It’s a warm summer evening at Light Morning. I have just settled down to read the newly-arrived Summer 1986 issue of Katuah, the Bioregional Journal of the Southern Appalachians. It’s a homespun publication run by a volunteer crew of artists and activists, poets and homesteaders. Gary Snyder has called it the best bioregional publication in the U.S. Growing out of the mountains of western North Carolina, Katuah Journal comes out quarterly. This is Issue 12. One of the early issues had laid out its guiding theme.
“Here in the southern-most heartland of the Appalachian mountains, the oldest range on our continent (Turtle Island), a small but growing group has begun to take on a sense of responsibility for the implications of that geographical and cultural heritage. This sense of responsibility centers on the concept of living within the natural scale and balance of universal systems and laws. We begin by invoking the Cherokee name Katuah as the old/new name for this area of the mountains and for its journal as well.”
I glance through the pages. There’s a report on a highly successful state referendum to oppose the storage of toxic nuclear waste in western North Carolina. This is followed by a hand-illustrated article on growing shiitake mushrooms. Then comes an account of the scarab beetle. The author believes that “dung beetles,” once sacred to the Egyptians, might potentially help process human waste.
Two book reviews come next. The first covers Susun Weed’s The Wise Woman Herbal For the Childbearing Years. The second review is for The Freshwater Aquaculture Book. It includes detailed plans for designing a trout farm.
Subsequent articles explore the sacred and medicinal uses of tobacco by the Cherokees; the virtues of Sun Roots (a.k.a. Jerusalem Artichokes); and a scientific/poetic view of how the Appalachian mountains were formed over the vast reaches of geologic time.
Then, after a children’s story called The Willow Tree, I see a notice about the second North American Bioregional Congress, or NABC II. The gathering will take place in August on the shores of Lake Michigan. Although I have little money and many communal homesteading responsibilities, I feel unaccountably drawn to attend.
The notice opens with a passage from “Bioregions: The Context for Reinhabiting the Earth,” an article that Thomas Berry wrote in 1984. “The larger functioning of bioregions,” Berry believes, “leads to a consideration that the Earth be viewed primarily as an inter-related system of bioregions and only secondarily as a community of nations.”
Despite my practical misgivings, I honor the subtle inner nudge and send in a registration for NABC II.
Due to a ride-sharing program, I end up traveling to the bioregional congress with Jim Berry. In 1980 Jim established the Raleigh-based Center for Reflection on the Second Law. He also turns out to be Thomas Berry’s brother. On our round-trip journey to Lake Michigan we have long discussions about Katuah, Light Morning, and the bioregional vision.
Two years after returning home I receive an unexpected invitation to participate in a bioregional seminar with Thomas Berry. His pivotal book, The Dream of the Earth, has just been published by The Sierra Club. My invitation apparently grew out of those far-ranging conversations that Jim and I had during our ride to Michigan.
Since the World Wide Web won’t appear for another several years, the format will be a six-month correspondence group. The initial focus will be the same essay by Thomas Berry that Katuah Journal had referenced, “Bioregions: The Context for Reinhabiting the Earth.” (The full essay can be found here.)
For each of the following sessions the participants will be able to submit one 8 x 11 letter to Stan, the facilitator of the correspondence group. He will then make xerox copies of all the letters he receives for that session and send a complete set to each of us. We can respond to Thomas’ essay, or to one another’s letters, or we can follow our own inclinations.
What follows are the first two letters I submitted to this bioregional seminar. My final three letters will be posted next week.
Letter 1: 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 on to the Mississippi and south to the Gulf of Mexico). We have been here for about 15 years – “we” being a small intentional community that is currently comprised of 6 adults and 2 children, not to mention a number of households down the road, plus many more scattered throughout Floyd County. Our other neighbors include the deer, turkey, bobcats, copperheads, chipmunks, oaks, and maples that were here long before we arrived.
In response to Tom’s lucid essay, I would like to share several recurring questions or concerns 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, both old and new, have been proposed. Choose one we must, consciously or otherwise, and our choices will have a profound effect on 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 connection 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 do my bodily and household “wastes” go? What is the true environmental cost of the electricity I use and 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 and respond to the bioregions of my body is a constant challenge. Rising to this challenge enhances my ability to listen and respond to my wife, my daughter, my friends, my garden, and ultimately to all the other creatures with whom I share these ridges and valleys.
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 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 Jim and Tom Berry, by my participation in NABC II, and by my experiences in this ever-so-slowly evolving Katuah lifestyle. I’m hopeful that we will be able to explore at least some of them together during this seminar.
Letter 2: December 1988
Hello again. I enjoyed spending time with the first set of responses to Tom’s essay. Quite a return on investment. I sent out one letter and got 23 back! Thank you, Stan, for your initiative and for offering us this wonderful opportunity.
I was moved by everyone’s clear concern for the Earth and was 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 that J. Linn Mackey spoke my mind when he asked, “What are humans? Where do we belong in the scheme of things, and what is our role?” He then went on to say that “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 potentially “so beautiful and different that a very high price must be paid for it.”
These kinds of questions, this search for a new story, is highly significant. For how we see ourselves as a species greatly shapes how we see ourselves as individuals. Our self-image, moreover, largely determines not only how we see and relate to others – other people and cultures, other races and species, the other gender – but also how we define the limits of what we can do and be.
Tom has likewise spoken to the need for a new story. The one he has articulated (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 passionately accept this story. For them, Tom is preaching to the choir. Their main focus is to spread the message and actualize the bioregional vision.
Others, myself included, want to step back for a moment and question the adequacy of the foundation; to assess its “carrying capacity.” I would like to ask Tom and the rest of you, for example, some of the same questions that I keep asking myself. First, is our alienation from the Earth and our local bioregions the cause of our personal and collective problems? Or are these cascading crises, including our estrangement from the Earth, symptomatic of a more fundamental alienation?
Second, when did this separation from our biological and planetary matrix occur? If we tentatively assume that in an earlier time our species was more intimate with the needs and gifts and seasons of the Earth, then 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 we ate that caused us to be cast out of Eden?
If so, then who is figuratively to blame? The weak “man” who succumbed to temptation? The seductive “woman” who offered the fruit? The subtle “serpent” who planted the seed of disobedience? Or the inscrutable “god” who created the man, the woman, the serpent, and the irresistible tree and then demanded an impossible abstinence?
Finally – and growing inevitably out of my earlier questions – is the bioregional goal of “re-inhabiting the Earth” essentially a call to repentance for having eaten the fruit of that forbidden tree, so that we may return to the Garden and restore our lost Edenic oneness with the Earth? Or was the so-called 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 a not-yet-fully-realized purpose? If so, what might this purpose be?
What story, myth, or metaphor, in other words, will allow us to remain open and responsive to the rising planetary tide of suffering and despair without indulging in self-recrimination? Without yearning to return to an earlier era of naive simplicity? Without throwing an unrecognized baby out with the bath water?
My gut feeling says that a practical, bioregional, biocentric vision and lifestyle are crucially needed in these times. It also warns that the foundation for such a vision and lifestyle can’t be built on a set of underlying assumptions that may no longer be relevant or viable. Bioregional awareness is but one beautiful story being chanted around an evening fire, under the stars, by a circle of storytellers. Many thanks to all of you, and especially to Tom, for sharing your stories.
[The final three letters I wrote for this bioregional seminar will be posted next week.]