Region As Rabbi?

Ched Myers writes that the phrase “watershed discipleship” holds an intentional double meaning: both acting as a disciple during this watershed moment in history, as well as acting as a disciple within and on behalf of a specific watershed, as “citizen inhabitants of specific places.” Those are both certainly true. Yet I’d like to delve into a third meaning: acting as a disciple of one’s watershed.

Be a disciple of one’s watershed? You mean, like, consider your surroundings your Teacher?  Yes, that’s exactly what I mean.  So did Jesus. “Consider the lilies of the field,” the Master taught his disciples (Matthew 6:25). In other words, Jesus was saying Pay attention to the nature at your fingertips. Model your life after it. Study the divine creation that thrives in your watershed, and follow the pattern.

What might treating your region as rabbi look like?  I’ve spent the last several years living into this question.  It’s a question of both perspective and practice: Seeing differently leads to acting differently.  As I learn to re-inhabit the place I live, I’m starting to see my region as my rabbi in three specific ways.

Watershed as Sustainer, Teacher, and Corrector.  Try on this idea: All of my food needs, my watershed can provide.  Sounds crazy?  It does to me. I mean, I know most of humanity for all of history were sustained by their watersheds, but those were primitive people, primitive times. What about my Italian parmesan and my Florida orange juice? What about my olive oil and coconut milk?

Can all the items my family loves be sourced in my bioregion?  I seriously doubt it. But this line of inquiry leads me to pursue two questions.  First: How much of what my family desires can be sourced from our watershed?  In the high deserts of New Mexico where I live, the answer seems bleak.  For my family to obtain what we’re used to eating, I’d have to drive hundreds of miles before I found the first orange tree or avocado orchard.  This leads me to a second question: To what extent can we become creatures who thrive within the limits of our bioregion?  In other words, to what extent can we adapt?

Wait—me, adapt my wants to my watershed? As an entitled American consumer steeped in the values of Empire, this suggestion is not only absurd; it is scandalous.  I’m trained to buy whatever I want whenever I want, without a second thought to planetary consequences.  To be asked to limit my lifestyle, to curb my appetites, fills a part of me with indignant fury and fear. I’m an American, dammit! I want to roar.

Yet my watershed, my rabbi, corrects my spoiled behavior. Just like in any master-apprentice relationship, my rabbi corrects me as part of my training, just as any master would refine and re-form an immature and out-of-shape disciple.  This is a kind of conversion, metanoia, the transformation of worldview and habits that early followers of Jesus underwent. They were taught to walk away from the values of Empire and instead care for the poor, love their neighbors, and anticipate an adequate bounty of daily bread.  These age-old precepts were central to the teachings of Jesus; they are equally central to the teachings of my watershed. They cause me to look anew at the two troubling and transformative questions raised earlier: What can my watershed provide? How can I adapt my wants?

David Orr, author and professor at Oberlin College, tells it plainly:  “It makes better sense to reshape ourselves to fit a finite planet than to attempt to reshape the planet to fit our infinite wants.” A few years ago, some neighbors and I decided to have some fun with this idea. Instead of bemoaning the arid sparseness of northern New Mexico’s high country, we began to explore what kinds of food sources could thrive in our dry mountain environment.  At the same time, with a perverse joy, we began to break from Empire-based thinking, and explore if we could learn to be happy with what our watershed provided.  My ranching friend, Daniel, has managed small herds to see which livestock could thrive with minimal inputs while being maximally useful to us.  What has he found?  Goats and sheep, we want to keep.  They adapt well to our bioregion, are fairly easy to manage, and provide milk, cheese, meat, kefir and yogurt.  But yaks?  Not so much. After five years of experimentation and hard work, Daniel concluded that they’re substantially more trouble per pound than they’re worth.  As for vegetables and fruits, we’ve found success with plenty of the usual fare—carrots, onions, beets, tomatoes, zucchini, apples, plums, greens galore.  Also, under the guidance of my mentor gardener Seth, I’ve adapted my habits to appreciate hand-ground cornmeal, many new types of beans, high-altitude quinoa, plum preserves, wild amaranth and lamb’s quarters, sorrel, kale chips, broccoli leaves, and varieties of squash and potato previously untasted.

I’m finding that many of my unexamined life practices—habits formed unconsciously growing up within our nation’s culture of excess–have no part in the life of a watershed disciple, nor of a serious Jesus follower, nor of citizen of a finite planet.  Even as I slowly transform, however, a small part of me wants to remain an unconscious and self-absorbed consumer, a well-trained cog of Empire.  Do you feel it too? We both know it’s easier to remain a spoiled child instead of becoming a responsible adult. Yet in this “watershed” moment of history—with our very existence as a species in the balance–it’s clear our watersheds are calling us to do something old-fashioned: repent, turn around.  To exist within the limits of our watersheds, we’ll need to release our attitudes of entitlement and retract our rude-boy appetites.  To what extent can we as disciples thrive within the bounty—and the boundaries—of our bioregions?  I honestly don’t know; for me, my addiction to affluenza is scarily strong.  But with my friends in my Lama Mountain community, I’m going to keep trying to learn from my watershed’s teachings, and see if we might craft a good life within it.  Our other option? Stay unrepentant, keep purchasing whatever we want whenever we want, keep demanding that the world cater to our whims.  To do this, though, we’d need to consciously reject the teachings of Jesus, Buddha and scores of others and admit we’re greedy and reckless monsters whose wants are to be met at the expense of the planet.  Which option are you going to choose?

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Todd Wynward lives in a yurt at 8000’ elevation in the high desert mountains outside of Taos, New Mexico.  Ched Myers lives a bit closer to sea level near Ventura, California.  This is Todd’s first post in a series on implementing Watershed Discipleship in the shadow of dominant culture.  More will be coming soon.  For more information about the homesteading internships, education reform, wilderness trips, novel writing and intentional co-housing community that Todd incubates in the New Mexico mountains, check out LeavenRising.com or write him at toddwynward@gmail.com.

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