Wind, trees, fields, horizons, light retracting or returning: I’ve always felt most alive in relation to place, whether the front stoop in front of a Brooklyn triplex 45 years ago, or being pulled by the big dog through Kansas tallgrass prairie last week. We talk about epistemology a lot at Goddard – how we know what we know. For me, the ground is the real ground. Place isn’t just something informing my studies, writing, self- or culturally-ascribed identities, marriage or motherhood, community or solitude. Place is not just below but within: the core from which I create and struggle with most of what I do, and much of how I understand myself, contextualize culture, also the ground from which to connect with what’s beyond being part of a specific culture, a specific time.
So it’s no wonder that when I was 21, I found bioregionalism, and “Something ignited in my soul,” Pablo Neruda as writes. Bioreginalism is a comprehensive philosophy, calling for our return to our life-places, where we actually live, as the ground from which to build community, sustainable economics, local culture, place-based education and healthcare, and sense of self. Peter Berg writes,
“If the life-destructive path of technological society is to diverted into life-sustaining directions, the land must be reinhabited. Reinhabitation means learning to live-in-place in an area that has been disrupted and injured through past exploitation. It involves becoming aware of the particular ecological relationships that operate within and around it. It means understanding activities and evolving social behavior that will enrich the life of that place, restore its life-supporting systems, and establish an ecologically and socially sustainable pattern of existence within it. Simply stated it involved becoming fully alive in and with a place.”
Bioregionalism is also a meditation on where we are: breathing in what’s right here, and from the recognition of ourselves as part of a specific ecosystem, and not at the center of it, deeply consider in all our words and deeds how to live. Another way to say it: making the visible visible.
When I found bioregionalism, I resonated with what I had known since I was a baby sitting on a Coney Island beach in the wind, before I had words. That was over three decades years ago, and I still feel like I’m at the beginning of bioregionalism, a study, practice and calling that keeps deepening. I’ve been one of the founders of the continental bioregional movement, but even more part of my day-to-day life is our local group, the Kansas Area Watershed (KAW — Konza/kanza) Council, a 31-year-old bioregional pack I run and live with. We made a vow to develop KAW as a 100+ year-old organization, grow old together, and continually explore what it means to come together in council. We’re doing particularly well on growing old together.
A week ago, we sat at a big wooden table at Danny and Kat’s house, nine of us planning the annual spring gathering, which this year is called “Thinking Like a Prairie,” adapting Joanna Macy’s work. We will come together for a kind of residency on the prairie, including time to feel, make art and conversation about, and grapple with our collective pain connected to drastic and extreme climate change right here, right now. Skyler, a young man, who recently joined us, said, “I can’t have the conversations about what hurts me the most anywhere else than here.” We nodded, passed the clementines, and told stories about a bluebird in the fields, fracking in the nearby high plains, and how hard it is to hold it all. That pain is visceral, a part not just of our psyches but bodies, which reminds me of just how local place is.
It took years of writing poetry, getting cancer, and practicing yoga, and starting to really see the millions of ways each breath is physical to illuminate how much my most local address is my body, a portable place where I live. The wind blows. I shiver. The darkness falls. My eyes adjust. The prairies around me suffer from deep erosion. I’ve had parts of me cut off and out also. We go on.
As I age and change, I continually look toward place for guidance and consolation. Reflecting on the beauty of the hardened bark, leaning stand of cedars, wind-swept switchgrass gives me another and continually-renewing definition of beauty and health. Place shows me alternative and much more real views of death and letting go than popular culture. The more I pay attention to the great without, as Linda Hogan calls it, the more I glimpse the constant within. “I’m just a container for time, like a river,” I once wrote, which brings me to one final aspect to discuss: place and the poetic power of language.
Dylan Thomas once said, “These poems, with all their crudities, doubts, and confusionsare written for the love of Man and in praise of God, and I’d be a damn fool if they weren’t.” I feel the same way about everything I write, but for me, God is place: the living earth, the life force, the sky and ground, the big or small wind. My poetry, memoir, essays, songs are not just carrying images of place but born of place.
What is place? That question entwines with another question for me, How to live? Opening my heart, my work, my body, my life to place. Taking my cue from the weather, the deer in the back and the turkey in the front of the field, the big and little bluestem that, just 10 days ago, we burned so more forb and flower seeds could be drilled into the ground. Place guides me at my best, and calls me back at my worst.