All Our Relatives

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Image by R. Crumb

“The Ecotopian Solution” in R.Crumb’s triptych is the world I dream of when I envision finding my way to bioregionalism. Small scale, low-tech, organic, close to the earth. In fact, this is the only way of life that has any possibility of continuing in a world of finite resources.

I learned about bioregionalism in anthropology classes in graduate school, where I studied Athabaskan and Inuit cultures that lived a life we would call bioregional, but for which they had no name. It was just life. Later, I learned more about this lifeway today from Alaska native people in their villages.

81k1efmrzwlsl1500_600Athabaskan society was, and still is to a large extent, organized around kinship groups who live along the river systems of Alaska, Canada and the United States Pacific northwest. Theirs is a matrilocal clan-based society, that is organized around a moiety, or division of clans into two main groups, either eagle and raven, or wolf and raven. They live in villages on the river banks of watersheds, along which they count their kin as being more closely related than others of clan and moiety on other watersheds.

Clan-based societies often have what is called a social storage system based on activating fictive kinships in times of need. This means that when a village or villages in a bioregion suffer food or other resource shortages, the members of the village can go to other villages that have more and find clan members who will help them, whether or not they are blood kin. These “cousins” will be recognized in the village, even if no one has ever seen them before, a grave situation in a land where strangers are viewed with extreme suspicion.

This social storage system is supported by cross clan marriages, meaning that a clan member from one moiety, eagle/wolf or raven would marry a member of the opposite clan on the opposite moiety, in this case raven. The way it works in a family is that girls are raised in their mother’s clan and marry a man from their mother’s opposite clan, usually their father’s clan. Boys are raised by their mother’s brother and marry a women, often a cousin, who is from his mother’s clan.

When there is a death in the family, members of the opposite clan of the person who has died prepare the body for burial, arrange the funeral and present gifts to the family. The family of the deceased gives gifts to all the members of the opposite clan who took part in the funeral. A year after the death, the opposite clan throws a memorial potlatch for the dead, at which gifts are exchanged between the two clans.

This social system creates mutually intertwined relationships of obligation that help to prevent intervillage conflict. It’s hard to attack your neighbors when they’re also your kin.

The clan system is uniquely adapted to bioregional living, where animals and plants are viewed as relatives as much as men, women and children. When you depend on kin for your health and well-being, and they depend on you, you’re less likely to inflict injury on them or deprive them of needed resources.

 

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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?

What Did We Learn From the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill?

Photo by LJ Evans

It’s March 24th, again. This time it’s 25 years since the Exxon Valdez ran up on the rocks of Bligh Reef and spread death and destruction throughout Prince William Sound.

The world loves an anniversary, especially big ones such as a quarter of a century. But it doesn’t really mean much. Yes, it happened twenty-five years ago. Yes, those of us who were there remember that Spring and Summer that would never end.

Photo by Michael A. Lewis

Memories are dredged up by the photographs of dying animals, desperate attempts to rescue the few that survived, some only temporarily. It was a horrible experience for those of us who were there.

Did we learn anything from the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Depends on what one means by “we.”

Judging by the number of single occupant cars that zoom by my bedroom window of a week day morning commute, I’d say no, “we” didn’t learn much of anything at all.

“We” are still dependent on traveling on our butts in a vehicle fueled by oil drawn from once pristine wild lands, at the expense of all life that once lived there.

Photo by Michael A. Lewis

“We” still make obscene profits from wresting fossil “fuels” from the earth and burning it to produce motion and electricity, while “we” pocket the profits and externalize the environmental costs.

“We” still leave lights on, leave the water running, import exotic food from agribiz farms thousands of miles away, ship materials and products all over the world for the least expense and greatest profit.

What have “we” learned from the Exxon Valdez oil spill? Not a damned thing.

Starting the New Year… Right?

Oil ship runs aground in Alaska

Shell oil starts out the New Year… with a ship wreck!

Not an auspicious beginning for what everyone knows and no one admits will be a disaster-ridden effort in the world’s largest technology-free zone. It’s a difficult place just to survive, let alone deal with millions of gallons of toxic crude.

Did we learn nothing from the Exxon Valdez?

What I Learned from the Exxon Valdez

It’s been twenty-three years since I woke up and heard the radio announcer say, “The Exxon Valdez is on the rocks of Bligh Reef and leaking oil.”

Those of us who lived in Valdez and worked through the next three years of industrial strength oil-spill clean-up would have been shocked in disbelief to know that twenty-three years later nothing will have changed.

As I write, Shell is unceremoniously towing two rusting drilling platforms into Arctic waters far more forbidding than the gentle inlets and bays of Prince William Sound 1,000 miles south, where Valdez is the northernmost ice-free port in North America. The fragile rigs face winters of crushing ice constantly on the move, creating craggy pressure ridges as the ice is thrust back and forth by winds and currents. Just like the Deepwater Horizon, they will be drilling holes in deep pools of crude oil and bringing it to the surface, through ever-shifting ice, in waters replete with marine mammals and fish.

An oil spill in the Arctic is nothing like an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, even the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. There is no industrial infrastructure in the Far North, no roads, no deep water ports, no airports, no oil spill equipment, no thousands of volunteers for clean-up crews. There is, however, plenty of ice, snow, temperatures to 60 below zero. Do you know what happens to machinery at 60 below? It stops, unless you keep it running 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. And if it stops, it’s unlikely it will start again until Summer, such as it is. Metal becomes brittle and breaks. Plastic and rubber solidify and crumble. Diesel oil congeals. Propone turns to liquid. Pour out a cup of coffee in the open air and it vaporizes with a WHOOSH! before it hits the ice. It’s a strange, dark, icy world, where nothing is as it is in the Lower 48.

And yet, the oil execs say, “Trust us.” Just as Exxon did so many times in 1989.

The one lesson we learned in Prince William Sound is that once the oil is out of the bottle, there’s no putting it back in. This was in Alaska’s banana belt, with temperate rain forests gracing the shores, warm summer weather, an international airport in Anchorage just 250 miles away, smaller airports nearby in Valdez, Cordova and Kodiak. A highway from Anchorage to Valdez. Oil spill equipment stockpiled at the Alyeska Marine Terminal Facility.

None of this exists in the Chuckchi and Beaufort Seas.

Drilling for oil in the Arctic is just one more environmental disaster waiting to happen.

When do we say, “Enough?’

Won’t we ever say, “No more?”

Nature Always Bats Last


In this article from the Santa Cruz (Scotts Valley/San Jose) Sentinel, Sandy Lydon relates the natural history of the Loma Prieta earthquake that shook the earth round these parts twenty years ago today.

On October 16, 1989, I was in recovery mode on the shores of Prince William Sound some 4,000 miles north of Loam Prieta. I remember hearing about it on the radio, and seeing a picture of Candlestick Park in the Anchorage Daily News.

One must realize that news of earthquakes is a very different thing in Alaska than elsewhere. The 1964 quake established a threshold against which all others are measured. And, in Alaska, earthquakes are almost literally an everyday affair. I can’t remember how many times I stood in a doorway wondering when to make a break for outside, as the house shifted back and forth around me.

Now that I live here within sight of the epicenter of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, and having felt a couple of notable temblors myself, the effect of earthquakes in densely populated areas has a sobering reality. I know we’ll be safe here, as this house survived the 1989 quake with almost no damage, and has been retrofitted since then. With all of the retelling of twenty year-old ground-shaking tales, I know that others will be less fortunate or prepared when the next one rolls around.

There is nothing that underscores human subservience to Nature more than that moment when the ground moves under your feet and you know there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it.

As they discovered in Candlestick Park twenty years ago, Nature really does bat last!