A new series on connecting your life to nature by author and naturalist, Ken Lassman.
We know that being in nature can be relaxing and rejuvenating, which is why we are all drawn to beautifully landscaped parks or the spectacular vistas we find in our National Parks. But be honest: do you feel the same way about stopping at an “unimproved” county park, a stretch of woods along a creek or open field near where you live?
Many people limit their outdoor time in places they could easily have daily access to because they don’t know what they are looking at, don’t know what to do there or are afraid of the bugs, poison ivy or some other threat known or unknown. And as for their own backyard, they prefer the clean aesthetic of neatly clipped lawns, shrubs and huge-blossomed ornamentals over some gangly growth of some native plants.
If you are drawn to the world of nature as it is shown in nature shows and presented in zoos and gardens but feel a huge gulf between those things and the wild areas in your neighborhood, this series of articles is for you.
Many folks know next to nothing about what’s going on in the wild landscapes around them or even where they are. They don’t know which is a plant that’s been native to this place for thousands of years, which one is an agricultural import brought here a hundred years ago, and which is an invasive plant from another continent that arrived only 20 years ago, and the same goes for the insects, mammals and most birds.
But the landscapes we live in are a dynamic history of your corner of the planet, and seeing how all those pieces fit together can be a wonderfully rewarding experience. Not only is it cool to acquaint yourself with the rejuvenating powers of nature close to home; it’s also a conscious act to reconnect your life to the web of life around us, rejoining your home to the planet at a time when the planet—and our future—depends on it.
This is part one of a series on reconnecting to the place you live and the steps anyone can take to invite nature to your home; deepening your relationship to the more-than-human landscape and as a result, deepening your awareness of your place in the universe.
The Bioregional Jump
And what better way to start that process than taking a walk outdoors?
Hold the earphones though, and pocket the smartphone: to rejoin the rest of the planet, we have to find it again, which seems kind of silly since it is right under our feet. But to really see the ecosystems in our neighborhoods, towns and countries, we have to recalibrate our senses and attention away from the cocoon of technologically enhanced, human-centric global culture back to the senses that we were born with, like all other animals on the planet.
By starting your walk with a bioregional jump, you make that perceptual leap from our human time and space into the time and place awareness that you were born with in your body, an awareness shared by every other living being on the planet.
A few words about “ecoregions” and “bioregions.” An ecoregion is a region that has more or less the same combination of plants, animals, water supply and landforms, resulting in an area where the same ecological processes unfold: an ecological region. Depending on how uniform you want to take it, the United States can be divided up into hundreds of ecoregions. For a beautiful map of the ecoregions of the US that shows the rivers too, click here. For the ecoregions of the entire planet, check out this link.
The term “bioregion,” or “life” “region” has come to refer to ecoregions including us humans in that mix of the local ecology. The term “bioregion” re-inserts our human cultures into the local ecoregion and asks the question “how can humans live in and relate to the local ecosystem in ways that sustain both?”
So how do you do a bioregional jump?
You can do it at the beginning of your walk by yourself but it’s more fun with interested friends or family.
Read the following declaration out loud, tailoring it to fit the place where you do it. It has been worded below for Lawrence, Kansas, but obviously, it can be used anywhere on the planet by plugging in your local names of town, county, river and biome/ecoregion, i.e. the bold/italicized words below, which might take a little research on your behalf, something that will help you tune in to your place on the planet:
With this jump, I am jumping out of Lawrence,
I am jumping out of that legal description called
I am jumping out of all those artificially imposed boundaries
that obscure the reality of the
earth around me.
I am jumping up into the air, out of Kansas, out of the
United States, into the prairie winds.
When I land, I am landing on the slope of a watershed that is
full of all kinds of life, of which I am a part.
When I land, I am landing in the osage cuesta ecoregion,*
landscapes that hold tallgrass prairies and oak-hickory
I land in land that drains into the Kaw River, which flows ultimately
into the Gulf of Mexico.
I am landing in the prairie bioregion; I am landing on the earth:
Then with a whoop and a holler, make that small jump for a woman/man, and a giant leap for the Earth.
*To find what ecoregion you live in, download the Ecoregions of the United States or Ecoregions of the World links provided earlier in this column.
Look around: you have now joined the rest of the plants and animals who live in your area—see how this paradigm shift changes the way you perceive things on your walk. All other animals and plants living where you are on this planet live in what is called ecological time and place (more about this soon) and you’ve just joined them.
- What’s important to other animals, who you start looking for and observing?
- Where are the water and food?
- What is a safe way to travel?
- Where is a good spot to take up residence?
A whole new (and ancient) world awaits you, and you won’t have to have your earplugs in and a soundtrack playing because you might miss something.
Entering into ecological time and place: the watershed
Peeling back those human imposed layers from the landscape has an interesting effect.
Do you actually see property lines? City limits? County and state lines? National boundaries?
Where is the substance to our time notations: the name of each day, which month or year it is or what time it is?
These are all incredibly important to functioning in our society, but absolutely of no value to any other species on the planet. We can’t teach a crow how to tell time or describe a property line to a mountain lion, but we can learn plenty about how other species view the land and time, and by understanding more about ecological time and space, we can more easily connect with the landscapes we share with other forms of life all around us.
Our ancestors knew much more about these things because their success at getting food, shelter and staying healthy depended on their being aware of and understanding of these things to a much greater degree than most of us do today.
Let’s start with water
If you are like every other animal on the planet who does not get their water from the faucet, drinking fountain or bottle, chances are you were shown by your parents where there is drinkable (by wild animals at least) water, an essential component for life.
But as most animals roam around quite a bit, you have developed a keen sense of what I call watershed thinking.
If you fly, finding water is relatively easy, but if you get around with your feet, you quench your thirst by using your feet: water lies downhill. In the newly uncovered planet you are walking on, one of the most gratifying perceptual transformations you can make of your neighborhood where you live is to become aware of the watersheds.
Where is your watershed?
Every parcel of land you look at is part of an area of common drainage, with rain running off that parcel downhill until it flows into a creek. Every piece of land that flows into that creek is part of that creek’s watershed. And watersheds are nested into larger watersheds: that creek is a tributary of/flows into a larger creek, merging with other creeks into a river, merging with ever larger rivers until the waters finally flow into the ocean (or in a few rare places, into a playa, or basin not connected to the ocean).
And animals of every shape and size use their feet by sensing what’s uphill and downhill to find that creek, that spring, that puddle, that lake to quench their thirst. So by using your own feet, you can trace from your backyard where it fits into the local watershed.
You can literally do this after a rainstorm, but just by looking at and feeling with your feet (or bicycle) whether you are going uphill or downhill, you can begin to uncover the lay of the land from the watershed perspective.
One of the cool things that happens when doing this is that you become aware of a central ecological principle: what happens upstream affects everything downstream, and we all live downstream. You find yourself looking at your neighborhood as being connected in new ways by figuring out what part of the area lies upstream and how it affects you, as well as how you use your yard affects everything downstream from you.
A quick and useful way to supplement your understanding of your watershed by your walks is to find maps of your area’s watersheds. EPA’s Surf Your Watershed site will give you a good picture of what watersheds you are a part of by going to the How’s My Waterway site and plugging in your location to see the map of creeks and rivers in your area. Many cities and counties have a GIS/mapping section of their website that can also provide more detailed information about the watersheds.
This is just the beginning of your lifelong journey of deepening your connections to the planet, the universe and yourself. In future columns, I’ll be exploring many more aspects of ecological space and time, so in the meantime, enjoy your walks!
And ask your questions in the Comments section below…how was your jump?