From Shasta Bioregional Gathering 5

Sustainable SF

Eco-regional Reflections
Seth Zuckerman

Iíve had the opportunity lately to roam through the coastal temperate rainforest, north as far as Cordova, Alaska. This trip has allowed me to free myself of the phenomenon Freeman House calls ďhaving oneís head up the watershed.Ē

Itís a diverse place, this larger eco-region, embracing the awe-inspiring red cedars and spruce of Clayoquot Sound, Vancouver Island; the glacial streams of the Kitlope and Kowesas watersheds of the Haisla First Nation; the scrubby muskegs and spindly yellow cedar of the Copper River Delta. For all the regionís diversity, certain themes stand out from one end to the other, elements that recur as reliably as ebb follows flood.

Astoria, Prince Rupert, Sitka, and Ketchikan are towns at various stages of discovering what happens when the mill shuts down or moves to Chile. There are studies of economic effects, maybe some handouts from the capitol, a certain amount of fingerpointing. Then the dust settles, and the community discovers who stays and who goes. Some move on to the next frontier, working at the edge where greed is still outrunning its consequences. Others stay behind, because in their own way, they have formed an attachment to place that supersedes career, fancy toys and material comforts. These are the people who will write the next chapter in the inhabitation of their place.

We might hope, because of this sorting, that what these people choose to do will be different from what came before, more rooted in the place they have come to love, just as we aspire to do here in the watersheds to which we have declared our connection.

It would be a mistake to count on this self-selection of inhabitants to do the hard work for us. It turns out that any livelihood can be run as an extractive industry. The marijuana business in Humboldt County demonstrated that: people quickly learned the difference between those who are here to grow pot, and those who grow pot so they can be here.

The same goes for recreation. Towns like Tofino and Ketchikan have been consumed by the tourist business, even so-called eco-tourism. Tourism costs more to these communities than simply having to put up with stupid questions like Do the totem poles grow like that? and Do those islands go all the way to the bottom? and How long have you been native? In Tofino, it has meant a tripling of property values in less than a decade, to the point where people who work in the town canít afford to rent an apartment, just like Aspen, Colorado. In Ketchikan, it means that a town of 9,000 devotes fifteen of its prime downtown shops to jewelry stores. The town gets used for a backdrop and reaps little benefit.

One consequence of the changing circumstances in the region has been the collapse of some of the myths people here have told themselves about the place, and the increasing irrelevance of what we once saw as heroism. It still takes incredible skill to fall a six-foot-diameter cedar, but the range of circumstances in which that is laudable, desirable or even possible is getting ever-narrower. It isnít enough to tear down the old myths and reveal the ambiguity of what we once saw as heroism. Itís up to us to celebrate, revere and even mythologize the acts that are building a new, reinhabitory future.

There is greater splendor elsewhere. Shasta Bioregion is a little short on old-growth forests just now, on pristine watersheds, on thick salmon runs. No granite fjords or tidewater glaciers. But nowhere have I found a stronger community of people working to protect its place, fiercely and tenderly, with insight and joy.

-- Excerpted from a talk by Seth Zuckerman. Appears here in edited form.