First and Second Thoughts on Bioregional Ritual

Infrequently Asked Questions, on the occasion of a debate following the Great Lakes Bioregional Congress, Algonquin Island, Lake Ontario (south end of the Oak Ridges Bioregion), 1995...

First of all, what's this "bioregional" stuff?

 I'll quote Peter Berg and Ray Dasmann:

"Bioregions are geographic areas having common characteristics of soil, watershed, climate, native plants and animals that exist within the whole planetary biosphere as unique and intrinsic contributive parts. A bioregion refers both to geographical terrain and a terrain of consciousness -- to a place and the ideas that have developed about how to live in that place."

Bioregionalism is the movement to restore an ecological sensibility into the ways we live in the places where we live them. It's based on the insight that neither nation-states nor transnational corporations will solve the present ecological crisis for us. If anything, they are more likely a part of the problem. The solution can only come if we ourselves learn to "reinhabit" the specific and unique places in which we live.

"Reinhabitation means learning to live-in-place in an area that has been disrupted and injured through past exploitation. It means becoming native to a place through being aware of the particular ecological relationships that operate within and around it. It means understanding activities and evolving social behaviour that will enrich the life of that place, restore its life- supporting systems, and establishing an ecologically and socially sustainable pattern of existence within it... Simply stated, it involves becoming fully alive in and with a place." (Berg and Dasmann)

Regionalism? 'Becoming native'? Doesn't all this go against the grain of modernization, globalization, and all that? And worse, can't this 'backwards' movement lead to ethnocentrism and tribalism?

 It certainly does go against the grain of globalization. But we have to live somewhere, don't we? And bioregionalists are probably right that if we don't pay attention to the already stressed connections between human social and economic practices and the broader environments within which they take place and on which they depend, then the whole global economy will probably collapse anyway. But even a corpse can be kept alive for a while, so that's not really the issue... Perhaps the point is this: Life is more rewarding when you are a part of a community -- not just a human community, but a natural one as well. (Even if this means giving up some consumer goodies along the way. Try it and see...)

 As for ethnocentrism and tribalism, bioregionalism offers an alternative to them. Decentralist and regionalist movements are as alive as ever: whether in Canada (Quebec, the western provinces) or Europe (the fall of the Soviet Union, the break-up of the Balkans, growing separatist movements in Wales, Scotland, the Basques, et al.) or anywhere else. Bioregionalism does not begin with some (usually inaccurate) version from the (mythical) past of what a place is supposed to be like, and who is supposed to live there. It begins with the given place as it is now -- with all the people that live there today -- and it works to restore its ecological integrity. The basic referent for bioregionalism is not some nation, state, ethnic or tribal group; it is the land itself, as it is now and as it could be. The cultural (and natural) history of a place can be helpful in pointing out what has worked in the past, but that past doesn't necessarily need to be re-created. After all, which past -- and whose past -- would we want to re-create anyway? It's the future that needs to be created, and we're all in that together.

 What does all this have to do with ritual?

 I'm not sure, but for some reason ritual became the big theme of the last Great Lakes Bioregional Gathering (held on Snake Island in Lake Ontario, off the coast of Toronto, in August, 1995). (See Stephanie Mills' article, which appeared in Toronto's local alternative news and arts weekly, Now. )

 But let's for a moment consider some possible reasons why. What is the purpose of ritual? One of the main purposes of most rituals is to formally acknowledge something, to mark something out -- such as a life transition, an initiation into something new (e.g. adulthood, marriage, etc.), the arrival of a new season, and so on -- and to acknowledge it with one's (or a community's) whole being - i.e. not merely through words, but through bodily gestures, movement, feelings, the whole apparatus we've got -- head, heart, body and spirit.

Another purpose of ritual is to connect the personal with the political with the cosmic. Ritual not only serves to unify a community of people around the particular idea or event that is being celebrated or recognized by the ritual; it also calls on the fundamental meaning-bearers of a given society, the overarching "powers" that exist, for their recognition of the event. Political rituals appeal to the "powers that be" within a given social order. (The swearing in of a new president or prime minister is a ritual occasion, as is the swearing in and opening of a session of a court of law.) Religious rituals invoke the ancestors, gods or spiritual beings that oversee a community. If bioregionalism is about restoring our connections to our ecosystems and bioregions and life- communities, then, it's only natural that it would try to "register" those revived connections with the power of the land itself -- the bioregion, with its many nonhuman inhabitants. And if bioregional ideas are to become a catalyst in the movement to re-ecologize our culture, then they've got to appeal to people on many levels, including the symbolic (which is what ritual is built out of).

What would be an example of a bioregional ritual?

 A simple one, and yet perhaps the fundamental kind of bioregional ritual might be one that marks one's, or a community's, decision to acknowledge, renew and deepen their commitment to the place where they live -- the bioregion, with all its human and nonhuman members. To formally say, "Yeah, I live here, and I want that to become more evident in all that I do" (i.e. I want to find out more about where my food comes from, where my waste goes to, etc. and to start changing my habits in appreciation of those facts). "I commit to live a lifestyle that's less harmfully impactful and more sensitive in relation to my surroundings." The details of a ritual intended for this purpose would have to depend on the bioregion and person/group performing it. (See below for some suggestions, though.)

 More generally, the ceremonial life of a bioregion includes everything that goes on within it. Let me quote Beatrice Briggs:
"Each bioregion has its particular celebratory moments, times of danger, times of opportunity. Each needs its own ceremonial calendar based on local weather patterns, growing season of native plants, mating season and migratory patterns of native animals, hydrological cycle, agricultural year, night sky and significant moments in human history."

What kinds of things would need to be considered in trying to develop bioregionally appropriate rituals?

Everything. Some of the more obvious considerations might include:

Other issues to consider:

(1) Inclusiveness: How do we include people of diverse social and cultural backgrounds, how do we make them feel like they're welcome participants and not mere spectators? How do we keep from alienating people by the use of specific symbols/references/etc.? Bioregionalism, let's remember, is not just for eco-freaks, tree-huggers, nature-worshipping pagans and other assorted weirdos (though it might be nice if we all became more like that sooner or later); it's for the other 4.5 million of them/us in the Oak Ridges Bioregion / 45 million in the Great Lakes Bioregion / 300+ million in North America (Turtle Island). Ultimately, all of us would have to participate in a bioregional culture -- or go down gambling on endless techno-fixes, etc. So we might have to pay attention to symbols and meanings and listen closely to what other people have to say about them.

 (2) Artificiality vs. 'naturalness': How do we ensure that a ritual feels "natural", down-to- earth, rather than an exotic activity brought in from elsewhere or imposed according to someone's idea of what a ritual should be like? How do we make it "flow"? Perhaps by refraining from overintellectualizing about it, keeping it simple, working around one or two basic ideas, and letting whatever happens, happen.

(3) Boundaries: At a bioregional gathering, should a given event such as a ritual circle be rigidly separated from other activities going on before, after, or at the same time? Can people be free to come and go as they please? What about children? Dogs? There are good arguments to keep boundaries fluid and permeable. (This is not a secret society that requires passing down arcane traditions without altering a single letter.)

(4) Cultural appropriation: No matter what we do, if we invent it from scratch, it probably won't feel very meaningful at all. And if we use ideas and bits and pieces of ritual from existing cultural traditions, we're taking them out of their original contexts and "appropriating" them for our own purposes. This can be perceived as a form of cultural theft (particularly if it's white people taking from the traditions of long-oppressed peoples such as Native North Americans). How about bringing in things from our own (individual/family/community) traditions? Eclecticism is inevitable, given our situations. How about just allowing things to develop -- new traditions appropriate to our bioregions?

(5) Putting the horse before the cart: Are specific events called "rituals" even necessary at all? Can't a bioregional gathering be its own ritual? There are good arguments for not creating a separate category of events called "rituals." And yet, there is a ritual (symbolic, unifying, even sacred) aspect to many activities, and it can't hurt to recognize that, can it?

What might be some appropriate 'formats' for rituals in a given bioregion?

 This is where creativity and intuition come into play; and where time is needed to allow forms to emerge organically, "from the ground up," and ideally, over generations. But here's a few suggestions:

 (1) Let's take the Oak Ridges Bioregion. This is an area that takes in some four to five million people living in and around Metropolitan Toronto, within an area drained by several river systems (Don, Humber, Rouge, et al.) all of which flow south from the Oak Ridges moraine into Lake Ontario. (The latter two are the bioregion's northern and southern physiological boundaries.)

 All of these features suggest some obvious seed-ideas for eco-rituals. For instance, a symbolic unification of the different components of the bioregion, such as its river systems, could be performed by bringing water from participants' home rivers/water sources and combining them, then sharing the concoction in a "bioregional communion" drink (this was done at the great Lakes Bioregional Gathering this past summer, and has been done at earlier gatherings -- it seems to be becoming part of the bioregional "tradition"). A symbolic "cleaning up" of a river or creek could be performed by walking its length and picking up garbage along the way, then building a sculpture out of the collected trash and placing it at an appropriate spot, perhaps near the mouth of the river. A symbolic healing and renewal of natural systems could be performed wherever such a renewal is necessary (e.g., Garrison Creek in Toronto, the whole Oak Ridges Moraine, etc.). In fact, every ecologically restorative act/activity has its ritual dimension. If it is done mindfully and with intent, this ritual dimension can "come out" and make the activity all the more powerful.

 (2) The "bare bones" structure of traditional rituals is most commonly a three-stage one:

(3) The ritual occasion is meant to bring together the various "forces of the universe" around us. In some traditions in the past, these have been represented by the elements earth, water, air, and fire (or some variants thereof). These, in turn, may have been thought of as corresponding to human psychic capacities and potentials (earth=body, water=emotions, air=thought and mental activity, fire=will), to the four seasons, the times of day, stages of the life-cycle, etc. Participation in a ritual incorporating these different elements allows the participant to recognize the role each of them plays in their life and that of their community and cosmos. The ultimate effect is to balance out the different forces so they are not seen as opposed but as complementary (kind of like yin and yang).

The most common form of representing these "forces of the universe" and bringing them into harmonious coexistence -- and also the most common "shape" for rituals -- is that of the circle. Circles represent unity, wholeness, nonhierarchy/ equality, participation, the round of the seasons, of day and night, and of the life cycle. Some people seem to feel that circles can be exclusive, i.e., if you're not in it, you're out of it. But a better model is to think of circles as temporary focusings or congealings of energy within a broader field of relations. Life isn't really a random, chaotic scattering of energy (or is it?). It consists more of fields of relations (between people, places, etc.) that come together for a time and usually for a purpose, then after a while (such as when their purpose has been fulfilled or their energy "run out") disperse again to do other things. A ritual circle, like a civilization, a story, or a thought, is such a temporary congealment of energy. Its potency depends on its focus, its intent, and its ultimate expression.

In the Oak Ridges Bioregion, some possible symbolic associations based on the circular round of seasons, days, life cycle, etc., might be the following:



winter, night/darkness forests, uplands
AIR (North Wind)
white (snow) (inner life)

                     (...death and...) (retreat into homes, sharing of stories, etc.)
               (...maturity, old age...) (...rebirth...)

     Hallowe'en (Samhain)

WEST                                                                                                                                                   EAST
autumn, sundown                                                                                                                                          spring, dawn
earth colours (olive,                                                                                                                                          first light
russet, black, citrine)                                                                                                                                    (red, yellow)
   EARTH                                                                                                                                                       FIRE, sun

(...adulthood...)                                                                                            Rite of Spring/Beltane/Easter
                                                                                                        (...planting, seeding, growth...)

Midsummer's Day
summer, midday, Lake Ontario
WATER (blue-green)
(outer life)




These are just suggestions. Feel free to experiment and come up with your own circles (or "medicine wheels," as some people call them) with their own associations and connections to the various goings-on in your life-worlds. Paint or draw these. Tell stories about them. Teach them to your kids. Then in twenty years, see if there's any consensus that's emerged in your community/bioregion.

(4) Finally, what is ritual without myth and story? Shared stories are what build a community and what keep it together, functioning and healthy. Reinhabiting a place means developing shared stories about the different component features of that place, its different other inhabitants (the nonhuman ones, and even maybe the invisible ones). Bioregionalism is really about discovering your home place, for the first time perhaps, discovering how it's best to live there, with others, and developing the stories and traditions that "make sense" to it. Our society's myths today generally reflect the values of urban, industrial capitalism. They're orchestrated by marketing specialists and politicians. It's time to wean ourselves off of those myths (and rituals, like the shopping mall ritual) and to discover more sensible ones.

There are a variety of potential Elders who could be consulted about this process: native people who know the area well, old people who've lived there for a long time and seen many changes, scientists and naturalists who study its flora, fauna, etc., and, of course, those many "Elders" who don't necessarily speak English, or even human (like the wind, the rivers, the animals, the tree spirits, et al.). (And let's not forget children, either -- they are sometimes our best "elders".)

All this talk about ritual smells too much like religion for my taste (or like somebody else's religion). Is there a difference?

The word "religion," etymologically, means "re-linking" -- i.e. re-membering and making sense of all the disconnected strands of our lives, pulling them together into a coherent and meaningful fabric involving us, our communities and surrounding environments, and the cosmos. The problem is that people get attached to symbols, even if they travel far from their places of origin. What we think of as "religions" have largely become disconnected from the practice of living in place; beliefs about the universe have become disconnected from everyday lives and environments. Bioregionalism really is about making sense of our lives and our places, and reviving the many connections between them. Because we (in a given bioregion) are multiple, our cultural (and religious) traditions have become a part of our bioregions. Part of the task of bioregionalism is to figure out ways in which those connections can make sense again -- for all the people in that bioregion. But bioregionalism itself is not about to usurp the role of what serves as religion for people: we can let the "religions" fight over the answers to life, the universe, and everything; bioregionalists should be content to figure out how it might be appropriate to live where we are.

What if I'm not ready to commit to this particular place?

That's cool. There have always been people who lived where they lived, and others who moved around. Most bioregionalists I know have travelled around a fair bit -- it gives a good kind of perspective on life to travel and see how others live in very different places. Eventually, people like to settle down, and bioregionalism is partly about that process. But there will always be a place for people that travel from one place to another (poets, bards, musicians, et al.). This is one of the ways that decentralized communities get connected into larger societies. Another way, nowadays, is the internet.

Huh? The internet? But isn't computerization the antithesis of bioregionalism?

Only if you think so. In a sense, the world wide web is a natural counterpart to bioregionalism. The move to decentralize human society and to really "reinhabit" the diverse environments in which we live isn't meant to separate us all off into local, provincialized ghettos with no contact between each other (except by foot-messenger). The internet, being a decentralized "narrowcast" medium of communication and informational exchange, is a "natural" for taking on the role of communications medium linking these ecocommunities and bioregions.

Well, okay, maybe not quite "natural": silicon chips are a little less natural than smoke signals, or telepathy for that matter. And the manufacturing, marketing and distribution of computers depends on an economy of resource extraction, an industrial division of labour, and the production of mountains of non-biodegradable waste. But here I am, writing this on a computer, and intending to send it out onto the world wide web... So let’s just acknowledge it has its positive and negative qualities, and that we should make use of the former and try to mitigate the latter.

 Where can I read more about this kind of stuff?

 Here's a few places to start:


"Guidelines for Eco-Rituals", by Beatrice Briggs:

1. Keep the ritual simple and clearly focused.
2. Choose a biocentric theme (i.e., include the entire earth community, not just humans).
3. Gather in a circle. If more people arrive, enlarge it. If the circle gets too large, form two concentric circles.
4. Be time and place-specific. Celebrate the land, water, species, seasons, in your area and your community's particular moment in the evolutionary history of the universe.
5. Good ritual is participatory. Involve the body and the senses. Get folks up and moving. Use smells, bells, physical movement. Music aloud! Sing, hum, clap. (Try changing the lyrics of familiar songs to suit your purpose.)
6. Vary the ratio of darkness/silence/shadow to light/sound/"up" vibes. Sometimes grieving must precede celebration.
7. Give the ritual a shape. Some commonly-used shaping elements are:

8. Build trust and cooperation by outlining the purpose and format of the ritual to the group before you actually begin. Go over the lyrics to any songs, practice unfamiliar movements, etc. "Rehearsal" will reduce the group's anxiety and heighten participation.
9. Give people a way to not participate (by sitting on the edge of the circle, sitting in the middle of the circle, leaving) or to limit their participation (by remaining silent, coming forward to do the ritual act when they feel like it, rather than in some sequential order, etc.). Make sure people know where the exits and restrooms are.
10. Avoid cultural strip-mining. Be respectful (and sparing) in your appropriation of Native American or other ritual traditions. Do not use them if you and your group are not willing to stand in solidarity with the contemporary struggles of the native people to preserve their land and culture. Develop your own indigenous traditions.
11. When in doubt, celebrate the solstices, equinoxes, lunar cycles. These are relatively non- threaening to most people (and many do not even know what they are).
12. Tell a story and make the ritual itself a story worth re-telling. Rituals are repeatable cultural forms.
13. Eco-rituals should be both scientifically grounded and aesthetically rich. Involve those knowledgeable about natural history, the life sciences, etc. and artists of all kinds in the planning process.
14. Make the events generationally inclusive. Create roles for children and older people. (But do not assume that every 'gray hair' wants to assume the role of 'elder'. Ask first.)
15. Always share food and drink afterward, minimizing use of 'disposable' cups, plates, napkins, utensils. Let the feasting begin!
Be creative. Take some risks. Be prepared to make some mistakes and to encounter some resistance. Have fun with the process. Remember, our origin and destiny is celebration!

This FAQ was written by crayfish , with ideas shamelessly borrowed from many places, and from other participants in the Ritual Discussion Group of the Oak Ridges Bioregional Alliance (ORBA). Thanks to Lauren Boyington for great food and thoughts, to Marlaina and Linda for ideas, and to Whitney, Chris, and other ORBAites for keeping the idea alive in big, bad Toronto. Special thanks to Beatrice Briggs for her ideas and guidelines (reproduced above).

 November 1995. All rites reversed. May all beings tread the path toward wisdom and true happiness. Blessed be.

To go back to Adrian Ivakhiv's home page, click here .

Betcha did'n know that the half-billion year-old
Niagara Escarpment, from above, looks like a giant horseshoe
that stretches from Niagara Falls, across southern Ontario, around the tops of Lakes Huron and Michigan, and down into the states of Wisconsin and Illinois, finally petering out just   north of Chicago?  It's also like the cracked and notched rim  of a giant bowl (a bowl geologists call the Michigan Basin).
      A more or less linear ridge (the Oak Ridges Moraine)  stretches east from near the bowl's southeastern edge,
                        and from out of that ridge flows a river called the H u m b e  r, which passes by my home (that's where i'm writing this from) and that of hundreds of thousands of other people, raccoons, beavers, herons, ducks 'n gulls 'n coyotes 'n other critters, on its way  down into Lake Ontaaarrriioo.
Cheers (lotsa freshwater here - wish it tasted better!). Salut.