Sacred Land

The Geography of Hope Conference converges in West Marin

In 1998, big-city community organizer Steve Costa and his wife, Kate Levinson, moved to Point Reyes Station, and in 2002 bought the town’s only bookstore. Though neither had retail experience, they knew bookstores could serve as a catalyst to bring community members together, and Point Reyes Books became entrenched in the community by holding lectures and public discussions in addition to author signings.

In 2008, with the help of a few local Marin County residents, Costa and Levinson organized the first Geography of Hope Literary Conference, a weekend-long event with authors and educators from around the world. Since then, Geography of Hope has been producing annual events with different themes, though always with an emphasis on human interactions with the environment.

For Claire Peele, longtime attendee to the events, it’s the combination of accredited speakers and the emphasis on nature that hooked her the first year, and which has brought her back every year since. The conference brings “people from all over the country, influential thought leaders, including some indigenous leaders,” she says. “We are given pathways to think about and discuss our relationships to each other and nature.”

This year, Geography of Hope reexamines the importance of pilgrimage as a way to deepen our relationship to nature, putting on events running throughout 2019. On March 16, the group hosts Pilgrimage Redefined, a conference featuring authors, activists, educators and others who have incorporated pilgrimage into their interaction with nature. One speaker presenting is John Francis, famously nicknamed the Planetwalker for his trek across America.

“I wasn’t really an environmentalist until after the second oil spill in San Francisco in 1971,” Francis says. That year, he decided to give up using any motorized transportation. On his birthday, he took it a step further and decided to not speak for a day. “This continued every day for the next 17 years,” says Francis. “Being silent for me was learning how to listen. It was about how we treat each other.”

During Francis’ duration of silence, he undertook a pilgrimage across America, sailed to South America, got his PhD in environmental sciences, and learned how to play the banjo. He began seeing environmental problems as the consequence of social inequalities. “I believe now that environmental problems are based in human rights, gender equality and all the other ways we relate to each other,” he says. “As long as we are exploiting each other for resources, it is not going to get better.”

Speaker Kate Bunny will discuss how a pilgrimage can be used as a tool for social change. Bunny led a pilgrimage from Israel to the West Bank, bringing Israelis into areas they typically would not be allowed. “Pilgrimage is a very simple practice,” she says, “and in that time you are breaking down a lot of barriers between each other that can build particularly during conflicts.

“You get a sense of equitability, because you are all the same, you are all sweating, and you can find ways to relate.”


Geography of Hope: Pilgrimage Redefined takes place Saturday, March 16, at the Dance Palace, 503 B St., Point Reyes Station. 9am. $150 general; $25 with scholarship (offered to those between the ages of 18 and 30 upon determination).

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