Living by Life: Some Bioregional Theory and Practice

by Jim Dodge

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.

I want to make it clear from the outset that I’m not all that sure what bioregionalism is. To my understanding, bioregionalism is an idea still in loose and amorphous formulation, and presently is more hopeful declaration than actual practice. In fact, “ideal” may be too generous: bioregionalism is more properly a notion, which is variously defined as a general idea, a belief, an opinion, an intuition, an inclination, an urge. Furthermore, as I think will prove apparent, bioregionalism is hardly a new notion; it has been the animating cultural principle through 99 percent of human history, and is at least as old as consciousness. Thus, no doubt, the urge.

My purpose here is not really to define bioregionalism—that will take care of itself in the course of things—but to mention some of the ele­ments that I see composing the notion, and some possibilities for practice. I speak with no special privilege on the matter other than my longstand­ing and fairly studious regard for the subject, a regard enriched by my teachers and numerous bioregional friends. My only true qualification is that I’m fool enough to try.

“Bioregionalism” is from the Greek bios (life) and the French region (region), itself from the Latin regia (territory), and earlier, regere (to rule or govern). Etymologically, then, bioregionalism means life territory, place of life, or perhaps by reckless extension, government by life. If you can’t imagine that government by life would be at least 40 billion times better than government by the Reagan administration, or Mobil Oil, or any other distant powerful monolith, then your heart is probably no bigger than a prune pit and you won’t have much sympathy for what follows.

A central element of bioregionalism—and one that distinguishes it from similar politics of place—is the importance given to natural systems, both as the source of physical nutrition and as the body of metaphors from which our spirits draw sus­tenance. A natural system is a community of inter­dependent life, a mutual biological integration on the order of an ecosystem, for example. What con­stitutes this community is uncertain beyond the obvious—that it includes all interacting life forms, from the tiniest fleck of algae to human beings, as well as their biological processes. To this bare minimum, already impenetrably complex, bioregionalism adds the influences of cultural be­havior, such as subsistence techniques and ceremonies. Many people further insist—sensibly, I think—that this community/ecosystem must also include the planetary processes and the larger figures of regulation: solar income, magnetism, gravity, and so forth. Bioregionalism is simply biological realism; in natural systems we find the physical truth of our being, the real obvious stuff like the need for oxygen as well as the more subtle need for moonlight, and perhaps other truths beyond those. Not surprisingly, then, bioregionalism holds that the health of natural systems is directly connected to our own physical/psychic health as individuals and as a species, and for that reason natural systems and their in­forming integrations deserve, if not utter venera­tion, at least our clearest attention and deepest respect. No matter how great our laws, technologies, or armies, we can’t make the sun rise every morning nor the rain dance on the golden-back ferns.

To understand natural systems is to begin an understanding of the self, its common and par­ticular essences—literal self-interest in its barest terms. “As above, so below,” according to the old-tradition alchemists; natural systems as models of consciousness. When we destroy a river, we in­crease our thirst, ruin the beauty of free-flowing water, forsake the meat and spirit of the salmon, and lose a little bit of our souls.

Unfortunately, human society has also developed technologies that make it possible to lose big chunks all at once. If we make just one serious mistake with nuclear energy, for instance, our grandchildren may be born with bones like over-cooked spaghetti, or tom apart by mutant rats. Global nuclear war is suicide: the “losers” die instantly; the “winners” inherit slow radiation death and twisted chromosomes. By any sensible measure of self-interest, by any regard for life, nuclear war is abhorrent, unthinkable, and loath­somely stupid, and yet the United States and other nations spend billions to provide that possibility. It is the same mentality that pooh-poohs the grow­ing concentration of poisons in the biosphere. It’s like the farmer who was showing off his prize mule to a stranger one day when the mule suddenly fell over sideways and died. The farmer looked at the body in bewildered disbelief: “Damn,” he said, “I’ve had this mule for 27 years and it’s the first time he’s ever done this.” To which the stranger, being a biological realist, undoubtedly replied, “No shit.”

While I find an amazing depth of agreement among bioregionalists on what constitutes bios, and on what general responsibilities attend our place in the skein of things, there is some disagree­ment—friendly but passionate—on what actually constitutes a distinct biological region (as opposed to arbitrary entities, like states and counties, where boundaries are established without the dimmest ecological perception, and therefore make for cul­tural incoherence and piecemeal environmental management). Since the very gut of bioregional thought is the integrity of natural systems and culture, with the function of culture being the mediation of the self and the ecosystem, one might think “bioregion” would be fairly tightly defined. But I think it must be kept in mind that, to paraphrase Poe and Jack Spicer, we’re dealing with the grand concord of what does not stoop to defini­tion. There are, however, a number of ideas float­ing around regarding the biological criteria for a region. I’ll mention some of them below, limiting the examples to Northern California.

One criterion for determining a biological region is biotic shift, a percentage change in plant/animal species composition from one place to another—that is, if 15 to 25 percent of the species where I live are different from those where you live, we occupy different biological regions. We probably also experience different climates and walk on different soils, since those differences are reflected in species composition. Nearly everyone I’ve talked with agrees that biotic shift is a fairly slick and accurate way to make bioregional dis­tinctions; the argument is over the percentage, which invariably seems arbitrary. Since the change in biotic composition is usually gradual, the biotic shift criterion permits vague and permeable boun­daries between regions, which I personally favor. The idea, after all, is not to replace one set of lines with another, but simply to recognize inherent biological integrities for the purpose of sensible planning and management.

Another way to biologically consider regions is by watershed. This method is generally straightforward, since drainages are clearly ap­parent on topographical maps. Watershed is usual­ly taken to mean river drainage, so if you live on Cottonwood Creek you are part of the Sacramento River drainage. The problem with watersheds as bioregional criteria is that if you live in San Fran­cisco you arc also part of the Sacramento (and San Joaquin) River drainage, and that’s a long way from Cottonwood Creek. Since any long drainage presents similar problems, most people who ad­vance the watershed criterion make intradrainage distinctions (in the case of the Sacramento: head­waters, Central Valley, west slope Sierra, east slope Coast Range, and delta/bay). The west slope of the Coast Range, with its short- running rivers and strong Pacific influence, is often considered as a whole biological area, at least from the Gualala River to the Mattole River or, depending on who you’re talking to, from the Russian River to the Eel River, though they aren’t strictly west slope Coast Range rivers. The Klamath, Smith and Trinity drainages are often considered a single drainage system with the arguable inclusion of the Chetco and the Rogue.

A similar method of bioregional distinction is based upon land form. Roughly, Northern Califor­nia breaks down into the Sierra, the Coast Range, the Central Valley, the Klamath Range, the southern part of the Cascade Range, and the Modoc Plateau. Considering the relationship be­tween topography and water, it is not surprising that land form distinctions closely follow water­sheds.

A different criterion for making bioregional dis­tinctions is, awkwardly put, cultural/phenomenological: you are where you perceive you are; your turf is what you think it is, individually and collectively. Although the human sense of territory is deeply evolved and cultural/perceptual behavior certainly influences the sense of place, this view seems to me a bit anthropocentric. And though it is difficult not to view things in terms of human experience and values, it does seem wise to remember that human perception is notoriously prey to distortion and the strange delights of perversity. Our species hasn’t done too well lately working essentially from this view; because we’re ecological dominants doesn’t necessarily mean we’re ecological determinants. (In fairness, I should note that many friends think I’m unduly cranky on this subject.)

One of the more provocative ideas to delineate bioregions is in terms of “spirit places” or psyche-­tuning power- presences, such as Mount Shasta and the Pacific Ocean. By this criterion, a bioregion is defined by the predominate psychophysical in­fluence where you live. You have to live in its presence long enough to truly feel its force within you and that it’s not mere descriptive geography.

Also provocative is the notion that bioregion is a vertical phenomenon having more to do with elevation than horizontal deployment—thus a dis­tinction between hill people and flatlanders, which in Northern California also tends to mean country and city. A person living at 2000 feet in the coast Range would have more in cultural common with a Sierra dweller at a similar altitude than with someone at sea level 20 miles away.

To briefly recapitulate, the criteria most often advanced for making bioregional distinctions are biotic shift, watershed, land form, cultural/phenomenological, spirit presence, and elevation. Taken together, as I think they should be, they give us a strong sense of where we’re at and the life that enmeshes our own. Nobody I know is pushing for a quick definition anyway. Bioregionalism, what it is, occupies that point in development (more properly, renewal) where definition is unnecessary and perhaps dangerous. Better now to let definitions emerge from practice than impose them dogmatically from the git-go.

A second element of bioregionalism is anarchy. I hesitate using that fine word because it’s been so distorted by reactionary shitheads to scare people that its connotative associations have become bloody chaos and fiends amok, rather than politi­cal decentralization, self-determination, and a commitment to social equity. Anarchy doesn’t mean out of control; it means out of their control. Anarchy is based upon a sense of interdependent self-reliance, the conviction that we as a com­munity, or a tight, small-scale federation of com­munities, can mind our own business, and can make decisions regarding our individual and com­munal lives and gladly accept the responsibilities and consequences of those decisions. Further, by consolidating decision making at a local, face-to- face level without having to constantly push infor­mation through insane bureaucratic hierarchies, we can act more quickly in relation to natural systems and, since we live there, hopefully with more knowledge and care.

The United States is simply too large and com­plex to be responsibly governed by a decision-making body of perhaps 1000 people representing 220,000,000 Americans and a large chunk of the biosphere, especially when those 1000 decision makers can only survive by compromise and generally are forced to front for heavy economic interests (media campaigns for national office are expensive). A government where one person rep­resents the interests of 220,000 others is absurd, considering that not all the people voted for the winning representative (or even voted) and espe­cially considering that most of those 220,000 people are capable of representing themselves. I think people do much better, express their deeper qualities, when their actions matter. Obviously one way to make government more meaningful and responsible is to involve people directly day by day, in the processes of decision, which only seems possible if we reduce the scale of government. A bioregion seems about the right size: say close to a small state, or along the lines of the Swiss canton system or American Indian tribes.

If nothing else, bioregional government— which theoretically would express the biological and cultural realities of people-in- place—would promote the diversity of biosocial experimenta­tion; and in diversity is stability. The present sys­tem of national government seems about to collapse under the weight of its own emptiness. Our economy is dissolving like wet sugar. Violence is epidemic. The quality of our workmanship—al­ways the hallmark of a proud people—has deteriorated so badly that we’re ashamed to class­ify our products as durable goods. Our minds have been homogenized by television, which keeps our egos in perpetual infancy while substituting them for a sense of self. Our information comes from progressively fewer sources, none of them notably reliable. We spend more time posturing than we do getting it on. In short, American culture has be­come increasingly gutless and barren in our lifetimes, and the political system little more than a cover for an economics that ravages the planet and its people for the financial gain of very few. It seems almost a social obligation to explore alterna­tives. Our much-heralded standard of living hasn’t done much for the quality of our daily lives; the glut of commodities, endlessly hurled at us out of the vast commodity spectacle, is just more shit on the windshield.

I don’t want to imply that bioregionalism is the latest sectarian addition to the American Left, which historically has been more concerned with doctrinal purity and shafting each other than with effective practice. It’s not a question of working within the system or outside the system, but simp­ly of working, somewhere, to pull it off. And as I mentioned at the beginning, I’m not so sure bioregionalism even has a doctrine to be pure about—it’s more a sense of direction (uphill, it seems) than the usual leftist highway to Utopia…or Ecotopia for that matter.

Just for the record, and to give some credence to the diversity of thought informing bioregionalism, I want to note some of the spirits I see at work in the early formulation of the notion: pantheists, Wobs, Reformed Marxists (that is, those who see the sun as the means of production), Diggers, liberterreans, Kropotkinites (mutual aid and coevolution), animists, alchemists (especially the old school), lefty Buddhists, Situationists (con­summate analysts of the commodity spectacle), syndicalists, Provos, born-again Taoists, general outlaws, and others drawn to the decentralist ban­ner by raw empathy.

A third element composing the bioregional no­tion is spirit. Since I can’t claim any spiritual wis­dom, and must admit to being virtually ignorant on the subject, I’m reluctant to offer more than the most tentative perceptions. What I think most bioregionalists hold in spiritual common is a profound regard for life—all life, not just white Americans, or humankind entire, but frogs, roses, mayflies, coyotes, lichens: all of it: the gopher snake and the gopher. For instance, we don’t want to save the whales for the sweetsie-poo, lily-­romantic reasons attributed to us by those who profit from their slaughter; we don’t want them saved merely because they are magnificent crea­tures, so awesome that when you see one close from an open boat your heart roars; we want to save them for the most selfish of reasons: without them we are diminished.

In the bioregional spirit view we’re all one crea­tion, and it may seem almost simple-minded to add that there is a connection—even a necessary unity—between the natural world and the human mind (which may be just a fancy way of saying there is a connection between life and existence). Different people and groups have their own paths and practices and may describe this connection differently—profound, amusing, ineluctable, mysterious—but they all acknowledge the impor­tance of the connection. The connection is archaic, primitive, and so obvious that it hasn’t received much attention since the rise of Christian dominion and fossil-fuel industrialism. If it is a quality of archaic thought to dispute the culturally enforced dichotomy between the spiritual and the practical, I decidedly prefer the archaic view. What could possibly be of more practical concern than our spiritual well-being as individuals, as a species, and as members of a larger community of life? The Moral Majority certainly isn’t going to take us in that direction; they’re interested in busi­ness as usual, as their golden boy, James Watt, has demonstrated. We need fewer sermons and more prayers.

This sense of bioregional spirit isn’t fixed to a single religious form or practice. Generally it isn’t Christian-based or noticeably monotheistic, though such views aren’t excluded. I think the main influences are the primitive animist/Great Spirit tradition of various Eastern and esoteric religious practices, and plain ol’ paying attention. I may be stretching the accord, but I also see a shared awareness that the map is not the journey, and for that reason it is best to be alert and to respond to the opportunities presented rather than waste away wishing life would offer some worthy spiritual challenge (which it does, constantly, anyway). Call it whatever seems appropriate—en­lightenment, fulfillment, spiritual maturity, happi­ness, self-realization—it has to be earned, and to be earned it has to be lived, and that means bring­ing it into our daily lives and working on it. Instant gratifications are not the deepest gratifications, I suspect, though Lord knows they certainly have their charms. The emphasis is definitely on the practice, not the doctrine, and especially on prac­ticing what you preach; there is a general recogni­tion that there are many paths, and that they are a further manifestation of crucial natural diversity. I might also note for serious backsliders that the play is as serious as the work, and there is a great willingness to celebrate; nobody is interested in a spirit whose holiness is constantly announced with sour piety and narrow self-righteousness.

Combining the three elements gives a loose idea of what I take to be bioregionalism: a decentral­ized, self-determined mode of social organization; a culture predicated upon biological integrities and acting in respectful accord; and a society which honors and abets the spiritual development of its members. Or so the theory goes. However, it’s not mere theory, for there have been many cultures founded essentially upon those prin­ciples; for example, it has been the dominant cul­tural mode of inhabitation on this continent. The point is not to go back, but to take the best forward. Renewal, not some misty retreat into what was.

Theories, ideas, notions—they have their generative and reclamative values, and certainly a loveliness, but without the palpable intelligence of practice they remain hovering in the nether regions of nifty entertainments or degrade into more flamboyant fads and diversions like literary movements and hula- hoops. Practice is what puts the heart to work. If theory establishes the game, practice is the gamble, and the first rule of all gambling games has it like this: you can play bad and win; you can play good and lose; but if you play good over the long haul you’re gonna come out alright.

Bioregional practice (or applied strategy) can take as many forms as the imagination and nerves, but for purpose of example I’ve hacked it into two broad categories, resistance and renewal. Resis­tance involves a struggle between the bioregional forces (who represent intelligence, excellence, and care) and the forces of heartlessness (who repre­sent a greed so lifeless and forsaken it can’t even pass as ignorance). In a way, I think it really is that simple, that there is, always, a choice about how we will live our lives, that there is a state of con­stant opportunity for both spiritual succor and carnal delight, and that the way we choose to live is the deepest expression of who we truly are. If we consistently choose against the richest possibilities of life, against kindness, against beauty, against love and sweet regard, then we aren’t much. Our only claim to dignity is trying our best to do what we think is right, to put some heart in it, some soul, flower and root. We’re going to fall on our asses a lot, founder on our pettiness and covetousness and sloth, but at least there is the effort, and that’s surely better than being just another quivering piece of the national cultural jello. Or so it seems to me.

However, the primary focus of resistance is not the homogeneous American supraculture—that can be resisted for the most part simply by refusing to participate, while at the same time trying to live our lives the way we think we should (knowing we’ll get no encouragement whatsoever from the colonial overstructure). Rather, the focus of resistance is against the continuing destruction of natural systems. We can survive the ruthless homogeneity of national culture because there are many holes we can slip through, but we cannot
survive if the natural systems that sustain us are destroyed. That has to be stopped if we want to continue living on this planet. That’s not “environmentalism”; it’s ecology with a vengeance. Personally, I think we should develop a Sophoclean appreciation for the laws of nature, and submit. Only within the fractional time frame of fossil-fuel industrialization have we begun to seriously insult the environment of life. We’ve done a great deal of damage in a very short time, and only because of the amazing flexibility of natural systems have we gotten away with it so far. But I don’t think we’ll destroy the planet; she will destroy us first, which is perhaps only to say we’ll destroy ourselves. The most crucial point of resistance is choosing not to.

And then we must try to prevent others from doing it for us all, since by allowing monopoly-capital centralized government (which, like monotheism, is not so much putting all your eggs in one basket as dropping your one egg in a blender), we have given them the power to make such remote-control decisions. The way to prevent it is five-fold: by being a model for an alternative; by knowing more than they do; by being politically astute; by protecting what we value; and by any means necessary. (I think it’s important to note that there is nearly complete agreement that non-violence is the best means available, and that the use of violence is always a sad admission of desperation. Besides, they have all the money, guns, and lawyers. People advocating violent means are probably not very interested in living much longer.)

I think political smarts are best applied in the local community and county. Most crucial land use decisions, for instance, are made at the county level by boards of supervisors. The representative-to-constituent ratio is obviously much better in a county than in a country, and therefore informed and spirited constituents have a far greater influence on decisions and policies. Work to elect sympathetic representatives. Put some money where your heart is. Go to your share of the generally boring meetings and hearings. Challenge faulty information (thus the importance of knowing more than they do). Create alternatives. Stand your ground.

Buying land is also a strong political move; “ownership” is the best protection against gross environmental abuse, just as living on the land is the best defense against mass-media gelatin culture, assuming the quality of information influences the quality of thought. Owning land also affords increased political leverage within the present system. Besides, bioregionalism without a tangible land base would be like love without sex; the circuits of association wouldn’t be complete. (Of course, it isn’t necessary to own land to either appreciate it or resist its destruction, and I hope nobody infers that bioregionalism is for land aristocracy.)

The growth and strength of the “environmental movement” in the 1970s has encouraged awareness about the destruction of natural systems and the consequences of such callous disregard. This is all to the good, and we should continue to stay in their faces on critical issues. But it’s going to be continual crisis ecology unless we come up with a persuasive economic alternative; otherwise, most people will go on choosing progress over maturity, or progress is deeply equated with payroll, and money, to most people, means life. It’s that cold. It’s also basically true, and many friends share my chagrin that it took us so long to grasp that truism. It now seems painfully obvious that the economic system must be transformed if we hope to protect natural systems from destruction in the name of Mammon. Economics seems to baffle everyone, especially me. I have no prescriptions to offer, except to note that it doesn’t have to be one economic system, and that any economics should include a fair measure of value. What’s needed is an economy that takes into true account the cost of biospheric destruction and at the same time feeds the family. People must be convinced that it’s in their best economic interest to maintain healthy biological systems. The best place to meet this challenge is where you live—that is, personally and within the community.

It’s probably also fairly plain that changing the economic system will involve changing our con­ception of what constitutes a fulfilled life and cracking the cultural mania for mindless con­sumption and its attendant waste. To realize what is alive within us, the who of who we are, we have to know what we truly need, and what is enough. As Marshall Sahlins has pointed out, affluence can be attained either through increasing production or reducing needs. Since increased production usually means ravaged natural systems, the best strategy seems the reduction of needs, and hope­fully the consequent recognition that enough is plenty. A truly affluent society is one of material sufficiency and spiritual riches.

While we’re keeping up this resistance in our daily lives—and I think it is in the quality of daily life rather than momentary thrills that the heart is proven—we can begin repairing the natural sys­tems that have been damaged. Logged and mined watersheds need to be repaired. Streams have to be cleared. Trees planted. Check dams built to stop gully erosion. Long-term management strategies developed. Tough campaigns waged to secure funding for the work. There’s a strong effort in this direction happening in Northern California now, much of it through worker co-ops and citizens’ groups, with increasingly cooperative help from local and state agencies. This work has really just begun, and the field is wide open. So far it seems to satisfy the two feelings that prompted it: the sense that we have a responsibility to renew what we’ve wasted, and the need to practice ‘”right livelihood,” or work that provides a living while promoting the spirit.

Natural system renewal (or rehabilitation, or enhancement, or whatever other names it goes by) could well be our first environmental art. It re­quires a thorough knowledge of how natural sys­tems work, delicate perceptions of specific sites, the development of appropriate techniques, and hard physical work of the kind that puts you to bed after dinner. What finer work than healing the Earth, where the rewards are both in the doing and the results? It deserves our participation and sup­port. For the irrefutable fact of the matter is that if we want to explore the bioregional possibility, we’ve got to work, got to get dirty—either by sitting on our asses at environmental hearings or by busting them planting trees in the rain. Snivel­ing don’t make it.

The chances of bioregionalism succeeding, like the chances of survival itself, are beside the point. If one person, or a few, or a community of people, live more fulfilling lives from bioregional practice, then it’s successful. This country has a twisted idea of success: it is almost always a quantitative judge­ment—salary, wins, the number of rooms in the house, the number of people you command. Since bioregionalism by temperament is qualitative, the basis of judgment should be shifted accordingly. What they call a subculture, we call friends.

Most of the people I talk with feel we have a fighting chance to stop environmental destruction within 50 years and to turn the culture around within 800 to 1000 years. “Fighting chance” trans­lates as long odds but good company, and bioregionalism is obviously directed at people whose hearts put a little gamble in their blood. Since we won’t live to see the results of this hoped- for transformation, we might as well live to start it right, with the finest expressions of spirit and style we can muster, keeping in mind that there’s only a functional difference between the flower and the root, that essentially they are part of the same abiding faith.

The Sun still rises every morning. Dig in.

(First published in Coevolution Quarterly, Winter 1981.)

About the Author

Jim Dodge (born 1945) is an American novelist and poet whose works combine themes of folklore and fantasy, set in a timeless present. He has published three novels—FupNot Fade Away, and Stone Junction—and a collection of poetry and prose, Rain on the River.

Dodge was born in 1945 and grew up as an Air Force brat. As an adult he spent many years living on an almost self-sufficient commune in West Sonoma County, California. He has had many jobs, including apple picker, carpet layer, teacher, professional gambler, shepherd, woodcutter, and environmental restorer. He received his Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing/Poetry from the University of Iowa Writers Workshop in 1969. He has been the director of the Creative Writing program in the English Department at Humboldt State University in Arcata, California since 1995. He lives in Manila, California with his wife and son.

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