What Happened to Bioregionalism?

I’m enjoying a double-digit birth anniversary this year: 66. The 60s are supposed to be a significant age, the time when we pass from Middle Age to become “Elderly,” or as we’re referred to nowadays, a “Senior.”

I prefer to think of myself as an elder, in the ancient meaning of “one having authority by virtue of age and experience.” As I review my life so far, I wonder what happened to some of the thoughts and movements of my younger years, those passionate pursuits I shared with many others through the 60s, 70s and 80s.

Bioregionalism, for instance.

Despite the fact that globalism and “The Global Economy”are the chief instigators of excessive exploitation and consumption of natural raw materials that now plagues the Earth, thus laying waste to the neighborhood, and the neighbors hereabout, the antonym of globalism, bioregionalism, is all but forgotten.

First, a definition: Bioregionalism:

a political, cultural, and ecological system or set of views based on naturally defined areas called bioregions. Bioregions are defined through physical and environmental features, including watershed boundaries and soil and terrain characteristics. Bioregionalism stresses that the determination of a bioregion is also a cultural phenomenon, and emphasizes local populations, knowledge, and solutions.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bioregionalism#cite_note-1)

bioregionThis is the bioregion where I live, the Central Coast of California, betwixt the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Pacific Ocean near Monterey Bay. It’s dominated by the San Lorenzo River watershed in the center and the Pajaro River watershed in the east and south. Interestingly, this bioregion is home to the University of California Santa Cruz, where Raymond Dasmann developed the principles and practice of Bioregionalism in the 70s and 80s, along with Peter Berg from the Bay Area bioregion some 70 miles north.

To a student of anthropology, bioregionalism seems familiar, logical and characteristic of human development from earliest human cultures up until agriculture began to reshape human relationships to the natural world. Almost all early cultures were organized bioregionally, usually around watersheds, since rivers were the easiest way to get around most parts of the world in the absence of roads. Alaska Native groups were organized along Alaskan river systems up until World War II, when the money economy took over most of traditional social organization.

People living bioregionally know the cycles and patterns of resource availability of the bioregion in which they live. They know when food grows and ripens, when the rains will come, from what direction and how much rain to expect. They know the habits and patterns of the animals and plants of the place and their interrelationships that help them all thrive. They know how to live in place without destroying the place in which they live.

The native people of my bioregion lived here for 8,000 years or so, in an ecosystem thriving with biodiversity and fecundity. Somehow, in the midst of such abundance, they did not over populate this place, they did not kill each other off in wars, they did not guard their food from others but practiced cooperation and sharing among their own kinship based groups and with others adjoining. They practiced a form of social storage, such that, when one group fell on hard times, other groups would give of their food and supplies, recognizing widespread fictive kinship ties in times of shortages.

When hunting and gathering, these bioregional people practiced an ancient culture in which the plants and animals were looked on as kin who were aware of the thoughts and actions of their human brethren, and were always treated, talked about and thought about with respect. The hunters’ clothing and equipment was made and decorated to please the spirits of the animals, who were always watching. Hunters took care not to speak of their intended prey before a hunt and always approached the hunt with humility and self-deprecation. When they had killed an animal, they thanked it for giving its life, gave it fresh water and cleaned and prepared the body in respectful, traditional patterns.

Similar practices were followed in gathering plant foods, speaking softly and respectfully, thanking the spirits of the plants for giving themselves for human food and never taking too much from any one place, so as to leave seeds and tubers for future plants and for food for animals who also depended on them.

In such a world, every action was suffused in meaning, a part of the eternal cycle of life and death, the turn of the seasons, the long slow march of climates. The stories told around the fire or oil lamps were the summing up of generations of experience living in place, as part of the place, part of the life and death of the place.

During my time in Alaska, I had opportunities to live with people still practicing, at least in part, the old subsistence lifestyle. They taught me a little bit of how they live in the world as part of the intricate web of life.

When I asked an old hunter foolish questions about why he did the things he did, why he butchered a seal just so, why he turned the moose’s severed head to the north, why he buried some of the bones underneath the spruce tree, he just smiled shyly and said, “Oh, that’s the way the old people did it early days ago.” He wouldn’t admit to any knowledge that would make him smarter than the moose lest the moose hear him and not present himself to be killed.

When I think back on my time with these gentle, bioregional people, and compare their lives with the frantic busyness, acquisitiveness, and overweening self-importance of modern civilized people, I can’t help but wonder where we went wrong.

How did we lose the awe and wonder of a world suffused with meaning? How did we come to worship dead material stuff and ignore the world full of aliveness? When did we lose track of the web of life?

web of life

What ever happened to bioregionalism?

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