On Bioregional Boundaries – David McCloskey

David McCloskey has spent more than 40 years exploring the magic of the Cascadia bioregion. He is a former Seattle University Professor, coined the term ‘Cascadia bioregion’ in 1981, released a beautiful version of the Cascadia Map in 2015, and is the director of the Cascadia Institute. Recently, on a road trip through Eugene, David McCloskey gifted us with several xeroxes of his early work, which we are excited to share and hopefully make more available for people to be able to get a deeper and richer knowledge of Cascadia and bioregions. To learn more about his work, go to

On Bioregional Boundaries - by David McCloskey

On Bioregional Boundaries – by David McCloskey

While climbing recently in the Pasayten wilderness in north-central Washington, Cascadia, we spotted something so out of place it stopped us in our tracks. Standing on a peak on the U.S.-Canadian border, we gazed at the strange sight of a narrow, cleared swath running straight up and down 8,000-foot peaks. On the visible summits there were boundary markers. A twenty-foot-wide swath cut through the forest, across sheer slopes and valley floors, straight-lined like a rifle shot.

Why would two nations at peace, we wondered, expend herculean efforts to clear-cut such steep and hazardous slopes? Why keep the vista open with herbicides, in order to literally inscribe the 49th parallel in the heart of the wilderness? Why,in the days of satellites that can pin-point location down to a foot either way, is it necessary to maintain this cleared boundary line?

I wrote* to the International boundary Commission and asked them. I learned I hat old treaties between the two countries mandate a clear line-of- sight vista along the 5,528-mile border, with over 8,000 numbered monuments and reference points. In order to mark legal jurisdiction over their respective territories, the U.S. and Canada not only clear-cut the longest unguarded border in the world but poison the ground itself!

This is the kind of arbitrary political “line on a map” that bioregionalists abhor. Surely the winds aloft and the fires in the earth below, as well as the trees, birds, salmon, and native peoples, do not acknowledge such arbitrary boundary lines as significant .

Borders and boundaries in general have a bad name among some people. Are all boundaries necessarily bad? What sense does it make, ask the critics, to replace political boundaries with bioregional ones if the old nemeses of conflict and war are not diminished? Perhaps its boundaries themselves that are the problem.

This critique of boundaries suggests that they are inherently negative not only because they are often arbitrary, but also because in and of themselves they imply a kind of jealous exclusivity which inevitably leads to conflict. Driven by power games and armed to the teeth, political entities draw borders and constantly fight over them, drawing us all into the maelstrom.

But boundaries are not in themselves the cause of conflict, only its expression. They stand forth as crystallizations of old attempts to negotiate a settlement to endemic conflict, a way of parcelling out the common territory so as to live and let live.

Further, the stale does not equal the nation. We would do better to critique the’ state as the organized means of violence in a territory, and save the nations, which are peoples descended from a common root.

Finally, the globalists who would sweep away all boundaries as bulwarks of petty, provincial, backward looking traditional cultures in favor of “world-order structures” as the foundation of a lasting peace and global civilization need to explain how those are possible without increasing standardization, concentration, but are unable either to articulate the diverse character of an ecoregion or to give needed voice to a people in the place.

“Soft” versus “hard” borders are misplaced metaphors; the problem is really whether the boundaries “speak” or not. Bioregional boundaries are neither necessarily soft nor luzzy; while there are few straight lines in nature, there are many definite and powerful edges—various ecotones, watershed divides, climatic zones, fault-lines and scarps. Careful attention should be given to such beginnings and endings, for these dramatic turnings in the earth serve as clear and powerful articulations of diversity.

Taking our clues from nature, the bioregional vision leads us to recover a more positive sense of the nature of boundaries. Whether it be cells, organisms, ecosystems, communities, persons or cultures, there is nothing in nature that does not generate and recognize boundaries. A border is the margin or edge, where something begins and ends, opens and closes. A border sets a frame to perception, identity and action, and links us to larger contexts.

In my ecoregion, for example, driving over Stevens Pass from Everett to Wenatchee is like passing from one world to another. The Cascade crest separates the wet, green, lush west side from the arid, brown east side — the two halves of that larger unity called Cascadia. This boundary is self- evident to anyone passing over the threshold.

Passing over and back across the Crestline becomes an exercise in reversibility—it implies coming to know your other side. II involves a conversation between the front and back of things, windward and leeward sides. The Skykomish and Wenatchee rivers, for instance, are sisters, silver threads rising from the same source. Our east side is their west side, and vice versa.

It is the bioregional boundary as a reversible threshold that we share in common, for the divide also joins what it separates. The other side of the familiar is not strange, but new. Instead of ignoring the other as alien or distorted, we need to imagine the other side of our place as an extended part of our own bodies; or, rather, each side as a contiguous part of that larger, extended body we call earth.

Bioregional boundaries are natural and holistic. They are found where key levels overlap, forming a distinctive pattern. Look to the special ways in which the face of the land, tectonic forces below, weather patterns above, the How of the waters, flora and fauna, native peoples, and cultural identities converge and reinforce one another. In emerging from the life of the land as a whole, a bioregional boundary stands forth as a convergent threshold. What is needed to ensure the fate of nations and the earth is to decrease scale: to decentralize to smaller regional entities so as to localize inevitable conflicts and keep them from irredeemably endangering the whole.

It is the bioregion that is uniquely suited for this role as it mediates in many ways between local and planetary life. Bioregionalism seeks lo preserve ancient freedoms and protect ecological and cultural diversities on more appropriate scales. Without a rich diversity of peoples and places, species and habitats, there can be no freedom, no right to be for species, persons or communities. The human spirit is not the product of a monolithic world-culture; rather, it is the expression of freedoms that have emerged through a great and changing diversity of peoples, regions and their cultural traditions. Indeed, the’ human spirit is moled precisely in all those mysterious ties that bind people to place and to one’ another over lime.

In struggling with the’ thorny problem of boundaries, many bioregion alists have opted for replacing “hard,” fixed, political boundaries with “soft,” flexible ones. This means in theory that boundaries are not barriers, implying a transition or marginal zone, as in an ecolone (where prairie meets forest or where forest meets the sea). However, “soft” borders too often mean in practice luzzy boundaries

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