A Bioregional Seminar — The First Letter


The following five letters were contributed to a Bioregional Seminar that was conducted by way of correspondence. Fifteen to twenty people from across the country, most of whom had attended the second North American Bioregional Congress in Michigan in the summer of 1986, participated. The focus of the Seminar was an essay by Thomas Berry, a prominent spokesperson for the bioregional movement.

In the first letter we each introduced ourselves and responded to Tom’s essay. In the succeeding letters we were free to develop our own ideas and/or to respond to Tom or to any of the other participants. I imagine that all of us felt enriched by the exchange of letters. It was a wonderful opportunity to learn both from one another and from the process of trying to articulate our own beliefs and feelings.

The First Letter
(November 1988)

Greetings from the northern borders of Katuah, where the headwaters of the Roanoke River, which runs east to the Atlantic Ocean, meet those of the much older New River, which flows north to the Ohio and then south to the Gulf of Mexico. We’ve been here about 15 years—“we” being a small, intentional community, currently comprised of 6 adults and 2 children, not to mention a number of households “down the road”, plus innumerable more scattered through the county, plus all the deer, turkey, bobcats, copperheads, chipmunks, oaks and maples that were here long before we arrived.

I met Jim Berry in the summer of 1986. He gave me a ride to Lake Michigan, where we attended NABC II. (Thanks again, Jim, both for the ride and for the notice about this seminar.) As a further introduction, and also in response to Tom’s lucid essay, I’d like to share several recurring questions or concerns or growing edges pertaining to the theme of bioregions.

First–What story or metaphor offers the most creative insights into why humanity appears to be so suicidally obsessed with the desecration of Gaia? Many stories, old and new, have been proposed. Choose one we must, consciously or otherwise. Our choice will have a profound effect upon how gracefully we respond to the seemingly insurmountable problems and opportunities that confront us as a species.

Second–To what extent am I willing to wrestle with the direct connections between my personal lifestyle and the exploitation of the Earth? Where does my food come from, when I trace the various items of my diet back to their source? Where does my bodily and household “waste” go? What is the true environmental cost of the electricity I use, the car I drive? Does my participation in the current economy (the specific ways in which I earn and spend my money) feel comfortable to me, even under close scrutiny?

Third–Is it possible to divorce the health of my body from the health of the Earth, or to work toward the well-being of one while ignoring the needs of the other? Learning to listen to the bioregions of my body, and to respond to their needs, is a constant challenge. Rising to this challenge deepens my ability to listen and respond to my wife, my daughter, my friends, my garden, and, ultimately, to all the other creatures and species with whom I share these ridges and valleys.

And finally–How willing am I to use my immediate environment (my body, my community, and my daily life) as a crucible or proving ground, within which radically new patterns of belief and behavior may emerge? This close-to-home, down-to-earth work, these humble and humbling attempts to stretch into a greater measure of empathy and integrity, seem to me to be the inescapable prelude to any truly meaningful involvement in the wider arena of my bioregion.

So these are a few of the underlying questions that have been awakened by my exposure to the ideas of Tom and Jim Berry, by my participation in NABC II, and by my experiences in this ever-so-slowly evolving Katuah lifestyle. I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to explore at least some of them together during this seminar.

A Bioregional Seminar — The Second Letter

The Second Letter (December 1988)

Hello again. I enjoyed spending time with the first set of responses to Tom’s essay. Quite a return on investment–to send out one letter and get 23 back! Thanks, Stan, for your initiative and your efforts. This is a wonderful opportunity.

I was moved by everyone’s clear concern for the Earth and encouraged by the diversity of viewpoints. Perhaps of most interest were the scattered expressions of the need for a new story. Some were implied; others direct. I felt J. Linn Mackey, for example, speaking my mind when he asked, “What are humans? Where do we belong in the scheme of things, and what is our role?” And then going on to say, “Some deep and informing vision of our new planetary and even cosmic role seems essential…”

Frank Traina likewise struck a responsive chord with his exploration of various windows through which we might choose to view humanity: as a “planetary cancer rapidly metastasizing”; or as “one of many ‘mistakes’ of nature–an experiment that failed”; or as an experiment that is as yet unfinished, and one that is potentially “so beautiful and different that a very high price must be paid for it.”

These kinds of questions and choices, this search for a new story, is highly significant, given that how we see ourselves as a species greatly shapes how we see ourselves as individuals. And how we see ourselves as individuals (our self-image) profoundly affects not only how we see and therefore relate to others–other people, other sexes, other cultures, other races, other species–but also how we define the limits of what is possible for us to do and to be.

Tom has likewise spoken to the need for a new story. The one he has chosen (i.e., the emergence of exploitative anthropocentrism and the transition to a participatory biocentrism) is the foundation upon which the edifice of bioregionalism seems to be built. Some of those responding to Tom’s essay can easily accept this foundation. For them, Tom is “preaching to the choir”. Their main focus is on how to spread the message and/or how to implement this version of the new story in a practical way; how to actualize the bioregional vision.

Others, myself included, want to step back a moment and consider the adequacy of the foundation; its “carrying capacity.” I would like, for example, to ask Tom some of the same questions I keep asking myself.

First, is our sense of estrangement from the Earth and from our local bioregions the cause of our other problems, both personal and collective, or are these many problems (including our alienation from the Earth and its bioregions) symptomatic of a deeper, more fundamental alienation?

Second, when did this separation from our biological and planetary matrix occur? Assuming that in an earlier time our species was more intimate with the Earth–its needs and gifts and seasons–how and why did we lose this precious intimacy? Was it due (as you suggest, Tom) to the development of our “scientific and technological skills”? Was this the forbidden fruit whereof we ate, causing us to be cast out of the “Garden”?

If so, then who (figuratively speaking) is to blame for our predicament? The weak “man” who succumbed to temptation? Or the seductive “woman” who offered the fruit? Or the subtle “serpent” who planted the seed? Or the inscrutable “god” who placed the subtle serpent, the seductive woman, the weak man, and the irresistible tree within the Garden and then demanded an impossible abstinence?

Finally, and growing inevitably out of the earlier questions, is the bioregional goal of “re-inhabiting the Earth” essentially a call to repentance for having eaten of the Tree of Knowledge, so that we may return to the Garden and restore our lost Edenic intimacy with the Earth? Or was the “fall” from grace, from biological and bioregional integrity, from an easy and innocent attunement with our fellow creatures, in some mysterious and disturbing way a necessary alienation? Does it perhaps serve some deeper, more inscrutable, not-yet-fully-realized purpose? And if so, what might this purpose be?

What story, myth, or metaphor, in other words, might help us remain open and responsive to the rising planetary tide of suffering and despair without indulging in self-recrimination; without yearning for a return to an earlier era of innocence and simplicity; without throwing the “baby” out with the bath water?

My gut feeling says that a growing, practical bioregional and biocentric vision and lifestyle is crucially needed in these times. It also says to be careful not to build such a vision and lifestyle on certain old and tenacious assumptions that may no longer be relevant or viable. And it says that bioregional awareness is but one beautiful theme being chanted around the evening fire, under the stars, in a circle of storytellers. Thank you all again, and especially Tom, for sharing your stories.

A Bioregional Seminar — The Third Letter

The Third Letter
(February 1989)

Joyce had a strong dream last night. I had stayed up late, searching for a focus for this letter, and went to bed asking for help from my dreams. In the morning I awoke disappointed. Nothing. But then Joyce, who had no conscious awareness either of my searching or my asking, who hadn’t even known that I was working on this letter, shared a surprisingly powerful dream. It’s as though, in some uncanny way, her dream came in response to my own unspoken need.

In the dream she is attending a workshop on environmental issues. Many of the people attending this workshop are railing against the government or the corporations for their unresponsiveness to the critical problems facing the planet. Joyce is moved to say, with great emotion, that we have no right to demand radical changes from those “out there” when we ourselves are unwilling to effect comparable changes in our personal lives.

“The changes that we must turn to first are personal,” she emphasizes. “And they’re going to have to be radical.”

She then uses herself as an example of radical personal change, briefly recounting some of the alterations in her own lifestyle over the past 15 years—giving up electricity, running water and television; drastically reducing her level of income; learning to rely upon home health care, home education, and home-grown food; exchanging her personal car for a community vehicle…

Her intent isn’t to brag or to set up her lifestyle as a model or pattern, for each person’s circumstances are unique. It is her intent to be brash and abrasive. She concludes by actively challenging everyone to examine their own lives; to see if they are asking the same sacrifices of themselves that they are asking of Dow Chemical or the House of Representatives.

“Does your desire for change,” she asks,”run deeper than the mere willingness to recycle aluminum cans or send $25 to the Sierra Club? That’s a worthy goal for some, but not for us. We must become willing to consider inconvenient, even impossible changes; changes sufficiently radical to disrupt and transform our personal lifestyles!”

What strikes me this morning, upon hearing her dream, is its sharp contrast to waking life. Joyce doesn’t enjoy speaking before groups and only rarely gets riled. “Brash” and “abrasive” are two of the last words I’d choose to describe her. Yet in the dream she was outspoken and provocative, seized by a sudden and compelling realization of the magnitude of the impending changes.

Joyce takes the dream figuratively, as representing various portions of herself. As such, she finds it somewhat threatening. “Even in the dream,” she tells me, “I understood that although a person may have made a radical shift, a further octave is being called for. It’s an ongoing process. No one can afford to become complacent.”

While agreeing with her assessment of the dream as being largely symbolic and personal, I also feel that it came in answer to my own asking from the night before, and therefore take this opportunity to share it with you. The crocuses and daffodils in our front yard join me in wishing everyone an enjoyable and transformative spring.

A Bioregional Seminar — The Fourth Letter

The Fourth Letter
(April 1989)

As we near the end of this seminar, and prompted by Joyce’s dream, I want to share some of my growing edges as I try to bring the bioregional question more clearly into focus in my daily life. What follows are some of the outer or lifestyle concerns. Next month I’ll attempt to touch the inner challenges.

Transportation We have no car. Pay a friend mileage for occasional use. A well-rooted dependency here, despite the awareness of high financial and environmental cost. We keep asking, “Is this trip really necessary?” Deeper needs and issues are clearly at work just below the surface–freedom, mobility, independence. A car can easily serve as a surrogate for these underlying needs.

Fuel We heat with wood and use photovoltaics for electricity, trying to lessen our contribution to high-power lines, acid rain and nuclear waste. Yet smoke from wood stoves can be a significant pollutant, and all the new DC gadgetry can sure be alluring. Current challenges include keeping a rein on how many amps we “need”; burning only dry, well-aged wood; improving our insulation; and incorporating more passive solar technology as a heat source.

Entertainment We seldom make the long trip to town and have no TV. The alternatives are rich and traditional, yet slow to develop–storytelling, dream-sharing, the almost lost art of conversation, massage, homemade music, visiting neighbors.

Income We try to minimize our need for income, thereby lessening our dependence on the cash economy. This enables us to turn more directly to one another and to the Earth for our needs. Learning to simplify, and to generate a small but adequate income at home, is what we’re currently working toward.

Parenting A strenuous and illuminating struggle. Constantly wrestling with the tendency to try to control my children in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Direct parallels to the repression of women, minorities, third world countries, Gaia herself. It goes deeper than exploitation. A hidden, archetypal fear of intimacy, of spontaneity. Strange how what I most deeply fear is what I most deeply desire. Children bring the challenge home.

Waste We have no indoor plumbing, but haven’t yet converted our outhouses to solar composters. Likewise, we turn our kitchen waste into compost, and do some other recycling, but need to do more. The county landfill is filling up, and the alternatives aren’t appealing. Composting is a marvelous dream or sacrament–an outward and visible sign of an inward and interpersonal process. How do we transmute our mental and emotional excrement into nutrients?

Education As Lauren approaches traditional school age, the question of home schooling looms large. Many of the values, objectives and root assumptions of public education feel deeply inappropriate, given the world in which she’s going to be living. Yet the time, energy, clarity, empathy and consistency needed for home education is daunting. Underneath all the problems, however, I sense a wonderful opportunity.

Health This one gets scary at times, as when difficult decisions to forego immunizations or medical insurance come up against a case of whooping cough or the appearance of a breast lump. Basically (and while trying to claim the dream), we mistrust orthodox medicine’s divorce of the human body from the human heart and soul, and its subsequent pre-occupation with the treatment of symptoms. Exploring the healing virtues of local plants, adopting a healthy lifestyle, and learning to listen to the quiet wisdom of the body as it speaks through our dreams and intuitions, offers an indigenous, if not anxiety-free alternative.

Food Our community diet is vegetarian. We grow close to 50% of the food we consume. The desire to make our diet even more indigenous comes from health considerations; from the ethical uneasiness of being tied to modern agricultural practices; and from wanting a more direct connection with the Earth. The resistance comes from the appalling amount of time and energy it takes to grow one’s own food; from our conditioned appetites; and from our misuse of food as a surrogate for affection. Living in community makes these issues more complex, but the goal more attainable.

Time to plant some carrots and potatoes. Warm spring greetings to you all.

A Bioregional Seminar — The Fifth Letter

The Fifth Letter
(June 1989)

The outward growing edges that I shared in the last letter, while important, are not truly radical. To be “radical” one would have to explore the “roots” of a problem. And my concerns about food, transportation, and waste are more like twigs and branches. There is an obvious and intimate relationship between the roots and the branches of a tree. Yet the entire tree may be cut down, and if the roots are left intact they will send up a surge of new sprouts to take its place.

In trying to feel my way into the roots of the predicament that we, as a species, seem to have created for ourselves, I find myself in the presence of an unsettling mystery. The mystery has to do with fundamental questions about my ability (or rather inability) to trust. Some of these questions were unexpectedly presented to me during my first exposure to bioregionalism.

In August of 1986, I traveled to Lake Michigan to attend the second North American Bioregional Congress. This was unusual, as I hadn’t attended any kind of conference or workshop for over l0 years. A practical, rational, familiar voice thought that going to NABC II was a crazy idea. “There’s no money to pay for it,” said the voice,”no way of getting there, and no real interest in any of the specifics that are going to be presented.”

But something kept nudging me, gently insisting that I go. So I went.

Arriving at dusk, I pitch my tent in the woods near the shore of the lake, where I can hear the waves. I go to sleep still not knowing why I have come, but feeling good about being here.

Just before dawn, however, I am seized by a oddly terrifying dream.

In the dream, I am in a small room. It is dimly lit by some sort of candelabra or tin candle that is hanging from the ceiling. I am extremely apprehensive. Suddenly I realize that all the shifting shapes, the patterns of light and darkness, are my own shadow. This realization so terrifies me that I throw up, and then awaken myself from the dream.

The dream is so disturbing that I go down to the lake to meditate on it for a few minutes before the Congress gets under way. Immediately, from somewhere deep inside, comes the words, “You are trying to control your life because you don’t trust it.” Then comes the awareness that I likewise try to control the Earth because I don’t trust it. And those who are close to the Earth, to life, I also mistrust and attempt to control: indigenous peoples, women, children. Here lies the roots of racism, sexism, and other forms of repression.

Taking out a piece of paper, I quickly scribble down the words that had come. But instead of writing, “You are trying to control your life because you don’t trust it,” I inadvertently write, “You are trying to control your life because you don’t trust ‘in’.” The Freudian slip shows me that when I don’t trust life, and therefore seek to control it, then I will also mistrust and attempt to control my own “innerness,” even while seeming to honor it through such practices as dream-work and meditation.

What this challenging insight suggests is that the hidden fear and control of the inner by one who meditates is comparable to the subliminal racism or sexism of one who overtly supports, for example, the struggles of women and minorities while unconsciously clinging to the very set of core beliefs and attitudes that perpetuate this repression. Or like someone whose admirable bioregional efforts may serve to mask an unrecognized but crippling mistrust of the Earth that he or she is trying to save.

But who is it that doesn’t trust life, that doesn’t trust the Earth? This is the thorny, unsettling question that I have been wrestling with in the months and years that have passed since these insights were received on the shores of Lake Michigan. My body trusts. Other creatures—snakes and squirrels and baby skunks–they trust. As a young child I trusted.

Yet some more recent facet of myself (call it the ego, the personality, the surface self) has come to believe that the Earth isn’t a safe place. That it can’t be trusted. How can that be?! Why did we set aside our childhood acquiescence to life, our easy acceptance of grace, when the web-work, the seamless robe within which the many know themselves to be One, is so present, so apparent, such a given?

Not that I feel as though I have “fallen” from grace. Or sinned. Or made some terrible mistake. Or foolishly lost or maliciously repudiated it. Rather that, for some deeply mysterious reason, I have stepped outside of that grace; have pretended to ignore it; have come to deny the Oneness, the beauty, the numinosity.
The consequences of this creative denial are terrible to contemplate, let alone experience—our repression of women, children and indigenous peoples; our exploitation of other species; our compulsive consumption; the mistrust of dreams and impulses and emotions; the stifling of breath and sexuality; the gut-wrenching fear of the unknown.

From these same roots of mistrust and alienation, however, there may yet grow a noble tree. Somehow, not despite the mistrust and the alienation but because of it, there may yet come a deeper trust; a reconciliation with those whom we have feared and abused; a restoration of grace; an awakening.

For children pass through the awkward and turbulent stresses of adolescence. And clusters of green grapes ripen only slowly on the vine. It would be misleading, therefore, to judge the sweetness of the fruit, or the temper of the child, if that judgment were to be made prematurely. Even so, it may be premature to judge the species.

In the growing faith that this may be so, I would wish that each of us might find the strength and the patience, the sense of wonder and the sense of adventure, the sense of humor, that will be needed as this new story of what it means to be human takes root within and among us. And I would hold the prayer that, as a proving ground for this slowly gestating story, we might each use our families and friends, our bioregions, and our daily lives.