BOOKS AND THE CULTURE The ‘Wisdom’ of the Natural World KIRKPATRICK SALE is a former New York Times reporter with three previous books of social history and commentary to his credit. Of those SDS, Human Scale, and Power Shift Texas readers are most likely to be familiar with the last, which was subtitled “The Rise of the Southern Rim and Its Challenge to the Eastern Establishment.” It held, as the title implies, that the growth of population and dollar investment in the sunbelt region of the United States, particularly during the boom decade of the 1970s, has effectively transferred the seats of national economic and political power from Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C., to Houston, Atlanta, and San Francisco. Power Shift was potent stuff strong in its style and strong in its opinions, some of which were presciently convincing and some as hard to swallow as a prickly pear. It was, therefore, controversial and largely typical, at least in form, of each of Sale’s first three books. It shone with his virtues: the courage to tackle vast and untapped subjects, a commitment to exhaustive research, a passion of conviction and thirst to illumine his fellow pilgrim, and a dazzling facility with the English language. It was also marred by frustrating authorial excesses: a tendency to overwrite, to bludgeon evidence into submission to the author’s opinions, to blitz the reader with lengthy catalogues of factual items strung together like popcorn chains. These considerations notwithstanding, his work on Power Shift did stir Sale’s interest in regionalism, thus helping to prepare the ground for Dwellers in the Land: The Bioregional Vision. With this book, in my view, Sale has found his stride as the teacher and deliverer of bold ideas and social projects that he has long seemed destined to become. At any rate, the book has all of the virtues and virtually none of Ray Reece is the author of The Sun Betrayed: A Report on the Corporate Seizure of U.S. Solar Energy Development. He lives in Austin. the defects certainly not the overwrought redundancies of his earlier works. What is bioregionalism, and why, as Sale would have it, should ordinary people not only understand it but accept its tenets as the guiding paradigm of their moral, social, and political lives? DWELLERS IN THE LAND: THE BIOREGIONAL VISION By Kirkpatrick Sale Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, 1985 217 pages; $14.95 A bioregion is not something you will find in a dictionary or upon most maps. It is not something bounded by political contact or surveyor’s rod. The term is derived, as Sale points out, from the Greek word bio, meaning life \(as in regere, meaning “territory to be ruled.” Thus, writes Sale, a bioregion is “a lifeterritory, a place defined by its life forms, its topography and its biota, rather than by human dictates; a region governed by nature, not legislature. And if,” Sale adds, “the concept initially strikes us as strange, that may perhaps only be a measure of how distant we have become from the wisdom it conveys and how badly we need that wisdom now.” A river valley is a bioregion. So is a forest or a mountain range, a coastal plain or a bayou system. And the principal thesis of Dwellers in the Land is simply this: that human beings must produce and consume in the strictest harmony with the natural features and behavior of their respective bioregions. If you live near the woods, you learn to subsist and even to prosper almost solely from the annual, unravaged output of the woods. You do not take more from the woods than will be replaced through natural processes in a period of time determined by natural rhythms and cycles. “The crucial and perhaps only and allencompassing task,” writes Sale, “is to understand place, the immediate specific place where we live . . . the limits of its resources; the carrying capacities of its lands and waters; the places where it must not be stressed; the places where its bounties can best be developed; the treasures it holds and the treasures it withholds these are the things that must be understood.” There are other things to be understood as well, and Sale reaches deep in most of his chapters to explain them things related to the “wisdom” of the natural world. Indeed, it is Sale’s contention that the mess we have made of our biosphere the crises we face of resource depletion, environmental degradation, world hunger and looming armageddon are precisely the offspring of twenty-odd centuries of arrogant disregard for the laws and principles of nature. Once, long ago, we knew and obeyed these laws. We worshipped the earth, calling her Gaea, and we prayed to be absolved for felling a tree or slaying a deer. In honor of this tradition, Sale quotes the Irish author AE, from whom he took the title of his book: ” ‘I believe our best wisdom does not come from without, but arises in the soul and is an emanation of the Earth spirit, a voice speaking directly to us dwellers in the land.’ ” “I believe our best wisdom does not come from without, but arises in the soul and is an emanation of the Earth spirit . . .” But what exactly are these Gaean laws and principles, this “wisdom,” and how do they relate to “The Bioregional Vision” of Kirkpatrick Sale? In compiling his laws, in constructing what he calls “The Bioregional paradigm,” Sale consults a daunting array of experts in at least a dozen scientific and academic disciplines. From the famed biologist Lewis Thomas, for example, he cites the marvel of the oncideres beetle, whose intricate reproductive behavior triples the lifespan of mimosa trees. Based on this and other models in the natural world, Sale induces a principle of symbiosis and makes it a statute of the bioregional constitution. It follows that, in a future society founded on the laws of Gaea and of bioregionalism, we humans shall comport with one another in a symbiotic, By Ray Reece 16 JANUARY 24, 1986
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