One hundred plus members and guests arrived from around the globe to gather Friday evening for our first reception by the outdoor fire pit at Asilomar, on the windy, enchanting Central California coast. For many, it was a first visit to this land of dunes, waves, seabirds, animals, and wildflowers. Asilomar, the “Refuge by the Sea” created in 1913 by two powerful women—philanthropist and women’s champion Phoebe Hearst, and Julia Morgan, architect extraordinaire—who had a mission to make a YWCA campsite to give training and opportunity to a future generation of young women, seemed a perfect fit for SWG.
It had seemed so twenty-four years ago, too, when we gathered there before, and throughout the weekend we looked back fondly, both remembering our roots and those who are no longer with us, but also looking to our place in the 21st century, especially with discussions of the Anthropocene initiative.
After being greeted by President Ellen Hansen and Executive Director Mary van Balgooy, we sampled our first dinner promoting locally grown, seasonal food, and heard marine geologist and tectonophysicist Tanya Atwater regale us with California “creation” stories based on the activities of the San Andreas Fault. “I love earthquakes. I just lie down on the ground to feel the earth,” she said. With wonderful animated maps, erudition, and humor she helped ground us all.
We were also inspired by riveting talks from our Keynote and Gold Medal speakers. Saturday morning, Mechtild Rössler, “Maggie” to us, who had arrived from UNESCO headquarters in Paris, showed slides and told histories of the heartbreaking terrorist destruction of cultural monuments around the world, including the Bagan Buddhas in Burma, Nimrod in Iraq, and Aleppo in Syria. We also learned about UNESCO’S restoration efforts, the personal dangers of working in war zones, and other hazards: art traffickers, misogynistic generals, and governments that don’t pay their share.
On Saturday night, following our Saturday Honors Dinner, when members appeared in colorful global garb, Gold Medal winner Constanza Ceruti spoke. A dazzling Argentinean, the world’s only female high altitude archaeologist, and author of over 100 articles and twenty books, Constanza has climbed and studied the majority of the highest peaks in the world from the Andes to the Himalayas, Europe, Africa, and the United States. A special interest in sacred sites and world religions has guided much of her research and led to discoveries of sacred fire remains on many—and to finding three incredible Incan mummies. She told us of getting to the mountains by bus or hitchhiking, carrying her own low-tech gear, and trying to find the best path, the one her predecessors—the Inca, say—followed hundreds of years before. She concluded that she approaches mountains with the spiritual love of a mystic.
Between and around these major addresses, others shared with us too. Student members from UCLA gave us updates on their research. Ashley Fent on zircon mining in the context of the Casamance conflict in Senegal; Sara Salazar Hughes on constructing “home” in the West Bank Settlements of Palestine; Chelsea Robinson about landscape and forest structural controls on wood density and biomass in Costa Rica; and Diane Ward on the Los Angeles River and changing conceptions of urban nature.
Later we would hear from Judith Tyner about “Invisible Ink,” the historically unseen women cartographers; Nicole Trenholm about sailing in NW Greenland’s fjords to support NASA’s open-ice mission; and Kristen Kelly about the sacred caves of Tam Ting (Pak Ou) in Laos.
Between sessions, members could hang out in our colorful “Hub” hung with Nepalese prayer flags and photographs, buy each other’s books, or chat. At other times we were treated to art interludes: Susan Leonard’s gorgeous—and cautionary—photos of reefs; the late Ben Booz’s marvelous sketches of Tibet; and Linda Gass’s stunning textile artworks depicting many landscapes in the San Francisco Bay area.
Sunday morning brought the first of two extraordinary field trips. We piled into buses to arrive before opening hours at the world-famous Monterey Bay Aquarium where we were met by ten guides who showed us kelp forests and deep sea creatures, curious sea bass, sharks, intelligent giant octopuses, shimmering anchovies, ethereal jellyfish, and please-touch tide pools. All without crowds. Then Linda Liscom’s old friend, marine biologist Steve Webster a co-founder who has been working there since 1984, spoke to us about the Aquarium’s early days and about the gravity of climate change and the ecology of the deep.
More enlightenment continued all day and even after Sunday dinner when five members gave five-minute sketches of their work. We heard from Trudy Suchan on new technology in the upcoming 2020 U.S. Census; from Marcella Adamski on following the Dali Lama’s directive to take oral histories of Tibetan elders; from Barbara Ganson about Harriet Quimby, America’s first licensed aviatrix; from Debbie Fugate about doing geography inside the U.S. State Department; and from Barbara Rose Johnson about environmental and societal disaster left by nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands, and the resilience of Marshall Islanders.
One theme, however, dominated throughout the weekend. Led by geographer Sandra Nichols, a stellar Saturday panel, which included Tanya Atwater, Mechtild Rössler, and Stanford human biology professor Anne Firth Murray, debated among themselves and with the audience about the meaning and dating of the Anthropocene: the present geologic era wherein human activities are driving change on a planetary scale. The larger question also addressed SWG’s role in it.
The topic was taken up again on Sunday in another panel with women who are already making a difference in the Anthropocene. Biochemist and activist Arlene Blum explained her successes in banning many toxic chemicals from clothing and other products as Director of the Green Science Policy Institute. Artist Linda Gass explained her work in a talk called “Art + Environmental Activism.” And wetland ecologist Jennifer Grathol Thomas talked about land use based on ecological process considerations in the Puget Sound watershed.
While appreciating the splendors of Asilomar, our time together also spread beyond its boundaries. Some early birds enjoyed a marvelous two days in Sonoma wine country organized by Linda Liscom. Others went on city walks in San Francisco, led by Libby Ingalls, or Berkeley, led by Betsy White, followed by a tour of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. Many enjoyed a potluck dinner at the lovely Berkeley home of Laura Nader. Then on the last day, some participants were able to hike into scenic Point Lobos State Reserve.
But all were able to enjoy our incomparable grand finale. Member and exhibition curator Jeanne Adams, daughter-in-law of Ansel Adams, graciously invited us to their private family home. Outside, the beautiful glass and wood house nestling into the hills overlooked a brilliant garden and waves splashing rocks below; inside, the walls were covered with iconic photographs. And not only were we treated to delicious catered treats, but also to an explanation of how Ansel Adams worked by his last assistant, photographer John Sexton, who led us into Adams’ darkroom to show his printmaking methods.
In the end, not just the program and place, but the chance to connect and reconnect with old and new friends is part of the enrichment of our Triennials. People who worked so hard to make this one come together—especially Libby Ingalls—were much appreciated.
And if there was an abiding lesson in the shifting wind, dunes, and sea, it is that change is inevitable. At the last minute some key people couldn’t come, among them: Keynote Speaker Kathryn Sullivan; Outstanding Achievement Award winner Carol Horvitz; and Bay Area Chairperson Nadia Le Bon. They and others were much missed. Also, our planned post-Triennial field trip, down the coast to Big Sur, was canceled due to mudslides.
Joanna Biggar, Member, Planning Committee
Photographs courtesy of Jeanne Adams, Judith Bock, Dorothy Dare, Libby Ingalls and Debby Slavitt.
About the Triennial