Bioregion and Human Location
By Peter Berg
All Area #2, Spring 1983.
[This is a transcription of a talk given at the University of North Carolina.]
It's been a ferocious run the last couple of days, but I feel more assured by all of it
and I want to use this opportunity, feeling that way, to talk about some of the deep
implications of bioregional work. There is some hard data to all of this, but most of it's
going to be speculations about civilization.
Alexander Marschack epitomizes the kind of rethinking and reconception of the
Pleistocene period that's marked anthropology most significantly in the last 15 years.
Marshack's investigations began because he was hired by NASA; his job was to figure out
the significance of the first space shot in terms of "the ascent of man." He had
a background in civilization and culture, so they asked him to start at some appropriate
place, like Greek civilization, and proceed to Venus. But he had more integrity than that
and thought it might be better to start with the beginnings of agriculture. Agriculture
seemed to be already a very complex and dense system though, so he decided to take a pass
at trying to interpret some of the artifacts that existed before agriculture.
One of them, in the Peabody Museum in Cambridge, was a bone from Africa that was
apparently an antelope femur that had been broken off at both ends and incised with
irregular marks that looked something like the teeth of a broken comb. No one knew what it
was. Around 20,000 years old, carbon dating. So he ran it through a computer that NASA was
letting him use, one of the information pirate computer operations that take place more
and more, and he found that at that period of time those marks corresponded roughly to the
lunar cycles. Somebody 20,000 years ago was bothering to record cycles of the moon on an
antelope femur! That stuck him as respectably dense and complex as well. Another thing
that was available to him was infrared photography. (They've got all the new toys, those
space people.) So he thought if he took that into the caves of southern France, where
there are cave paintings, he could photograph those paintings and come out with more
material than they previously had about them. He discovered that almost every painting in
those caves was painted over several other paintings. In fact, there were a lot of
"gratuitous" items in the caves that didn't fit with the Official Hunting Magic
theory of the paintings. A lot of people were blowing paint to make negative images of
their hands or sticking their finger in a paint pot and popping it in the middle of a
circle. Animals were carved into rocks that naturally resembled, for instance, the neck of
a horse. There were some very complex things and the dates were getting to be 25,000 years
ago. Marshack began to be intrigued by the possibility that what was going on in the
Pleistocene period was a civilization. That idea is very hostile to the idea of
civilization that we've had for the last 4,000 years.
It was a Catholic priest who first stumbled on those caves at Lascaux. He was so
offended by the possibility that the people who produced these paintings weren't able to
be granted salvation that he claimed the legbones were reversed. His rationale was that
they weren't human beings created by God roughly around the time of Adam and Eve, which
was some time after these folks. As another antidote to these received notions of
Pleistocene, read Marshall Sahlin's Stone Age Economics which makes an elegant argument
that these cultures were the first "affluent" societies.
They had an economy of abundance, a ten hour work week, and spent most of their time in
a kind of sophisticated social life. The argument being advanced is that they were
Recently other anthropologists have come up with significant evidence that there is a
dominant cave architecture, a "living in a cave" kind of architecture. The cave
is always sheltered by a ledge. It has a raised mouth. It faces East so that the sun comes
in the cave in the morning. You can always see a glacier from a cave. The Pleistocene
people lived with glaciers and didn't expect the glaciers to go away; they weren't waiting
for the glaciers to melt for civilization to begin. There's usually a rocky moraine around
the caves and there's always a valley below. You can see it from the cave. There are trees
along the valley. Fish come up the rivers. There were Atlantic salmon in these rivers.
Migratory herds of ungulates, all kinds, some of which are extinct now. They came during
the summer to eat grass on the side of the valley. Migratory birds came through. The birds
lived in the trees when they were there. Apparently the people weren't very hostile. Most
of the things that the early French anthropologists called "baton" and thought
were something you hit somebody with are actually to carry in your hand as a record of the
seasons. They have carved drawings of inter-species activity at a particular time of year.
Springtime was shown by salmon migrating. Salmon jaws grow two inches when they hit fresh
water, when migrating, so you know its springtime. Flower blossoms, snakes balling! All of
these species activities are very seasonal-specific, and they are very sophisticated
Pleistocene people had a civilization. One of Marshack's criterion for regarding their
art is use. It sounds overly pragmatic at first, but when he describes art as being
useful, it invites a new idea of what these people thought of as aesthetics. Apparently
you didn't just paint something on the wall. You know what it took to go down in those
caves to paint? It's pitch black. You walk three miles, and you come to an underground
river. It has a cliff hanging down in it. You would not know that unless you had
previously tried to get past it. You have to dive down into an underground river, swim
underwater, past a rock hanging there (this river hasn't changed: it's as it was 45,000
years ago), and come up on the other side. Somehow you've kept dry a torch, a paint pot,
and a blow pipe for blowing the paint; and then you go another mile up to a high point
where no one has been before, you stick your arms in a hole (where you can't see what
you're doing), and you paint an exquisite mastodon inside that small hole, with your
little kid. There are adult footprints and a child's footprints beside them. It's as great
a feat as a mountain climbing expedition. A geologist friend of mine compares it to that
There were people who came down and used things that were painted. They would reach in
their paint pots and daub a color on their finger and pop a mark, and then perhaps go over
to another place, something like a stone altar, with paintings of animals copulating
inside it, and put their handprint there. It might have been a wedding ceremony. That art
would have been useful.
How different a view this is than that of Thomas Hobbes who said the life of primitive
people is "nasty, mean, brutish, and short." Hobbes is one of the theoretical
architects of the kinds of epistemological argument that brought a science called
economics. Naming the life-stuffs. Giving names to the products of nature. Looking for
products rather than process. Quantifying particular items as they occur in the biosphere.
Pleistocene civilization is before industrial civilization, before Roman civilization,
before Greek civilization, before the appearance of domestic agriculture; it is a wild
civilization. It is based on our interconnectedness with natural cycles and draws its
morality, ethics, and values from that relationship. Before anybody said, "God told
you to." Before anybody said, "Any reasonable man would." Their ethics and
morality were based on their interconnectedness with natural cycles of the planet in a
very difficult time to live, the Ice Age. By the way, Pleistocene figurines,
"Venus" figurines, are found in a distribution that goes through the southern
British Isles all the way to Siberia. Inviting the notion that it was not only a
civilization, but that it was a continuously connected civilization. They knew each other!
We haven't thought that human beings had to be connected with anything around them for
quite some time, at least since the Greeks. That's why a director of the space program
said, "The moon flight of Apollo 8 is a triumph of the squares, meaning the men with
slide rules and crewcuts who read the Bible and get things done." Not the guy who ate
something for breakfast, thought about the other things that were alive, etcetera.
Economics was the quintessential science of the industrial age. It has been the recent
basis of politics out of Marx on one side and Rockefeller on the other side. But it's also
been the way we've been taught to quantify existence. How much does it cost? What's the
brand name? Where did you hear about it? How do we get it from them? How do we get ours to
them? How do you sell that idea?
Economics is to the industrial age what "ecologics" will be to planetary
civilization. We are entering a period when the planetary biosphere will become the major
subject of our civilization's concerns. It is no longer "the fate of man."
That's not the subject. The subject is the fate of the planetary biosphere. We now have
the capacity to destroy it. We have a need to develop the values and ethics necessary to
preserve it. The basis of this will not be found in our history since the birth of
agriculture; it will be found in the values, ethics, morality, revelation of Pleistocene
people. Plesitocene civilization will be the model for planetary civilization. Human
species on a planet together. That's going to be the foreground. Background? The planetary
biosphere of wholeness, magic, ability to perceive oneness: procreativity. We know that
this is the new paradigm. Whether it's in globalist terms, which says there should be
further quantification (we should pave Africa) and remove ourselves from this planet's
limits through space travel; or planetary terms, which I think are distinct from globalist
terms: that we have the opportunity to invite human species consciousness as a real fact
and that a future primitive civilization will be developed around our relationships to the
natural processes of the planet.
Bioregions make appropriate locations for decentralization. If you want to get the hard
bolts of breaking down this oil economy, you want to have political, agricultural,
economic, social, and energy decentralization. What is going to be the locus, the site for
alternate energy? We could have utility districts based on watersheds, in a bioregion.
Bioregional planning can be insinuated into the existing structure. You can be part of a
group that is going to consider the content of the curriculum at this university. A
centralized university. Then you can decide to form a bioregional department that could
eventually decentralize the university itself so that it exhibited the condition Bateson
admired so much, resonance: that what you see around you is what you're feeling and
thinking and must be what makes you feel good. Why would a Balinese make the same carving
for a door as on the prow of a boat? That could be referenced in a dance? For which there
might be a puppet figure as well. Why keep those same images? Because they work. Because
in the minds of the people they resonate with the place itself. A Santo Domingo Pueblo
Indian told me that his paintings were once seized by the men from the kiva because he had
represented figures from the kiva in the paintings although he had never been in the
But he was a Santo Domingo Pueblo, they said, and naturally he's got those things in his
mind. And naturally we do. Naturally we do. Some of us have Gaelic memories, the people
who invented whiskey, "the breath of life."
Assuming that we can create a civilization appropriate to living in the biosphere, what
will be the relationship between cultural groups that already exist and the reinhabitory
groups? The U.N.? Is the U.N. going to be able to arbitrate the biosphere? Is it possible
for the United Nations with France, China, and England when England is losing
Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Ulster? No. What will be the underpinning for the forms of the
relationships between these ethnic cultural groups that can become a planetarian mode?
There has to be a new politics based on reincorporating the social and natural sciences
together in a way that is appropriate for developing a planetarian civilization. It has
been suggested that history will have to go into the biology department. We'll be using
the texts that Olson outlines in Essays Towards a Science of Man. We'll be using Carl
Sauer's Land and Life. We'll be using Alexander Marshack's work. We're going to be drawing
from the healing women that know that "wicca" meant wisdom not witchcraft. The
Gaelic women knew that. We're going to descale economics and take it apart to find out how
we manage to objectify all of those things that occur just because natural processes
occur. For example, how far out has it gotten when someone decides clouds should be seeded
so that there will be a larger crop so that it can be sold for a bigger price? What
happened there? Why does it rain? Why are children born? Those are the real things. These
aren't single separate items; they are really the basis of our species' relationship to
the biosphere. What Faustian trip led some calculus-sprouting maniac to come up with
cloud-seeding? We feed women beef raised on a hormone that will only appear as a mutating
chemical in their daughters. What are these people thinking about? All right, they just
didn't think about that; it was a mistake. They just played with something. Now they want
to find out how to make it all right again. They're going to take the PCBs out of the
garbage dump, it's gonna be all right. How do the PCBs come out of the garbage dump?
They're already in the water supply! "A little acid rain is a fair exchange for our
standard of living. What the hell are you complaining about?" Quantifying. They're
always quantifying. These are people who would rather die than live like that. But is that
why there's a 15 percent suicide rate on Indian reservations of teenagers?
It comes in over the television set. Bump yourself off.
In ecological terms, every time you diminish the capacity of a whole ecosystem to
provide some variable that is distinct and diverse, which may be helpful to you in an
emergency, you weaken the capacity to deal with the unforeseen emergencies like PCB
poisoning. Monoculture in civilization means establishment of one culture as the dominant
mode for this planet: Global monoculture, suit and tie English-derived American
businessman costume. McDonald's hamburgers from Venezuelan beef raised by clear-cutting
the Amazon jungle for grass. And the next year it's dust.
The forest won't ever grow there again because it grew on the corpse of the last forest
and that's been taken away. To the hamburgers wrapped in more paper than it would take to
write a doctoral thesis. That's not civilization. That's global monoculture. They have
McDonald's in Paris! McDonald's in Tibet! Global monoculture is diminishing the diversity
of the culture of our species in ecolocales, which weakens us as a species. Because we
don't have our former resiliency. If the plug on oil gets pulled and the fridge isn't
there, and the supermarket isn't there, what are we going to do? Is that
"progress?" If we keep up global monoculture we will die.
People ask where I am from, and I say the confluence of the Sacramento River and San
Joaquin River and San Francisco Bay, of the Alta California bioregion, of the North
Pacific Rim of the Pacific Basin of the Planet Earth. We're relocating ourselves from
world to planet. Biogeography has come up with the biotic provinces and biogeographical
provinces that can be used as hard data. Quantified biogeography is late in the
development of science. Buried in the International Union for the Conservation of Nature
and Natural resources in Switzerland, the work of Raymond F. Dasmann attempts to divide up
the planet into life zones and biotic provinces, what he describes as "a
planetary-scale mapping of biotic provinces within which similar ecological conditions
prevail and between which there are marked differences of plant and animal species and
vegetation (plant structure savanna, rainforest, etc.)." Together with Miklos
D.F. Udvardy he produced a world map of biogeographical provinces which is a way of
locating yourself on the planet rather than in the world. The world is the conflict of
national interests. The planet is a living organism, right? Where is North Carolina on the
planet? It doesn't exist, right? It's a world phenomenon, but the Piedmont, that's on the
planet; its an anatomical part of the planetary biosphere.
How are you going to have conservation when you have all these national political
entities, so that there isn't a bird, but a Saudi Arabian bird?
You're in the Austroriparian zone (austro-south, riparian-shore), the south shore of
North America; that would make some sense to the words like Tidewater, right? That would
be the large area that you belong to, of the Nearctic Realm. Your deer here are
white-tailed deer. I never see white-tailed deer; I live on the coast of California. I see
black-tailed deer and mule deer. How can you preserve white-tailed deer with a national
U.S. policy when they don't occur on the western side of the Sierra Nevada?
There's an interesting set of meanings hidden in the word region. It's connected to the
word for king: Latin, rego, and Greek, orego; region, if the king owned it. We know the
king lives in a palace but the region is not the palace. Which leads you to the concept of
bioregion: a life-place outside of the centralized civilization mechanism which has unique
flora, fauna, soils, weather and topology; all these become the basis of boundaries.
Watersheds are the organizing principals of bioregions. You know, most little towns
planned their water supply before they gained their present populations; and now they plan
how they are going to divert a river to support that new suburb. That's the wrong way to
go. You have to decide how to get people who already live in that watershed to live in
such a way so the watershed won't die. Because if the watershed dies it's like losing the
arteries or fingers: which is the problem we've had with this frontier psychotic Western
civilization of these last 400 years.
There is a need for a cultural concept of a "bioregion." If the biosphere is
the issue then how one lives in place (because places are the anatomical parts of the
biosphere) becomes a primary consideration. Your head can be any place, but your feet have
to be some place. Bioregion is a cultural concept, really, not a scientific concept. It
should be up to the people to define a bioregion rather than having it come down from the
institutional scientific elite. There should be a planetarian feel to it: that we will
become reinhabitory people and we will begin redefining our locations in planetary terms
for ourselves. The goal of reinhabitation in a bioregion would be to succeed at living in
place, a future primitive planetarian mode.