I Am A Bioneer

By Karen Cowe|May 13, 2014

I have attended the Bioneers conference in San Rafael, CA every year since 2002 because it motivates me to act. I squeezed my first Bioneers conference into a weekend when I was in the middle of exams for my MBA program and could only get a ticket for the tent outside, so I watched the plenaries from there. The talks that stick in my mind from that first weekend were by Sylvia Earle, Fritjof Capra, and Paul Hawken. I spent a good bit of time in the bookstore after the talks and loaded up on books that I was far more interested in than my MBA coursework!

In one of the afternoon workshops, I was introduced to permaculture for the first time and I decided that my first act would be to learn more about it and design my first garden using permaculture design principles. I bought a book by David Holmgren and then attended a two-week course run by Penny Livingston and James Stark. Our first garden was about 6,000 square feet and we decided the whole thing would be an edible landscape. With a little bit of know-how from the course we worked with Christopher Shein from Wild Heart Gardens to design the space and we maintained it by working with Eric Beeghly.

Our front yard was mostly fruit – Wickson plum, Dapple Dandy pluot, and a cherry tree with three varieties grafted onto it. Between the sidewalk and the road, so we could easily share with our neighbors, we planted five apple bushes each a different variety that ripened at different times, giving us a steady supply of apples. We planted a low hedge around the apple bushes made up of Sunshine Blue evergreen blueberries and had edible day lilies, lavender, alpine strawberries, conventional strawberries, Chilean guava, rhubarb, wintergreen, three gooseberry bushes, and anise hyssop! I could be here all day telling you about the back yard, so check out some of the photos below instead:




My second Bioneers act was to sponsor someone to come with me every year. I focused mostly on young people who I thought would be interested in the content and who might feel they couldn’t afford to attend. Mostly it was people from work and after a few years we formed a group and created a Green Team, which ultimately took our company through the California Green Business Program and we were certified a year later. I remember interviewing someone for a job shortly after we were certified and he said he applied for the job because we were a Green Business – not because we were a publishing company! At last year’s conference I was sitting between Ariel Whitson, a first-time Bioneer, and my friend Judy Anderson who is now retired and a poet. I was remembering the first Bioneers I attended with Judy where we laughed and cried through most of the talks—and I especially remember listening to Terry Tempest Williams with her.

My third Bioneers act was to change my career and focus on bringing environment-based education to all students in California. I joined Ten Strands a little over a year ago when I learned about the opportunity to work with educators to introduce the Education and the Environment Initiative Curriculum (EEIC) to them—the EEIC is a K-12 standards-based program that uses the environment as a context to explore core subject areas such as science, history, social studies and English language arts. After so many years in mathematics education it has been fascinating piecing together the environmental education landscape and making sense of it (it’s a lot more fragmented than math education). After initially focusing on the EEIC we will be expanding over the coming months to also embrace teacher professional development, connections to informal education providers (e.g., members of the Change Scale group), and of course, keeping a close eye on legislation as the new California Science Framework gets written and an Environmental Literacy Plan gets created for the state.

So what is it about Bioneers that encourages me to act? I act because Bioneers is so solution focused and everyone who talks is doing something positive to reduce the negative impact of humans on the natural world. As Cecil Williams from Glide Memorial says “You can’t just talk the talk and walk the walk, you’ve got to walk the talk” and that’s what Bioneers do. Also, I always learn something new that broadens my perspective and gives me a wider frame of reference for my own ideas. For example, I was first introduced to Biomimicry, Green Chemistry, How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World, and countless other mind and heart blowing topics too. There’s a fantastic collection of videos available on their website that you should check out.

I was at a Green Schools conference recently and I was delighted to see a Bioneers booth there. There’s now a program for educators, which you can check it out here http://www.bioneers.org/programs/education-for-action/.

I’ll be at Bioneers this fall – my 12th conference. I missed one the year we sold the company and I regretted it when a friend of mine sent me a text that said, “it’s the best one ever.” Then again, she says that every year!

See you there.

Karen Cowe
This article was written by Karen Cowe

Karen Cowe is an education-industry executive with over 30 years of experience in sales and fund development, marketing, program design, professional learning, business development, and operations. Prior to joining Ten Strands, she was president and chief executive officer of Key Curriculum Press, an innovative and award-winning K–12 STEM publisher. Before that, she was managing director of Burlington Books in Athens, Greece—the first publisher in Greece to offer locally-focused English language instructional materials for Greek students. In addition to her understanding of the complexities of the US education landscape, she has valuable insights into education in other nations, having built relationships in Europe, Asia, Australia, and New Zealand. Karen holds a bachelor in business and a minor in education from Saint John’s College, York and a master of business administration from Saint Mary’s College, California.