by Judith Plant
This piece was originally published in Home! A Bioregional Reader, edited by Van Andruss, Christopher Plant, Judith Plant, and Eleanor Wright, New Society Publishers, copyright 1990.
“We are all longing to go home to some place we have never been—a place, half-remembered, and half-envisioned we can only catch glimpses of from time to time. Community. Somewhere, there are people to whom we can speak with passion without having the words catch in our throats. Somewhere a circle of hands will open to receive us, eyes will light up as we enter, voices will celebrate with us whenever we come into our own power. Community means strength that joins our strength to do the work that needs to be done. Arms to hold us when we falter. A circle of healing. A circle of friends. Someplace where we can be free.”
— Starhawk from Dreaming The Dark: Magic, Sex and Politics
Home! Remembering and reclaiming the ways of our species where people and place are delicately interwoven in a web of life—human community finding its particular place within the living and dying that marks the interdependence of life in an integrated ecosystem. This is the pattern of existence that bioregionalism explores. For this term is about being and acting and is more than just a set of ideas. It is the practice of coming to terms with our ecological home. Each of us yearns for this experience, indeed our weakened species is crying out for this wholeness. There is no blueprint, no map of how to get there. How will we ever find our way home?
We have walked from the road past many fish camps. Hundreds, indeed thousands of salmon are hanging to dry, cut in the traditional way on the rocky shores of the strong river that runs through our home. Families are working together, the smell of campfires in the air, the dry wind and hot sun taking us back in time. For this practice which we are witnessing close-up for the first time, has been with these people forever. The atmosphere is celebratory, the salmon runs are the best for many years.
Standing on a huge boulder in the midst of the fast-flowing river, she dips her net in and pulls the long pole towards her, again and again. The eldest child waits, with club in hand, totally involved, honored to be out on the rocks with his mother. She is a strong person, her body created from this place, fully grown on salmon, saskatoons, deer meat, home-grown food. The integrity of her life since birth, in this place with her people, radiates from every pore, from her smile, through her children. Soon a fish is hauled out of the water, then another and another. Quickly clubbed, the salmon are soon gathered together and we carry them back to camp where they will be cut and hung on racks to dry. As we watch the knife making perfect slices, each and every time, what comes to mind is that these people are just being at home.
We were guests that summer day at the fish camps—for many native people in this region don’t really want non-native folks hanging about. This feeling is understandable. This is their work and non-native society has shown little or no respect for the salmon. In fact, the salmon are sick, they are being poisoned by the pulp mills, among other things, up and down the river. Indeed, the next run was not edible because of a huge spill of wood preservative at the river’s mouth.
Totem Salmon: this species’ health is a reflection of the quality of the water that runs through the land, that mingles with the air. This collection of essays inevitably speaks to this creature. For here, in the Northwest, the salmon and the people are one and this fish is our totem. Where have the salmon gone in the heavily industrialized nations? At best, they have been farmed, with antibiotics— desperate attempts to keep this symbol of health alive in an environment that cannot sustain life. As contributor after contributor suggests, when the salmon thrive, so will we.
So many people in the last twenty years have turned off the television, awakened, and dedicated their lives to coming to terms with the social, cultural and political legacy of modern society. It must be turned around. Folks have dug in, and in many ways are working towards a healthy and sane future for all children. During these last two decades this work has taken different forms: the peace, feminist, and back-to-the-land movements, the environmental struggles that seem endless, social justice issues, and the recognition that we must respect all of life, all are elements that are embraced by the term bioregionalism. This is why, for our little community in the mountains of the northwest, this word made so much sense: it articulated what we, and so many others, were already doing. And it has brought us together with many like-minded individuals and groups.
This naming of something that is already going on is the power of bioregionalism. It has given our community common ground with people in urban and rural areas all over Turtle Island (the native image of North America). Connecting our work with others, sharing experiences, finding new ideas and differences has enriched our lives exponentially. More than all of this, bioregionalism gives us roots, not just history. This way of being is a new/old idea, for knowing one’s people and place is the ancient way of survival and its memory is stirred by our yearning for home.
As for so many people these days, whether in city neighborhoods or rural areas, our community seems to most fervently gather around watershed protection activities. Perhaps this is so because water is absolutely fundamental to survival. More and more people, too, are becoming aware that water does not just flow from the tap, that its origins can be traced, and its quality, or lack of it, can be known. A first step in knowing home, in the bioregional sense, is to be intimately familiar with this most basic element of life. And it’s a great organizing tool, for it begins to define the natural boundaries of place.
One of our protect-the-watershed schemes over the past several years has been knapweed pulling. This “noxious weed” was introduced into the bioregion several years ago, seeds transported mostly by vehicles. The typical government response is to spray it to death. We said no, we’ll pull it by hand. Surprisingly, they agreed not to spray and even to pay us what it would have cost them to do the job. So, in the spring and summer, almost every Saturday, we can be seen weeding the roadsides, children, young and old, endless chattering making the work move quickly. It’s often difficult to get there when the gardens are desperate for similar attention but we know that each one of us makes such a difference to the morale of the whole. And somehow, it’s a great time! While the carrots might not be thinned that day, the nascent culture is surely nourished by this empowering, collective responsibility-taking.
Watershed restoration and protection is a unifying theme for bioregionalists all over Turtle Island these days. We came upon this kind of organization several years ago through a conference organized by the Slocan Valley Watershed Protection Alliance and it was here that we ran into other folks using the term “bioregionalism.” Feelings of isolation fell away as we met and strategized with new friends. And these people knew people we knew in California and in northern British Columbia. Some of our folks had earlier met up with the Planet Drum people in San Francisco and their extended community who had been thinking and acting this way for years. We’re family now, all for the love of water!
We feel “out of their control,” as contributor Jim Dodge has said, describing bioregional self-government. Deferring to centralized authority is just what bioregionalists are resisting. In its place is the authority that rests with local people in local places who have the integrity that comes from knowing home. Home in the sense that contributor Wilfred Pelletier, an Ojibway, means when he describes the place where he is allowed to just be, wherein the greatest freedom lies. He describes community as something that is invisible from the outside, but which, from the inside, is a living organism managing itself—community as a way of life, as survival, where each sustains all; where, if the community doesn’t survive, no one survives. This, in stark contrast to modern society where every aspect of life is managed, institutionalized and controlled, where people have no control over the well-being of the basics of life: the water and the air. This system that prides itself on its ultimate control of nature is, from this other perspective of people-in-control of their own communities, totally and wildly out of control. How could it be otherwise when rivers are fouled by all manner of human toxic waste, where air is unfit to breathe?
This Reader, however, is about taking the situation into our own hands. A daring statement but one, nevertheless, that rings true in the midst of chaotic human behavior that is destroying our habitat. Groups of people are assuming this responsibility, in incremental steps, and in ways that most appropriately respond to particular situations, whether it’s keeping McDonalds out of the neighborhood, toxic waste incinerators out of the village, or creating shared parenting and home education collectives, or city gardening groups. All are the beginnings of controlling our lives.
Our community “governs” itself by meeting regularly, the same Sunday each month so everyone always knows when. This is our Council, not just for men, not just for adults. Everyone comes, with pots of food, games, toys and ideas for children’s activities. It’s an all day, all evening event. After visiting and lunch, the circle gathers. Children are first on the agenda. Adults take turns throughout the day doing “kid care”—it’s a good time for those without children to lend a parenting hand. Sometimes the children have their own circle. All the events that need scheduling for the coming month are organized: forestry meetings, potato planting, education meetings, food co-op meetings…. Sometimes personal issues that need community involvement are brought to the group. Hours and hours can go by with thirty or so people intently focused on their collective lives. The experience is at once exhausting and exhilarating, befuddling and enlightening.
The women’s meeting is the Friday evening before. This gathering is inevitably warm and often emotional. We are getting to know each other through these women’s circles and the groundwork that is being laid here is felt to give strength to the upcoming Council. We have sat around campfires and chanted to the full moon, though we are most often in each other’s houses which the men, with children in hand, have thoughtfully left. Sometimes in these circles our selves are revealed to ourselves, as layers of burdensome history is spoken. It was said by an elder, whose ashes now fertilize a fir tree, that if the women could get it together, we’d probably make it.
It’s been a tough year. But after a day of sledding and fine food, people’s faces show little sign of the struggles of the year before. We pull ourselves together, forming the annual large circle wherein we tell each other how it’s been for us these past twelve months and where we see ourselves headed. It’s the changing of a decade, as well as the beginning of the last decade before the century changes. Like the World Watch Institute, many people are using the phrase “the Turn-Around Decade” to describe their hopes and fears for the times to come. What becomes clear to us all is that, in our years together, with all the misunderstandings and problems that inevitably arise, we have grown in love for each other and for this place we call home.
And so we persist, because once involved in such community building, there is no turning back. Learning to love our places means simultaneously learning to love each other. A lifetime of involvement. In this new/old territory, a path towards home begins to show itself. The steps along the way to authentic community are as yet uncharted. Each promises possibilities we can barely fathom. This book, though by no means a chart, provides stepping stones along the trail.
Judith Plant and her husband Christopher founded The New Catalyst newspaper and New Society Publishers, for which she still serves as publisher emeritus. In 2003 Judith and Christopher received the Jim Douglas Award for outstanding publishing in British Columbia. She lives in Gabriola, BC.