The Challenge of Bioregional Education

by Frank Traina

Central Ohio River Bioregion

This piece was originally published in Perspectives in Bioregional Education, edited by Frank Traina and Susan Darley-Hill, North American Association for Environmental Education, copyright 1995.

The numerous hurdles thrown up by a technological society prevent easy implementation of bioregional education. Rather than treating environmental education as a separate subject, teaching with a bioregional perspective colors every aspect of instruction. The philosophical underpinnings of bioregional education are reviewed, and the importance of acknowledging the interconnectedness of all Earth s inhabitants to their surroundings is emphasized. By establishing in children an understanding of this most basic ecological concept, children develop empathy for their surroundings and for each other.

This book is more than just an introduction to bioregionalism, its history, its thinking and examples of bioregional learning tools and techniques. It presents a challenge to all who work with children to develop new learning approaches that will inspire children to relate more deeply to all parts of the natural world and convey to children a profound sense of being part of the Earth system, the Earth family. This is an extremely difficult task because for most educators it means unlearning so much and adopting a new, fresh approach which may bring much frustration with it.

Enormous numbers of children today are more separated from natural experiences than ever in human history. M. J. Cohen estimates that 95 percent or more of the average American’s time is spent indoors in artificial environments (1988). They may know from television about global warming and ozone depletion, but they don’t know the smell of a spring rain and the night sounds of the woods. They experience little to give them a deep feeling of awe and wonder towards the natural world. This lack is a terrible one. Urban and suburban children are being deprived of something so basic in past human experience that it would have been unthinkable to have lived without it. And, sadly, the situation seems to be getting worse.

In an effort to document the effect of the loss of direct natural experience on children, Nabhan and St. Antoine (1993) studied 52 children of Native American, Anglo, and Hispanic background and compared them with an older generation. The loss of direct natural experience was clear. The children had seen more wild animals on television or in the movies than in the wild. The majority of children in each population group had never in their lives spent more than half an hour alone in a wild place. “These trends suggest that the personal, uninhibited, and spontaneous interaction with nature which solitude allows is seldom taking place today.” (Nabhan et al. 1993:240). Moverover, most of these children said that they had never collected natural treasures, such as feathers, bones, insects, or rocks from their natural surroundings. With the global electronic media dominating their knowledge of nature, these children are losing the kind of local awareness of nature that television cannot supply. Basic knowledge that anyone living in the area a century ago would have had without much trouble are now known only by a small segment of the population. The authors conclude, “Children’s very ability to perceive the environment may be diminished by the replacement of multisensory experience in richly textured landscapes with the two dimensional world of books, or the audiovisual world of TV, videos, and movies.” (Nabhan et al. 1993:241).

The loss of local wildlife caused by habitat destruction coupled with watching television has led to what is termed “the extinction of experience.” Robert Michael Pyle defines this term as “the loss of direct, personal contact with wildlife” (1992:65), and he argues that any conditions which reduce such intimate experience create a cycle of disaffection, apathy, and irresponsibility toward nature.

The violent noise of TV cartoons and video games is replacing the healing quiet of a country meadow or forest creek. Opportunities to form childhood memories from natural experiences are being lost to the artificial reality of urban living. The vast majority of today’s children are no longer exposed to the colors, sounds, and magic of the natural world which help shape wholesome adult values and attitudes toward the Earth. This deprivation is a serious problem which is not being addressed by most parents, teachers, or school systems. Yet its effects may be long-lasting and ultimately devastating for Earth’s well-being, if it produces adults alienated from the natural world.

The remedy for this dilemma is a rapid transformation of modem civilization from an Earth-destroying culture to an Earth-healing one; to promote social and cultural change which will, in turn, restore ecosystems and help people resolve conflicts peacefully. Human societies have, in the past, shown themselves capable of extraordinary change. The pace of “modernization” of traditional societies in the last 70 years amply demonstrates this. Now the task is to continue this change and go beyond modernism, entering the ecological age or the “Ecozoic period” in the words of Thomas Berry. This is done not by a wholesale rejection of science and technology but by supplementing them with values and insights which result in developing a new relationship with the natural world. Lester W. Milbrath (1989:215-216) remarked: “The thinking that is going into bioregionalism will become increasingly valuable as we struggle to find ways to live in harmony with our ecosystems.”

The culture of traditional native peoples, who lived intimately with nature on a daily basis, is infused with values, norms, and knowledge about the natural world. Our highly specialized society removes people from nature and surrounds them almost entirely with a human-built environment. The bioregional educator’s task in modem society is made so much more difficult because of this separation from nature. The ideas and practices found in bioregional education are ever-evolving attempts to help children and adults experience and learn about nature, developing an affinity for nature—a positive, personal relationship—no matter where they may live.

One need not adopt the lifestyle of a hunter and gatherer to feel deeply involved with the natural world—although such feelings do not come as easily to those living in modem societies. Direct experience with wild nature is necessary to get something that only this experience can offer. Let us examine some ideas and practices found in bioregional education and appreciate the challenge which bioregionalism offers us.

The bioregional approach believes that the anthropocentric, or human-centered, perspective is bankrupt and responsible for the present ecological planetary crisis. Yet all of us have grown up with this perspective and it permeates our teaching. Our challenge is to go beyond it and develop another world-view which sees humans as one part of the Earth family. This is not a misanthropic rejection of humans as evil, but a proper placing of the human species on the Earth in its natural context. It recognizes the emergence of the human species as part of an on-going evolutionary process which entails not only the evolution of life forms, but the evolution of atoms, molecules, organic compounds, solar systems and galaxies. In doing this the meaning for the human experience is put in the context of the meaning of the entire cosmos.

The bioregional approach recognizes that the universe is one interconnected entity. As astrophysicist Robert Gilman tells us (1993:12): “The laws of physics that apply here on earth also apply, as far as we can tell, everywhere else we have looked…at the quantum level, the physical world is an inseparable whole.” Gilman stresses how modern science is telling us more and more about the interconnections of all things. He argues that our society will face a major challenge in coming to grips with this new world view (1993:11): “Since most of the distinctive institutions of Western civilization…are based on the assumption that the world is composed of discrete units, the idea of interconnectedness rattles the foundations of our whole society.”

Paralleling what the ecopsychologists are now declaring, Gilman maintains (1993:11): “If we are interconnected in these ways, then our full self extends beyond the boundaries of our skin. In a culture based on a deep understanding of such interconnectedness, individuals would be as loathe to hurt their neighbor, or the ecosystem, as we are now loathe to stub our toe.” The challenge for educators is first to deeply realize these interconnections and then to assist children in also learning and experiencing them. Those involved in bioregional education have a commitment to do this and face this challenge directly.

Thomas Berry in discussing the evolutionary process notes (1988:91):

It is especially important…to recognize the unity of the total process, from that first unimaginable moment of cosmic emergence through all its subsequent forms of expression until the present. This unbreakable bond of relatedness that makes of the whole a universe becomes increasingly apparent to scientific observation, although this bond ultimately escapes scientific formulation or understanding. In virtue of this relatedness, everything is intimately present to everything else in the universe. Nothing is completely itself without everything else. This relatedness is both spatial and temporal. However distant in space or time, the bond of unity is functionally there. The universe is a communion and a community. We ourselves are that communion become conscious of itself.

The methods of bioregional education are the methods of nature, and the challenge to learn from nature is the challenge given to us. Berry writes (1988: 167): “There is presently no other way for humans to educate themselves for survival and fulfillment than through the instruction available through the natural world.” The focus is on the natural world and on attempts to seek and experience the “natural” mind. This is the mind knowledgeable about the local natural place—the seasons, the rainfall, the diverse life forms making up the local Earth family, clan or tribe. This is the mind steeped in awareness of the natural forms and processes with which it constantly interacts. Awakening the natural mind is the quest of the bioregional perspective.

The bioregionalists view local ecosystems as nested components of successively larger and more complex ecoregions which together comprise planet Earth. The bioregional vision cannot fairly be labeled provincial or parochial, yet this is the epithet hurled at bioregionalism from those firmly committed to the idea of “globality”. Here we enter into the debate over whether it is better to focus one’s attention on the global level or the local level. This question is partly answered by the cry: “Think globally, act locally”, and partly by the more bioregional answer: “Think and act locally and you can’t help but think and act planet-wise.”

Peter Berg has long warned against the “global monoculture” of modern industrial society. It is a type of thinking which is global, but not planet-wise, not ecological, and not attuned with nature. In fact, it is seen as actually being anti-nature in that it attempts to have people live the same way everywhere no matter what the ecological costs. A good example of this is people in the suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona who attempt, in the Great American Desert, to have the same rich green lawns enjoyed by those living in mesic Kentucky, even though these desert lawns require great amounts of precious groundwater to maintain. This is living in a monoculture where, in denial of ecological responsibility, lifestyle and customs are not adapted to local ecological conditions.

A major thrust in bioregional thinking is the importance of interconnections with other living and non-living things. But unlike more traditional environmental education which sees discrete entities connected to one another in a web of life, the bioregional perspective sees the entities as merging into each other, as losing their (illusionary) separateness. Elan Shapiro explains, “And we think of the wind, and the breezes and the birds and trees as literally a part of ourselves. We still have an integrity. We still have boundaries, but they are very open and inclusive and flexible. That’s a shift in how we think of ourselves when we think bioregionally.” (1993:18). The challenge here is to drop our concentration on the discrete, individual ego and feel our connections with other living and non-living things with an expansive, ecological ego. We’ll breathe in the air which was breathed by other animals, we’ll drink the water which once formed parts of other plants and animals, we’ll eat food and build our bodies with the minerals of the Earth.

Learning and adopting an Earth-centered perspective is immensely difficult for modem people. The bioregional community consists of many people who are facing this challenge in creative ways. Local bioregional “congresses” or gatherings and the biennial continental bioregional gathering are places where people convene to invent new cultural forms that reflect an Earth-centered awareness. Such gatherings are in themselves learning experiences, and for this reason the desire to experiment is strong. The decision to risk a negative or unpleasant experience is made with the hope that participants will discover new means to promote the evolution of an Earth-friendly culture. These are people concerned with how to break the barrier of autism which prevents our modern culture from listening to the natural world and from living in ways which preserve the Earth’s well-being. A review of some of the proceedings of the continental bioregional gathering of 1990 illustrates these concerns.

The Fourth North American Bioregional Congress was held in Maine in 1990. The entire gathering was an experience very different from other types of human gatherings because participants made a conscious effort to listen to nature. Each tried to cultivate a nature-centered (or Earth-centered) perspective, and shed the anthropocentric perspective so familiar to most participants. The report of the Bioregional Education Committee to the Congress describes an event which occurred during the presentation of the education committee’s report to the larger general assembly and discusses some philosophical questions raised by the confrontation.

The presentation of the Education Committee at Friday’s Plenary session was interrupted by Spider (one of four representatives of the natural world whose task it is to listen to the Plenary but keep in touch with the natural world and speak when they feel the interests of the natural world are being violated). Spider objected to having living creatures (spiders explicitly, of course) taken out of their natural habitats and brought into the classroom. The issue pertains to the whole topic of human-nature relationship. The voice of Spider must be heard and listened to.

A principle of bioregional education…is ‘respect for other life forms and all ecological processes’ (Resolution #2). Philosophically, a principle is something from which other things flow. The task the Committee faces is to develop criteria (or ‘norms’) for real life behavior that reflect bioregional principles. In practice, this means that we have to combine idealism with real life situations. In other words, we have to be idealistic but practical.

There are a lot of dilemmas in bioregional education that must be worked out practically without trampling our ideals… how do we bring children closer to nature when we know that very closeness may have some negative impact on nature? We are being told not to bring the natural world into the classroom as an object to be examined—as a ‘thing.’ The natural world and its elements demand more respect than this. Moreover, how much do we really learn by chopping up nature and missing the whole.

A general overview of the 1990 Bioregional Congress reviews the same occurrence (Meeker-Lowry and Tokar in Proceedings of NABC IV 1991:3-4):

The bioregional perspective isn’t easy. It requires that we take risks. This became very apparent during the presentation of the Bioregional Education Committee. Watching Spider from our place on the hill we could sec she was becoming agitated, sad and concerned. It came as no surprise when Caroline Estes…announced that Spider was upset because the (Education) Committee seemed to be advocating that teachers take spiders (and other creatures) from their environments into the classroom…It is understandable why Spider was upset. Spider requested that we take the class to her instead. Human justification followed—a logical statement/explanation about why it might not be possible to honor Spider’s request. The atmosphere felt defensive. The arguments did not change anything, they only served to further separate Spider from us. It was a painful and, for some, uncomfortable moment—and one of the most poignant and valuable of the whole week.

This incident may strike many people as crazy. What they need to understand is that a bioregional congress is itself a learning experience for those involved. The four people who assumed the task of representing the other species did not do so lightly, going through rigorous training at the congress for this task. The second bioregional congress unanimously resolved to establish a protocol which has been followed at the third, fourth, and fifth congresses:

We resolve that NABC III recognize four participants to represent the interests and perspectives of our non-human cousins:

  • One for our four-legged and crawling cousins,
  • One for those who swim in the waters,
  • One for the winged beings, the birds of the air. and
  • One very sensitive soul for all the plant people.

Other participants who wish to keep faith with other species arc welcome; however, those four individuals formally recognized to act as all-species representatives will not participate in any other capacity during the time that they function as representatives. Their role in the congress is partly one of deep stillness, of being profoundly awake, of keeping faith with those beings not otherwise present within the circles.

Affirming that it is a very delicate, mysterious process whereby these representatives are recognized, we choose not to completely codify this process, but we hope that the representatives will be recognized not just by human consensus but by non-human consensus.

Members of this committee suggest that at least two of the four representatives functioning at any time be inhabitants of the host bioregion.

What the bioregional community has instituted at its congresses can best be described as a shamanic presence during the workings of the congress. David Abram (1991:31) describes the shaman as “intermediary between the human community and the larger ecological field.’’ Although the term was apparently never used at the Congress, both the training and the task seem to describe what one could call “temporary or ad hoc shamans.” The volunteers acted as intermediaries between the human and non- human species at the Congress. One of the volunteers described the experience as “exhausting.” Freeman House commented (Proceedings of NABC IV 1991:55-56):

Positioned around the perimeter of the consenting Congress, the practitioners served as channels of contact with other species…At times the creatures were absent and these times were felt with a sense of loneliness; merely human proceedings had already become curiously flat and non-dimensional for many participants in the Congress…[the volunteer shamans] intended to extend the concentration of the Congress beyond the human-centered, and…as an invitation and opening for other species to inform our deliberations.

Thomas Berry states (1988:212):

More than any other of the human types concerned with the sacred, the shamanic personality journeys into the far regions of the cosmic mystery and brings back the vision and the power needed by the human community at the most elementary level. The shamanic personality speaks and best understands the language of the various creatures of the earth…This shamanic insight is especially important just now when history is being made not primarily within nations or between nations, but between humans and the earth, with all its living creatures. In this context all our professions and institutions must be judged primarily by the extent to which they foster this mutually enhancing human-earth relationship.

The basic challenge of bioregional education is to open up the minds and hearts of children to the voice of the Earth, and in this way help them build a positive, caring relationship with the Earth. As the above shows, this begins by adopting an Earth-centered perspective in education. It is also helped by two other factors: building a personal relationship with the natural world and focusing on the local natural place or bioregion.

Building a Relationship with Nature

One of the major ways in which bioregional education is distinguished from mainstream environmental education centers around the ways in which bioregional education attempts to foster developing a personal, close relationship with the natural world especially with the local natural area or bioregion. The challenge facing educators is that before we can help children develop their relationship with nature, we need to have a strong, positive, personal relationship. In many ways this is more difficult for contemporary adults than children.

There is recognition that this special relationship needs to start early in childhood if it is to flower in later adulthood. Children who have friendly, positive experiences with elements of nature in early childhood are forming the critical foundation upon which later experiences can build. No later book learning can replace what can be learned only in childhood. This bonding of the child with nature accompanies the bonding taking place between the child and the parents, and with people in general. With it comes feelings of gratitude toward nature for the bounty it provides. The child learns such feelings through the caring adults around him and like most learning it is not through direct teaching, but indirectly through observation and imitation of the surrounding adults.

A long-lasting, intimate relationship with animals, plants, with earth, air, fire, water, with places and the many other facets of the natural world cannot be developed quickly or through only occasional contact. Regular contact—and this means regular outside experience—seems necessary. And while guided experiences with caring adults are important, so are unsupervised experiences where children can explore on their own and make their own discoveries. Some of this self-discovery will make life-long impressions on them. They are learning to listen to the Earth, and children are open to the voices of nature often more so
than adults.

One response to self-exploration is an increased sense of wonder at the particulars of the natural world. This sense of awe leads to other emotive responses—respect, thankfulness, humility, joy, beauty, and sometimes fear, sadness, mystery, power, curiosity, among others. The diversity of the natural world encourages development of a diversity of human emotions. Where such natural diversity is lacking we find an impoverishment in emotional response, a stunting in the range and depth of emotional development. Paul Shepard (1982) suspects that mental and emotional pathologies might develop in those who have not had sufficient direct contact with nature during the course of their early development. Others document how the experience of a diverse natural environment stimulates a child’s imagination and creativity.

Edward O. Wilson maintains that people have a genetic affinity for other life forms, but this love for nature has to be first triggered by friendly, positive experiences with nature when we are young children. Without these triggering experiences our relationship with nature is stunted and does not fully develop. He refers to this idea as “the biophilia hypothesis.” (see Kellert et al., 1993).

Personal relationships are not developed with abstractions, and this applies to ones with the natural world. Buddhists do not have a personal relationship with the Void the way Jews, Muslims or Christians do with a God that exhibits personhood and personal characteristics. The need to focus on some element or part of nature seems important to this effort. Indigenous people have a lot to teach us in this respect. They do not reverence an abstract “Nature”, but honor specific parts of nature. Authentic caring relationships need to focus on a particular person, place, or thing. Otherwise, we may incur the situation similar to those who claim to love “people”, but have no personal friends. This repeats itself in those who say they love “the Earth”, but have no favorite animal, plant, or place. Abstractions are seductive things, and can mislead us in the effort of building a real personal relationship with the natural world. Fortunately, children tend to naturally focus on the particular and real. It is adults who are beguiled by abstractions.

Focusing on the Local Natural Place

David Orr observes, “Other than as a collection of buildings where learning is supposed to occur, place has no particular standing in contemporary education…Nor are you likely to find many courses offering enlightenment to modern scholars in the art of living well in a place…The importance of place has been overlooked…’’ (1992:126). According to Orr, the integration of place into education is important for four reasons (1992:128-130): (1) it requires the combination of intellect with real experience; (2) the study of place can help solve problems associated with over-specialization since place cannot be understood from the perspective of a single discipline or specialization; (3) the study of place is significant in re-educating people in the art of living well where they are; and finally, (4) knowledge of a place—where we are and where we come from—is intertwined with knowledge of who we are.

There even seems to be a bias in education against learning about our local places. Such efforts are sometimes derogatorily described as “provincial” or “parochial.” The challenge is to include learning about our local places while we also learn about planetary concerns. Moreover, parochialism is not so much the result of what is studied as how it is studied. At issue is learning how to find our place and developing a relationship to our places.

Gene Marshall, a long-time bioregional activist and organizer, describes how he develops his own sense of place, and how he comes to understand how his local place is a part of wider regions of natural life and human living. Marshall sees himself as the center of seven concentric circles (1993:55-56):

My Neighborhood means the most local place in which I live. It could be a few square miles; it could be a few square blocks…

My Community is larger: 5,000 to 20,000 people may live there….Community, as well a neighborhood, does not mean humans only, but rocks and water and vegetation and all local forms of animal life…

My Local Bioregion is a collection of communities within some meaningful boundaries determined by the factors of basic land topography, watersheds, flora and fauna habitats, altitudes, rainfalls, temperatures, and other such factors…It should be large enough to be relatively self-sustaining.

My Sub-Biome means the next larger life-region. It is a nesting together of perhaps 20 local bioregions…

My Biome is that entire grasslands which I am calling The Great Prairie…

My Continent is quite clear to me. I see myself living on what some call North America, but I am using the name “Turtle Island” in honor of this continent’s ancient residents…

My Planet is the clearest category of all…

For Marshall these geographical delineations chart his circles of responsibilities. For him the full meaning of the word “home” is all these circles. He has placed himself and tries to help others find their own place in space and time. Doug Aberley (1993) does the same thing in a more detailed way when he shows people how to locate themselves using techniques of mapping which he describes as “the experience of place.”

His formula is simple: Go out and buy enough 1:50.000 (one mile to one inch) topographic maps so that the place where you live is the center of an area about 50 miles in diameter. Tape the maps together and with marking pens and colored pencils highlight flows of water, changes in elevation, and the boundaries of your neighborhood or small community. With multicolored “dots” show where you live, where your water comes from, and where your waste goes. In the map margins, write the dates of the hottest and coldest days, and list the birds and animals you see. Pin the map on a kitchen wall and marvel at the focus it will become for new insights and old debates. Now you will begin to “see” and understand your own bioregion. With this new knowledge you will care for it, and help others understand it and care for it. This is the challenge of bioregional education.

Literature Cited

Abram. David. 1991. “The Ecology of Magic.” Orion. Summer: 31-43.

Berry. Thomas. 1988. The Dream of the Earth. Sierra Club Books. San Francisco. CA.

Cohen, Michael J. 1988. How Nature Works. Stillpoint Publishing. Walpole, NH.

Gilman, Robert. 1993. “The Next Great Turning.” In Context. 33:11-17.

Kellert, Stephen. R. and Edward O. Wilson. 1993. The Biophilia Hypothesis. Island Press, Washington, D.C.

Marshall. Gene. 1993. “Step One: Mapping the Biosphere.” in Boundaries of Home: Mapping for Local Empowerment, edited by Doug Aberley. New Society Publishers. Philadelphia, PA . pp. 51-56.

Milbrath, Lester.W. 1989. Envisioning a Sustainable Society. State University of New York Press, Albany, NY.

Nabhan, Gary Paul, and Sara St. Antoine. 1993 “The Loss of Floral and Faunal Story: The Extinction of Experience.” in The Biophilia Hypothesis, edited by S. R. Kellen and E.O. Wilson Island Press, Washington D.C. pp. 229-250.

Orr, David W. 1992. Ecological Literacy: Education and the Transition to a Postmodern World. State University of New York Press. Albany, NY.

Pyle. Roben Michael. 1992. “Intimate Relations and the Extinction of Experience.” In a special issue on extinction. Left Bank 2:61-69.

Shapiro, Elan. 1993. “Bioregionalisn: An Interview with Ecopsychologist Elan Shapiro.” Creation Spirituality’. March/April: 17-19.

Shepard, Paul. 1982. Nature and Madness. Sierra Club Books. San Francisco. CA

Farmer” Frank Traina (1943-2014) was an educator and writer. After earning his PhD in sociology from Cornell, he moved to Kentucky to teach at Northern Kentucky University, but ended up devoting himself instead to the farm he purchased in Wilder, KY in 1978. Sunrock Farm hosted educational programs that “raised consciousness,” serving mostly Cincinnati-area children. About 25,000 people visited annually for decades. Farmer Frank also published Pollen, a journal of the North American Bioregional Congress Bioregional Education Committee.

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