Originally from Agraria’s Winter 2021 Journal
What does “watershed” mean to you? A “watershed moment” can be a cusp, mark a divide. Earthly watersheds make for differences and natural diversity. Watersheds are basins that gather, channel, absorb and filter precipitation; they collect waters from their uplands. These flow downslope and congregate: seeps and rivulets connect with brooks, streams, rivers, lakes, and seas.
Watersheds are life-places. They outline and embrace distinct realms. They collect fluid intelligence from animate terrains. Watershed maps strikingly resemble placentas. Their capillaries and tributaries, their veins and main stems, carry water and—every substance or organism— that can be dissolved, eroded, relocated, or washed from the land to replenish or contaminate the water bodies along the way to the world ocean.
On this terraqueous planet, with its varied geologies and landforms, however, they’re effaced. Whether the water’s in the ground, impounded, or captive in mains, watersheds are biogeographic, natural territories: small to large, related interconnected, nested wholes. They’re the bodies and circulatory systems of our bioregions. Their outlines seldom reconcile with geopolitical boundaries.
Lately the idea that nation-states, this nation-state in particular, might usefully devolve into smaller polities is being mooted, even in the august New York Times. Very well then: Decentralize to where? Relocalize to where? Could gargantuan political entities deliberately and consensually scale down and become organic, interrelated realms like watersheds and bioregions, transcending the Enlightenment’s geometric, geopolitical strictures?
Stratigraphers say we’re far gone into the Anthropocene. Although that term is rightly contested for overrating us rogue primates, it asserts that Homo sapiens’ reshaping of the world has become a full scale geophysical force, on par with orogeny. Volcanos ‘r us. In this new epoch nothing in the ecosphere is as it was a mere fifty millennia ago. Our long contentious history with the planet’s water and its ways and the effects of our unceasing attempts at control began with intensive agriculture. Human beings started remodeling watersheds, hoeing runnels, digging ditches, channeling streams, sinking wells, draining marshes and fens. Wetlands became real estate. Deserts bloomed.
Epochal changes, rearrangements, and dependencies being fait accompli the world around, I wonder: Is espousing a more reciprocal, intimate consciousness of our watersheds, counseling humility before the ways of the land, and learning the histories of its living waters poetry, not politics? Perhaps. But if you anticipate that the energy-intensive centralization, resource extravagance, total digitization and consequent embrittling of globalized industrial civilization will prove wholly unmanageable and unsustainable, maybe supporting individuals, respecting communities, healing the land and thereby renewing the waters—the practice of local futures—will spawn what bioregionalist forerunner Peter Berg termed “a life-place politics.”
I have a diehard bioregionalist friend, a forester, whose watershed consciousness is acute. He refuses to desecrate water by using a flush toilet. Though he’s no longer young, if an outhouse or composting toilet’s unavailable he still will go out in the backyard and dig a cat hole. My friend’s hygiene may seem outlandish. But a visitor from another planet, seeing how essential water is to life on Earth and watching us defecate in potable water, dump industrial effluents into rivers, and raise thirsty luxury crops like almonds in dry lands, might conclude that a large cohort of our species shares a death wish while some few others trouble themselves to show respect for the substance without which life can be no more.
As droughts persist across vast regions and water becomes scarcer, the power of thirst and the thirst for power meet in dire conflict. As settlements have burgeoned and water usage and populations have grown, the demand for water has led to local and regional scarcities, interbasin expropriations, and wars. Commodification of water has priced this life essential beyond the means of marginalized people. The struggle’s on.
Multitudes are mobilizing to protect their waters. “Not in my watershed, you don’t!” is a salient declaration of place defense. It’s about saving the parts to save the whole, starting where we are with what we know. However, because watersheds aren’t discrete, we’re all in this together.
The logic of watershed protection must travel upstream to the divides and follow the watercourses all the way down. We must understand, and assume responsibility for, our households’ and settlements’ effects on the waters of the world.
The maxim is that you shouldn’t expect a fish to explain water. As the medium of fishly existence water is just a given. Since globalized industrial civilization has until lately distanced us from sensing our utter dependence on fundamentals like water, soil, and the ecologies they support, watershed sapience is obscure. Until recently, plumbed, urbanized human beings have been mostly unconscious about their dwelling in watersheds and the provenance of their water. Tracing your water’s path from the tap back to its source is tricky. In far too many urban places watershed consciousness is aroused by the presence of poisons as gross as those that afflicted the householders of Flint or as insidious as parts per million of the PFAS chemicals now making headlines.
There’s also less tragic creative, corrective urban watershed awareness. City water defenders paint slogans alongside sewer gratings telling where those waters wind up. Self-appointed, intrepid mappers and bioregional docents lead hikes tracing buried watercourses and advocate the daylighting of creeks. In the woodburban country sprawl where I live, signs indicating the watershed boundaries of inland lakes appear by the county roads.
Close in, what does watershed governance look like? In many American places, the county drain commissioner is the local watershed czar. Decisions they make such as issuing permits for drain tiles, dredging, canals, and culverts, and requiring septic system inspections and contractors’ gestures towards erosion control all have to do with watershed health..
Maybe you summer on a cherished lake and belong to the lake association. Perhaps for you the lake is sacred but for your next-door neighbor, it’s value-enhancing scenery with a shoreline that’s real estate to manicure at will. Debating questions of littoral use and stewardship can be watershed politics at is liveliest. In A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold proposed biotic citizenship. For longtime inhabitants of a creek shed or pond basin to work at keeping their shared water body drinkable, swimmable, and capable of sustaining as many of its full suite of native aquatic and riparian organisms as remain, amounts to such citizenship, could lead to community watershed governance. A hands-on cultural shift towards cooperation and conservation for the sake of something more than just survival might not be such an impossible proposition.
The world is willful, diverse, and out of control. The human family can be fractious. In light of the manifold threats of the moment, from climate change and biodiversity collapse to cyberterrorism and rogue Artificial Intelligence, from economic distress, political violence, and disarray to our collision with resource limits, uplifting bioregionalism’s watershed ethos may seem a mite ecotopian. The hope that we’ll come together and work within physical, knowable, living systems for the good of all may be a frail reed to lean on. Reeds, though, are fond of water, can be supple in tempests. Enough of them together can roof a dwelling.
Plant or animal, for biomimicry, who’d be your watershed totem, role model, or genius loci? Would you consider the beaver—a dam builder, and restorer of wetlands, maker of meadows and patron of ponds? Would you admire the primordial sturgeon, going out into the great wide salt or sweetwater seas to grow, then uncannily finding the way back to home’s flowing waters, where the next generation can begin? Would you be as generous and particular as wild rice, a grain requiring no cultivation that simply grows in clean, gently moving water? Would you be as elegant and ancestral as a freshwater mussel, nestled in stream gravel, siphoning minute morsels, producing a lovely simple home with just elements and metabolism?
What are the longtime life ways of your watershed? And with nature, are not the possibilities boundless?
Teaser photo credit: Jacoby Creek. Author supplied.