What is a Watershed?

Kirkpatrick Sale, in his excellent primer (Dwellers in the Land: The Bioregional Vision, 1986) defines bioregionalism as follows: "bio is from the Greek word for forms of life...and region is from the Latin regere, territory to be ruled... They convey together: a life-territory, 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 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."  We believe this represents a new—or rather, old—paradigm for discipleship on a planet on the verge of a nervous breakdown. 


To understand this concept it helps to begin with what is most basic to life: water.  Wherever we reside—city, suburb, or rural area—our place is deeply intertwined within a larger system called a watershed, drained by a watercourse and its tributaries into a particular body of water such as a pond, lake or ocean.  All of us live in one, no matter how ignorant we may be about it (which most of us are).  John Wesley Powell (the first non-indigenous person to run the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in 1869) defined a watershed as “that area of land, a bounded hydrologic system, within which all living things are inextricably linked by their common water course and where, as humans settled, simple logic demanded that they become part of the community.” 

Each watershed is made up of a unique mix of habitats that influence each other including forests and wetlands, fields and meadows, rivers and lakes, farms and cities.  Think about where you live: somewhere there is a local creek, river or stream (though it may be buried under concrete).  The area covered in that journey, from the water’s origination to the landscapes it passes through to its end point represents your watershed.  Brock Dolman, a permaculturist in Northern California, believes that the only way we will halt our civilizational slide into ecological disaster is to re-orient our thinking toward “watershed consciousness.”  He writes: "Watersheds underlie all human endeavors and form the foundation for all future aspirations and survival.  The idea is one of a cradle, or a container as water flows overland, collecting into a river, and sometimes making its way to the ocean." 


Precipitation hits the ridges and flows into your watershed or into a neighboring one.  Every living organism within this basin is interconnected and dependent on the health of the others.  Dolman calls this the “Basin of Relations”: "where we can have social, local, intentional community with other life forms  and inanimate processes, like the fire cycle and the hydrological cycle… Watersheds should embody the geographic scale of applied sustainability, which must be regenerative because we desperately are in need of making up for lost time.  We are perched on the tipping point of a “watershed moment.” Now is the time to bring our communities together to set in motion plans and processes that ensure our watersheds will remain healthy in perpetuity" (Basins of Relations: A Citizen’s Guide to Protecting and Restoring Our Watershed. Occidental, CA: Water Institute, 2008).  He illustrates a watershed by cupping his hands, which he notes, also looks like a boat.  He concludes, “Your home basin of relations is your lifeboat.”


We can’t save the whole planet, Dolman argues; but we can engage in the struggle to preserve or restore the health of our watershed.  And watersheds are, of course, interconnected in larger ecosystems.  The science of ecology has confirmed what Dr. King famously taught us: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all.”  If everyone works on their watershed as if the whole depended on it, we have a shot at survival as a species. 

For a fascinating look at what the U.S. would look like as a "nation of watersheds," and for John Wesley Powe'lls watershed map of the West, go here.  For a great introduction to a local struggle to preserve and heal a watershed, check out this two minute trailer from "Watershed Revolution," a film by Ched's neighbor Rich Reid:  

The entire half hour film, which is great for educational purposes, can be purchased here.  


Bioregionalism is also a public ethos, an inclusive narrative appropriate to citizenship as well as discipleship.  Montana politician Daniel Kemmis, in his groundbreaking 1990 book Community and the Politics of Place, showed that "re-inhabitory” disciplines--“the efforts of unlike people to live well in specific places"—can transform public life as well.  “The polis,” he argues, “is first of all the place which a certain group of people recognize that they inhabit in common... Given that fact, politics emerges as the set of practices which enables these people to dwell together in this place.” 


Can our churches be on the vanguard of promoting watershed literacy as central to discipleship?  Resources abound (for example, naturalist Peter Warshall has developed a questionnaire called “The Big Here” to help people develop watershed awareness).    It is a matter of will.  Wendell Berry summarizes the historical ultimatum we are facing: “Now the ideal must be the maximum of well-being with the minimum of consumption, which both defines and requires neighborly love… There is no 'outside' to the Great Economy… whatever we do counts; if we do not serve what coheres and endures, we serve what disintegrates and destroys.”