Photo: Stuart Allen's Lake Berryessa Line

The Putah-Cache Bioregion Project:

Adjunct Writing Essay Prompts

Who | What | Where | Publications

Essay #2 prompt, Winter 1998: The "Sacred"
Essay #3 prompt, Winter 1998: Values on the Landscape
Essay #2 prompt, Spring 1998: Bioregional Theory and Agricultural Practice

Essay #2 prompt, Winter 1998: The "Sacred"

Many of the texts we've been reading throw around the word "sacred," as if it is a term universally understood, and yet within our group of 23 we have already discovered conflicting beliefs about what the term means. I believe it is useful then to cast our net wider and read more texts that use the term, even look at attempts at direct definition.

The essay question you will be answering is this: the practice meant by the term bioregionalism seems to have something to do with the sacred. Given what this term means, what then is the practice that's called for?

To answer this question, you will need to address three things: 1) how the term is being in used in bioregional discussions, 2) what it seems to mean in religious and philosophical writings, and 3) how you would use it to describe a meaningful life practice that might be called bioregionalism.

Study questions:

What does Frye mean by the terms "myth of concern" and "open" and "closed mythologies" (Frye excerpt, ¶5)? How does the way he uses the term "mythology" correspond to the term used by Girard?

What does Rinpoche mean by the "sacred emphasis" he mentions in ¶5? Are there other terms he uses that refer to what you mean by "sacred"?

What is the nature of the "revelation" Robertson speaks about in ¶8? Does it have some relation to the "sacred"?

Elaine Pagels is discussing Christian teachings found in a collections of writings (suppressed by the early church but recently rediscovered) called the Gnostic gospels--from the Greek gnosis, which we've already encountered, which has to do with knowing. The gnostics put more emphasis on personal knowing than on transmitted knowledge. Gnomen is the word for a mark, a token, by which a thing is known, and is the root of "name." Gnosis is the knowing itself. How does her use of the terms "sacralize" and "sacred" in ¶'s 8 and 9 correspond to the way you would use the term? How does her discussion of the orthodox church's use of ritual contribute to your definition of the sacred? How does it connect with Girard's discussion of ritual?

Girard links the sacred with violence in a way you might at first want to reject, but consider what he says about the relegation of violence to nature in ¶'s 1-8 and the function of ritual in ¶9. Notice how some of what he says about communities' separateness in ¶'s 13 & 14 is similar to Frye's descriptions of societies.

Essay #3 prompt, Winter 1998: Values on the Landscape

While Snyder discusses the "tragedy of the commons" articles such as Lewis and Conzen's 'discuss the ideological formation that led to the abandonment of such practices as the commons in America. These articles are then of use to us in the consideration of bioregional practice because we can take the ideological impulses into account when we propose changes in behavior.

For example, Conzen tells us that "the individual freehold farm property has reigned supreme in the American ideological pantheon" and thus "the land system . . . has been designed for acquisition by individuals more than groups" (227).

Conzen's point can be utilized in a couple of ways: it allows us to understand the values of individual home ownership that work against the communnity base of bioregionalism, while at the same time it might provide ideological weight to, for example, the movement against huge land-holding agribusiness. That is, if we really are a nation of "individual freeholders," then how have we allowed so much of the land around us to come into the hands of corporations?

There are many instances within these articles in which we can find articulated a tension between the community and the individual--a tension we have come across already in our discussions of the sacred and of bioregionalism.

Real change can be accomplished not when patterns of behavior are altered, but when patterns of thinking have altered; therefore, we need to understand the patterns of thinking that led to the "making of the American landscape" in order to "re-inscribe" that landscape along the lines we deem desirable (that "deeming" is again individual).

In reading these articles, it should be obvious where I got the term "inscriptions" for the second documentary essay; the metaphors of "marking" are in use throughout. What we are going to do is examine what Conzen and Lewis say about the ideology that drove the carving of certain inscriptions in order to consider the possibilities for re-inscribing.

An analogy that comes to mind is the cattle trail we see on the hillsides throughout our bioregion: one cow walks a certain path and the others follow, making a pattern of travel that then becomes part of the hillside. The reasons that first cow does what she does are important to understand. Was there a branch from a Valley oak that cast a shadow that frightened the cow so that she dipped downward at just that point? Was there a boulder that hurt her hooves so she then headed upwards again? That shadow of a branch and the boulder in the way are the political circumstances that immigrants to American were responding to when they came here: a Europe that was nearly fully settled, where land meant status and acquisition of land was nearly impossible, a Europe where government had become so powerful that huge numbers of people took great risks to get away from its influence (emigration) or bring it down altogether (revolution). Remember what Lewis says about migratory people: they are already a special breed (84).

Lewis shows us how different marks on the landscape are indicators of the parts of colonial America the settlers came from, as well as indicators of different political values they carried with them. This means that we can "read" those marks--like the cows' trails--and understand what influences and beliefs they represent. Most importantly, by doing so, we might be able to understand deeply submerged ideological conflicts that are still in play. Just consider, for example, the combination of grid pattern and curving roads on the Davis campus. Given what Lewis and Conzen talk about, what historical/ ideological influences are present?

We find in these articles, a third element affecting the paths made in a village, the cows' trails: the realities of the environment.

In Lewis, we get two different regional ideologies disseminating throughout western America (west of the Appalachians, that is.) One is the nuclear village pattern that developed organically thorough centuries of English agrarian culture, the other is the imposed grid that enabled people to buy land they'd never seen and thus never experienced. But then Conzen pairs not two regional patterns, but "memory" and "experience"--he notices that "the ingrained urge to build from memory" is set against the "undeniable need to build from experience"--that is, cultural needs are in tension with environmental needs. Sound familiar?

So, the question, how do you write about all this? I suggest an essay that considers how the cultural geography of Lewis and/or Conzen informs the issues raised by bioregional debate, as I have done above. You might consider how Snyder's suggestion of the reinstatement of commons in terms of the ideological forces that lead to its demise. You could speculate how the beliefs that inform the strong trend towards single houses on separate lots mentioned by both authors have both contributed to the problems and might be utilized in the solutions articulated by the bioregional writers. How do the patterns for settlement and their associated values described by Lewis help you understand cities' resistance/amenability to bioregionalism? What happens when you pair Conzen's idea of "ersatz" ethnicity (245) with Thayer's discussion of the "romanticization of rural experience" and "pastoral ideal" (18-21)--is there "ersatz" nature? Does the City of Davis have some of both?

What I hoped to do by including these articles in the class reading was expressed in my description of the "Inscription" essay: I wanted you to consider the layers of influence at a site--these articles provided some tools. Originally, my idea was for you to consider all the influences, natural, cultural, social. What we've done by redesigning the last weeks is to separate that essay into two parts: The first, Analytic Essay #3, is to be the consideration of cultural, human, historical influences on landscape, especially in terms of our agenda for it, now separately from the second, Documentary Essay #2, which will be the description of a specific site/route for the "Undergraduate Guide," with perhaps some interpretation derived from these articles, among others.

Essay #2 prompt, Spring 1998: Bioregional Theory and Agricultural Practice

In this essay, you are essentially comparing the theoretical goals of bioregionalism articulated by Berg & Dasmann, Curry, Dodge, and Snyder with the life stories of the local farmers, drawing on the two chapters from Wendell Berry.

The discussion we've been having over the last two class sessions can be summed up in the pairing we derive from Berg & Dasmann that knowledge of one's geographical terrain (Curry's "terracy") is related to one's terrain of consciousness.

In this essay, you are in a sense challenging the 'centrism' of the bioregional agenda. Is it necessary to be "bioregional" to have the consciousness bioregionalism seeks, or are there perhaps other ways to it, or even other consciousnesses? And further, is it necessary to consciously seek "knowledge of one's geographical terrain" for 'bioregional' reasons, or do some people--these farmers for example--have the relationship they do with their terrain for their own reasons?

Putah-Cache Home
Who | What | Where | Publications

These pages are copyright © University of California. UC Davis Home