Peter Berg at Watershed: Writers, Nature and Community


An indication that bioregional consciousness might contend with the highest level of official
culture in the United States arrived with a 1996 event titled Watershed: Writers, Nature
and Community in Washington, DC. Convened by President Clinton’s appointed Poet
Laureate Robert Hass, it brought a total audience of thousands to fill several auditoriums at
the Library of Congress and other venues for a week. They heard dozens of contemporary
nature poets and authors, most of them expressing the urgent necessity to reverse damage to
planetary and local natural systems.

A year of prior preparatory events for Watershed included a large outdoor reading in San
Francisco’s Golden Gate Park and the River of Words poetry contest in public schools
throughout the country. The writing guide for the contest included the map-making exercise
from “Discovering Your Life-place”. There were other kinds of public activities at the time
of the event in Washington, DC, highlighted by a river shore cleanup involving leading
political figures, writers and school children. The whole continuous cluster of participative
opportunities starting in California and moving across the continent to the District of
Columbia was perhaps as engaging on an honestly popular level as a national literary
celebration might be.

Arriving on the next to the last day of Watershed readings in the Library of Congress, I
joined Stephanie Mills and Gary Snyder in a large high-ceilinged room with a wall of
windows overlooking Washington’s granite and marble architectural extravagance. We were
slated for a panel moderated by hydrologist and International River Network founder Phillip
Williams. It was quickly evident to the room’s overflow crowd, which included many
community leaders, that something other than simply reading from published work would
take place with this particular group of activist-thinkers. I aimed at moving the audience to
imagine taking strong bioregional action where they lived regardless of the centralized
institutional surroundings where we found ourselves at the moment.

—Peter Berg, introduction to this talk from his book Envisioning Sustainability

Talk by Peter Berg at Watershed: 
Writers, Nature and Community

Washington, D.C., 19 April 1996

When I was with the San Francisco Diggers in 1966, Paul Krassner of The Realist magazine wanted to put out our street communications as the “Digger Papers.” In one of those essays I used the word “ecology.” He had never heard it. Krassner was an intelligent, urbane New Yorker who had to go to the dictionary to look up the word “ecology.” Today, there are many words that have “eco” from ecology as a prefix. Eco-friendly, eco-fascist, eco-feminist, eco-terrorist, eco-consumer, eco-freak, eco-literate, eco-art, eco-governance. And this list is probably growing while we’re sitting here. I think this is indicative of a vast consciousness shift that has people scrambling to try to account for their reality.

It could be thought of as merely a fashionable trend, but most of these eco-words indicate a serious attempt to revise the previous sense of ideas from their industrial context into a new mutualistic, shared-values context. I think it represents, and here comes that prefix again, an eco-cultural transition. This is a big shift, on the scale of a civilization change. It’s a new perception of human identity. What a person is, where he or she is, and what he or she is going to do about it. Possibly the older transition to industrialization was not as large as the one that we’re engaged in now. It involves the knowledge that we share the planet together, which invites a new sense of interdependence as opposed to simple individual independence. I think this will eventually become a mutual perception of the world regardless of the particular cultural diversity of human groups. The moral, social, political, and spiritual dimensions of this idea are enormous. What should one do? How should one make a living? How should one behave toward other people and living things? We’re beginning to identify ourselves with the preservation of the biosphere as a conscious activity in major aspects of our lives.

It’s not unusual when words come out of the natural sciences into general cultural terms that they change their meanings. Almost nobody means ecology in the strict natural science definition when they use it popularly today. They’re really referring to the suchness of being connected together. . .This new sense that we’re all part of the human species together on this planet. That’s what people are attempting to say by the term “ecological.” It’s very different from the previous industrial context. Is there anyone here who hasn’t heard the phrase “board feet of lumber”? That’s an industrial definition of a tree, to describe it as so many board feet of lumber.

It’s a useful measure in construction but when it’s the only term for a tree, we’re in serious trouble. “Acre foot of water.” Probably very few people know what an acre foot of water is. This is agribusiness code. It’s the amount of water that can cover a square acre one foot deep. It’s a useless measure to nearly anyone except a large agricultural consumer of water. Rivers are acre-feet of water to industrial sensibilities.

We know that trees and rivers are actually complex habitats. But the industrial notion was: How can I take something out of nature and transform it to make something else out of it? We’re trying to reverse that. We’re trying to get an ecological perspective where a forest is once again a living context, a river is a living context. The terms that are coming out of the natural sciences for this include “watershed.” Trees and rivers are part of a watershed. A watershed is also being seen as a large context for understanding our own human location within a natural system.

How does this work? A young woman came to the Planet Drum Foundation office and said she had heard my lecture in her Ecosystemology class at Berkeley. ECOsystemology. There’s that prefix again. She wanted to make a presentation on the notion of watersheds for her class as an Environmental Sciences major. How could she do it?

Well, start with the bowl itself, the water basin, the landforms of ridges, hills and valleys. Put gravity in it. Water flows and carries things, primarily soil, downhill. Soil determines what kinds of plants will grow. Willows need to have their roots in water so when you see willows at a distance you’re looking at a place where water is near the surface. Some animals go where certain plants grow to browse. Some animals go near water to hunt other animals. All of those connections are in a watershed: landforms, gravity, hydrology, soil, native plants and animals.

Next consider what people do each day. Whether or not sunlight falls on you might be because a shading hill is nearby, that’s part of the watershed. If you have firewood it’s because of the biomass in the watershed. Our food is usually from rich bottom land that’s made up of soil that is carried downhill into the valley. Those are some of the considerations. Also, everything about planning or where you put a house, whether or not it’s going to be dry, whether or not you’re going to get sun, what the water and waste restrictions might be, where the roads go. All of those human considerations revolve around the watershed.

Now back up farther and look at the oldest ways humans have lived. We’ve mainly operated in the context of our immediate locales, which meant we knew our watersheds. We were consciously relating to them every day. We weren’t just abstractly “on the earth.” Indigenous, land-based Europeans actively refer to things this way. The Welsh word “bro” meaning: all of us who live here around this river, my relatives, the animals of this valley, etc. (This might be where we got the word “borough.”)

I told her that in order to understand that context, you’re going to have to get out of the natural sciences department. You’re going to have to shift over to the philosophy department. I directed her to read Lucretius and Lao Tzu to find out what water really means, what water teaches. How it wears things down. How it flows and seeks the low places, and why that can be thought of as a desirable way for a human being to think and behave. And also to get over into the anthropology department and find out what people refer to for the basics of life. What they eat. What they think of the things they eat. Why they think that way. What they mean. Even what prayer means to indigenous people.

When she left I thought about the last time I saw all of this myself. I was in Hakuba, Japan because the Winter Olympics were going to be held there and some of the local residents had been reading “deep ecology.” A friend who works part-time at a ski lodge said he would like me to come and talk to his fellow town residents about the impact of the Olympics on their valley and its ecology. When I showed up they said, “You can do anything you want. We’ll arrange a bus tour. That’s the way we do it. We’ll all get in a bus together and you’ll show us our watershed.”

I asked if there was a hillside with a spring nearby. Luckily, there was one that looked just like the spring in the city of Mount Shasta in California that is the northern source of the Sacramento River. It’s a spiritually powerful place because you can see the river jump right out of a rock there. I stood on a bridge and underneath it in the stream was watercress just the way it is at Mount Shasta and I immediately felt at home. I showed them how water flowed down. I noted the difference between a planted wood lot with trees of only one species and a more diverse natural forest. We saw where water carried rich soil into the rice fields and then how the river went down to the town. We went to one of the Olympics sites where the construction crews had pounded a hillside to make a ski recreation center.

They had cut huge swaths through the forest for cross-country ski trails that the officials said were going to be turned into facilities for urban-originated skateboarding and rollerblading when the Olympics were over. Supposedly it was going to be economically beneficial, but they were already polluting water right beside the construction site and you could see major erosion that was going to cost restoration monies in the future.

Then we all went to the edge of a cliff. This promontory was about a thousand feet high and looked down on the whole Hakuba Valley. We all stood and I asked the people to be quiet for a little while and try to put together what we had seen. After a few minutes of silence, people started spontaneously talking about how the water came out of the hillsides, how it came through the forest into creeks and down into the rice fields. The rice was green and gold, beautiful just before harvesting. The river was swift because the peaks around it rise two thousand feet in something like a thousand feet. Really steep. River water has pounded down and brought gravel with it so that the banks of the river on both sides were ten times the width of the river.

I said: “You know all of this was here before people came. And all of this will stay here after the Olympics are over and even after people leave. Here’s your choice. You see how powerful it is. You see how rich it is. You can either harmonize with this watershed pattern, try to get along with it and maintain it, or you can allow it to be degraded. It’s a values decision. You have to find the basis for making that choice in your hearts.”

I couldn’t help noticing during my visit that Japanese have a great appreciation of spirit and respect for it. The people in this group were as humble as though they had been in a temple. When we walked back they were quiet, almost whispering as they showed plants and mushrooms to each other. We all got back in the bus and a woman came up and said: “I have to go but…” A man began translating what she said while I was looking at her somewhat dumbfounded. She said: “I’ve never been as touched by anything in my life.” I said: “Ah, no.” She said: “Yes. I’m very, very grateful. I can’t thank you enough. I’m a school teacher and I was going to stop teaching.” I said: “Oh, please.” I was feeling embarrassed. I looked at my friend and said: “Kim, isn’t there any way we can make a joke?” He said: “No, you have to listen to her.” She said: “I’m going to make what we learned today the basis of what I teach to the children of this valley in the future.”

What does this mean to us? Where is this going? I think it’s going to go as far as we push it. We must continue to push the reality and meaning of watersheds and bioregions, our natural homes. We’ve seen how far it’s taken us already. As a particularly interesting example, a quarter of the mail I get at Planet Drum Foundation has the sender’s bioregion or watershed in the return address. They write the street, the town and the state, and then put something like “Delaware Watershed” at the bottom. When I started putting “Shasta Bioregion” on our Planet Drum stationery years ago, I jokingly told people I was doing it to confound the U.S. Postal Service. But people are now doing this in a dedicated way. Sometimes their address is even more detailed. They’ll write the creek in the watershed in the bioregion.

I’m going to push this as far as I can and I want you to push it as far as you can. I’m staying with a lawyer here in Washington who presents cases having to do with health to government agencies. I asked him: “What’s the actual city of Washington like?” He said: “Washington is a very distracted political entity because it’s so artificial. The only solution is for it to be a regional government, for Washington to be seen in the Potomac Watershed of the Piedmont-Tidewater Bioregion. It’s the only way that this place can ever make any sense.” Let’s push it as far as we can.

Let’s see what eventually happens to Washington, D.C. Let’s see what happens to the places where we live. Let’s watch what happens to our city and county boundaries, and state boundaries in terms of watersheds. Let’s help to rejoin the planet in every way we can.


The Watershed Festival emerged from Robert Hass’s national Watershed initiative during his tenure as U.S. Poet Laureate, 1995-97, which explored connections between the environment and the American literary imagination. That is how the first U.S. Poet Laureate from the West came to organize a national Watershed conference in April, 1996, in Washington, D.C. … The crucial River of Words international poetry and visual art program for children also emerged from this initiative.

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