Along My Goat Path to My Bioregion

Text and Photographs by Neva Knott

As I make lunch, pondering the blog post I need to write today, a crazy rain begins. Moments ago it was sunny. I had the slider to the back yard open for the dogs, and all of the windows open to let in the clean fall air. Now, rain comes down in a fury. Large drops plash and make wide rings that jump back up off surfaces. Water flows over my gutters. I rush to shut the slider, only to find a stand of water on the floor. I mop it, and then move around the house, shutting windows and wiping floors–rainwater has come in through each opening. As I throw the wet towels into the washing machine, I remember reading something in my Facebook newsfeed about a typhoon that will sit off the west coast this weekend. I conduct a quick google search, and I find Typhoon Vongfong, headed for Japan, the biggest storm to hit the planet this year. One report suggests the west coast will get some blowback from Vongfong. I concur.

An hour later, as I sit down to write this post, the third wave of the storm hits. I had planned to write about bioregionalism, that intense commitment to living where one lives, but Vongfong has reminded me of the interconnectedness of all things, and the importance of global awareness. When I read of storms like this one, I am reminded that we’re all facing environmental disaster and that we’re all in it together. We–and by this I mean all humans on this planet–have got to find a way to change how we live in relationship to the natural world. Super-storms are going to blow and humans are mere mortals in the face of them. But the poisoning of the ocean from nuclear waste leakage from reactors at Fukushima or the desecration of the ocean via an oil spill like the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico are within human control.

So, even though global awareness is important because the interconnectedness of the planet’s life-sustaining systems is undeniable, bioregionalism is a fail safe in the face of today’s environmental threats.

Peter Berg, a Haight-Ashbury activist, is credited with coining the term “bioregionalism.” The website for his foundation, Planet Drum, gives this definition:

“A bioregion is defined in terms of the unique overall pattern of natural characteristics that are found in a specific place. The main features are generally found throughout a continuous geographic terrain and include a particular climate, local aspects of seasons, landforms, watersheds, soils, and native plants and animals. People are also counted as an integral aspect of a place’s life, as can be seen in the ecologically adaptive cultures of early inhabitants, and in the activities of present day…attempt to harmonize in a sustainable way with the place where they live.”

In my last post, I mentioned wanting to get to better know where I live, Olympia, Washington. I was born here. Then we moved overseas. We returned when I was in the eighth grade. I graduated high school here, spent about a year after working at a pizza joint, and then moved to Portland, Oregon, just two hours south. I lived in Portland for most of the next 32 years (except for a short stint back in Oly to finish my undergrad degree at The Evergreen State College).

But where to begin here? I know I live in the Cascadia Bioregion and in the Puget Trough ecoregion. Yet, as I sat down to write, my bioregion seemed too big to break down into a blog post. I looked through my graduate school texts and papers. I traced my steps to knowing Oregon, and I realized so much of my Oregon study was a continuation of the experiential knowledge I had of those landscapes, gathered over 30 years of road trips, hikes, camping, and beach walks. In that realization, I found my plot for this writing.

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Image: wiki commons

I decided to follow my goat path. My mom coined the term “goat path,” that route each of us travels daily from home to work, barn to fodder…

***

It’s Saturday. I begin the day by walking the dogs in the middle school sports field below my house. A buffer of mature Douglas fir, Big Leaf Maple, and Alder–all indigenous species–separate the row of homes from the track, baseball diamonds, and soccer pitches. As the dogs go on, sniffing for scents from deer and coyote, I look back at the trees and ponder subdivision development then and now. My whole neighborhood was build with tall trees left standing, whereas today’s developers clear-cut, leaving nothing but dust on the plat before they begin to build. Crows, jays, robins and bats live in my trees and killdeer find habitat in their understory. There’s a slight downslope between two parts of the field. In the rain it fills enough that Mallard ducks and Canadian Geese stop off to rest and swim.

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After the dog walk, I make a cup of tea, don my yoga clothes, and head down town to The Yoga Loft. En route, I stop at the co-op. I’ve had a membership there since college, since 1987. I grab a nut and seed cookie, chat with the volunteer cashier, pay and keep on. As I leave the co-op, which is just a mile from my house, on the corner in a residential neighborhood (but nonetheless a hub), I decide to take the back route down the hill.

I like the view–a part of the Port where lumber awaits shipment. Though deforestation is a significant environmental concern, logging is part of the cultural and economic reality here and, thankfully, the ways of the industry are changing in favor of sustainability, albeit to varying degrees.

Then it’s across the bridge over the confluence of Capitol Lake and Budd Inlet, both of which form the mouth of the Deschutes River as it flows into Puget Sound.

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Image: DERT

The salmon run just passed through these waters a couple of weeks ago on its way up the Deschutes to spawn. Each year, at least now, someone puts letters on the bridge rail, S-E-E T-H-E S-A-L-M-O-N H-E-R-E, an attempt at community environmental education, I guess. When I was in college, it was legal to fish on the Sound side of the bridge when the salmon were running, but not on the lake side. That’s how we ate one winter; each day, my housemates and I stood on the bridge and fished until we had the day’s limit.

I park along Water Street, and walk down to the lake. Mallard ducks fly over the water. Runners run, walkers walk–some with coffee. Dogs sniff. The wind blows. On occasion, I’ve seen a Blue Heron fishing off the shore. And, unfortunately, trash floats long the surface of the water.

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Of current debate is the proposal to remove the dam that makes Capitol Lake a lake rather than the estuary for the Deschutes as it enters Budd Inlet. It’s a man-made lake designed to be the reflection pool for the state capitol building that sits on the hill above it. The lake is currently closed to swimming and boating because of several ecological problems such as high levels of river sediment, fecal coliform bacteria, infestation by Eurasian milfoil the New Zealand Mudsnail. I swam in this lake as a child.

The Yoga Loft is in the old American Legion building. I don’t always know how yoga fits within my sustainable perspective, but today I am reminded. As class begins and the teacher reminds everyone not to go to the place of pain, she references the yogic principle ahimsa, do no harm. She actually says, “Usually we think of doing no harm to others, animals, and the environment…” and that’s when I connect.

After class, I pause before getting in the car, looking around my immediate surrounds. Much of the time I find Olympia to be boring. I’m used to the bright city lights, literally and metaphorically, and to the easily accessible Oregon natural landscape. As I pause this morning, I realize that this landscape–Olympia–is where I learned about the natural world, where I learned, from my dad, about living in accordance with nature’s rhythms and the planet’s natural resources. I vow to get to know this place better, in the here and now.

I take the main road back up the hill. Westside Central Park sits at main intersection before I turn right toward home. This corner plot stood abandoned and derelict for years. Last spring, someone bought it and donated it to the community. It now blooms and is slowly becoming a little respite in the flow of goat paths.

So back to this idea of the bioregion. It’s a place that shares biological features. Those features support life for all of its inhabitants. The inhabitants, in turn, promote the health of the bioregion by caring for it and by living within it. In a simple sense, my goat path carries me through my bioregion: through the trees left standing when my house was built, to the corner store where most of the food comes from local farms and all of it is made as sustainably as possible, past the waterways that carry the salmon that feed all the peoples of the Pacific Northwest. All points on my goat path intersect with like-minded, friendly people doing their parts to live more lightly on the earth.

***

When I first read this passage from Brian Doyle’s novel, Mink River, I thought, that’s my bioregion, spelled out:

“Neawanaka has been a settlement of one size or another for perhaps five thousand years. Human beings lived here for all the normal reason you can name: it is well watered, with small but persistent creeks to the north and south, a small but serious river running right smack through town, and an Ocean. There are trout in the creeks, salmon and steelhead run up the river and creeks seasonally, and perch and halibut and cod and such swim not too far offshore; there are so many fish of so many kinds in and around the town that for perhaps five thousand years the name of the town was So Many Fish in the native tongue spoken here. There are deer and elk in the spruce and cedar forests. It hardly ever snows in winter and hardly ever bakes in summer. It does get an unbelievable amount of rain…and the rain starts in November and doesn’t really end, as a continuous moist narrative, until July, but then those next four months are crisp and sunny and extraordinary times, when every living creature, from the pale cloudberry close to the eagles the size of tents floating overhead, is grinning and exuberant.”

After reading this passage, I thought, no need for anything from elsewhere–this place can support itself. This is the point of bioregionalism–it precludes reliance on goods and services from outside. Bioregionalism is steeped in regional relationships that support sustainable use of natural resources for  all the needs of all the region’s inhabitants. And this is why I call bioregionalism a fail safe for the resource-depleted times to come.

***

They say, when the worst happens, that climate refugees will come here to the Pacific Northwest, largely because we’ll still have water. Though the sky has turned back to crayon blue in the time I’ve been writing and the clouds are once again puffy and white, today’s storm is a reminder that climate change is upon us, and that nope, we’ll not run out of water in these parts any time soon.

And as the world continues to change, here in Olympia, we’ll continue to adapt. We’ll better understand that man-made lakes might make pretty mirrors for man-made buildings, but that clean water and viable habitat is more important. And I’ll continue to hope that all the climate refugees will not come here. Instead, I hope everyone begins to understand how to live bioregionally–to find find their own versions of a healthy salmon run and their own versions of an inhabitable, clean-water estuary, so that they can feed themselves from the bounty of the places they live.

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