Of Borders and Bioregions

Tom Bristow is exploring the bioregional imaginary to examine the ways that literary studies can unpack the politics of emerging cultural and ecological formations.

Locating an activist and discursive movement in the Pacific Northwest 

Surely one of the intentions of literature is just this: to acquaint us with the dangers of and to coax us into intimacies with the landscapes we wear.
Robert KroetschA Likely Story: The Writing Life

I’m looking at the link between polis and habitats, and whether relations here indicate forms of habitus. This wordplay derives from my interest in environmentally sustainable and equitable ––and therefore transformative–– forms of identification with place. Between August and November last year I crossed the 49th parallel north eight times as I explored the people, poetry and places of ‘Cascadia’: a bioregional independence movement that will consist of Washington and Oregon in the United States, and British Columbia in Canada.

Throughout more than thirty meetings of activists, farmers, grass-roots groups and town councils within a period of four months, I witnessed lyrical defences of environmental resources (or amenities) and visceral attacks on corporate polluters, loggers, and pipeline constructors (or developers). I combined these experiences with visits to the libraries of the University of British Columbia, University of Washington and the University of Oregon peppered with literary talks, poetry slams and the odd excursion to a bookshop or two. I was looking for a new ‘voice’ to inform my writing on Australian regions and their literature; what I found was a phenomenon distinctly North American and yet global, too.

I made an effort to intuit a participant observation method most appropriate to each of these meetings. Most of the time I simply sat and listened. Our cultural events were held in public spaces; political meetings were held in government offices, policy institutes, cooperative housing and the odd back room of a bar. I tried to even out the number of events I attended in urban and rural places. Regardless of the space, I was always impressed by the environmental literacy of attendees who were passionate about local politics. Their rhetoric was largely focused on locally occurring wild species, their habitats, food chains and migration patterns; however, I was attracted to the compassion harnessed by these makeshift groups, deeply touched by their openness and kindness to an ‘outsider.’ I was also happily stunned by some speakers’ knowledge of ‘biophilic grief’ (a condition resulting from the loss of treasured environments in ‘mature’ environmental communities) and of seed stocks and water-conserving properties of root systems in their region!

Locals generally had a good handle on the political processes by which they had to engage the law. I thought it was noteworthy that when asked to represent their position in public, many groups elected elder speakers. Elders were significantly more adept at consolidating the emotional responses of the group and manipulating them; invariably the common ground of attendees were brought into relief by ecologically nuanced perspectives on place, and by the use of song, poetry and humorous anecdotes – councillors, judges, lawyers and corporate representatives had to listen at length to the elder’s oratories of the distinct qualities of the environments they were defending, of the place they share with neighbours. These impassioned articulations of a human-scale shared destiny of communal spaces (of climate, biodiversity, flora and fauna details), invigorated the debates that would often begin or end with necessary legal sophistication to clarify a duty of care. A vague pattern emerged, I began to discover a consistent framing of a new body politic while I was listening to these folk: clear collective responsibility of a freshly conceived space owing to the degrees by which the gathered groups are communally and environmentally integrative. It seemed to me that people were determining new boundaries largely defined by environments that had the most meaning to them.

In North America, Bioregionalism is motivated by environmental concerns filtered through a lens of local identity that aims to effectively complement policy formation at national and international levels. Bioregionalism opposes a homogenous economy and a narrow consumer culture; it creates a parallel culture to define a fresh sense of space that moves away from arbitrary political boundaries (states, cities nations etc.) to consider the natural communities or watersheds that offer a biotically determined framework for identity. While its emphasis on environmental stewardship might displease some ethicists, Bioregionalism argues that harmony with the bioregion is key. The bioregional perspective aims to ensure that political boundaries match ecological boundaries, in addition to encouraging the consumption of local foods, the use of local materials, and the cultivation of native plants. Thus Bioregionalism raises a crucial issue: the nature of the dialectic between activist and intellectual components of the environmental movement. Without framing the environmental crisis as a crisis of the imagination (which is potentially cynical and misanthropic), my entry point, which remains academic, was to think of literature’s contribution to both of these components.

With a view to better understanding how our local bioregions are embedded in a global biosphere, Ruth Blair has written on Australian bioregional literature as a genre that relates to science, to agriculture, and to activism. She asks whether it is possible to rethink the persistent idea of the local in non-binary terms: not divided off from or in opposition to something larger, or other (and thus freighted with sets of social and political agendas), but rather as naming ‘a kind of attention.’ For Lawrence Buell, bioregional literature is different from regional writing for it has a pronounced sense of vulnerability and flux; undoubtedly linked to the attention that Blair is foregrounding. Change ––persistent environmental change–– is central to such an imaginary. Of significant interest to my project that wishes to learn from North America before it turns to Australia, Libby Robin’s scholarship reminds us that the imagined community of the bioregion is a ‘homeland’ not a ‘nation.’ In Robin’s examination of the Australian context for a bioregional imagination, attunement to place (our distinct cultural and philosophical sense of ‘attention’ in our globally unique habitats) might lead towards nomadic and migratory lifestyles over and above rooted forms of dwelling. Identity politics and environmental governance protocols that might arise from this cultural conception of place are potentially of great use, for a country that can neither sophisticatedly articulate its relations to asylum seekers, nor the current impact of climate change on Pacific Islanders.

Bioregional literature is curious, simultaneously portending that texts grow out of the specific places that produce them; yet, by nature, bioregionalism is a non-totalising discourse that exemplifies groundings in the diversity of places. Bioregional texts are expressive of the very specificity of an area. At once Romantic in their sense of each micro moment and quotidian observation having a place in the larger scheme of things, bioregional imaginaries are convincingly translocal: to be rooted in place does not necessarily mean one is no longer obligated to think of ecological diasporas, and movements of people caused by war and global inequities ––as Blair notes, bioregional literature is not shut off from translocal forces.

When I was getting to grips with the Canadian archive, Laurie Ricou invited me to speak on poetry’s deconstruction of the ‘border’ between the human and the animal at ‘Bordersongs,’ the 49th meeting of the Western Literature Association (WLA), University of Victoria. I took Anne Carson as my focal point, but I had more fun continuing to think about borders and bodies, and thus turned to Ricou’s bioregional criticism (he is the foremost figure in Canadian literary studies that has defined the canon in terms of its relationship with the environment).

Ricou’s first sustained critical-creative project, Arbutus/ Mandrone Files (The): Reading for the Pacific Northwest (2002) contemplates how focus on a single genus of flowering plants brings place to mind. Thirteen chapters meditate on the dynamics of the region with a particular ecological emphasis (there are focal point on islands, salmon, woods, rain) dominated by the presence of the plants that are spread across the American and Canadian ‘states’ of Cascadia. A second non-fiction book fusing environment and ecology, dedicated to a commonplace plant found throughout the bioregion, Salal: Listening for the Northwest Understory (2007) is an ethnography and literary memoir examining the political coordinates of an environmentally literate sense of place.

The Pacific Northwest is often conceived as an exaggerated landscape. Huge cedars and a huge logging industry. Hulking mountains, a string of volcanoes poised to erupt, fractured vertiginous geoscapes. Somewhere beneath, continental plates shift relentlessly. A grandiose mining industry moves to match or master the geology. More biomass. More rain. Feeling new, and uncomfortable, amid all this hyperbole, we kneel down, look close up, regard the little things. Looking at the bush and berries and blight might tell us as much about our uncomfortable feel for place as do stories of wood wars and gold rush. 

Bioregion in Ricou’s hands is something richer than an object taken by literary scholarship to claim the conjoining of geographical terrain with a terrain of consciousness, and yet is does implicitly gesture to the relationship between our imagination and our governance. A plant in Cascadia, or better ‘the northwest understory’ incites heightened sensitivity and careful attention to the natural and cultural histories of a bioregion and its politics, where knowledge on flora, fauna, weather and climate are linked to the cultural practices that grow out of those contexts. Its reflexive consciousness is comparable to Robert Kroetsch, and Kroetsch’s anxiety is uncannily similar to the insecure sense of region that Australian poet, John Kinsella demonstrates. Kinsella’s critically insecure sense of region seems to constantly ask how literary works (such as a decolonised pastoral) might ironise the construction of the regional, remaining mindful in their own performative function that they ‘create’ that which they might only ‘name’.

Can Australia learn from Cascadia or its imaginary? That’s something I hope to be looking into in the near future. For now I’m thinking about how we imagine and represent our shared physical spaces, so that our culture can better conceive and connect to them ––perhaps even be coaxed into intimacies with them. As Robin has noted, ‘bioregional’ has a different dominant meaning in Australia; one unrelated to the movement in North America that considers connecting socially just human cultures in a sustainable manner to the regional ecosystems in which they are embedded. In Australia, bioregion is ‘a government word’; something just physical, beyond the human world. The Australian Government’s Interim Biogeographic Regionalisation for Australia (IBRA) demonstrates that the Department of the Environment believes the bioregion is a key tool for identifying land conservation under Australia’s Strategy for the National Reserve System (2009-2030). Seventeen percent of the continent is targeted for protection as part of a system bringing together spatial mapping, vegetation communities and ecosystems across states. How might scientifically reasoned governance translate into a broader, ethically progressive identification with place that does not necessarily undermine some of the better stewardship ideas of IBRA?

IBRA7 classifies Australia’s landscapes into 89 bioregions, which are geographically distinct for their common climate, geology, landform, native vegetation and species. Regional differentiation can be understood in terms of economic function, religion, language. And literature. It is rare to think of difference coloured by mountain ranges and watersheds! Fortunately, literature is alert to the ways that these differences can be registered within affective geographies. To reinstate old physical regions, some known well in indigenous cultures, might appear grossly unrealistic. Moreover, as Robyn Eckersley has noted, linguistic, religious and cultural boundaries do not follow bioregional lines; thus ceding political autonomy to local communities that inhabit bioregions does not guarantee ecological benign or cooperative development. The gap between politics and place is less pronounced in the bioregional model than a federal model, but that does not dispel the problem. What I think that I’ve come to better understand is this: how a North American sense of Bioregionalism attempts to invest resources into increased transparency around the overlaying of politics and place, offering a valid framework to evaluate political and cultural differences ––and conflations–– of polis and habitus. My next step is to take this framework to the land use and literatures of four regions in Australia. Following that I intend to measure the gap between the hyperseparation of human and plant communities in Australian environmental policy, and a decentralised, subjective self-definition as exemplified in the emotional contours of Australian literature. I think my trip to Cascadia has inspired me!

Image: John R