We Belong

We Belong with the Earth: An Integrative Vision from Bioregionalism1

Patrick Gibbs
Creative Commons License

You might want: print-friendly format, or the book where this was published.

Thanks to all that feeds us. I feel honored to share these ideas with you here, and I hope that they feed you in your effort towards more whole, healthy life. This chapter builds on a session I gave about bioregionalism at the 2009 Forum on the Solidarity Economy in Amherst, Massachusetts, United States.

Bioregionalism starts with the idea that we each live in a place that is alive—bio means life and a region is a place. Seeing and accepting that we each live in a life-place shifts our consciousness, which in turn shifts our cultures, politics, economics, and daily habits—a shift towards working in-place to 1) restore ecosystems, 2) develop human life support systems in harmony with the rest of life, and 3) develop support for individuals.2

This chapter attempts to explain bioregionalism through “A Story of Movement” and then offers examples of bioregionalism in action. If you want to do something bioregional right now, then put this book down and go make a map of your home place: include on it where your drinking water comes from and other flows and details that you choose, then show the map to a friend and ask what they can add to the map.

Mapping Bioregionalism, through a Story of Movement

I will tell you a story of movement, a story set in the ridges and hollows around my house. There is one pattern in this story—the watershed pattern—and there are three movements in this story: water, humans, and the bioregional movement.

My house is at the top of a ridge, and when I walk down into the valley I come to a dry wash. A few hundred feet to the west this valley merges with another and there is a stream that runs during all but the driest times of year. This stream goes south for a few hundred feet and curves to the west, and as more valleys feed into it the stream grows. The stream is 10 feet wide and 5 inches deep at a spot 20-minutes walk from my house. This stream is Swan Creek—my house is in the Swan Creek watershed, which means that the rain that falls on my house flows into Swan Creek. Swan Creek in turn flows into the Duck River (near Centerville, Tennessee) which flows into the Tennessee River (near Waverly, Tennessee, where the Buffalo River meets too) which flows into the Ohio River (near Paducah, Kentucky) which flows into the Mississippi River (near Cairo, Illinois) which flows into the Gulf of Mexico (near New Orleans, Louisiana) which connects with the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean (so my house is in all those watersheds too). There are no breakages in this flow, no dry spots—when I dip my feet in Swan Creek to cool myself on a hot day, I touch an unbroken flow of water that connects me all the way down to the Atlantic Ocean, and from there all the way back up every other watershed on Earth, all the way up to the creeks that run on every continent, including the water closest to you right now. (Human-made dams do get in the way.) There is a continuous body of water connecting me and the dolphins of the Amazon River and the people bathing in the Ganges River and the trees on the banks of the small streams in the mountains that feed the Nile River. (We are also connected by air and earth.) This water flows through each of us as well, as Thomas Berry reminds us:

  • There is only one river on the planet Earth and it has multiple tributaries, many of which flow through the veins of sentient creatures.

When the Sun shines on the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean, water evaporates, rises, and gathers into clouds, some of which the wind blows to the Swan Creek watershed, and when a cold front meets this warm moist air above my home, the clouds condense into rain and fall onto this ridge (and if I’m paying attention then I’ve already brought my laundry inside). 3

That is one of the movements in this story: water.

Another movement is visible here in the ridges and hollows around my house: people. People here have made our roads along the ridge tops and built our houses next to the roads. People walking, bicycling, and driving cars move along these roads, and we have rhythms of movement: in the evenings we flow towards our houses to sleep, and in the mornings we flow out of the houses towards gathering places to be together in different groups to work, learn, and enjoy each other’s company. Our movements change with the weather and with the seasons.

That is the second movement in this story: people.

In October 2009 there was pulse of humans here, in this land. About 150 people came here for nine days for Continental Bioregional Congress 10. This gathering of humans (and their tents and cars and food and fire) was a particularly visible moment in the bioregional movement, which integrates the first two movements of this story—water and people—by suggesting to people that they live-in-place so that they come to be inhabitants in their watershed, practicing self-governance in their bioregion and shaping their culture in accordance with the shape of the land-community, rather than living as colonizers or invaders who commit ecocide/suicide/genocide by extracting a living from the living land. Bioregionalism sees that people can flow with the land as gracefully as the water does, and Continental Bioregional Congress 10 was a gathering to share how we humans are moving back into graceful relation with our life-places.

Let us look closer at the third movement in this story: the bioregional movement.

The Bioregional Movement

Humans tend to align themselves in movements in order to improve the health of their community, and getting healthier requires changing the way we do things. One step in changing the way we do things is to change the way we view things. With a new view of community health we can explain why we want to do things differently and get an idea of what we might do.

So, how does the bioregional movement view reality, community, and health? Reality is ecological.

Another way of expressing this view comes from Aldo Leopold in A Sand County Almanac 4, in what he calls “the land ethic”:

  • The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land.

Aldo also offers a bioregional view of what some call ethics and I call health:

  • A thing is right [healing] when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong [diseasing] when it tends otherwise.

Briefly restated: reality is ecological, our family includes everything in our place of residence, and health is about balance among family members such that we all become more ourselves.

With these basic statements of a bioregional view of reality, community, and health, this story comes to the question, “What can we do to benefit our community health?” A clear response from bioregionalism is, “Gather ourselves in bioregional congresses to coordinate human effort towards bioregion restoration.” Bioregional congresses are also a way of getting to know our human neighbors and paying attention to our non-human neighbors. How can we start thinking about a bioregional congress? To begin, figure out what watersheds we’re in.

Remember the pattern of this story, the watershed pattern. The bioregional movement arises like a watershed. Just as many streams flow together to make a wide river, there are a diversity of people with their own cultures who flow together from their home bioregions to make the bioregional movement. When we speak of rivers, we speak of the way many streams come together into one body, and we keep in mind that each stream offers its unique expression higher in the watershed—similarly, in a movement each person has their own voice, and what we hear from the movement is a confluence of those voices (confluence means the place where things flow together). We can come together in this way, remembering our origins as unique small creeks, remembering that the story of the movement is a confluence the stories of many people and many communities, and it is their diversity of experience that makes possible this movement as a river.

A closer look shows us more about the watershed-shape of the movement. Each stream flows according to the character of the land it flows in. Swan Creek by my house flows in a way that makes sense with this shape of land, and a stream in Illinois shapes itself to the shape of the land there, and the two streams eventually meet in the Mississippi River. So it is with bioregional practice: we gather for cultural activities, governance, and commerce in our smaller watersheds first and shape our local actions to the land there, and then we gather with our neighbors of the next larger scale and consider the land on that scale and consider how our culture, governance, and commerce can flow together in ways that make sense with the land. This is the way many human cultures lived healthily for many thousands of years, and some of those cultures still breathe today, flowing with the land they are part of. As we-who-became-colonizers realize that living as colonizers does not work for life, the path of living-in-place-as-inhabitants is open to us as it always has been.

In this story of movement, why do we consider the land’s movements as we choose how to arrange our human movements? Just as a stream changes more rapidly than the rocks it flows over, human activities occur at a quicker pace than changes in the land. And just as the rocks are slowly changed by the stream, so the accumulation of human activity changes the land-community over time. Later I will explain a tool to think about aspects of a bioregion that change at different paces, the “scale of relative permanence.”

I said earlier that the bioregional movement wants community health. Considering that the human community in many places is rather unhealthy (starvation, obesity, war, systemic oppression, loss of cultural diversity) and that many of us humans are making the community of the land similarly unhealthy (soil erosion, monoculture replacing biodiversity, climate chaos), some people approach this situation with a desire for big, fast change. We know from the watershed pattern that small, slow change is practical, and it’s safer than big, fast change. To look at a river for a moment: if the river banks are eroding and the water is too cloudy for fish, we say that something with this river is out of balance (we do not say that this is a bad river). In order to find out what is out of balance, we look around the community, and we look upstream, and we pay attention to small, slow things that build up into big unbalancing things (we do not try to understand the river in isolation). As we start to understand the small, slow roots of the erosion and the cloudy water, we start to see that by paying attention to our community and applying our creativity we can make the river healthier.

Paying attention and acting creatively with our community in this way requires staying in one place long enough to know the place, and it can take generations for a family of humans to get this familiar with a small creek and its watershed. This is why bioregionalism advocates living-in-place — stay where you are, don’t move! Consider living with the same river until you die, and imagine your family living with that river for the next 500 years (500 years ago was the year 1510, and 500 years from now will be the year 2510—let that soak in for a few days). A river gets healthier when its community knows itself better (the humans paying attention to the streams, and the coyotes paying attention to the humans, and so on), not when it’s dammed and forced to flow into another valley (where there’s already a river!). If you do move, remember that wherever you are for however long, you’re part of that life-place, and it’s worth participating consciously.

People who are part of their life-place are powerful in particular ways. They learn how to work with that place to meet their needs. Groups of people-in-place can organize themselves (to build soil, plant fruit trees, create healthier economies, renew rivers, and heal from generational systems of oppression) in ways that are impossible when no one sticks around for more than five years. Take a deep breath… feel the your head balanced on your spine… look around… consider what you would do if you knew you and your community’s great grandchildren would be living here for the next 100 years. Right here, 100 years—how do you want this place to be?

We can see from colonist genocide of indigenous peoples across the Earth that this power of place is not invincible. I come from a long lineage of colonists, and I am inspired to see how my parents and grandparents have given sincere effort to becoming part of their places, and I see that there is plenty of healing left for me and generations to come. I am 23 years of age, and I’m starting to get a sense that one of the most radical things I can do for local and planetary health is say “I’m staying here, you can count on me being here in 60 years, and doing my best to foster a deep passion for this place in my community’s children.” As I think about that, I feel resistance in myself—that resistance tells me there’s still work to do—and I feel a strong urge to plant nut trees and to clean up this watershed. I think I can trust those urges, go ahead and figure out a sensible way to establish a grove of nut trees (this is viable in nearly any human settlement, including big cities), and if I do decide to move, well, at least this place got a little more balanced.

Planning for Long-term Health

My friend Dave Shaw said, approximately, “If it’s a long-term plan, then it’s supposed to happen after I die—at least 200 years from now.” My long-term plan for my bioregion includes people living-in-place, and one of the huge challenges to living-in-place is that our current economic arrangement makes it hard for us to dedicate large blocks of time to regenerating the land in our places. Fortunately, we can take it in steps, and there are enough other people addressing this same challenge (and have been for a while now): How do we finance community orchards? How do we keep eating while building soil in severely polluted lands? Step by step, people are creating real ways to do the work that needs to be done without going bankrupt. (I’ve listed some under the Places and Projects section below.)

One way to look at this is to compare inhabitants and invaders (land participants versus land exploiters). When people move around so much that we don’t know where we are, we tend to act as invaders instead of inhabitants.5

Learning to live as inhabitants requires that we rehabilitate another human practice: self-governance. (Rehabilitate means bring back to health.) Many humans, both individually and communally, have been convinced to let go of our ability to make sensible decisions—we have been told in factory-schools, prisons, and once-every-four-years elections that we don’t need to know how to govern our own activities because someone else will do it for us, and that we’re too ignorant and would just get in the way if we tried to participate in community governance. Fortunately, that’s both a lie and it’s true: we do need to become competent self-governing humans-in-bioregions, and as self-governing bodies we do get in the way of the current suicide/ecocide/genocide.

Let’s consider bioregionalism as our effort to self-govern for long-term health. One useful tool in this effort is a scale of relative permanence, an idea that comes to me from P. A. Yeomans, who explains it this way in a book about agricultural land planning:6

  • If something is to be planned and built it needs a basis or a foundation. If it has a foundation, then [the foundation] should be permanent, more permanent than the “thing” [...] that goes on the foundation.

What “thing” are we planning with bioregionalism? We’re planning how to make decisions and meet our needs and practice our creativity together with the full community of life in our bioregion—let’s say we’re looking at our politics and economy as the “things” we are planning. Well, what’s a foundation that is more permanent than human politics and economy? The places we live: bioregions, and more broadly the planet Earth, and more broadly the encompassing solar system, and beyond that there’s the rest of existence. Okay, we’re planning our politics and economy on the foundation of our life-places—let’s see Yeomans’ next words:

  • Decisions on any aspect of planning have a relative importance which relates to the permanence of the effect of that decision. A man decides to buy a tie; this decision is not as important as the decision to buy a suit of clothes. It is unlikely that he buys the suit of clothes to match the tie, but logical to buy the tie to match the suit. The permanence of the effects of each decision indicates the relative importance of the decision in planning.

Every decision made on any aspect of land planning must be based on or fit in with all others that are more permanent, or more permanent in their effect than it is.

He wrote of using the scale of relative permanence when making a plan. In our bioregional plan for human politics and economy, what is our scale of relative permanence? From the slowest changing to the quickest changing:

  1. Land: this life-place, the community of life where I am right now. What am I standing on? I can sense this directly, and I can see patterns here over time.
  2. Human consciousness: my worldview, my perspective of the land, including my view of my relation with the rest of life in this place. Ethics and principles.
  3. Human action: my action changes from moment to moment, hundreds of times each day.

This scale of relative permanence shows that the land is more permanent than human understanding of it.

If I anchor my ethics in the land, and I anchor my actions in my ethics, then life starts to make sense. If I don’t anchor my ethics in the land, then what can I anchor them in? I see nothing more real.

This way, when I ask “What shall I do?” I turn to “What is my understanding of what’s going on?” This brings me to my ethics and my view of reality. When I come to a moment of asking “What’s my view of reality?” I turn to “Where am I?” What is happening in this place, what is alive here?

There are many other people in the bioregional movement, and I’m relatively new to it, so please take that scale of relative permanence and re-shape it as makes sense to you.

Remembering a focus in this story of movements: the bioregional movement. With bioregionalism we plan from community to individual, from pattern to detail—we want health, integrity, and beauty for the whole community of the land, so we start our plan by thinking about the whole community. Then we act from the individual to the community because we recognize that in that scale of relative permanence our action is what changes the most often.

Remember the pattern of this story, the watershed pattern. In a watershed, the bigger communities are the larger bodies of water (the oceans and the big rivers and lakes and aquifers) and the smaller communities are the smaller waters (creeks, streams, ponds), all the way down to the individual people (and trees and birds and so on) as the drops of water. So when we plan from community to individual, we start by thinking about the rivers and the oceans, the bottom of the watershed. And when we act as individuals in community, we go to the top of the watershed.

This makes sense: I can change the flow of water at the top of the watershed with my two hands. If I go to the Mississippi River, it will hardly notice my hands, and the people trying to change it there build huge levees. Let’s work on the human scale, at the top of the watershed, where we can start work directly with our individual powers (such as our hands, conversations, and attitudes)—this is more sensible and practical and safe than the huge hyper-industrial methods.

Remember that the bioregional movement wants healthy communities. We can learn from the watershed how to go about changing the watershed. Let’s see what happens when I mix the scale of relative permanence with the watershed pattern.

Our actions are high in the watershed:

By my house high on the ridge there are hundreds of little streams of water when it rains. These are our hundreds of actions each day.
As these flow down the slope and into the valley they form a stream. When seen together, our many actions embody our worldview and show our patterns that distinguish us.
As the valley continues, streams join together and a larger stream forms. The patterns of individual humans flow together, and the patterns of humans flow together with the patterns of trees, rain, birds, and the rest of the community in this place.
The stream joins others and we find that they have become a river. The community of this particular neighborhood relates with other neighborhoods, and we see a city, a county, a region.

Closing the Story of Movement

The bioregional movement seeks to integrate the movements of water and of people by redirecting human consciousness to our life-places. This movement offers the idea that when we want to shape our society in harmony with the rest of life, we can begin by listening to the land.

It is a choice: Will we live as deaf parasite-invaders that will die when we suck the last life out of those that nourish us, or live as inhabitant-listeners who base our action on the stories of our many living neighbors? As millions of people choose to listen, solidarity blossoms, and we all get healthier together.

Things to remember for bioregional consciousness:

  • I am human, I am part of life, and I belong here on Earth.
  • I am part of life, and I want to be healthy and happy and live well, so I will work with the full community of life in this place for our mutual health and happiness.
  • I plan to live on Earth for a while longer, and I plan on my community living here for at least 500 years.

Bioregionalism in Action

How do we start re-inhabitation from our current situation? It’s not practical to say “Okay, everyone go out into the woods and prairies and live as part of them.” Most people would die—due to lack of skill and polluted, depleted life systems—and the hyper-industrial apparatus that keeps our electricity flowing and our gasoline available would break and release more nasty toxins into the waters. Further, bioregionalism recognizes that cities can be done in a healthy way, so we don’t need to abandon them, we need to bring them into balance with the community-of-the-land.

I mentioned three things that would kill us if we suddenly abandoned our current invader-based way of life: lack of skills to live as inhabitants; the life support systems of inhabitant-based life-ways are polluted and depleted (this was done on purpose by the invaders, and accidentally); and the infrastructure of the invasion tends to decay toxically, even catastrophically.

So, what to do? Re-skill ourselves, personally and communally, to live as inhabitants with the land; regenerate the life support systems to support a thriving community of life; and dismantle the invasion-infrastructure as gracefully as possible, re-using the pieces when possible, and otherwise decomposing them and recycling them.

Some examples of each: For skills, learn to identify plants, animals, and landscape features where we live; learn how to find destructive patterns in our minds and heal from them (co-counseling is a helpful tool here); learn to communicate clearly, honestly, and compassionately (start with Nonviolent Communication); learn to think in integrative, non-linear ways (start with mind mapping and permaculture); and learn to stop thinking, to be present, experiencing the moment. For regeneration, build rich, living soil. Again: revive the soil—this is very, very important and integrates a lot of other work; use plants and fungi to suck toxins out of the land and metabolize the toxins into food and other useful products and to take carbon out of the atmosphere and put it back in the soil (where much of it came from7, and where it is a fertilizer rather than a catalyst of climate chaos)8; stabilize eroding landscapes by starting at the top of the watershed. And finally, reuse, recycle, and decompose the invasion infrastructure: in many cases what’s waste in one place can be food in another place (for fungi and other decomposers). Deep-water oil rigs, nuclear reactors and nuclear waste, and military weapons all have to be decomposed somehow.

These three aspects are interdependent—not isolated silos—since they’re all part of re-inhabiting our life-places. Therefore we must address them together: What can we do that re-skills, regenerates, repurposes, and recycles? There is no one answer, since there is no one human or one place to re-inhabit. Here are some stories of people working together for re-inhabitation, in three sections: 1) bioregional congresses, 2) places and projects, and 3) activities.

Congresses

The bioregional movement has at least two clear embodiments: The movement focused on bioregional congresses and vision councils (consejo de visiones in Spanish) is mostly active in the United States, Mexico, and Canada. Separately, there is a movement in South America for regional economic integration driven by national governments—this movement does not call itself “bioregional,” but there is enough similarity in purpose and practice that Diego Martino offers ideas for the two movements to learn from each other.9 My explanations here focus on the movement in North America.

A bioregional congress is a coordinative body for the humans in a bioregion. There are congresses that gather as an event, and there are ongoing congresses. The longest-running bioregional congress is the Ozark Area Community Congress, started in 1977 by David Haenke and other organizers in the Ozark watershed of Missouri and Arkansas. There are guides to organizing a bioregional congress available at www.biocongress.org. This diagram explains the basic purpose of a bioregional congress:

Purpose and process of a bioregional congress.

There have been 10 continental bioregional congresses in North America since 1984, and proceedings from many of them are available on the biocongress website. One way to find out about congresses in your area is to join the bioreg@yahoogroups.com email list and ask if anyone is in your bioregion.10

Places and Projects

There are more bioregional projects active than I can list here. I offer a few notable examples; others are listed at www.mutualgift.net and www.biocongress.org.

  • Nuestras Raices is a multi-initiative community project in Holyoke, Massachusetts, United States, that includes Tierra de Oportunidades Farm, where Nuestras Raices staff work with first-generation immigrant farmers to develop ecologically and financially sound land-based businesses that are culturally relevant to the farmers and their community. www.nuestras-raices.org.
  • The permaculture movement is closely tied with the bioregional movement and offers many practical, immediate ways to increase a community’s ability to satisfy its own basic needs. Permaculture is sometimes seen as focused on agriculture, though it is much broader: it is a holistic design system that is being applied to social dynamics, finance, governance, and beyond. No one website represents permaculture. You can search for local permaculture groups or institutes, or check out Permaculture Activist magazine (www.permacultureactivist.net) which lists groups and courses, primarily in the United States but also beyond.
  • Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund in Pennsylvania, United States, is supporting people to change local laws towards recognizing and protecting the rights of nature. www.celdf.org.
  • Woodbine Ecology Center outside of Sedalia, Colorado, USA, promotes indigenous values and sustainable communities by offering courses in permaculture, compassionate communication, and much more. They are helping develop the framework of indigenous permaculture, which includes a powerful explanation of five principles to build a healthier world. They are organizing an Indigenous Permaculture Convergence in August, 2010. www.woodbinecenter.org.

An emerging vision that could link together congresses and projects across many bioregions is the idea of ecosystem investing on a community scale. Ecosystem investing means to invest like an ecosystem (in a diverse, interconnected set of projects) and to invest in ecosystems.11 One way to apply this is to start a network of bioregions that invest in each other with US dollars, local currencies, labor, materials, and anything else that makes sense. The investments in each bioregion would be coordinated by the local bioregional congress in support of local efforts to restore the land to life-sustaining abundance. In our current time of climate chaos, it seems wise to invest in each other to create a multi-local web of communities so that if one region experiences a drought, their mutual investments pad them from crashing completely. For more about this idea, look online for financial permaculture, EcoTrust, the Transition Network, sociocracy, and the Global Ecovillage Network.

Activities

There are many activities that foster connection with a bioregion that are practical for one person and can be used in groups as well. Another source of activities is the Bioregionalism Curriculum currently in development by the Continental Bioregional Council. This project began at the CBC 9 in 2005 at Earthaven and drafts of the curriculum are available now. See www.biocongress.org for more information. Another wonderful resource for more activities is the book Coyote’s Guide to Connecting with Nature by Jon Young, Ellen Haas, and Evan McGown.

Listening

Groups of people change human society by getting together and telling their group story, other folks listening to the new story, and the listeners acting differently because they now know what’s real for another part of their community. My neighbors all around me are telling stories that, if I can listen to them, will change me and the way I live.12 There are many ways to listen to the stream by my house: Go every day for a year and sit in the same spot and watch for an hour; swim in the stream; measure the chemistry of the stream (pH, heavy metal content, dissolved oxygen, and so on); ask elders for stories about the stream from 60 years ago; taste the water; sit by the stream during challenging moments, listen to the stream, and consider how I might deal with my situation by imitating the stream.

After I listen to a story from the stream, I know a new perspective about what the world is, a new experience of the unity of life. Since we are part of the same organism, part of the same oneness of life, the stories of the stream teach me about myself—I am in everything, and everything is in me. This attitude isn’t always easy to reach, and it’s worth practicing it for a few minutes each day.

This attitude makes peace much easier. Peace as active flowing of life, including disagreement and conflict, versus war, the active repression of life, including the repression of diversity and peaceful conflict. How can I hit another human, how can I dump motor oil on the earth, when I am one with all? I cannot.

This “one with all” stuff may sound fluffy and pointless and too spiritual to some people. While it makes sense in many spiritual views, it also makes sense in a very empirical-scientific view. Right now my body includes molecules that were soil and air only 30 days ago, and stream water only 30 minutes ago. Right now I am warm in the winter because I act respectfully with my human neighbors and we cooperate to gather wood for our fires. My unity with all my living context calls loud and clear. We are part of the land, the land is community.

Asking

Get curious! Ask how things came to be: how was the rice I eat grown, who planted it, where is that breed of rice from?

If curiosity isn’t easy for you, then find someone with lively curiosity and follow them outside—young ones are especially helpful here. If everyone around me is too focused on “being cool” in that very flat way of not getting curious about anything, then I go outside with someone, point at anything (car, bird, fire escape, tree) and enthusiastically ask “Why is that there?” and listen for their response—most people will at least grunt, and many will respond with curiosity.

The internet is an amazing tool for a curious person, though it is limited. It doesn’t give access to the direct experience of feeling the ground beneath your feet, or to everything that’s at your local public library. Want to know what was going on 200 years ago in the spot where you sleep? Ask your librarian—it’s free! I get lots of useful information from the internet, and when I have specific, local questions I get help by visiting my librarian.

Mapping

Making a map can be a transformative activity, meaning that I see myself and the world differently after I make the map. You can make maps. Start with yourself and your house. Now add the nearest tree, and next add water to the map: water that comes through pipes, water that falls from the sky, water in rivers and lakes and oceans. Be creative about what you map. Don’t clutter the map with everything you see, just include things that matter to you. Bioregionalism and solidarity economy understand that one of the most radical actions people can take is to define their own reality, and mapping is a great way to do this. It will raise questions that you cannot answer by yourself, so it nudges people to ask questions of their neighbors—aunts, uncles, librarians, trees, the sky. Find ways that the things on your map connect with each other and influence each other.

Paying Attention

A friend showed me a tiny book called When Singing Just Sing by Narayan Liebenson Grady. It says that meditation is the act of doing one thing at a time, of paying attention to the one thing I’m doing and really sinking into it. This is a very useful practice for getting to know my bioregion.

One way to pay attention every day is to pay attention to myself (I am part of the bioregion). At least once each day when I eat I focus on eating. I don’t talk to anyone, I don’t think about what I’ll do when I finish eating, I don’t dwell on what happened two hours ago. I pay attention to my food and my body. I express my feelings about the deliciousness of my food by humming many “mmmmm”s while I eat. I notice that saying “mm-mmmm” while eating slows me down, gives me more fulfillment from the food I eat, helps me breathe deeper and chew my food more thoroughly—and that means that my body (and all those microscopic critters that do most of my digestion) get more from the food, and I think it’s worth it. In a time when people talk about “using resources efficiently and effectively,” we can get more nourishment from our food by slowing down, chewing well, and enjoying each flavor and texture. This is one example of how it pays to pay attention.

Our Unique, Creative Selves

When I ask the living earth “What guidance do you offer me for living as a healthy human?” I hear the earth reply—in the examples of plants and animals—that my role is to give what only I can give, to create what only I can create, as me, this specific human in this specific place with this specific history.

Making our own maps is one of many ways to reclaim our power to create our own tools and define our own view of the world—we need to stop just consuming, start creating! Many conversations about consumption focus on food and clothing and gasoline—we can also stop consuming stereotypes about gender and race, stop consuming stories about humans being separate from nature; stop consuming maps that only have paved highways marked on them. Listen, create, share, listen, create, share, listen, over and over and over again.

Choose who to listen to—you can only listen to one thing at a time, and some messages are more useful for living than others. Bill McKibben wondered who to listen to when he asked the question “In this so-called information-age, is there more information outside or on TV?” He wrote a book about his experiment of spending 24 hours watching cable TV and 24 hours wandering and playing outside in a forest. 13 His conclusion: there’s more information outside, and it’s more richly woven into context so it is more meaningful than the makeup-coated TV anchors reciting lists about what happened inside a window-less room on Wall Street this morning. So, who do we want to listen to in our communities?


1: This chapter is covered by a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/). You are free to copy, distribute, and transmit this work and to adapt it into new work, so long as you credit the original source. As my thinking develops, new versions of this chapter will be posted at http://www.mutualgift.net, where supporting material is also available. This chapter was published in June, 2010, in the book Solidarity Economy I: Building Alternatives for People and Planet (Center for Popular Economics, $25 printed book, $5 PDF computer file).

2: Peter Berg, “Growing a Life-Place Politics,” pp. 137-144 in Home!: A Bioregional Reader, edited by Van Andruss, Christopher Plant, Judith Plant, and Eleanor Wright (Gabriola Island, BC: New Catalyst Books, 2007).

3: Globally, about four times more rain comes from the transpiration of plants than from ocean evaporation (source: The Upward Spiral, a film by Paul Krafel). This happens when plants absorb water through their roots and breathe it out through tiny pores, stomata, in their leaves, similar to the way humans breathe out water vapor in our breath and sweat it out through our skin.

4: Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac (New York: Oxford University Press, 1949); quotes found online at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aldo_Leopold#A_Sand_County_Almanac.

5: Peter Berg and Raymond Dasmann, “Reinhabiting California,” pp. 35-38 in Home!: A Bioregional Reader, edited by Van Andruss, Christopher Plant, Judith Plant, and Eleanor Wright (Gabriola Island, BC: New Catalyst Books, 2007).

6: P. A. Yeomans, “The Keyline Scale of Permanence,” chapter 4 in The Challenge of Landscape: The Development and Practice of Keyline (Sydney: Keyline Publishing, 1958), available online at http://www.soilandhealth.org/01aglibrary/010126yeomansII/010126ch4.html.

7: Christine Jones, PhD, http://www.amazingcarbon.com

8: Carbon Farming Tennessee, http://www.carbonfarming.wordpress.com

9: Diego Martino, “Bioregionalismo: Introducción a los conceptos y alternativas para América Latina,” 27 December 2005. Available at www.bioregionalismo.com/analisis/MartinoBioregionalismoConcepto.html.

10: Planning for the next continental biocongress is underway as I write this chapter in June, 2010, and there is an open invitation to participate in the upcoming Mexican congress, the 10th Consejo de Visiones: El Llamado del Águila, to be held November 14-21, 2010, in Temictla, near Chalmita, Estado de México, México, in the Cuahunahuac bioregion. The event website is www.consejodevisiones.org.

11: Ethan Roland and Gregory Landua, “Financial Permaculture & Ecosystem Investing,” a presentation at the Green Ventures Conference, Fairleigh Dickinson University, 2009.

12: Listening to and telling my own story is also transformative.

13: The Age of Missing Information (New York: Random House, 1992).

You might want: print-friendly format, or the book where this was published.

4 Responses to We Belong

  1. Sandino says:

    Bravo, a tour d’vert!
    Nice to see personal, heartfelt writing.
    The “Bioregionalism in Action” is beautifully put, a program for our future, practical, immediate, long term. And our past.
    A program described. This program has been developed in the 40 years since the hippies went back to the land. As groups and individuals we have done much, yes we could have done better.

    I’ve been looking for powerful new paradigms, and found “swarms” and “focused swarm offensive” and a practical “green knowledge trust”. We are partway there, and I appreciate the organizational efforts of bioregionals and the Swarm Development Group Wiki. I just love the sound of this, and resonate with their details. I can even understand the concepts, more or less!!!

    And I like the font of this letter-box, thanks and please
    Come to our Cumberland Greens Bioregional meeting at my house July 17-18.
    A big Composting HEAP of FUN!! wire me for Instructions,
    jhepler@twlakes.net http://www.SaveTheChocolate.com

    PS– if you hadnt explained (in yr email) the meaning of Gratis, I might not have read it!! Knowing it is free, I value it the more………

  2. Laura Ashby says:

    Thanks so much for pulling all together so well. I so enjoyed reading (lots of mm-mmmming).
    Despite a reclusive inclination am planning on sharing this with many in my far flung circle.
    Also looking forward to visiting links.

    Thanks again.

  3. Pingback: Cooperative Farming or Ag Libre | Mutual Gift

  4. Thank you Patrick for your clear articulation and the beautiful memories congressing in 2009. All Our Relations
    john john

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