Tell me the landscape in which you live and I will tell you who you are.

—Ortega Y Gasset


Alan Durning, founder of the Seattle-based Sightline Institute, recounts the story of a trip he took to the Philippines. After interviewing several elders as part of the trip, he was introduced to a frail old priestess who, through a translator, turned one of his questions back on him. “What is your homeland like?” she asked. Durning was thrown off. He silently pondered his conflicted feelings toward his home neighborhood in Washington, DC. Undeterred, she asked again, “What is your homeland like?” He then realized how little connection he had to his home and place. “‘In America,’ I finally admitted, ‘we have careers, not places.’ Looking up, I recognized pity in her eyes.”[1]

This story would be surprising were it not so familiar. Most North Americans live (and read our Bibles) as though issues of land and place matter very little. Attempts to explain this “loss of a sense of place” abound yet seldom have they taken seriously the biblical story as it relates to these themes.[2]

A cursory reading of the biblical story reveals that issues of place and land are central to its overall structure and content. The triangular covenant narrated between Yahweh, Israel, and the promised land furnishes the historic people of faith with a unique ecological and social ethic intended to ground their life in care for people and place alike. With memories of slavery in Egypt and wandering in the desert both representing a kind of placelessness, Israel is given the Torah and commanded to keep it in order to ensure their tenure in the promised land. When they violate this way of life, they face exile. This is an ancient tale and one that the New Testament does not dispense with but reorients according to the way of Jesus whose lordship now extends over all peoples in all places. Inhabiting the way of Jesus thus becomes the authoritative mark of the discipleship community as they go about their lives in their various places now spread about all over the world.

Yet life in the modern world has now freed us from the particularity of place, rendering Durning’s quip, that “we have careers, not places,” true and leaving us to suffer the consequences. In light of the ecological crisis that now confronts us, it is ever more urgent that the church recover a sense place. If we are to respond faithfully to our present circumstances, we can begin by carefully rereading the biblical story, which furnishes us with a new set of practices that can anchor our life together in a place. We should also learn a different language with which to speak about our place, one that avoids the abstraction and romanticism latent within much of the environmental discourse. To that end, we may draw on an important stream within environmental philosophy known as bioregionalism. Reading these two stories together—the biblical and the bioregional—may teach us to reinhabit our own places, to honor the memberships to which we belong, and in so doing, to recover a long-neglected matter for our life of faith; this is the work of bioregional discipleship.

Bioregionalism emerged within the environmental movement of the late 1970s and was popularized by writers such as Peter Berg, Gary Snyder, and Kirkpatrick Sale. Sale offers a definition in his 1985 text, Dwellers in the Land,

Bio is from the Greek word for forms of life . . . and region is from the Latin regere, territory to be ruled. . . . They convey together: a life-territory, a place defined by its life forms, its topography and its biota, rather than by human dictates; a region governed by nature, not legislature.”[3]

Another way of explaining the concept of a bioregion is to quote the poet-ecologist Gary Snyder, who wrote simply, “The world is places.”[4] For Snyder, abstract entities, such as world or planet, or popular sayings, like the adage “Think global, act local,” are not helpful. The problem, Snyder argues, is that intangible references fail to ground meaningful action locally. As the Kentucky farmer and writer Wendell Berry writes, “In order to make ecological good sense for the planet, you must make ecological good sense locally. You can’t act locally by thinking globally. If you want to keep your local acts from destroying the globe, you must think locally.”[5] This insight forms the backbone to bioregional thinking—if you get the scale right, everything else follows. As Sale contends, “At the right scale human potential is unleashed, human comprehension magnified, human accomplishment multiplied. I would argue that the optimum scale is the bioregional, not so small as to be powerless and impoverished, not so large as to be ponderous and impervious, a scale at which at last human potential can match ecological reality.”[6]

A related insight of bioregionalism is that we cannot solve these issues from the top down. Rather, we must begin in some particular place, preferably our own place: the ground upon which we stand, the water we drink, and the soil from which we derive our food. This requires that we confront the detachment and alienation we may harbor toward our place and ask again the basic question, Where am I?

As Michael McGinnis, editor of the seminal text Bioregionalism, writes, “To get bioregional, humanity needs to cultivate an ecological consciousness and communal identity, and develop relationships with the neighborhood.”[7] The neighborhood includes both human and non-human neighbors. These non-human neighbors have long been overlooked or diminished by the faith community that has ignored the basic biblical insight. The Hebrew Bible is unequivocal about humanity’s emplacement within a vast network of other creatures, all given life and breath by God. The bravado with which humanity has inappropriately asserted dominion over the rest of creation now threatens the future health of creation itself. We therefore need more than ever to recover the deep sense of our membership within and dependence upon creation. Bioregionalism marks a pivotal shift in making ecological place a part of our identity and a new allegiance, a kind of citizenship that the church should find deep resonance with.

Snyder, in his essay “Coming into the Watershed,” answers the question, “What is California?” The common answer, he notes, would begin by looking at a state map. But that map fails to acknowledge that “Landscapes have their own shapes and structures, centers and edges, which must be respected.”[8] Every landscape has a bounded shape and structure—a watershed—that situates natural communities within the surrounding bioregion. This ecological reality is seldom mirrored in modern political boundary lines. The first step toward reinhabitation is thus to identify the watershed and bioregion in which we live and come to know the creatures we share it with. We must ask ourselves to consider the question, “Where are we?”

I currently live in the Little Campbell River Watershed. This river is just thirty kilometers long. It crosses four municipal jurisdictions and the traditional lands of Semiahmoo First Nation, and it is located within the province of British Columbia and the country of Canada, which have their respective laws governing streams and waterways, not to mention the rare species-at-risk that live here, such as the red-legged frog and the Pacific water shrew. Into this river flow two additional streams that originate south of the US border in Whatcom County, Washington. All told, this thirty-kilometer creek that runs through my backyard is implicated in over ten different political jurisdictions, yet the salmon that return to spawn every fall have yet to carry a passport. Nor is the red-listed Oregon forestsnail given a vote in important land use decisions affecting its multiple municipalities.

Moving beyond my own watershed, the keystone species of our bioregion, the salmon, connects me to a broader membership still. The Little Campbell River drains into Boundary Bay, a nationally significant marine ecosystem that serves as a habitat for migratory birds. Boundary Bay connects the borders of Washington and British Columbia and forms part of the Salish Sea. The Salish Sea stretches from south of Seattle northward, past the Gulf and San Juan Islands and then around the Western tip of Vancouver Island to as far north as the end of the Straight of Georgia, which is the body of water passing between the mainland of British Columbia and Vancouver Island. The Little Campbell River Watershed drains seventy-four square kilometers; the Salish Sea covers over 18,000 square kilometers. Further afield, the same salmon that spawn in the Little Campbell River travel along the Western Coast of our continent, as far north as Alaska and as far south as the Ventura River Watershed in southern California.

A watershed can be thought of as one big bathtub, an area within which all the water drains to a common point. Thus, all the creatures that live in the bathtub are connected in important ways and form a community together. One way to think of such a community is in terms of membership, following Saint Paul and Wendell Berry: I am a member of Christ’s body; I am also a member of the Little Campbell River Watershed.

Getting to know this geography and recognizing my membership in this bioregion has proven indispensable in my deepening efforts at caring for my place. Such a localized membership does not limit or prohibit my care for other places—quite the opposite. By first locating myself within the membership of the Little Campbell River, I find I am practically implicated in a web of relationships that span from the Puget Sound to the Georgia Straight, from southern California to the coast of Alaska, and thus I am called to work toward the health and restoration of those place as well. As Gary Snyder writes, a community working to rehabilitate a salmon stream, as my community is, “might find itself combatting clear-cut timer sales upstream, water-selling grabs downstream, Taiwanese drift-net practices out in the North Pacific, and a host of other national and international threats to the health of salmon.”[9] This is where the church, whose citizenship is not in the first instance tied to any kingdom of this world, can and should organize its efforts to promote the integrity of creation. To do so, we must first explore how the biblical story depicts the concept of place.

The concept of place is foundational to the development of narrative in the Hebrew Bible. As Walter Brueggemann notes in his classic text The Land, “Land is a central, if not the central theme of biblical faith.”[10] More recently, Ellen Davis has argued that whenever biblical scholarship directs its attention to land it has been concerned primarily with “possession of land as a national territory.” Davis argues, in contrast, that the concern for land care is as essential to the narrative as land tenure: “The biblical writers themselves consistently regard the two matters as related; land tenure is conditional upon proper use and care of land in community.”[11] It is this concept of conditional tenure that is so thoroughly exercised throughout the Hebrew Bible and merits closer examination here.

God’s promises to Abraham and his descendants are finally realized (after a complex history and formation) in the promised land. And the land of promise is routinely framed in the language of gift—this particular land is given to this particular people in order that they might follow the ways of this particular God and be a blessing to all the nations. But the fact that the land is a gift reinforces its conditional nature. In Deuteronomy 8 we read, “Be careful to follow every command I am giving you today, so that you may live and increase and may enter and possess the land the Lord promised on oath to your ancestors” (8:1 NIV). Israel’s obedience to the ways of Yahweh ensures the flourishing of the land itself as stated in Leviticus 26: “If you follow my decrees and are careful to obey my commands, I will send you rain in its season, and the ground will yield its crops and the trees their fruit. Your threshing will continue until grape harvest and the grape harvest will continue until planting, and you will eat all the food you want and live in safety in your land.” Safety in the land, an abundant harvest, and dependable rains—all of these are premised upon Israel’s commitment to follow the decrees of Yahweh. Of the Hebrew Bible as a whole, Davis writes, “human righteousness is the one condition that invites and makes possible God’s continued presence in the land.”[12]

Hebraic law is in several places written so as to ensure the safekeeping of the land and the people living within it, with particular attention paid to the poor and marginalized. In Leviticus, for example, the people are commanded, “do not reap the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the LORD your God” (Lev. 19:9). Central to covenant obedience is upholding the Sabbath day and this has important implications for all creatures, not just human beings: “Six days do your work, but on the seventh day do not work, so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and so that the slave born in your household and the foreigner living among you may rest” (Exod. 23:12). Faithfulness in keeping the Sabbath is as much about rest for the donkeys as it is rest for the slaves and all the people. What’s more, after six years the land is given a Sabbath of sorts, a year when it is not planted, tended, or cultivated. This is indigenous wisdom—that we cannot work the soil perpetually without ruining it. Therefore, many traditional peoples the world over have practices of routinely fallowing their fields.

Finally, after seven cycles of seven, they are commanded to practice the Jubilee, the Sabbath of Sabbaths, when the debts are cancelled, the land given rest and returned to its original owner, and all those who have fallen into devastating debt are redeemed. What rationale is given for this radical program of communal redistribution? “The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you are only its tenants” (Lev. 25:23). The anchor of what we might call the Old Testament land ethic is this understanding of conditional ownership: the land must only be used in a way that honors its true owner or else Israel’s tenure can be revoked. Similarly, Israel’s ethic of care for the marginalized is anchored in their memory and self-identity as those who were once living on the margins: “Do not oppress a foreigner; you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners because you were foreigners in Egypt” (Exod. 23:9). Because Israel has been exploited, they are called to actively resist exploitation in their land and to keep a special place for those who would otherwise fall into exploitation.

The prophets explicitly link Israel’s exile from the land with their failure to obey God’s law in the land. Isaiah states, “The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant” (24:5 NRSV). The prophet Jeremiah witnessed the same cascading breakdown of relationships:

But this people has a rebellious and defiant heart, they have rebelled and gone their own way. They did not say to themselves, “Let us fear the Lord our God, who gives us the rains of autumn and spring showers in their turn, who brings us unfailingly fixed seasons of harvest.” But your wrongdoing has upset nature’s order, and your sins have kept from you her kindly gifts.[13]

Theologian Michael Northcott argues that prophetic witness to exile and destruction of the land is not the external imposition of a wrathful God, as often assumed.[14] Rather, God’s judgment comes against human disobedience, and the effects of this disobedience have implications for the health of the ecosystems we inhabit. As Saint Augustine famously exclaimed, “the punishment of every disordered mind is its own disorder.”[15] The Hebrew prophets see the effects of this disorder not just in minds and hearts but written across the landscapes in which we live. The disorder which the prophets witness is, in Northcott’s words, “the consequence of the human rebellion against the created order and wisdom of nature,” and as such, it reveals the failure of Israel to fulfill its vocation as light to the nations.[16]

By placing these Old Testament considerations alongside the bioregional themes I have already discussed, a number of important insights emerge. First, place is always central to the people of God—and not just any place, but a particular place and land that God calls them to inhabit. Second, the conditional nature of the human relationship to place is paramount. The Israelites tenure in the land is the direct result of God’s gift and their wise care for all its human and non-human inhabitants. If they fail to do care for that land and its inhabitants, they lose the place they have been given. This is ancient wisdom: as goes the land, so too go we.

These sacred stories need to be read afresh as the church seeks to resist the widespread exploitation of both people and places and learns again how to reinhabit our places. Doing so demands that we first recognize and confess how we have been complicit in exploitation. Participation in a globally exploitative economy demands repentance and actively seeking to embody an alternative way of life that bioregionalists and others call reinhabitation. Doug Aberley writes, “Reinhabitation means learning to live-in-place in an area that has been disrupted and injured through past exploitation. . . . it involves applying for membership in a biotic community and ceasing to be its exploiter.”[17] As we apply for membership, we take up the church’s historic practice of confession and repentance and so demonstrate a patient willingness to change our course of action. This is what Franciscan theologian Keith Warner calls “eco-penance.” Eco-penance, he writes, “promotes consistency between the statement of values we make about Creation and our behavior towards it. . . . it includes a sense of personal responsibility for the environmental impact of our lifestyle, and that of our society, and will lead to efforts to reduce the harmful effects that we have on other forms of life. . .”[18] The complex nature of the ecological crisis now before us easily traps us in unhealthy patterns of denial, detachment, despair, and desperation.[19] Confession is a practice that admits our waywardness honestly before God, receives grace and forgiveness, and recognizes how we are failing to inhabit the world God has made. Penance demands we commit ourselves to positive and restorative practices that seek to bring about God’s dream for this world—on earth as it is in heaven. We must do the self-work necessary to become effective workers in God’s world. Thus, penance is not just personal work but also political and, indeed, ecological.

The theologian Philip Sheldrake writes, “Theological reflections on place can no longer ignore that the world of concrete places is full of exiles, displaced peoples, diaspora communities, increasingly inflamed border disputes and the violent struggles by indigenous people and cultural minorities to achieve liberation.”[20] This makes it imperative that faith-based initiatives of placemaking attend carefully to their disputed places and to the people groups who have been historically deprived of place. Here there are no quick or easy answers. Instead, we have the practices of confession and penance—confessing our complacency in acts of displacement to others and committing penance as we labor with others in the hard work of reconciliation, restoration, and reinhabitation. This is essential to bioregional discipleship.

Israel suffered a shattering event in 597 BCE, when Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem and sent many of the Israelites into exile in Babylon. Now scattered and bereft of their land and place, Israel struggled to understand what it means to be a people in a foreign land. The prophet Jeremiah instructed them,

Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper. (Jer. 29:5–7 NIV)

Here Jeremiah makes clear that the work of placemaking extends far beyond the boundaries of the promised land. This is not just work for Israel in its particular place and time. Rather, this is basic human work; it is reminiscent of what Adam and Eve were called to do in the beginning: inhabit the place you are given, tend the garden, be fruitful and multiply, and contribute to the flourishing of all who reside there. Having failed to do this in their own place, Israel now must relearn the path of reinhabitation in the land of their enemies. Working to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city” while in exile is a daily practice which teaches Israel that land use is in fact more vital to their identity than is land ownership. The health and well-being of any place is bound up with the health of all its creatures, and the human community plays an essential role in placemaking whether we are in Israel, in exile, or in all of the various places now inhabited by human communities.

The prospect of exile is one way of framing our present human predicament. We have failed to recognize that “The Earth is the LORD’s and everything in it” (Psalm 25:1). We have too readily exploited both the land and its inhabitants for our benefit, and it now lies polluted. Yet this is precisely the reality within which we must begin the vital work of bioregional discipleship. Michael McGinnis writes, “This is the condition within which the restorationist works: We are disabled creatures dislocated in a wounded landscape.”[21] The world is wounded and deeply needs a people who are committed to reinhabiting their places and resisting all the forces that would continue to exploit creation and its vulnerable persons. The church is a body that spans both space and time and, as such, forms a membership that spans all modern political boundaries. The call to bioregional discipleship, for this membership, is a call to anchor our common life and spiritual practices in the particularity of place, no matter where we find ourselves or for how long. Foremost, a Christian ethic of placemaking must always recognize that we have no real claim to the land under foot except to receive it as God’s gift. “If the ground can be our common ground,” writes Snyder, “we can begin to talk to each other (human and nonhuman) once again.”[22]

It is my conviction that rediscovering the ground as our common ground is crucial to discipleship today. This could begin in a community garden, a riverside cleanup, a march to save the wetlands, or a protest against a pipeline. It will undoubtedly require listening to the indigenous peoples who have inhabited our land as well as standing alongside them in efforts to care for it presently. If the bioregionalist authors are correct, as I suspect they are, we must confess we cannot care for the planet. Yet by joining together with our families, neighbors, churches, and communities, we can effectively begin to care for all of our places right now. As Berry has written, “The question that must be addressed is not how to care for the planet, but how to care for each of the planet’s millions of human and natural neighborhoods, each of its millions of small pieces and parcels of land, each one of which is in some precious way different from all the others.”[23] May the church seek to join in this important work of reinhabitation and so become the ambassadors of reconciliation that we are called to be.

Author note: I thank Ched Myers and Chris Grataski for their work in pioneering a Watershed Discipleship Alliance and stimulating my own thinking in this essay.  Readers are urged to find out what watershed they live in and connect with local practitioners there.  Also check out for more information about the alliance.”

[1] Durning, This Place on Earth (Seattle, WA: Sasquatch Books, 1996), 4. I thank Loren Wilkinson for first introducing me to Durning’s work.

[2] One recent and notable exception is Craig Bartholomew, Where Mortals Dwell: A Christian View of Place for Today (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011).

[3] Sale, Dwellers in the Land: The Bioregional Vision (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1985), 43.

[4] Snyder, Practice of the Wild, (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990), 25.

[5] Berry, “Out of your Car, Off your Horse,” in Sex, Economy, Freedom, Community: Eight Essays (New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 1992), 23.

[6] Sale, Dwellers, 55.

[7] McGinnis, “A rehearsal to bioregionalism,” in Bioregionalism (New York, NY: Routledge, 1999), 8.

[8] Snyder, A Place in Space: Ethics, Aesthetics, and Watersheds (Washington, DC: Counterpoint Books, 1995), 221–222.

[9] Snyder, A Place, 230.

[10] Brueggemann, The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2002), 3.

[11] Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 2.

[12] Ibid., 26.

[13] Translation of Jeremiah 5:23–25 by Michael Northcott, The Environment and Christian Ethics, New Studies in Christian Ethics, ed. Robin Gill (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 170.

[14] E. Calvin Beisner, for instance, argues that “Since God willingly causes devastation to the natural environment in response to man’s sin, (a) God’s highest priority must not be environmental preservation . . . (b) in God’s grand purposes, human beings take precedence over the natural world, and (c) environmental degradation must sometimes be attributed to God’s direct judgment.” See E Beisner, Where Garden Meets Wilderness: Evangelical Entry into the Environmental Debate (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 49. For an alternative view of the Hebrew concept of the land and the prophetic witness, see Walter Brueggemann, The Land (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2002); Hilary Marlow, Biblical Prophets and Contemporary Environmental Ethics (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2009); and Terence Fretheim, God and World in the Old Testament (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2005).

[15] Augustine, Confessions, 1.19.

[16] Northcott, The Environment and Christian Ethics, 171.

[17] Doug Aberley, “Interpreting bioregionalism” in McGinnis, Bioregionalism, 23.

[18] Warner, “Get Him Out of the Birdbath! What Does It Mean to Have a Patron Saint of Ecology?,” in Franciscan Theology of the Environment: An Introductory Reader, ed. Dawn M. Nothwehr (Quincy, IL: Franciscan Press, 2002), 372.

[19] These four responses were first pointed out to me by Byron Smith.

[20] Philip Sheldrake, Spaces for the Sacred: Place, Memory, and Identity (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), 22.

[21] McGinnis, House, and Jordan, “Re-establishing an ecology of shared identity” in McGinnis, Bioregionalism, 206.

[22] Snyder, A Place, 235.

[23] Wendell Berry, “Word and Flesh,” in What are People For? (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1990), 200.