How to be a Bioregionalist

Part 1: An Overview

By David Haenke

Bioregion. A life region. A geographical area whose rough boundaries are determined by non-human, rather than human, forces. Bioregions are distinguished from one another by characteristic flora, fauna, water, climate, rocks, soils, landforms, and the human settlements and cultures to which these features give rise.

Bioregionalism is a way of life that is both a viable path for the future and an embodiment of the most ancient, time-tested knowledge of our species. Bioregionalism sees all things through ecology, the root laws and principles of life itself. It is a unique way of defining and understanding the place where we live, and of living there sustainably and respectfully.

Bioregional principles and practices are “new” only for people raised under the influence of Western industrial-technological society. Its essence has been reality and common sense for native people living close to the land for thousands of years. At the same time, bioregional concepts are valid in terms of science, technology, economics, politics, and other fields of “civilized” human endeavor. Using ecology as the discriminator, bioregionalism takes the best and most presently relevant of the old, and synthesizes it with the most appropriate of the new. Bioregionalism is the most thoroughly ecological of all twentieth century movements. Its principles apply equally well to urban and rural regions. Furthermore, they have the potential of uniting people of diverse cultural and economic backgrounds.

The bioregional movement is evolving in theory and practice of integrated systems of ecologically based economics, agriculture, forestry, technology, law, governance, politics, education, health care, energy, and everything necessary for the human dimension of a given bioregion to function sustainably.

All this is done within the context of maintaining or restoring the whole life community (which includes all other species and ecological entities, such as trees, animals, plants, bodies of water along with humans) under ecological laws and principles. This inclusion of nonhuman in the definition of community is vital. Indeed, one of the basic tenants of bioregionalism is the notion of “eco-centrism”, where existence is seen from a life-centered perspective, rather than human-centered (anthropocentrism) one (transcriber note: “kincentrism” is another term used in bioregionalism where existence is seen from a relationship-centered perspective).

Bioregionalism is an active alliance with the Earth, in virtually every dimension of our individual and collective existence. It is the eventual confluence of all the sanity there is left on the planet.

farm_muralPart 2: Practical Suggestions

By Beatrice Briggs

You may be a bioregionalist and not even know it. Here are some telltale signs that identify members of this growing tribe, and some suggestions for getting started down the bioregional path.

1. Revise your address.

Bioregionalists tend to answer the question, “Where do you live?” in terms of boundaries of the local ecosystem, rather than those of the nation-state. For example, my own bioregional “address” is located in the shadow of Blue Mounds (elevation 1,716, called “wee-hau-kaja” or “high place with a wonderful view,” by the Winnebago) in an unglaciated area, formerly oak savannah, tallgrass prairie and wetlands, now primarily agricultural, under increasing pressure by housing developers, on Ryan Creek, tributary of Elver’s Creek, tributary of the Wisconsin River, tributary of the Mississippi. A lot more information than if I had simply recited my postal address.

2. Track the energy flows.

Water, food, and fuel are essential for human life. Find out where your drinking water comes from and where local wastewater goes. Become knowledgeable about watershed issues. (Hint: a watershed is an area drained by a body of water, shuch as a lake or river. Everyone lives near one.) Know how far your food traveled to get to your plate and the conditions under which it was grown. Make an effort to eat locally grown, seasonal and organic produce. Where I live, that means strawberries in June, not January, and no lettuce in the heat of July and August. Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. Kick the petroleum habit. Go solar. Support (or develop) the local economy rather than the transnational one.

3. Become passionate about maps and mapping.

The minute you start looking for maps of your bioregion, you will discover the frustrating inadequacies of most existing ones. Street maps obscure the geographical features. Topographical maps ignore the vegetation. Vegetation maps leave out the historical sites. Watershed maps stop abruptly at county, state, and national borders, even though water flows on. Consult Boundaries of Home edited by Doug Aberley, for a useful introduction to cartography (available as part of a mapping bundle from Planet Drum).

4. Discover the “real” names and totems of your place.

Too often current names reflect only the relatively recent human history of the area. Go beyond the names of the head royalty and foreign colonizers to learn the ancient names, which are usually more evocative of the original character of the landscape. If the area still retains its indigenous name, find out what it means. For example, “Chicago” comes from a Neshnabeck word meaning “place of the wild onion”. The local bioregional group, therefore, is called the Wild Onion Alliance and its totem plant is the Allium cernuum, a prairie species, one of several native onion plants which perfume the air of remnant wild lands in the early spring.

5. Make a calendar. Name the moons.

Collect information about the seasonal cycles in your area. Find out when the native plants bloom, when the birds migrate, the animals mate, the young are born. Identify the times of greatest danger (of heat, cold, drought, flood, smog, traffic, gang warfare, etc…) as well as times of opportunity. Ask knowledgeable residents, “How do you know when spring/summer/fall/winter (or the applicable seasons where you live) arrives?” Based on this data, give a bioregionally appropriate name to each of the thirteen moons. Avoid the tendency to identify everything from the human perspective. (Transcriber note: Additionally, consider tracking your own personal and relational energy flows as the moon waxes, goes full, and wanes.)

6. Take a walk. Document your discoveries.

Get out and discover the sacred places in your bioregion. Go on food or other non-motorized conveyance. Invite family members, friends and young people to accompany you. Bring field guides, history books, maps, and, if possible, a local to show you around. If a group is doing interesting work in a particular area, ask for a special tour. Better yet, ask if you can help out for a day or an afternoon. Whatever you do, take a camera, notebook, and/or sketchbook to record your impressions and experiences. This documentation will help you remember what you saw and will enable you to more easily share your discoveries with others.

7. Tell a story. Sing a song.

Learn the natural and human history of your area and try to tell it in a way that captures the attention of both children and adults. Learn – or invent – a song about your bioregion. Sing it at feasts, festivals, and while washing the dishes.

8. Throw a party.

Celebrate the distinctive characteristics of your bioregion with rituals and celebrations. bring people together to honor the full moon, solstices, equinoxes, first snowfall, melting of the ice at winter’s end, harvest, beginning of the rainy season, time of the annual grass fires, or whatever makes sense in ecosystem terms. Keep it simple. Involve both artists and scientists. Share food. Dance with the spirits of the land.

9. Get a project.

Find some aspect of the bioregion which needs help: a polluted waterway, an endangered species, deteriorating neighborhood, city council, school park, wild place, and get involved. Form a team of folks who share your concern. Make decisions by consensus (Transcriber note: do this after everyone has taken a workshop on consensus!). Put out a newsletter. Rock the boat. Have fun! (And join the Cascadia Education Project as a fiscally sponsored project!)

10. Grow roots.

Building strong local communities requires people who sink deep roots into the soil. Deal with the neighbors, elected officials, and ecosystems at hand, rather than constantly seeking utopia elsewhere. When you live where you want to be buried, you know you are home.

David Haenke is one of the founders of the bioregional movement on Turtle Island (an ancient name for the North American continent) and is director of the Ecological Society Project of the Tides Foundation. He lives in the Ozarks, where he is currently managing a sustainable forestry project in the Bryant Creek Watershed. He can be reached at dhaenke AT

Beatrice Briggs is one of the founders of the Wild Onion Alliance and has helped organize several Great Lakes Bioregional Congresses. She currently serves as the coordinator of the Turtle Island Office, in which she has been very involved in preparations for the upcoming bioregional gatherings in Mexico. She can be reacehd at briggsbea AT

(NOTE: This was originally crafted in 1996. Profiles may be out of date).

Transcribed by Elona Trogub in 2014 for the Cascadia Education Project

Uncopyrighted 1996. Please copy and distribute freely!
Download and print a copy.

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