our sanity, our survival. It is our evolution.”
Williams wrapped up her comments by saying, “To protect what is wild is to protect what is gentle. We live only by grace. Wilderness lives by that same grace. Let this be our prayer.”
Following Williams’ address, McDade organized the audience of around 40 people into groups of three and four and presented them with two questions: Why is wilderness important to us, and how might we reimagine ourselves to honor that wilderness? The groups worked quickly and responded with a plethora of answers, which ranged from concentrating on effecting change one person at a time, connecting children with nature and re-evaluating humanity’s value system to minimizing carbon footprints, mapping wilderness corridors and studying Japanese Tree Therapy.
One group declared that the time was rife for a revolution. “We’re past the point of incremental change,” that group’s leader said.
After a short break, the audience reconvened for a panel discussion, first hearing Laura Hope Gill — the poet laureate for the Blue Ridge Parkway — read “Watermark,” one of her poems, and performed her rendition of a loon call to boot (much to the audience’s delight).
The theme for the panel was “Why Wilderness Matters,” and featured Ben Prater of Wild South, Hugh Irwin of the Wilderness Society and Will Harlan of Blue Ridge Outdoors (and author of Untamed: The Wildest Woman in America and the Fight for Cumberland Island.) Prater opened by explaining, “If you read between the lines, wilderness pops out in neon in our mission.” Prater also talked about the “circle from advocacy to stewardship” and said, “We use stewardship as a form of advocacy.” He also outlined the importance of wilderness as a living laboratory, a wildlife habitat, a source of clean air, a legacy for future generations and a spiritual, recreational and economic wellspring. In an especially poignant passage, Prater suggested that everyone spend a week not at the top of the food chain. “Wilderness is the touchstone by which we find our humility,” Prater said.
For his part, Irwin argued that wilderness was a real concept, not merely a human abstraction. “Wilderness is an antidote for our hubris,” Irwin said. He explained that the word “wilderness” was based on “will” and translated roughly to mean “self-willed land.” “Wilderness is an area that we deliberately set aside as something that humans do not control,” Irwin noted. He went on to discuss the early days of industrial logging in this region and the rise of the conservation movement that is responsible for instituting what protected Wilderness Areas we have. Irwin also voiced some criticism of the Forest Service’s current draft proposal for the Pisgah and the Nantahala National Forests and cautioned against an over-reliance on humankind’s ability to manage nature. “The fundamental question is, ‘Do I trust human ingenuity or do I trust nature?’” Irwin asked. In answer to his own question, Irwin said, “I trust nature.”
Harlan regaled the crowd with anecdotes about his work as a forest ranger on Cumberland Island after college and his slow understanding of the difference between National Parks and Wilderness Areas. “It took 19 years, but I finally realized that the most pristine environment needs someone to give a voice to it,” Harlan said. He then advocated fighting for the preservation of more Wilderness Areas. “Find your own homeland; fight for your own backyard,” Harlan said. “We need spokespeople to be voices for the voiceless.”
A Q-and-A session with the audience followed the panel. A number of attendees raised concerns over local matters — especially the designation of Bluff Mountain as a logging area, the commodification of the National Forests and the question of wildlife habitats.
Harlan concluded the evening’s discussion by saying, “Wilderness has experience value and intrinsic value. The passion, the emotion we put behind those arguments are really what’s going to make a difference.”
The “Taste of Bioneers” will host two more events – on Wednesday, Nov. 19, and Friday, Nov. 21. Both seminars will be held at the Lenoir-Rhyne Center for Graduate Studies of Asheville at 36 Montford Avenue. Wednesday’s conference will run from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.; Friday’s conference will run from 5:30 to 10 p.m.