Place-based living is something we modern middle class US people can learn to do better.
Seen on a recent bike ride near the Little Calumet River in Highland, IN.
This blog is called “New Backwater” because it is my place to meditate on the places that I’m from, which are “backwater,” “flyover country,” “rural” -type places. They have a lot to offer the world in terms of traditional knowledge, simplicity, connection to nature and food, but they also have histories of conflict, exploitation, racism, violence, and religious fundamentalism. I hope that we can appreciate the places we are from, while also leaving behind that negative heritage that continues to plague us.
One way to think about our “place” is to learn to understand it as a “bioregion.” I was first introduced to this topic when working at the Institute for Central American Development Studies (ICADS) in Costa Rica, by my colleague, ecologist David Norman. We would have our students read a chapter by Kirkpatrick Sale (from his book Dwellers in the Land) to learn about the concept of bioregionalism as an alternative to the idea of “development.”
From the book’s description: “[Sale] emphasizes, among many other factors, the concept of regionalism through natural population division, settlement near and stewardship of watershed areas, and the importance of communal ownership of and responsibility for the land. Dwellers in the Land focuses on the realistic development of these bioregionally focused communities and the places where they are established to create a society that is both ecologically sustainable and satisfying to its inhabitants.”
We would discuss with students questions such as: How can we be more connected with our bioregions? How does the idea of bioregionalism intersect with concepts such as food security or food sovereignty? What does bioregionalism look like in the real world? And how does bioregionalism compare and contrast to the mainstream concept of “development?”
This post will not be delving into all of these questions. Rather, how about we just start with the first one: How can we be more connected to our bioregions? The land, environment (including the celestial bodies) and culture around us? Here are 5 tips for you as you journey to engage more deeply with your own bioregion. It’s also a bit of a round-up, of sorts, of some of the projects I have gotten to do in the past year or so, in partnership with my friends.
Number 1: Take the bioregionalism quiz.
At ICADS we would present this quiz to our students, and take the quiz ourselves. It is humbling to realize that I don’t know as much about the area I live in as I would hope. But the quiz also provides a starting place for things that I need to learn, or pay attention to. Here is the quiz, which comes from Leonard Charles, et al, and taken from this great introduction to bioregionalism:
A Bioregional Quiz
Can you answer the following questions about the area you live in? Each right answer adds one point to your final score. The quiz is self-assessed. If you need to cheat, take it as an indication of how well you know your own environment.
1. Trace the water you drink from precipitation to tap.
2. How many days till the moon is full? (give or take two days)
3. What soil series are you standing on?
4. What was the total rainfall in your area during June and July of last year?
5. When was the last time a fire burned your area?
6. What were the primary subsistence techniques of the culture that lived in your area before?
7. Name five native edible plants in your region and their season(s) of availability?
8. From what directions do winter storms generally come from in your area?
9. Where does your garbage go?
10. How long is the growing season where you live?
11. On what day of the year are the shadows the shortest where you live?
12. When do the deer rut in your region, and when are the young born?
13. Name five grasses in your area. Are any of them native?
14. Name five resident and five migratory birds in your area.
15. What is the land use history where you live?
16. What primary ecological event/process influenced the land form where you live?
17. What species have become extinct in your area?
18. What are the major plant associations in your region?
19. From where you are reading this, point north.
20. What spring flower is consistently among the first to bloom where you live?
0 –3 You have your head in the sand. 4 –7 It’s hard to be two places at once when you’re not anywhere at all. 8–12 A fairly firm grasp of the obvious. 13–16 You are paying attention. 17–19 You know where you’re at. 20 You not only know where you’re at, you know where it’s at.
(based on Where you at? — A Bioregional Quiz, Leonard Charles et al.)167
Number 2: Measure some trees
My colleague, David Norman, gave me the challenge to take my kids out in our yard and measure the circumference of the four largest trees nearest to our house. From working with him in Costa Rica, I know that learning the circumference of a tree is one step on the way to determining the basal area of a forest, or the amount of tree biomass. And the identification of the species helps to determine the biodiversity of a forest. But I suspect that he was having us do it just to get us out in nature and learning about our bioregion. Here are our results. What about you?
Clockwise from top left: Red maple, 21.5 inches; Birch (at base): 50 inches; American elm: 38 inches; Other maple (can you help me with the ID?): 38 inches.
Number 3: Identify some birds
Another activity that is fun and easy to do on your own or with kids is to identify birds in your own yard, or a nearby forest. These days, one can use either a field guide book to help identify a bird that you don’t know, or you can use the Merlin ID app on your phone, from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Once you identify the bird, you can learn about if it is native to your area, a migratory bird, what it eats, and what it might need to be healthy.
If you have access to binoculars, I would suggest you try to see the bird in the specs; they are so much more beautiful that way.
My spirit animal, the rose-breasted grosbeak.
Number 4: Grow something edible
There is really nothing like the satisfaction of eating something that you grew yourself. Last year I was so nervous about trying to grow tomatoes and peppers from seeds, but I didn’t like the expense of buying new plants every year. I learned about the milk jug method for starting seeds in the winter, before it’s warm enough to have “regular” seedlings outdoors.
Advantages: It’s a nearly foolproof method! It saves money! It gives a new use to those plastic bottles you feel bad about tossing/recycling! It makes winter seem shorter because you get green seedlings even when it’s freezing outside! Learn more about the method here.
Also, you can get tips on gardening from my friend Libré Booker of Living Green Garden.
The babies, snug in their jugs.
Number 5: Rethink your lawn!
Related to Number 4, the Calumet Artist Residency here in Northwest Indiana has a very cool coloring book called Rethinking Your Lawn, which has “Tips for helping your soil, supporting pollinators, feeding your family, and fighting climate change.”
I remember when I was in grade school or high school, and we had a project in biology class to redesign our own yards to be more sustainable. We had to take out the grass (that requires so much watering and chemical upkeep), and put in native plants, strategically placed trees to minimize climate control in the house, and more. This is a great book with great ideas, and it’s fun and relaxing to color!
The Calumet Artist Residency is doing some very cool work related to gardens and nature in our region.
I'd love to hear about your bioregional connection practice! Write to me to tell me all about it!
Thank you for reading the New Backwater blog! I hope that you find ideas and perspectives here for making connections between the US and Latin America, for finding balance by leveraging tools of the past with lessons of the present, and for achieving transformation to make the world a better place. I'm trying to work on these things every day, and I'm grateful you're sharing that journey with me.
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