Reinhabiting California

by Peter Berg and Raymond F. Dasmann

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.

A change is taking place in California. It cannot be easily quantified or evaluated since many who are involved do not want to be counted or publicized. But the direction is becoming clear. The change involves the spread of communities of people who are trying a new approach to living on and with the land. We call this phenomenon reinhabitation, a process that involves learning to live-in-place.

Living-in-place means following the necessities and pleasures of life as they are uniquely presented by a particular site, and evolving ways to ensure long-term occupancy of that site. A society which practices living-in-place keeps a balance with its region of support through links between human lives, other living things, and the processes of the planet—seasons, weather, water cycles—as revealed by the place itself. It is the opposite of a society which makes a living through short-term destructive exploitation of land and life. Living-in-place is an age-old way of existence, disrupted in some parts of the world a few millennia ago by the rise of exploitative civilization and more generally during the past two centuries by the spread of industrial civilization. It is not, however, to be thought of as antagonistic to civilization, in the more humane sense of that word, but may be the only way in which a truly civilized existence can be maintained.

In nearly every region of North America, including most of California, natural life-support systems have been severely weakened. The original wealth of biotic diversity has been largely spent and altered toward a narrow range of mostly non-native crops and stock. Chronic misuse has ruined huge areas of once-rich farm, forest, and range land. Wastes from absurdly dense industrial concentrations have left some places almost unlivable. But, regardless of the endless frontier delusion and invader mentality that came to dominate in North America, removing one species or native people after another to make-a-living for the invaders, we now know that human life depends ultimately on the continuation of other life. Living-in-place provides for such continuation. It has become a necessity if people intend to stay in any region without further changing it in ever more dangerous directions.

Once all California was inhabited by people who used the land lightly and seldom did lasting harm to its life-sustaining capacity. Most of them have gone. But if the life-destructive path of technological society is to be diverted into life-sustaining directions, the land must be reinhabited. Reinhabitation means learning to live-in-place in an area that has been disrupted and injured through past exploitation. It involves becoming native to a place through becoming aware of the particular ecological relationships that operate within and around it. It means understanding activities and evolving social behavior that will enrich the life of that place, restore its life-supporting systems, and establish an ecologically and socially sustainable pattern of existence within it. Simply stated it involves becoming fully alive in and with a place. It involves applying for membership in a biotic community and ceasing to be its exploiter.

Useful information for reinhabitants can come from a wide range of sources. Studies of local native inhabitants, in particular the experiences of those who have lived there before, both those who tried to make a living and those who lived-in-place, can contribute. Reinhabitants can apply this information toward shaping their own life patterns and establishing relationships with the land and life around them. This will help determine the nature of the bioregion within which they are learning to live-in-place.

Reinhabitation involves developing a bioregional identity, something most North Americans have lost, or have never possessed. We define bioregion in a sense different from the biotic province of Raymond Dasmann (1973) or the biogeographical province of Miklos Udvardy (1975). The term refers both to geographical terrain and a terrain of consciousness—to a place and the ideas that have developed about how to live in that place. Within a bioregion the conditions that influence life are similar and these in turn have influenced human occupancy.

A bioregion can be determined initially by use of climatology, physiography, animal and plant geography, natural history and other descriptive natural sciences. The final boundaries of a bioregion are best described by the people who have lived within it, through human recognition of the realities of living-in-place. All life on the planet is interconnected in a few obvious ways, and in many more that remain barely explored. But there is a distinct resonance among living things and the factors which influence them that occurs specifically within each separate place on the planet. Discovering and describing that resonance is a way to describe a bioregion.…

Biologically, the California biotic province, which forms the heart of the bioregion, is not only unique but somewhat incredible—a west coast refuge for obscure species, full of endemic forms of plants and animals. It is a Mediterranean climatic region unlike any other in North America. It is a place of survival for once wide-spread species as well as a place where other distinct forms evolved. Anthropologically it is also unique, a refuge for a great variety of non-agricultural peoples on a continent where agriculture had become dominant.

During the century and a half that invader society has occupied northern California, a primary sense of location has been provided by surveyors dividing up the land. We know more about property lines than we do about the life that moves under, over, and through them. People are bombarded with information about the prices of things, but seldom learn their real biospheric cost. They are encouraged to measure the dimensions of things without ever learning their places in the continuity of bioregional life.

Within the bioregion is one major watershed, that of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River system which drains from all of the Sierra-Nevada, Cascade, and interior Coast Ranges and flows through the broad plain of the Central Valley. Coastally, smaller watersheds are significant, those of the Salinas, Russian, Eel, Mad, Klamath and Smith Rivers. The Klamath River is anomalous in that it drains from an area that belongs to a different bioregion. So too does the Pit River which joins the Sacramento. Otherwise the drainage systems help to define and tie together the life of the bioregion, and the characteristics of watersheds point out the necessities which those who would live-in-place must recognize.

Our real period of discovery has just begun. The bioregion is only barely recognized in terms of how life systems relate to each other within it. It is still an anxious mystery whether we will be able to continue living here. How many people can the bioregion carry without destroying it further? What kinds of activities should be encouraged? Which ones are too ruinous to continue? How can people find out about bioregional criteria in a way that they will feel these exist for their mutual benefit rather than as an imposed set of regulations?

Natural watersheds could receive prominent recognition as the frameworks within which communities are organized. The network of springs, creeks, and rivers flowing together in a specific area exerts a dominant influence on all non-human life there; it is the basic designer of local life. Floods and droughts in northern California remind us that watersheds affect human lives as well, but their full importance is more subtle and pervasive. Native communities were developed expressly around local water supplies and tribal boundaries were often set by the limits of watersheds. Pioneer settlements followed the same pattern, often displacing native groups with the intention of securing their water.

Defining the local watershed, restricting growth and development to fit the limits of water supplies, planning to maintain these and restore the free flowing condition of tributaries that are blocked or the purity of any which have been polluted, and exploring the relationships with the larger water systems connecting to it could become primary directions for reinhabitory communities. They could view themselves as centered on and responsible for the watershed.

People have been part of the bioregion’s life for a long time. The greatest part of that time has been a positive rather than negative experience for other life sharing the place. In describing how as many as 500 separate tribal republics lived side by side in California for at least 15,000 years without serious hostility toward each other or disruption of lifesystems around them, Jack Forbes (1971) points out a critical difference between invaders and inhabitants. “Native Californians…felt themselves to be something other than independent, autonomous individuals. They perceived themselves as being deeply bound together with other people (and with the surrounding non-human forms of life) in a complex interconnected web of life, that is to say, a true community….All creatures and all things were…brothers and sisters. From this idea came the basic principle of non-exploitation, of respect and reverence for all creatures, a principle extremely hostile to the kind of economic development typical of modern society and destructive of human morals. (It was this principle, I suspect, which more than anything else preserved California in its natural state for 15,000 years, and it is the steady violation of this principle which, in a century and a half, has brought California to the verge of destruction.”

Reinhabitants are as different from invaders as these were from the original inhabitants. They want to fit into the place, which requires preserving the place to fit into. Their most basic goals are to restore and maintain watersheds, topsoil, and native species, elements of obvious necessity for in-place existence because they determine the essential conditions of water, food, and stable diversity. Their aims might include developing contemporary bioregional cultures that celebrate the continuity of life where they live, and new region-to-region forms of participation with other cultures based on our mutuality as a species in the planetary biosphere. Shifting to a reinhabitory society, however, requires basic changes in present-day social directions, economics, and politics.


Northern California is biologically rich—perhaps the richest bioregion in North America. Its present-day economics are generally based on exploiting this richness for maximum short-term profits. The natural systems that create conditions of abundance in the region are both short-term and long-term. There’s good soil, but it took thousands of years to form. There are still some great forests left but they grew over centuries; and none have fully recovered that were logged in historic times.

Reinhabitory economics would seek sufficiency rather than profit. They might be more aptly termed ecologies since their object is to successfully maintain natural life-system continuities while enjoying them and using them to live. Most current forms of economic activity that rely on the bioregion’s natural conditions could continue in a reinhabitory society, but they would be altered to account for the short and long-term variations in their cycles.

The Central Valley has become one of the planet’s food centers. The current scale of agriculture there is huge; thousands of square miles under cultivation to produce multiple annual crops. Fossil-fuel dependent heavy equipment appears at every stage of farming operations, and there is a steadily rising rate of artificial fertilizer use. Most of the land is owned or leased by absentee agribusiness corporations. It’s a naturally productive place. Northern California has a temperate climate, a steady supply of water, and the topsoil is some of the richest in North America. But the current scale of agriculture is untenable over the long-term. Fossil fuel and chemical fertilizer can only become more expensive, and the soil is simultaneously being ruined and blown away.

There needs to be massive redistribution of land to create smaller farms. They would concentrate on growing a wider range of food species (including native food plants), increasing the nutritional value of crops, maintaining the soil, employing alternatives to fossil fuels, and developing small-scale marketing systems. More people would be involved, thereby creating jobs and lightening the population load on the cities.

Forests have to be allowed to rebuild themselves. Clearcutting ruins their capability to provide a long-term renewable resource. Watershed-based reforestation and stream restoration projects are necessary everywhere that logging has been done. Cut trees are currently being processed wastefully; tops, stumps, and branches are left behind, and whole logs are shipped away to be processed elsewhere and sold back in the region. Crafts that use every part of the tree should be employed to make maximum use of the materials while employing a greater number of regional people. Fisheries have to be carefully protected. They provide a long-term life-support of rich protein, if used correctly, or a quickly emptied biological niche, if mishandled. Catching fish and maintaining the fisheries have to be seen as parts of the same concern.

Reinhabitory consciousness can multiply the opportunities for employment within the bioregion. New reinhabitory livelihoods based on exchanging information, cooperative planning, administering exchanges of labor and tools, intra- and inter-regional networking, and watershed media emphasizing bioregional rather than city-consumer information could replace a few centralized positions with many decentralized ones. The goals of restoring and maintaining watersheds, topsoil and native species invite the creation of many jobs to simply undo the bioregional damage that invader society has already done.

(First published in Reinhabiting A Separate Country. A Bioregional Anthology of Northern California. Ed. Peter Berg. San Francisco: Planet Drum Foundation, 1978.)

Peter Berg (1937-2011) founded the Planet Drum Foundation ( in San Francisco in 1973. His creative work and activism spanned decades, ranging from script-writing while a member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe and writing manifestos for The Diggers in the 1960s to presenting at the UN World Environment Day conference on urban sustainability and the Ecocity World Summit in the 2000s. In recognizing the significance of the connection between society and ecology, Berg was a leading early thinker in the development of the bioregional movement. Further biographical information available at

Raymond F. Dasmann (1919-2002) studied nature and environmental issues all over the world, fought for the protection for cultural diversity as well as biological diversity, and pioneered the concept of ecodevelopment. In his decades-long career he worked with the Conservation Foundation, UNESCO, the World Wildlife Fund, and the International Union for Conservation. He also wrote more than a dozen books and taught at Humboldt State University, UC Berkeley (his alma mater), and UC Santa Cruz.

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