Bioregional Response
By Jesse Wolf Hardin



The failing economic system has demonstrated the need for a new way. The fostering of sustainable cultures and communities requires not global manipulation so much as bioregional response.

Wherever we are, we exist within and in relationship to a "bioregion," a term coined by my old ally, Peter Berg, to describe regions defined not by state borders or county lines, but by the primary distinguishing characteristics of the land.... and the physical, aesthetic and emotional or spiritual influence that it exerts.

I write this in the American Southwest, but that said, most people will think of the Sonoran desert which is so very unlike this canyon of lush vegetation and sumptuous river, or else imagine the major cities like San Diego, Phoenix, Tucson or El Paso.

I am pleased to be headquartered in New Mexico, known for its sparse populations, Indian and Hispanic sensibilities, artistic colonies and mystical appeal.... but Nuevo Mexico encompasses not only its cactus and sage-studded South but also the Colorado plateau and Rocky Mountains as well as Texas-like plains to the East.

The Northwest corner of the state actually has more in common with the red-rock country of Southeastern Utah, and anywhere below Las Cruces or Silver City is indifferentiable from Mexico itself. More descriptively, I live and write in the Gila Bioregion, 4,500 to 12,000 feet in elevation, bounded by the Rio Grande Valley to the East, the scrub brush and lava flows of the Malpais to the North, and roughly the Salt River basin of Arizona West of the canyon.

A bioregion is a watershed containing up to several different ecosystems, ecotones and transition zones - an amalgamation of landforms and water flows that both feel and appear differentiable from those found anywhere else. Its particular mix of geological features and plant and animal species make each bioregion unique unto itself, readily apparent to the observant wanderer as he or she moves in or out of its influence, arms and orbit.

Every sensate body is an opening, a point of access and entry to the knowable world. Similarly, every home is the portico of a far-reaching galaxy and every bioregion, every neighborhood a foyer where creation hangs its hat. Our daily movements, our comings and goings roughly delineate the threshold of a boundless universe, the place where we meet and mix with all we perceive as "other."

We come to know ourselves through placement in and relationship to a field of distinctive parts. We experience our self sheathed in skin, contained in family, housed in workplace and residence, surrounded by our accustomed neighborhoods, enveloped by the surrounding landscape, bordered by mountain, deserts or sea.

Each of these lines of demarcation are permeable, the skin porous, the neighborhood boundaries diffuse and transitional, the mountains breached by passes. One bioregion overlaps the next, in a limitless progression of connective concentric circles.

Those of us brought up in late techno-industrial society are more likely to describe ourselves in terms of our income-generating professions than by what we believe or where we live. Someone in L.A. is more apt to declare their self a clerk or manager than a Protestant, a dancer or an "Angelino."

One may call their self a "Californian" for whatever it might say about the kind of person we are, but few think of themselves as "Sacramentoans," "Oaklanders" or "Venitians." Or even as coastal mountain dwellers, "the people of the great valley" or "the ones from the place where the redwoods grow." 

To the contrary, upon meeting us for the first time a Pacific islander is likely to introduce him or her self as Samoan or Hawaiian first, revealing their origin, native culture and treasured home before or in the same breath as the giving of their name. Their place-based identity benefits from an island's distinct borders and cultural isolation.

Likewise, our identity benefits from attention to the personality, proclivity and needs of our own bioregions, an awareness not only of its interaction with and dependence on other regions, but also of its discernible differences and distinguishing characteristics.

In modern society financial opportunity has become the primary, and often sole reason for people picking a particular place to live. The second most important criteria is usually a comfortable home and "safe" neighborhood, followed by available recreational opportunities.

All too seldom is the reason a desire to live near relatives or to die in the habitat of our personal family history. Not to be in the company of like-minded folks, engaged in that hard day-to-day work of co-creating a better world. Nor to answer a soul deep call from the lap of the redwoods, the bosom of the Rockies, the soul of the Midwestern grasslands, or the heart of wild Gila.

Yet placed we are. Except when suspended aloft in aircraft we exist in direct connection to an exact section of land. Rolling along on steel-belted tires may give us the illusion of escaping the tether, but all it takes is a blowout or collision to prove otherwise, establishing with a jolt a physical relationship between the human body and solid ground.

We are constantly affecting the land beneath our feet with our activities and are in turn affected by it. The roads we travel were engineered within the constraints of the topography, and we travelers react emotionally to scenery we perceive as being in some way beautiful or severe. For something like four and a half billion years diverse species have evolved to exploit and thrive in particular types of environments, filling organically-determined biological niches, functioning as extensions and expressions of place.

Before the recent epoch of modern transport and imported foods, the character of a biotic community was solely determined by its relationship to a specific region. Here terraform and lifeform interact to create patterns of relationship and community, defining and differentiating what we now call "bioregions."

As described in the 1960's, bioregionalism is a belief in whole systems, in symbiotic relation and the possibility and necessity of home. It's an urge to deeply understand and interact with the land we live on, an intellectual referencing of self in place, a geography of belonging.

The word itself comes from the Greek "bios" meaning life, and the Latin word for territory, "regia." It is also related to the earlier Latin "regere," to govern, so that bioregionalism is as much as anything else, a state of being knowingly "governed by life."

Bioregionalism calls on us to adapt our lifestyles to the organic mandates of our ecoregions, cultivating a native sensibility, fine-tuning our activities and presence in pitch with smaller, more intimately-realized territories. In the end we recognize our bioregion phenomenologically, experientially, subjectively.

When returning from a vacation or business trip, re-entering one's bioregion from any direction, there will be a particular moment when our bodies begin to disarm, finding comfort and safety in the familiarity, in gentle shifts in landforms and subtle smells we didn't realize we'd missed. At a particular moment we likely become conscious of having crossed a frontier, and without giving it a thought, our muscles likely start to relax.

However we might define it, a bioregion is an intrinsically self-informed, self-governed, self-nourished, self-satisfied community of life. The Earth can be described as a pattern of interactive bioregions, with the health of the whole dependent on the diverse individuality of its interdependent parts. Each bioregion is self-informed through its chemical, biological, physical communication with its related forms and processes.

Each develops according to the knowledge gleaned from its active experimentation over the course of millenniums, governing itself through the collaboration of its member parts, and giving voice and expression to each. It nourishes itself through the carefully-regulated consumption of one part by the other, sustaining the composite with no depletion of its constituent elements. 

Before the rise of the modern state, resources remained largely stable. Resource: acting as a source of energy and nourishment again and again. In the natural world there is never any waste as such, no unusable or non-biodegradable substances produced.

Everything takes its turn as food, everything organic degrading to become fertilizer for the health and growth of something else. True to this process, each bioregion develops its own economy of values, a system of calibrated exchange of what we call energy and matter.

It is continually perfecting this system of reciprocity - of the hunter and the hunted, the breather and the air breathed.... ensuring no overall diminishment, no reduction of the whole or loss of its diverse expressions. Fundamental to this effort is the power of regeneration, in which the wounded individual or a damaged portion of an ecosystem draw additional "juice" to aid in their recuperation.

And finally, each bioregion is self-satisfied, creating and sustaining the factors and conditions for its fruition and fulfillment, fully manifested as blossoming prickly-pear and the flapping of owl wings, as swelling rivercourse and wind-smoothed rock. It is this that we should cleave to in these troubled times - a distinctive community of life where little needs to be imported, nothing is extra, and nothing is amiss.

Jesse Wolf Hardin is an acclaimed teacher of Animá nature-informed practice and the author of seven inspiring books. He and his partners offer empowering online Medicine Woman, Shaman Path and Path of Heart correspondence courses, as well as on-line counsel and healing consultations. Awareness readers are invited for wilderness retreats, vision quests, student internships and events at the Animá Sanctuary, a wild river canyon and ancient place of power in the enchanted Southwest: Animá Learning & Retreat Center, Box 688, Reserve, NM 87830, visit:


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