8 05 2008

The North American Bioregional Congress is coming to Tennessee in 2009.  Its three hundred or so participants will arrive at The Farm, in Summertown, next September. They will spend a week in intensive interaction, and then journey back to their respective bioregions, inspired through communion at the Congress to ever more deeply reinhabit their home watersheds and bring their friends and neighbors back–or is it forward?–to Earth as well.

What in the world am I talking about?  BioregionsCommunion?  At a CongressReinhabit their watersheds?  Maybe I’m the one who needs to get “brought back to Earth”?

Well, thank you for your concern, but I feel pretty well grounded.  I am reinhabiting the place I live–staying home a lot, learning my local flora and fauna, water cycles, weather, dirt, and my human neighbors–though sometimes that seems like the hard part.   It’s the culture we live in that has come ungrounded.

Now, in the course of human events, it has become obvious that the political system we have built since 1776 no longer serves us, or most of the other inhabitants of the planet–human and otherwise–either.  We need to reimagine our relationship with our communities at all levels.  Politics is a function of culture, and to truly and deeply change our politics into something that will work in the coming centuries, we have to initiate a culture change, a psychological and spiritual change that starts with renewing and revisioning our felt connection with the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the plants and animals that make it possible, as well as the way we relate to our children, our mates, our families, and our friends. The North American Bioregional Congress is a safe space in which to join with like-minded people and do all that.

“Bioregonal”?  What’s “bioregional”?

A “bioregion” is, to quote from the North American Bioregional Congress’s website,

A geographical area whose boundaries are roughly determined by nature rather than human beings. One bioregion is distinguished from another by characteristics of flora, fauna, water, climate, rocks, soils, land forms, and the human settlements, cultures, and communities these characteristics have spawned. “Local community is the basic unit of human habitation. It is at this level that we can reach our fullest potential and best effect social change. Local communities need to network to empower our bioregional communities. Human communities are integral parts of the larger bioregional and planetary life communities. The empowerment of human communities is inseparable from the larger task of reinhabitation — learning to live sustainably and joyfully in place.”

and a “Congress,” in the Bioregional view, is

a way of holding a working meeting of fully-participating, well-informed, aware equals who see themselves in some sense as representatives—officially or unofficially, formally or informally—of groups, or organizations, or movements, or ideologies, or philosophies or of regions or watersheds, or of natural ecosystems, and plant and animal communities. It is an assembly of peers working consensually in a representational capacity. In this a congress is much different than what we commonly call a “conference”.

In order to allow this community of equals to fully form and maintain coherence, there are no “drop-ins” allowed.  Participants come for the whole thing, or not at all, and that includes the media.  Everyone helps with the cooking, the cleanup, and the childcare.  This is not a “conference.”

At a “conference,” attendees’ main duties are to show up for workshops and meals and have food and information poured into them.  At a “conference,” there are well-known outside speakers, big-name entertainment, and a set schedule of workshops.  A “conference” tries to draw in as many people as it can. This ain’t no stinking conference.  This is do-it-yourself, participatory, and by invitation–and, by the way, you are invited.

This temporary village is considered a “sacred space,” not in any narrow, sectarian sense, but in the broadest possible terms–that the gathering of this intentional community for the purpose of reconsidering everything from one’s most intimately personal thoughts and attitudes to the state of the planet is itself a holy purpose and that all participants are worthy of respect.  Rituals and blessings are shared and invented.  Lives get changed.

Bioregionalism goes far beyond mere “environmentalism.”  Here’s another quote from the website that explains it better than I could:

While environmentalism does much good work in consciousness raising, it is only a part of what must be done. Environmentalism fails to propose comprehensive and systemic change at all levels — based on ecology. Bioregionalism does, reaching for something far deeper and more holistic that must be manifested.

Bioregionalism is an all-inclusive way of life, embracing the whole range of human thought and endeavor. It advocates a full restructuring of systems within a given bioregion, orienting toward regeneration and sustainability of the whole life community. This inclusion of the nonhuman in the definition of community is vital. Indeed, one of the basic tenets of bioregionalism is the notion of “bio-centrism,” or “eco-centrism,” where reality is viewed from a life-centered or ecologically centered perspective, rather than from a human-centered focus (anthropocentrism).

Bioregionalism speaks to the heart of community. If we are to continue to live on Earth, the definition of community has to include all the living things in our ecosystem. Without the flowers, mammals, insects, trees, birds, grasses, and the living soil and waters in community with each other, we would not be here at all. Humans need other life forms in order to survive. Without a respectful, cooperative relationship with others, we are both physically and spiritually impoverished. Without their ecological teachings we are ignorant and cannot know how to live.

Elsewhere on the website, somebody comments, “If you think you’re an independent organism, try seeing how long you can hold your breath.”

The bioregional movement is a seed for a new human culture, one in which the proposals of the Green Party, so often a voice crying in the wilderness, would be as sensible and obvious and implemented as the next breath you take.  We need a new culture and a new politics, and we’re running out of time to get on the road there.  Got ideas?  Bring ’em to the North American Bioregional Congress.  We’ll listen.

music:  Kate Wolf:  “Medicine Wheel”


13 01 2008

In the heady days of the 1960’s and 70’s, when it seemed like our time was coming any day, we began to re-imagine the world. It was, and is, easy enough to point out how crazy things are–but what would “better,” radically better, look like?

By “we,” I mean those of us who were hippies not for the sex, drugs, and rock n’roll, (although, to be sure, we appreciated them!) but because we were (and in many cases still are) visionaries who could not sit down, shut up, and work like normal ants–I mean, people. We saw the artificiality of political boundaries, and the reality of natural ones, like watersheds and biological communities. We saw the futility of trying to make ignorant people change their ways through legislation, and found the satisfaction that comes from walking our talk and teaching by example. We founded magazines and movements like Co-evolution Quarterly, The New Alchemy Institute, Esalen Institute, and the Farm, and, for a while, seemed poised to turn the entire state of Vermont into a countercultural domain.

Two visionaries in particular found their tongues and began to frame a movement with a name. The name was “Bioregionalism,” and the visionaries were Peter Berg and Raymond Dasmann; and true to the bioregional ideal, they were very different, but very complimentary.

Dasmann was the older of the two by a generation, and perhaps not ever technically a “hippie,” but certainly a visionary. He did study at UC Berkley as an undergraduate, but that was before World War II, which turned him into a soldier and sent him to New Guinea. By 1970, he was travelling the world for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, and thus became one of the first scientists to get a global view of the ecological situation. His globetrotting brought him to the first UN environmental conference, in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1972, which is where he met Peter Berg, who, while also a Californian, had been treading a very different path.

Peter Berg had been a member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe in the mid-sixties. The Mime Troupe, which still exists, specializes in radical street theater. Berg, in 1966, had the inspiration to take it one step further. That further step has come down to us as “The Diggers,” a group that tried to radically alter human relationships by making everything a free work of art–food, clothing, shelter, medical care. They were in effect the backbone of the seminal Haight-Ashbury counterculture community, and when it was ultimately overwhelmed, Berg found his way to a small commune way, way up in the Sierras. It was from there, as a self-appointed representative of the North American counterculture, that he went to the UN conference in Stockholm.

Berg’s meeting with Dasmann resulted in the creation of Planet Drum Foundation, an organization which to this day promotes a wholistic view of this world we live in. Berg used Planet Drum as a platform from which to convoke a “North American Bioregional Congress,” which he saw as parallel to the convocation of the first Continental Congress. His hopes that it would result in a radical reorganization of North American politics have not yet been realized, but the first North American Bioregional Congress is the point at which this story starts to become locally relevant.

Milo Guthrie, an herbalist and activist from the Nashville area, wanted to go to the bioregional congress–but only delegates from bioregional councils were entitled to attend. So he formed one–the Cumberland and Green River Basin Bioregional Council, named for the two major river systems (besides the vast Tennessee River basin itself) that define our area. The group’s name has conventionally been shortened to “The Cumberland Greens” and confused with the Green Party, which is inaccurate, although there is a relationship–the “Comittees of Correspondence” (another borrowing from the first American Revolution) that were formed out of the NABC did in fact form the nucleus of the Green Party of the United States.

“The Cumberland Greens” are not a political party, but a bioregional council—a group of people from around the bioregion who do our best to fully inhabit the places we live, to eat locally and dream globally. We meet to share our strengths and visions and take what action we can, and yes we know we are carrying a banner that was passed down to us from the hippies of San Francisco. We will be meeting January 19th at Brookmeade Congregational Church here in Nashville, and you and your visions are welcome to come. Contact Eric at for further details.

music: Incredible String Band, “Douglas Traherne Harding”


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