Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Living well in the watershed

Agua Hedionda Lagoon, where the Agua Hedionda Creek watershed meets the ocean

In a few weeks, I’ll have the privilege of doing a presentation at an Environmental Education Leadership conference on one of my favorite topics, watershed literacy.  This concept is rooted in the idea that we need to understand how to “read” and understand the places where we live, in order to truly live well in them. But the bigger question is, perhaps: what does it mean to “live well?” And what do watersheds have to do with it?

The physical definition of a watershed is fairly well-known – a watershed is an area defined by the movement of water from one place to another. The more important discussion is about why watersheds matter in the first place.

For me, the concept has always resonated because I love to try to understand how things are connected. I’ve always been one to notice contrasts in places and environments – mountains vs. sea, urban vs. natural, and so on – and try to figure out possible relationships between these things. A watershed is a way of understanding that relationship, based on water. And although we may not realize or acknowledge it, water is a sort of life-blood of the earth that draws us all together.

Living in our modern world, we might not have much cognizance of the critical importance of water in our existence. Yet if we look into history and the roots of much of our political and cultural discourse, water flows both metaphorically and physically through it all. Civilizations rise and fall based on proximity and availability of water. Our modern conveniences do not make this any less so. We are as dependent on our watersheds as all other life forms within them, whether we want to admit it or not.

So if watersheds are important, how can we be watershed literate? From a broad perspective, the task is to become fluent about what is happening around us. Where does our water come from, where does it go? How does it affect the topography of the land we live on? What kinds of affects do our buildings and roads have on the flow of water? And how does all of this affect the various forms of life that surround us? These aren’t just questions for the environmentalist or the planner, but for anyone who wants to know how to live well in and on their land.

It is here that the question of living well becomes relevant. It’s easy enough to merely exist, at least as long as we can extract or import the resources we need to survive. But is this really living? I’m going to argue that it isn’t. The things that we enjoy about life – culture, beauty, society – are shaped by the land as well. In my own home, Southern California, we have a culture, an aesthetic, and a way of life that is shaped by the land’s unique features. None of these things would be the same somewhere else. The definition of living well in San Diego would not work in New York. And while we might attempt to create the same conditions elsewhere, the attempts always fall flat. So the discipline of watershed literacy involves more than just hard science. It’s about culture and society as well.

By becoming watershed literate, we are seeking to “read” the cues in the land itself about how to live well. Sometimes this means adjusting our expectations. We can’t expect perennially green lawns in a drought-susceptible place like Southern California, any more than we can expect to skateboard outside every day throughout an Oregon winter. If we became a bit more fluent in the language of the land around us, maybe we would begin to understand how to let the land itself sustain us, rather than always seeking resources from other places. 

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