The Owyhee River. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons
By Neva Knott
My personal introduction to bioregionalism came during a cross-state Oregon road trip with some housemates in 1991. I lived in a 13-person artist’s house. All of us were also avidly outdoorsy. Every few months, someone would suggest a spur-of-the-moment jaunt somewhere, and we’d pile gear and food and ourselves into the large Suburban that sort of functioned as the communal adventure wagon. For this trip, we had formed a bit of a caravan, with the Suburban and two small pick-ups. We had been camping on the Owyhee for a few days at a place known to some as three rivers. This place was on the desert plateau, with clay bedrock and few trees. Wide-open skies. Desolate, except for the fun we were having by being out of the city. We’d swung southeast to visit Silver City, an abandoned mining town. It was October, which translated to afternoons in shorts, drawing, painting, photographing, and swimming in the river mixed with waking to snow on the ground some mornings.
On the drive back, I was about to throw a banana peel into the woods and was admonished by the more rigid and imperious males—the one housemate I didn’t like— because that fruit is not of my bioregion, and I would have messed up the ecosystem by putting an invasive, though biodegradable, item into it. This really was the first time I’d heard this word; my dad was a biologist, ever concerned about the trace humans left behind when out in nature. All he’d taught me was that it was ok to through biodegradable food waste into the bushes—it might become a small morsel of food for a critter, and it would decompose into the soil, no worries. Bioregionalism, I learned then, was the idea that one should live within the natural limits of the place. We had some brief and general discussion about it, and that was that—until I began my Master’s work at Green Mountain College.
Oregon’s Bioregions. Map courtesy of Oregon.gov
In between the time of that camping trip and my enrollment into my graduate program, I learned the life of a banana grown for commercial consumption. Conventionally grown bananas come from trees that stand knee-deep in fertilizer and pesticides. These chemicals are harmful to the fruit growers, and stay with the fruit as it travels to you. Most often, conventionally grown bananas are picked, shipped, stored, and “re-greened” through exposure to gas while warehoused, so that they arrive in the grocery looking just ready to ripen. By the time a banana grown in the fruit region of Mexico, Central or South American arrives at my grocer, it is contaminated. Not only have several chemicals been applied to the fruit itself, the processing, storage, and transportation use up a lot of fuel and other resources. Just one banana has a large toxic footprint. I was not just putting something biologically invasive into that distant Oregon landscape, I was putting layers of chemical residue into the flora and fauna.
The first class in the Master’s of Science of Environmental Studies program at Green Mountain College is Bioregional Theory and Practice. The main text for the class is LifePlace by Robert L. Thayer. He says that a bioregion is a unique region definable by natural rather than political boundaries with a geographic, climatic, hydrological, and ecological character capable of supporting unique human and non-human living communities. As one who walks around outside looking at the sticks, shrubs, mountains, trees, and critters, I decided immediately that I liked this guy’s thinking.
Since the banana peel incident, I’ve put thought or at least musings into this idea, and often, on other road trips, have considered the scope of bioregionalism. So what, really, is it? Peter Berg, founder of the Planet Drum Foundation, is responsible for coining the phrase. Through this foundation, he put the idea of living locally out to the masses in the early 1970s. In his early work, he defined a bioregion as a place with a pattern of natural characteristics, “A bioregion is a whole life-place with unique requirements for human inhabitation so that it will not be disrupted and injured.” Bioregionalism, for Berg, is a movement with three goals—restoration and maintenance of local natural systems; practice of sustainable ways to meet basic human needs; re-inhabitation.
Re-what? Re-inhabitation. Living as an inhabitant of the natural world of one’s bioregion. People live, work, eat, and play in relation to naturally rather than politically defined areas, and sees this deep rooting in place as antidote to the rootless, stressful, modern life.
Neighborhood Bull, Redmond, OR. Photo by Neva Knott
I lived in Central Oregon at the start of the 2009 recession. The phrase, Make Local Habit, sprung up in quick response to the devastation. Those three words are my definition of bioregionalism. When I think of bioregional living here, I think of Central Oregon making it on it’s own. The region is largely farmland, but it doesn’t seem to really feed the residents—most of the food at the grocery is trucked in from elsewhere, while most of the farm goods are exported—beef, dairy, garlic, alfalfa, wheat, hay, seed crops, potatoes. The area is pretty dependent on outside sources. Most of the goods and services are big-box, cutting out small business opportunities. Instead, I want to see local food in locally owned groceries—this state has the natural resources to completely feed itself.
To practice making local habit, I then took it upon myself to commit to the 100-mile meal. I got my Oregon map out of the car glove box, measured out the distance in length, and drew a circle to show the radius of 100 miles from home. That’s the part of the state I could buy food from. That area became the bioregion of my diet. I began to shop only at stores that post where the food is from, and stopped buying anything shipped from far away. I went to the farmer’s market and was easily able to feed myself with produce, goat cheese, and smoked turkey off local farms. When I couldn’t buy local, I bought regional, limiting my choices to within the radius. I’ve sourced my food in this way for four years now, and I know with each purchase I do a little for the land, and a lot for the local economy.
Even though we live in a global economy–the global village–much can be gained by living a little more, well, where we live. In connection to communities, and to the land.
And I did cut out bananas, for a long while.
Garlic Field, Madras, OR. Photo by Neva Knott