Watershed Councils: The Communal Essence of Bioregionalism

by Jeffree Mocniack

This piece was originally published in Cascadia Spoke, a community publication dedicated to raising awareness of the Cascadia movement and bioregionalism.

“In and through community is the salvation of the world.” –M. Scott Peck

Community has become my mantra. It graces me in my days of homesteading and awakens me from the narcissistic tendencies of my own prerogatives. There is a deep guidance to be had from the act of doing community, a wisdom lost to modernity, but present still in the cultures nearly obliterated by continuing waves of colonization. We settler colonialists of “western” heritage have replaced the deep interconnectedness of community bonds found between members of clan and kin with affinity groups of the disconnected. Joined merely in interest, preferred identity, aspiration, or desire, our technology-facilitated attempts at community neither reinforce the bonds of kinship nor allow us to belong anywhere. Were we to fully achieve place-based community, we would surely realize the bonds of kincentricity – the deepest expression of connection, solidarity, identity, reciprocity, wisdom, and belonging.

The premises of this short essay are: that community is necessary for humans to thrive; that our communities derive from empathic connection and should be fully inclusive (including the more-than-human); that communities, like ecosystems, that exist in fractals and bioregions are one fractal of human/ecosystem community spectrum; and that watersheds, both in form and function, offer a timely opportunity to realize bioregional community. While there is a book’s worth of material to cover here, consider this an introduction to the idea that bioregional organization and practice can provide community-based alternatives to the exploitative societal constructs of modernity.

Let us first acknowledge that many of our current problems stem from a legacy of disconnection. It has been an implicit aspect of civilization to divide and conquer. Many tools have been created to this end: social, economic, religious, academic, technological, and organizational. These tools have systematically divided life according to gender, race, species, class, ability, and origin. All of these divisions contribute to the general conflict, commodification, and exploitation that is history’s march towards “progress”. While many tactics for confronting the problems inherent in civilization are valid and necessary, perhaps the most profound is that of the way we inhabit our land-base, for to commit to place is to find ourselves grounded in a bioregional reality, amongst a community which includes all who live there – and the guidance to be had from creating lasting bonds with them.

It is not enough to merely bound land in an identity and slap a flag on it. This furthers a separation mentality. Such thinking is the basis of nationalism and xenophobia and is what humans have been doing since the earliest waves of colonization. It’s the antithesis of living the weave, to being woven into the fabric of life. A bioregional approach to living is eco-systemic – it requires an interconnectedness that can only organically manifest when one lives in reciprocity and mutuality with the totality of life processes in a shared place. In essence, it looks like being neighborly to our neighbors – all of them. It looks like being in solidarity with those affected by our actions, including, and perhaps most importantly, the taking of their lives for our own survival.

The ultimate expression of solidarity is sustained empathy – staying with the trouble as Donna Haraway puts it. This trouble encompasses ongoing empathy in the face of the many challenges that arise from being in relationship, especially with those not of our immediate blood relations. It has become so easy to walk away, to tune out, to forgo the challenges of compromise, to forget what lives are sacrificed for our own comforts and survival. A profound spiritual insight develops from the empathic practice of returning to the plight of others, time and again, to understand their intrinsic value as it is tied to our own. The only thing that compels us to this refrain, this sustained resonance of lives concurrently lived, is repetitive interaction. Chasing rabbits from the lettuce bed yet again, grumbling disapproval for the neighbor’s ongoing disregard of blight accumulation, yanking at an unwanted and unyielding “weed” that encroaches ever into our domains – these are the troubles of relating in place and it is the call of our epoch to place empathy and compassion above consternation and anti-social tendencies, in service to solidarity. For it is true in one way or another, as Ben Franklin stated, “we must indeed all hang together, or most assuredly we will all hang separately”.

The empathic resonance at the heart of community calls for us to be in service, but in service to what? To neighbor Carl’s crazymaking and drama? To the unending removal of plants deemed “invasive”? To the dictates of ever-shifting political winds? What can we attach ourselves to in this service that has staying power and a lasting quality which accumulates all our successes, and gains perspective from all our failures? What we seek is the connective tissue of culture. From our day-to-day repetitive ongoings, patterns emerge which speak to traditions, to rituals, to shared identity in action and presentation. We gain culture by reinforcing the systems which outlive our individual selves. As a “holonic fractal” (repeating patterns that are simultaneously a collective of constituents and a constituent of something greater) of community, culture is in essence a collective of communities at the scale of the bioregion. Culture becomes bioregional when grounded in place, attached to the patterned groups of beings participating in the connective tissue of life unfolding and co-evolving. Bioregional community breaks bread together, and honors harvests in gratitude to the ancestor’s consideration of seven generations hence, and considers their impact on the seven generations to come. Bioregional culture can communicate the shared understanding of over 50 terms for snow, the ways that flora and fauna respond to specific weather patterns, the nuanced timing for the return of salmon to their natal river system.

We have opportunities to intentionally nudge our cultures in preferred directions. While it is often thought that culture creates values, so too can we apply values derived from a shared connection to place and its inhabitants, to our evolving cultures. This is a participatory act. It is best undertaken from a grassroots approach. Just as plant roots derive sustenance from healthy soil, so too can we expect the healthiest expression of culture to manifest from bonds rooted in the soil of shared place. Unfortunately, the prerogatives of empire via established economies and states create impediments to a free expression of relationships forged out of mutuality. This is where consciously designed alternatives can begin to provide opportunities for community collaboration which can lessen the influence and impact of globalized, mono-cultural forces.

When attempting to apply the bioregional perspective to alternative building, it helps to think in terms of containers. These are the organizational structures we apply to our collective decision making, starting at the most intimate of relationships and extending, fractally, to the bioregion and beyond. Journalist Malcolm Gladwell once stated that “if everyone had to think outside the box, maybe it was the box that needed fixing”. Yes indeed, our boxes need fixing. In fact, they might be best repurposed as sheet mulch for that which we intend to nurture in their absence. For far too long humans of civilization have attempted to place boxes on the land and around life in the forms of kingdoms, states, jurisdictions, and property. We are being called now to recognize new containers to hold our transforming cultures, containers given us by the communities of life which beckon us to join them – bioregional containers. Think of these containers as nested dolls, or layers of an onion, fitting naturally one inside of another (holonic fractals of ecosystems). And consider that each layer becomes manifest through the recognition of unique patterns of life interacting, an amalgamation of climate, hydrology, geology, plants and animals in their overlapping habitats, and human cultural expression as it has existed over millennia. If we pay close attention and participate as one amongst a multitude of equals, what at first seems like illogical wilderness with scattered inhabitants pursuing individual aims, instead steps forth from the milieu as a body made of uncountable constituents, a biological super organism with its many cells and moving parts.

To further the question of applying this perspective to organizing, what can we grasp from this as yet ephemeral view of the world to make practical? It’s here that we catch our thread. In the reweaving of our worldview, and in looking to the life forces of which we are a part for guidance, what better to show us the way than water? We all live in a watershed, and it is the hydrological flow within landscapes which give rise to the shape of the land itself, and the expressions and connections of life found therein. This substance, water, is life. The containers in which water flows and life connects are, as Brock Dolman so aptly calls them, our “basins of relations”. Thus, watershed organizing seems obvious when life values are paramount. Firstly, because hydrology is a key element of bioregional alignment. We can follow the hydrological thread into a more complete understanding of all the bioregional elements which define one’s home place. Secondly, as Amy Sheaffer put it, “water is a resource that refuses to obey political or ideological boundaries. In this way, a watershed serves as an excellent arena for place-based pedagogy.” Learning to live in place is aided and abetted by water and the patterns of nutrient flows and hence ecosystem arrangements (the bioregional communities we seek to align with). Stated more scientifically, it is also now widely recognized that “the watershed is among the most frequently used spatial units of analysis in an ecosystem approach to resource management”[Sheaffer]. If we are attempting to see life not as resources, but as kin, as I myself am advocating, the watershed facilitates the ecosystem approach, which is an articulation of that container we are looking for as we undertake symbiotic cultural transformation.

The application of the watershed approach is multifaceted and immediately accessible. It starts within. We are watersheds. How we think of ourselves, our health, and the flows of nutrients and energy within ourselves, begins the journey from our own “headwaters” into the watershed beyond. At the level of the homestead, we can enter into a conscious relationship with the flows of water interacting with varied surfaces. We gain the imperative to create healthy water cycles in the living systems of our homestead infrastructure. By doing so we can improve our daily interactions with our home place by fostering water’s ability to nourish our gardens and green spaces, and to infiltrate into the land and integrated systems of capture for dry-season use. We can facilitate the filtration from water from any substances not beneficial to downstream areas. This, in essence, is applied permaculture with water glasses on. Outwardly, through the tributary, we connect with neighbors to rally around restoration initiatives and occupational alternatives, which benefit from a better relationship to water and its flows. We daylight urban streams. We communicate with farmers to encourage healthier food and hence healthier water relations. Our widgets, technologies, and resource use become appropriate when in service to right relationship with healthy hydrology. At the level of streams and rivers, we come together to do council (direct democracy), gaining from work already done in watershed councils, adding more mutual aid aspects and building capacity for considering our watershed councils as clearinghouses for community solidarity.

“Strong people don’t need strong leaders.” I’ll leave you with those words from Ella Baker to consider. We are truly the ones we have been waiting for. The power is in our hands to fundamentally shift things in our world gone awry. Let us not waste time and energy begging the powers that be. Let us be the change we wish to see in the world. The watershed beckons. Our bioregional brethren will catch us if we stumble. In and through community will be the salvation of the world.

Jeffree Mocniak is an inhabitant of the Wind River valley of the Columbia Gorge, and a communitarian, homesteader, and culture change agent.

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