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Know your Place! Bioregional Writing and Literary Tourism PDF Print E-mail
Monday, 05 March 2007 01:49

Know your Place! Bioregional Writing and Literary Tourism

 “Lack of knowledge and superficiality brand the tourist” Arlene Plevin,


This paper is about ways of knowing “place”. From the perspective of the tourist, “place” is usually a planned but unknown destination. However, from the perspective of the local dweller, “place” can be known on many levels. In some ways, bioregional writing may seem like the opposite of tourism, as it involves staying in one place and knowing that place very well whereas tourism involves going to places which are unknown. However, for those of us who wish to serve tourists and attract them to places of interest, there is a need to first know our own place and to present this knowledge in a way that is accessible and interesting to the tourist. One way of doing this, I would argue, is through bioregional writing.


Bioregionalism is a contemporary environmental movement which arose in the US in the mid 1970's and emphasises the fact that human behaviour and ethical decision making occur within the context of local communities, both human and biotic.  It is more well developed in the United States than it is in South Africa - there is definitely room for growth here! In an article entitled 'Bringing Nature Writing Home', American ecocritic Karla Armbruster maintains that bioregional writing is an ethical stance that encourages the development of place-focused literature in order to help readers develop environmentally sustainable relationships with the places where they live. This stance accepts that nature and culture are linked, not separate, and that place is always contextualised according to a complex mix of human and non-human 'stories and relationships'.


As bioregionalist Peter Berg puts it, a bioregion is, 'a terrain of consciousness determined in large part by the place we dwell in, the work we do, and the people with who we share our lives.' Bioregional writing therefore is intrinsically local.


Bioregional writing is different from traditional nature writing which maintains that nature and culture are separate. Broadly, the latter emphasises the individual as autonomous and ahistorical and presents nature in its purest form as a wilderness separate from culture and thus a place in which one cannot remain. It does not give readers the moral imperative to encourage us to take responsibility for the decisions we make about place. This is the ethical gap bioregional writing seeks to fill.


An example of this type of writing is that of American environmental philosopher Barry Lopez, who uses the term 'false geographies' to refer to a series of romantic preconceptions by means of which the 'essential wildness' and 'almost incomprehensible depth and complexity' of the American landscape have been reduced to 'attractive scenery'. In his essay entitled 'The Language of Animals' he sets out his belief that the only way to repair the damage caused "in the wake of industrialisation, colonialism, and more recently the forcing power of capitalism," is to adopt the viewpoint that "we can't any longer take what we call 'nature' for an object. We must merge it again with our own nature. We must reintegrate ourselves in specific geographic places ... we have to incorporate them again in the moral universe we inhabit. He also puts forward a way of learning about place “through attention to animals”.


Armbruster expresses similar views when she writes "Although the works of Thoreau, Leopold, Abbey, or Dillard [all powerful, place-centred writers] can inspire or instruct, there are limits to how far such texts can push readers toward sustainable, intimate relationships with their own places." She warns of the danger of 'totalising' discourse and highlights the importance of remembering the specificity of place. "One way literature can be used to deepen our relationships with local places is to add to our reading lists not just the powerful and inspiring narratives of the nature-writing canon but also stories and journals set in our own places - writing that expresses 'being in the world' close to home and thus grows out of our own regional contexts."


I believe that the bioregional approach is not something that only applies to rural areas. Tt can be applied to cities too. For example, in her finely written essay 'The Smell of Home' from 'Writing Home', South African academic and writer Julia Martin discusses the connections between urban and natural in her home suburb in Cape Town. She is arguing that cities, as cultural constructs, do not exist separately from the land they are built on. Martin describes the beauty of the land she walks on in her city, but links it closely to the stories of the society that lives around it. "Returning, you come back to modern human homes and gardens, and human people without homes or gardens ... But the breath of the mountain is in your lungs, and there are wild seeds in your clothes. You cross the threshold of home with mud on your shoes."


Rural areas are, however,  important sites for the study of bioregional writing. American novelist Barbara Kingsolver tells her stories of intense interconnection with the natural world in southern Appalachia, stating simply that it is "the place where all my stories begin." She is critical of urban development, arguing "that what we lose in our great human exodus from the land is a rooted sense, as deep and intangible as religious faith, of why we need to hold on to the wild and beautiful places that once surrounded us." It seems that Kingsolver makes more of a divide between nature and culture, implying that they are in many ways mutually exclusive. Hers is quite an essentialist approach "we need to experience a landscape that is timeless, whose agenda moves at the pace of speciation and glaciers." She does, however, acknowledge that the stories of humans and non-humans are equally important: "we sing the song of our home because we are animals, and an animal is no better or wiser or safer than its habitat and its food chain."


Bioregional writing can be fictional or non-fictional. . For instance Josephine Johnson's autobiographical book The Inland Island is, as Karla Armbruster describes it, "in many ways a bioregional narrative in the best sense - one that presents a human being in an ethical sustainable relationship to a place that is defined by its human and non-human aspects." Published in 1969, The Inland Island is Johnson's chronicle of a year on the thirty-seven-acre farm in southwestern Ohio that she was transforming into a nature preserve by letting the 'ecology develop.' This is a 'grim, starkly honest book that also managed to convey the author's deep love and empathy for the humans, animals and other entities with which she knew her fate to be intertwined.' The ethical import of her book is of the importance of acknowledging the many voices, both human and natural, in her bioregion. As Armbruster puts it, "Johnson never lets me forget that hers is just a small part of the larger narrative of her bioregion. In this way she encourages me to put down her book and venture out to meet these other authors, to discover and participate in these other stories, to experience not just one narrative but as many strands of the larger, multidimensional, ever changing bioregional narrative as possible."


I think poetry could be construed as bioregional too. American poet Gary Snyder argues bioregionalism represents, "the entry of place into the dialectic of history - but not place defined in exclusively human terms. We might say that there are 'classes' which have so far been overlooked - the animals, rivers, rocks, and grasses - now entering history." In his book-length poem Mountains and Rivers without End, Snyder explores whether it is possible to imagine a bioregional vision of the planet, with various places in the American West connected - like images in an East Asian painter's hand scroll - to sites in Japan, Australia, China and Taiwan: all of them linked by the 'dynamics of mountain uplift, subduction, erosion, and the planetary water cycle.'


It should be noted though, that being away from a place does not preclude one from writing about it in depth. Barbara Kingsolver maintains that in writing The Poisonwood Bible, a book set in Africa, she  "did not need to be in Africa as I wrote that book; I only needed to someplace where I could think straight, remember and properly invent. I needed the blessed emptiness of mind that comes from birdsong and dripping trees." What she seems to be arguing is that being in nature anywhere clears her mind and enables her to be creative.



I believe it is important not to have too narrow a working definition of bioregional writing. Even if an entire novel cannot be defined as bioregional, including extracts from novels which pertain to a specific region, or poems that do, will broaden and enrich our understanding of the stories and relationships between humans and non-humans unique to a region.


Lastly, I will consider the question, 'How important is the sense of 'home' and 'belonging' in bioregional writing and how can it be conveyed to a stranger? I think a sense of 'home' and 'belonging' is crucial in bioregional writing. I think the most important thing in creating an authentic sense of home as an author is to bring in one's own strong feelings about one's sense of belonging to a particular area. This is what Barbara Kingsolver does so well in her essay 'Knowing our Place'. She often uses the word 'love' as relates to southern Appalachia where she spends some of every year living with her family. "I love this rain, my soul hankers for it." She conveys her sense of wonder at the natural world surrounding her, "I tread lightly here, with my heart in my throat ... "


Julia Martin's description of the small city in which she grew up, Pietermaritzburg, is redolent with a poignant sense of loss, bringing up the question of the fragility of home. "Zulu voices reach into the heart of memory, and the streets and plants of the little city are fragrant with story. And yet I know this place is empty of all that, and I live elsewhere now. Returning to the smell, taste, touch of home, I understand at last that no archaeology can dig, scrape or coax even the smallest solid shard into my hands for safekeeping." Further on in her essay Martin explores the many possible and quite abstract permutations of the meaning of home and then goes on to discuss the real complexities of her own experience of home. "I think home is as ordinary as bread and children, as evanescent as the unmistakeable taste of a little cake, the quintessential fragrance of a leaf of pelargonium or a spring rose, as fleeting as the old songs of love and place, the dances of a generation. Perhaps home is as solid as the mountain beyond my window, hidden this morning in winter rain."


Karla Armbruster seconds this sentiment when she says how reading Josephine Johnson's Inland Island made her feel about her own home. "I returned to my childhood home for a month-long stay and in the process reimmersed myself in the thick web of relationships that Johnson both reminded me of and added to - and that I hope to contribute to with this chapter ... I felt an enveloping sense of home that I have not experienced on a daily basis for years. This experience sparked in me a deep sense of gratitude that I I have such a home to come to, a fierce loyalty to this place and a desire to protect the things I love about it, and a profound sadness that I may never really live here again."


She emphasises the importance of creating new homes for ourselves, "It is possible to become a rooted resident of places other than the places in which we grow up. I recently moved to a new place ... and I look forward to staying here a very long time and using all I have learned to become a deeply rooted resident of this place and its interconnected, ever-changing stories." This celebratory awareness is - to me - the essence of bioregional writing.


In practical terms, I would suggest that in addition to the model of Literary Tourism that we have been following in this project, there could be another model which is based on place rather than writer. To recap, the model that has been worked on is one where the tourists are, for example, Rider Haggard fans. They would then consult the Literary Tourism map and find all the places where Haggard set his stories, and where he lived and worked. A tour of these places would ensue.


The proposed “place” model would be centred on place, rather than a single writer. Tourists visiting an area in South Africa, such as Eshowe, Zululand would look up the data base on Eshowe and find that various writers had written about that place at different times in history. We would then have to compile a collection of writings by well-known and lesser known writers about that place, including bioregional writings and references to longer texts. This could be published in booklet form which the tourists could purchase at the local tourist information or cultural centre. Hopefully, the experience of reading these writings would provide some access to the knowledge of the place, and enable to tourist to “see” it through the eyes of different people.


The compiling of the information would be a formidable task and would involve wide reading and co-operative work, but it could be a fascinating way to enhance and extend the work of Literary Tourism in this province.




Armbruster, K. 1998. “Creating the world we must save: the paradox of television nature documentaries” in Writing the Environment.


------------“Bringing Nature Writing Home: Josephine Johnson’s The Inland Island as Bioregional Narrative


Kerridge, R. and Sammells, N. (eds)1998. Writing the Environment:

 Ecocriticism and Literature. London and New York: Zed Books.


Kingsolver, B. 2002. Small Wonder. New York: Perennial.


Lopez, B. 1993. “The Language of Animals” in Wild Earth: Minnesota: Milkwood Publications.


Martin, J. 2002. Writing Home. Cape Town: Carapace Press.