Finger Lakes Bioneers Celebrates Region’s Cultural Ingenuity

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Tompkins Weekly June 27, 2011. By Nick Vaczek

Corn, beans and squash…. with summer’s warmth they are starting to crop up in our fields of thought and in our gardens. Known as the Three Sisters, this approach to planting and provisioning has ancient origins, developed by indigenous peoples on this continent – influencing changes in populations and landscapes. Some very recent research is helping us to understand that the productivity of some domesticated plant complexes in the Americas around the early period of “New” and “Old” World contacts can be said to have advanced beyond what European farmers were attaining. Cornell horticulture professor Dr. Jane Mt Pleasant is internationally recognized for investigating and writing about these contrasts.

So this revision of our understanding of farming systems and our viewpoints on cultural comparisons matters for a variety of reasons. Timeless wisdom can be approached with both a scientific and practical eye from our seed selections and backyard food support system to our publicly funded campuses. We can retrain our vision to better see backwards and forwards with a view toward ecologically appropriate and sensitive practices and rewards.

The “carrying capacity” of this region is to some degree (still to be determined) within our abilities to steward and sustain. We can yoke our ambition to successfully cultivate this land and its soil and water via careful appraisal of the goals and tools that we might choose and the cultural outcomes of our decisions. Locally abundant harvests by locally interconnected people are worth investing in over more invisible and questionable channels of influence.

Across the planet, rural well being in the 21st century will be an interwoven (inter-webbed) innovative mapping of a variety of knowledge systems and shared insights. This multicultural exploration and capacity-building is just kicking into gear — just in time — and it will be even more composed of interesting rhythms and patterns than the many musical exchanges we have seen (and heard) created in the last fifty years.

Finger Lakes Bioneers celebrates these values of original thinking alongside up-to-the-moment shared thought and action, and chose the motif of corns-beans-squash for its logo to signify respect for the reach of wise elders and everyday cultivators. This upstate region encompasses multiple histories and has the resources to sustain beguiling futures.

Native American cultural ingenuity in democratic governance developed by the Haudenosaunee helped to inspire the founders of the US. Numerous small communities of seekers and free-thinkers such as Chautauqua, Oneida, Roycroft, Seneca Falls suffrage promoters, abolitionists, inventors, artists, educators and many more sprouted and made roots in the matrix of these deep blue Great and Finger Lakes, wooded hills and farming vistas. This is a rich heritage of weaving innovative conversations and partnerships that led to skills and tools for long-lived, attuned place-making… and place-enhancing.

This year’s Finger Lakes Bioneers’ activities will be more decentralized with our programming located across communities in the region. We will collaborate with a range of partners in Auburn, Watkins Glen, Cortland, and the Elmira-Corning area to host insightful film and multi-media events that are designed around audiences sharing their views. We will thus take a more “polycultural,” traveling Chautauqua approach …which is of course in the spirit of the 20-plus year DNA of the national Bioneers organization (

Please stay tuned for more news about these plans (and possible ways that Ithaca audiences can also be plugged in). Please feel free to get in touch with us at

Nick Vaczek is a member of the Steering Committee for Finger Lakes Bioneers, and a horticultural anthropologist.

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