Helga Olkowski's Biography
Born 12/15/31

I was fortunate to attend the first preschool program in the US, later based at Wayne University in Detroit. It started my lifelong interest in China and Chinese language.

Due to my father’s encouragement I began doing puppetry, including writing scripts, designing stages and puppets. This required woodcarving, which became more sophisticated as I grew into my teens.

In junior high my interest in languages became predominant. I was immensely fortunate in attending Barnard College associated with Columbia in New York City.

In college in the 1940s, my interests blossomed into geology and botany. At that time when I explored possibilities in graduate study in geology, I was told, “we don’t take women”, in spite of being Magna Cum Laude. If this occurred now I would be outraged!!

I got married and decided to go into Chinese language study at UC Berkeley. We traveled across the country in an old ’39 Chevy, after rewiring it using a library manual. We made it by sleeping in farmers’ fields each night. This was completely acceptable in those days. When we pulled into Landers, Wyoming, a policeman suggested we sleep in the city park where we would be safe. My how things have changed!!

Berkeley in those days was a wonderful place, especially with the Berkeley Cooperatives, originally founded by Finish immigrants. This was a nonprofit organization that sold food and had a vigorous educational component and members with a social conscience. Then my marriage fell apart and I raised our son alone.

I fell back on my childhood puppetry and developed a professional company that performed political puppet theater at parties, grammar schools, high schools and colleges in the San Francisco Bay Area. Eventually we performed on the East Coast and throughout Mexico. I was regional president of the Puppeteers of America.

After 12 years my partner in the puppets developed mental problems so the business fell apart. In seeking help for my partner I found a special person, Victor Bronco. Victor was a crisis interventionist called in by a local psychiatrist, Claudio Navajo. Victor changed my life by introducing certain new ideas. He also made it possible for me to meet my husband. He changed the life of my husband, too, and we began teaching together out of our home in Berkeley.

We also began to teach at the then forming Department of Conservation and Natural Resources under the oversight of Dr. Arnold Schultz. We were part of a series of teaching assistants who each had group of 20-30 students every week in the semester, as part of the large classes that were forming all over the US, culminating in Earth Day celebrations. Arnold introduced us to systems thinking, knowledge and skills, which served us well over the decades. Our session grew into a class devoted to urban food production, something our ecology students kept asking us about since they knew of our home garden. Although teaching skills in small scale food-raising, this class was also a way for us to introduce ecological subjects like population control, recycling, composting, least-toxic IPM, etc. The classes had a laboratory where, along with all the activities surrounding plant production (transplanting, seed selection and storage, etc., we showed how to kill and dress chickens and rabbits

Then, we got a surprise call from someone needing a female ecologist for a new college in San Francisco. I was offered the job after a short interview, but refused it unless they also hired my husband. This was a special experience for us as the forming college was tasked to operate as a university without walls program, aimed at providing academic credit for past learning, including life experiences, and thereby possibly impacting Academia. It was a Ford Foundation project funded through Yellow Springs, Ohio. After receiving accreditation the college was formally known as Antioch College West or AC/W.

We were excited to be part of the designing group headed by Dean Joseph McFarland, originally the head of the Social Psychology Department at Yellow Springs. We helped create and design the school procedures and overall program. Many of our first students are still friends today. We became very fond of Joe. When faculty would come to him with a problem he would lean back in his chair and say, “Let’s invent a process to solve it.” Joe, unfortunately, died relatively young – he was a smoker.

We left AC/W and UC Berkeley and went on to teach pest management through a nonprofit organization called the John Muir Institute (JMI), originally formed as a research unit to support the Sierra Club. The John Muir Institute was under the management of Max and Julie Lynn, with a large grant from the Department of the Interior for exploring the costs of dirty air on National Park visitors, along with some other programs. We called our unit with JMI, “CIAS” - the Center for the Integration of the Applied Sciences. All our contracts with the University were transferred over to CIAS. Later we formed our own nonprofit, the Bio Integral Resource Center (BIRC) , a consulting IPM service and design group that published two international journals, The IPM Practitioner and the Common Sense Quarterly. At its peak we ran about 20 contracts with various public agencies in California, Flint, Michigan, and Washington, D.C.

Our publications gave us a way to interact with Chinese colleagues. We started an exchange program where we provided about 50 individual gratis copies of our journals in exchange for copies and contributions from China. This effort ran for a number of years and included over 30 visits from Chinese scientists and government officials, all organized and ushered by our close colleagues, forester Anghe Jhang and mycologist Momei Chen, both survivors of the cultural revolution and key editors of our translations and contributors to our information and publications. Our interactions led to a widespread tour of biological control laboratories in China. At that time China had much to teach practical least-toxic pest management to the world. We are proud of our effort to affect the policies of two of the largest entomological research communities in the world.

While pursuing our main efforts in pest control, we started attending small meetings at various Chinese restaurants pulled together by our friend, the psychiatrist Sterling Bunnel. It was an eclectic group comprised of us, the UC architect Sim van der Ryn, and others from the College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, where Sterling was teaching. The group was enthused by the growing ecological movement and decided to do something. We wanted to recycle a house, so Andy Pollack, one of our AC/W students who was living with us at that time, found a house for sale for back taxes in the industrial area of Berkeley. The house was perfect, close to the freeway, but severely rundown, on a brick foundation. We reasoned that there were many structures being built in the US each year, but thought refurbishing an existing building was a great way to affect public consciousness.

The Integral Urban House made a splash, two films were made, and it was identified by Architect Magazine as one of the “25 greatest houses of the 20th century. It caught the attention of a world searching for energy and food solutions for a geometrically expanding population. The house had a thermosiphon solar system, a waterless toilet and enabled production of food plants and animals (animal production, particularly rabbits, were a survival strategy during WWII in the San Francisco Bay Area because of its special microclimate). Sim became State Architect, and visitors came from all over the world. The Integral Urban House became the forming project of the Farallones Institute.

One of the reporters on the Integral Urban House was Sam Love, a stringer for the Washington Post. Sam helped the Community Services Administration officer, Dick Saul, to form a design group tasked to create an organization to help poor people with energy problems (i.e., heating and eating). We were the eating part of the design group, which was mostly focused on non-agricultural approaches. Insulation of trailers became one of the main themes for the organization that developed later, called the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT). I was elected vice-president and served six years, flying every month to somewhere special in the US to meet with board members and learn about local projects. I was the principle irritant, nagging about the smoking during meetings, and also put my two cents into food production ideas. After all, when your gasoline and electricity problems were solved what were you going to eat? As this organizational effort took a toll physically and mentally, I eventually left the board. But I still have fond memories of my fellow board members, particularly Toni Majori, a wise, careful, and honest social organizer, familiar with the poverty programs funded at that time through the Community Services Administration (CSA).

The biggest change in our lives occurred when my father died in November 1998, leaving my mother who had Alzheimer’s disease. We left BIRC, sold our farm, offices and Berkeley home, and moved to Santa Barbara to care for her. She lived almost a year. After her death we started traveling in the southwest and northwest, at first in a camper on the back of a big ford pickup (diesel). We developed into full time RV “snowbirds”, moving in a large figure eight, the top of which was Mendocino, and the bottom Anza Borrego. The center was Santa Barbara with the family home that we treated like an outpost, leaving warm weather clothing and books, etc, and switching to coastal books and clothing.

Bill used this time to continue his painting, moving into the use of oils. I study the special botany and fauna of our desert locations and Mendocino wherever Bill paints.