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.
Spring, seep, or glacier, creek, stream, river or “kicking horse” blasting to the sea, deep pools underground, marsh, estuary, confluence, delta or tide-flat, lake, sound, inland sea and the ocean deep—these are only some of the many faces of the waters.
One’s watershed address is crucial because the waters give life to the land. Reacquaint yourself with your local stream or river—often it’s like going back in time, to the forgotten part of town. Fish or run your river, find the headwaters, hike the divide, follow its life-course through the valley, sail the bay….
In orienting each other toward your common watershed address, the basic question is: which way do the waters flow? For watershed both joins and divides the rainfall, snow, and runoff, establishes directions, apportions the waters, and reveals the basic lay of the land.
Watershed provides a significant frame of reference because it represents a whole and distinct life-context. From high edges to low centers, there are many linked habitats and evolving communities. In Ish River bioregion, for instance, there are many different habitats: salt water (surface and deep), salt-fresh estuaries, beaches of different types (sand, mud, or cobble, exposed or protected), floodplains large and small, thick lowland forests unique in the world, prairies, plateaus, highland forests, alpine communities, and so on, many of which are differentiated one from another by localized differences in topography, aspect (sunlight or shade), micro-climates, soil types, and, above all, the way in which the waters flow through. Feel the river systems as veins pulsing in your hands, arms, legs, the land circulating its life through you.
Human habitation, too, largely depends on rivers, floodplains, deltas and estuaries. Agriculture on precious alluvium or loess (like the Palouse); ports are trans-shipment points; cities and core regions at major confluences of regional rivers, and so on.
Watercourses also sculpt the land, inscribe a special history into the face of the landscape itself. Landforms and watercourses go together. If rivers are knives, then glaciers are plows. River means “to rive” as well as to run, to cut down into, incise the landscape’s own memory into its living face. Water in all its forms carves out the curved face of the land, gives it character. Character is how we are carved out by the world, how we come to a consistent form of action.
Imagine rivers as the current between mountains, sea, and sky. Watersheds thus represent not only a unity of landscapes from high edges to low centers, but also a temporal wholeness as well—the hydrological cycle. Rivers serve as that part of the continuous air- ocean-sky-earth-air recycling of the waters above and below—the great hydrological cycle which medievals saw as emblematic of “the wisdom of God”—most apparent to us. The waters in all their forms and phases represent the gift of life as a series of transformations or “give-aways.” Water cycles are the very symbol of the intricate crossings of this earth and that sky.
Excerpted from “Coming Home: On Naming and Claiming your Bioregion,” 1986.
David McCloskey, the “Father of Cascadia,” is the director of the Cascadia Institute. A former Seattle University professor, he began teaching a class called “Cascadia: Sociology of the Pacific Northwest” in the late 1970s, and coined the term “Cascadia bioregion” in 1981. He’s created maps of the bioregion that include many natural features and zero political borders. Find more of his work at cascadia-institute.org.
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