Ched Myers, ed., Watershed Discipleship: Reinhabiting Bioregional Faith and Practice, Cascade, Eugene, OR, 2016. 223 pp. $30.00. ISBN: 9781498280761.
The Huu-ay-aht First Nation live on the west coast of Vancouver Island, ninety kilometers down a rough gravel road from Port Alberni, British Columbia. The community operates a campground on the coast of the Pacific Ocean at the mouth of the Pachena River. I read Watershed Discipleship while my family and I were guests of the Huu-ay-aht for four nights this past August, on the land that has been the Huu-ay-hat home for thousands of years. Being in a place like that, surrounded by a mature temperate rain forest and a deep, soft, sandy beach—the ancient home of people who have lived there in balance with the land for countless generations—it was easy to think about the terms and conditions of human life. The relationship I have with the planet—its biological possibilities, its physical constraints—was made plain there. The place is rich and vast, but my footprint was more visible, my waste more obscene.
There is nothing among the Huu-ay-aht that makes the patterns of destructive consumption in Western civilization seem natural or reasonable. Being there, I saw again the immensity and fecundity of the planet, and I was both encouraged and overwhelmed. But my memory was good, and I could still remember the place where I had come from, the suburban town where I live, and I recalled with crystal clarity how life there feels nothing like this damp and foggy forest springing up out of the sand on the edge of the world. Where I live, it is entirely reasonable to never consider the non-negotiable biological limits of the planet. It is entirely reasonable (to most people) to live there and not know anything about where you live.
Are we, the inhabitants of this planet, in a watershed moment? Or has the moment passed? Have we passed the point of no return, consuming our way past what is sustainable? Ched Myers describes the “resisting and renewing” movement of Watershed Discipleship as having three convictions: (1) that we are in a watershed moment of crisis that demands everything we do as Christians be both environmentally and socially just; (2) that the locus of our lives as followers of Jesus always takes place (whether we realize it or not) in the context of a specific watershed; and (3) that we must be disciples of our watersheds. For the sake of hope, I will choose to believe that we are still in a watershed moment and that there is a future of rich natural abundance still available to us on this planet, even though it does not always feel that way.
The contributors to Watershed Discipleship are also optimistic, or at least they inspire optimism in me. I am always inspired by people, such as the ones in this book, who do hidden and hard work that runs against the grain of mainstream capitalist culture. If I had not heard these stories, I don’t think I would know that an alternative way of living is possible. But reading Katerina Friesen or Reyna Ortega or Matthew Humphrey, I believe it just might be possible for me to live differently too.
What do we do if the truth is not encouraging? Do we ignore it? Or—if the arc of the universe is, as Martin Luther King would oft say, fundamentally bent toward justice—does it mean that discouraging truth isn’t the whole truth?
I would be remiss if I didn’t specifically mention Sasha Adkins’s chapter “Plastics as a Spiritual Crisis.” I did not find her chapter encouraging, yet it is certainly the truth. The truth is that we have chosen to live lives that poison our planet. Plastics, to briefly summarize Adkins’s work, are not amenable to life on this planet. They have no place in the natural order, and their poisonous presence grows with every year. Reading Adkins on plastics drives me to contemplate the larger and equally depressing “power” that nurtures the life of plastics—the extractive and isolationist mechanisms of global capitalism. Like plastics, capitalism is not amenable to life on this planet. It is hard to imagine what a new world would look like without plastics, but that’s what’s required of us.
Reading Watershed Discipleship, I felt like I had found something that satisfied a need I previously had been unable to articulate. I’ve read Wendell Berry. I’ve felt a hunger to know my place and to have a place that I am committed to. I’ve thought a lot about how being a follower of Jesus means living as part of creation, enjoying abundance and appreciating boundaries. But I had not yet considered that I should “recenter [my] citizen identity in the topography of creation rather than in the political geography of dominant cultural ideation” (15). Myers and company have convinced me that to live a life of justice and peace means I must live a life that is in right relation with the land. And to do that, I must learn the legacy of Indigenous communities (18) like the Huu-ay-aht First Nation that have so much to teach those of us who hope for a future for our children when this watershed moment has passed.
Matt Balcarras lives outside Vancouver in the traditional territory of the Tsawwassen and Musqueam. Along with his partner, Deanna, and their three children, Matt is part of the community at Cedar Park Church (Mennonite Brethren).