You Are Where You Live

How the sky, rain, geography, and cultures of our place shape us.
North Carolina Appalachians. Photo by Dave Allen / Shutterstock.

The North Carolina Appalachians. Photo by Dave Allen / Shutterstock.

As I was moved to learn recently, certain whales habitually congregate in one area of the ocean to compose a single piece of music together.

Did Peter Berg know this? It would not have surprised him. The phenomenon validates what he had been saying for decades. He understood so early and so cogently how we all collaborate, in the songs we sing and the thoughts we think—collaborate not only with each other but, by virtue of our very existence, with where we are. With place.

Whale songs would of their nature contain so much: the briny taste of sea water, for instance, or topographical features of the ocean floor over which they float as they sing, even the particular weather of the area. The sound that emanates from these majestic creatures reflects all that sustains them.

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That not just forests and rivers but songs are part of what defines a region was one of the great contributions Peter made to the way we imagine ourselves and the Earth today. Before he got hold of it, the word “bioregion” was a mostly technical term used to denote a particular conservation area. Peter enlarged our thinking by including in the definition not only every form of life, animal and vegetable, along with terrain and weather within a ­watershed, but also the human cultures that have adapted to the ecology of each bioregion. In this way, he contributed to a revolution in consciousness that is still occurring: we are beginning to see that human creativity does not stand apart from, but rather is born of, the land where we live, partaking of climate and trees and the paths water takes as snow melts and flows downward from the mountains.

From this angle of perception, it becomes clear that we are not above (or apart from) nature but of nature, embedded, our loftiest ideas emanating from the Earth and earthly processes. Made of clay, we have been generated and shaped, not only by our parents, but by the ten thousand beings of Hindu scripture, by all the life that surrounds us.

“Europeans came as invaders clearing terrain for an occupation civilization,” Peter wrote in an early Planet Drum publication. Once “man” falls from the top of the Scala Natura—the medieval “great chain of being” that placed humanity on top of a descending scale of animals, plants and minerals—many other hierarchies are also undermined, among those the idea that European civilizations were superior to the original cultures and civilizations of America.

I came across my first copy of Planet Drum almost by accident. Reading those fiery philosophical and political declarations on the soft pages of newsprint, I felt an astonishing resonance, as if something long dormant and as yet unnamed were coming to life inside my soul. I don’t know the year precisely—it was sometime between 1970 and ’72—but, appropriately, the memory is in my body. (“Your body is home,” Peter wrote in 1970.)

I know it was daytime: an afternoon light streamed from the south-facing windows. I had recently been reading Emma Goldman and had put down my copy of Planet Drum and turned to the bookshelf on my left to retrieve a copy of the first volume of her autobiography, My Life. In what is something like an intellectual ritual, I leafed through the pages, following the strong electrical force I could feel between Goldman’s ideas and what I had just read in Planet Drum. There was something here I knew, something in this connection, something I could not yet delineate, though from the strength of the feeling, I sensed it was significant.

In that period, the air was rife with new visions. For me, these were also the formative days of my own feminism. Listening to and telling stories in my “consciousness-raising” group, reading books that had been previously ignored or neglected because they were written by women, reviving the many suppressed histories of women, my own awareness was growing almost too fast for me to contain. And in this awareness there was a series of hunches, inclinations—what the French novelist, Natalie Saurraute, once called tropisms—pointing me in directions that I could not entirely map or even name yet.

Concerned about the loss of forests, increasing pollution, and the diminishment of the ozone layer, I was beginning to make connections that I had not seen before. For instance, between the oppression of women I experienced and the wanton destruction of nature I was witnessing.

Slowly it dawned on me that the imaginary boundary, drawn centuries ago, that separates nature from culture is the same boundary that has also separated us from each other too, creating categories of gender and race, in which women or those with darker skin or those who earn a living with their hands are described as less able intellectually than the men at the top of the scale; by the same token, we are deemed untrustworthy because we are so mired in sensual experience and extreme emotion, or to put it more succinctly, since we are closer to the Earth.

No wonder I was electrified by a film I saw which drew a concrete connection between rape and the violation of a bioregion. Set in Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley, Chinatown depicted the struggle over water rights that had occurred in 1937, six years before I was born. A series of machinations instigated by William Mulholland resulted in the diversion of water from the Owens Valley to the San Fernando Valley, in order to transform a desert to habitable and thus valuable land, but at the same time reducing once-verdant land in the Owens Valley to desert. This destroyed one bioregion and shifted another so radically it became artificial.

The shadowy men behind these transactions made millions. But this was just the subplot of the film, the background that subtly shaped the main plot, which was a story of a woman who had been sexually abused by her father and was trying in vain to protect her daughter from the same fate.

This film is moving to me for other reasons too. Though I live in Northern California, I grew up in both Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley and—if only for the soft feel of the warm, dry air or the way that the descending light glints off the Pacific Ocean, rolling into the beaches at Santa Monica and Malibu in the late afternoon and early evening as it descends, or the chaparral thick on the hills in Topanga Canyon—this region will always feel like home to me. Yet this area, made of four watersheds, all reaching at some point to the sea, stretching south from Santa Monica to San Pedro Bay, ringed by the Santa Monica Mountains to the south, the Santa Susana Mountains to the west, and San Gabriel Mountains to the north and east, has another side.

Of course there is much I love about the culture of this area, the paintings of my adoptive father, the small theaters where experimental plays are staged, Frank Gehry’s stunning architecture, the peoples’ history mural Judy Baca created on the Great Wall of Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley with 400 local teenagers, and a diverse community of filmmakers, quirky designers, actors, and writers living on the edge.

But Chinatown also captures a less sanguine aspect of what has been built here since the early 20th century. A vast, often incoherent maze of housing tracts, shopping malls, gas stations, and a seemingly endless network of freeways clogged with cars. And in this way, the culture of Southern California is profoundly maladaptive to the watershed areas it occupies. I sensed this as a child growing up, not only from the smog-filled air, created by too many automobiles, but from what I can only describe as an artificial quality, as if the construction I saw all around me was not part of the Earth but sitting on top of the soil and entirely disconnected, almost at a molecular level, from the rich matrix of life we share.

Over the last 40 years, since the time the film Chinatown was made and Peter Berg articulated the deeper meanings of a watershed system, we have made great progress toward civil and equal rights, but the rapacious mentality portrayed in that film has also grown in size and influence. So many corporations are global now, with the power to radically alter landscapes, shift the directions of rivers, flood one region and deprive another of most of its water. And too often these life-altering decisions are made in the abstract, by men and women who spend their days behind computer screens or in board rooms, with no three-dimensional connection to the land or the people they are affecting by their decisions. The mind separated from the heart and the Earth at the same time.

I am thinking now of the unprecedented number of suicides happening daily in India, desperate acts committed by farmers who have lost their homes and livelihoods because of a series of decisions made in an abstract realm by those who do not experience or even witness the consequences of their actions, and who, since they live more in a world of numbers than any place on Earth, perhaps cannot grasp the depth of the sorrow they are causing.

But another world is possible. As a child, I found more than one refuge. All through the year I body-surfed in the Pacific Ocean, the rush of water in my ears singing to me of a vastness way beyond what was indicated in the strange dystopic landscape I thought of as ordinary. In the summer I camped in the High Sierras, the sound of wind through conifers becoming an inextricable part of my soul. Occasionally, my family would take a trip to the Mojave or the Baja Peninsula where I learned to see the subtle eloquence of deserts. And since I was very small, I took an interest in Native American cultures, which, though they spoke in languages I could not translate, seemed redolent with another response to the lands we shared, the diverse wisdom of earthly existence, voices, to paraphrase Gary Snyder, that capture the pitch of the phenomenal world “totally living, exciting, mysterious, filling one with a trembling awe, leaving one grateful and humble.”

My own work sprang at one and the same time from this awe, and from the nexus between the idea of a watershed, which I had first encountered in Peter’s writing, and my perception of the oppression of women. In 1972, I had written an essay positing that rape is not motivated by simple sexual drive but rather the psychological (and socially constructed) desire to dominate. Two years later, I was to begin a new book, Woman and Nature, where I would connect the attempt to dominate and control nature with the domination and control of women. It is a theme I have investigated on many levels through several books.

I never knew Peter Berg well. But his presence was very important to me, has become in fact—like the bioregion of Northern California where I have lived most of my life—a part of me. Re-Membered. Like the best poetry, his words are still ringing in my ears while I continue adding my part to the great song we are all, like those whales, composing together, the waters of consciousness held by the watersheds we inhabit, our dreams woven on wild looms.