The Song of the Land: Bioregional Animism

The Song of the Land: Bioregional Animism

Agreenmantle covers the black earth. Green of different shades and different sizes, the tiniest plant to the tallest tree. The green is full of life; flowers, berries, seeds and the animals and insects who eat them and call them home. The blue sky is filled with life, with feathered birds, winged insects, floating seeds, and invisible pollen floating in the invisible wind. The greenmantle breathes the sky in and out, the world’s largest air purifier. Beneath the greenmantle of frenzied orgiastic life lies the bones of the dead: bones of animals and humans, husks of dead insects, rotting trees from long-dead forests, and season upon season of dead plants layered into rich, fertile humus which feeds the green above.

Within this dark mass of death is the roots of the living, of trees and plants and fungi, connected like a massive nervous system forming the brain and consciousness of the land. Beneath the dead and the roots are minerals and stones. Beneath the stones are fresh waters, deep, dark and intrinsic to the health of the life far above. Snow runs down mountains, melting into streams, the streams connecting into lakes and rivers, the rivers flowing out to the sea. Everything flows together, everything is important and necessary —  creating the perfect song of the land — an ecosystem in beautiful harmony. Bioregional animism is the discovery of where humans fit into this song so the harmony continues unhindered by our untrained voices and our hands that have forgotten how to play the notes.

Defining a Bioregion

A bioregion is a landmass that has continuously similar geography, flora, fauna, and human culture, usually centered around a shared watershed. Bioregions are unique in that their boundaries are not marked by national, provincial, or state borders, but instead by the land itself, the native plants and animals, and the people who live there. A bioregion is where geography, wildlife biology, ethnobotany, and anthropology meet — where science, nature, and folklore are one. My bioregion is the Pacific Northwest, sometimes referred to as Cascadia, which can encompass Alaska, British Columbia, southern Alberta, Washington, Oregon, Montana, Idaho, northern California, Nevada, and Wyoming depending on who (or which government) you are talking to.

Bioregions can also be nested within each other and so this large expanse of land can be broken down into smaller areas of which my home turf is the “megaregion” of southern British Columbia, Washington state, and northern Oregon — essentially Vancouver, BC to Portland, OR. My home province of British Columbia is massive and contains many nested bioregions within itself: the coastal islands, the lush temperate rainforest of the coast and south, the shrub-steppe of the Okanagan Desert, the mountains, the north… I would even argue that a bioregion could be one mountain, one small island, a city, a neighbourhood, and so on. I highly recommend getting to know your local area and treating it as a distinct bioregion, even if its an urban corner of city and all you think you will find is weeds and raccoons. You never know what you will find. Maybe the land your house is on used to be a wetland or a seasonal breeding ground for crows.

Bioregionalism as Philosophy & Practice

The problem with becoming aware of a bioregion is that one also becomes aware of how much humans have damaged it, sometimes irreparably. This is often why bioregionalism is considered a movement that promotes sustainability, ecological rehabilitation, the use of local resources over imported, and the growing and eating of local foods. The goal of bioregionalism is self-sufficiency and sustainability within a bioregion – of both people and nature. Bioregionalism differs from environmentalism in that it seeks to have humans and nature living together in harmony, with humans as active stewards of nature, rather than seeing humans as harmful and needing to be removed from the equation.

Instead of protesting, you’ll often find a bioregionalist removing invasive plants from a forest, cleaning up polluted rivers and streams, teaching about edible and medicinal native plants, or working in wildlife rehabilitation. They are the ones who shop at the farmer’s market rather than the supermarket, who forage and/or garden as part of their diet, and who prefer their meat from a local farmer or to hunt it themselves.

Within bioregionalism is the belief that the most important thing to learn when you move to a new bioregion, or are born into one, is to learn everything you can about it. What plants are edible? What can be used as medicine? What is in season, where and when? What animals make good eating and where are the best seasonal hunting and fishing grounds? What natural resources are there? Where’s the best drinking water and the best agricultural land? Is there anything in the culture and folklore of the locals that can help you thrive here?

Such knowledge used to be intrinsic to basic human survival, but today you will seldom find a person in a city or town who can even list the names of five native trees. How can we be self-sufficient without knowledge of the resources around us and how to use them? How can we be good stewards of the land we live upon if we know nothing about it? How can we fix what we humans broke without first knowing what the local ecosystem looked like when healthy? Through awareness, through knowledge, through hard work, and through truly caring about the land under our feet and all who live upon, under, and above it.

Where Does Animism Fit In?

“The animistic perspective is so fundamental, mundane, everyday and taken-for-granted that most animistic indigenous people do not even have a word in their languages that corresponds to ‘animism’.” (source)

Animism is a term that belongs to anthropologists, not indigenous peoples and not modern spiritual practitioners. It is a word to describe the intangible, undefined, ancient fundamental beliefs of the human race that have existed since before we even had a word for and concept of “religion”. And yet… what other word do we have to use today that fits so perfectly without appropriating traditional terms from indigenous peoples who we do not share blood ties or cultural rites with?

Within the perspective of animism everything is sacred and alive, even the profane and the ordinary. Everything is holy. Every action is holy, no matter how seemingly mundane: gardening, berry-picking, fishing, spinning, weaving, cooking, house-cleaning… Every plant, animal, river, mountain, rock, moonrise and sunset is holy. Every living thing is a conscious spirit, a little god, with its own powers, knowledge, and purpose in the web of life. Every living thing is treated as one human should treat another; with respect, with awareness of existence and individual rights, and with honest communication. The land is asked for permission to hunt, travel, forage, or build structures and is propitiated to gain favour. The river is politely asked for its fish, the tree for its wood, the deer for its meat, the bush for its berries, the clover for its roots… and all are given thanks and offering in return.

 “For Native peoples, living in balance with particular landscapes has been the fruit of hard work as well as a product of worldview, a matter of ethical living in worlds where non human life has moral standing and disciplined attention to ritual protocol. Still, even though certain places on landscapes have been sacred in the customary sense of being wholly distinct from the profane and its activity, many places sacred to Native peoples have been sources of material as well as spiritual sustenance. As with sacred places, so too with many sacred practices of living on landscapes. In the reckoning of Native peoples, pursuits like harvesting wild rice, spearing fish or hunting certain animals can be at once religious and economic in ways that have been difficult for Western courts to acknowledge.” (source)

These beliefs are not the sole domain of Native Americans, they are cross-cultural, they are the beliefs and practices of our ancestors, of all peoples around the world. So permeated into our being they are, that they have never really left. I flip through the thick, aged pages of the Carmina Gadelica, a collection of Scottish previously undocumented oral incantations from the late 1800s, and I see supplications to plant spirits to be spoken before harvesting, blessings to be spoken to honour the new moon, songs to be sung when treating wounds, and incantations for protecting and blessing animals. I look within the beautiful prose of the Finnish Kalevala and read of a hunter asking the spirit of the forest for permission to hunt for food. I stumble across a Lithuanian prayer from the 1930s, but know its origin is much older, its words soaked in animism and tree worship:

“That I may not fell a single tree without holy need;
that I may not step on a blooming field;
that I may always plant trees.
The gods look with grace
upon those who plant trees along roads,
in homesteads, at holy places,
at crossroads, and by houses.
If you wed, plant a tree.
If a child is born, plant a tree.
If someone dies plant a tree for their soul.
At all festivals, during important events, visit trees.
Prayers will attain holiness through trees of thanks.
So may it be!”

Putting Bioregional Animism into Practice

So far bioregional animism may seem more of a practical way of life than a spiritual one, but again we must remember the line between the sacred and the mundane is invisible. Bioregional animism is not a spiritual path, it is not a denomination or a tradition, it is the way you choose to live your life every day and the conscious choice to interact ethically with nature. It is a lifetime commitment requiring every day action and practice. You will never stop learning as there is so much knowledge to attain and to put into practical use. I see this as a beautiful thing – striving for perfection and complete knowledge all the while knowing you can never achieve it.

Go Outside

It is hard to care deeply about something without any personal knowledge of it. Walking this road can start as simply as purchasing a regional field guide and going for a lot of walks with it, photographing and recording what you find. It can be as fun as taking an identification and foraging course with knowledgeable locals who will teach you ethics and proper stewardship as well to make sure you don’t damage or destroy the natural resources you’re learning to identify and use. Go camping, go travelling, go exploring, go on adventures in your bioregion. Walk the trails, canoe the lakes, explore the beach, climb the trees…

When you’re surrounded by nature, sit still, watch and listen. See the wildlife with your own eyes; the black bear snacking on huckleberries high in the mountains or fishing for salmon along a coastal river flowing into the Pacific Ocean. See, smell, touch and taste nature; eat a juicy golden salmonberry in early spring, munch on tasty spruce tips, dig up wild onions, and forage for salty mussels along the sea shore when the tide goes out.


When submersing yourself into such wildness, do not forget about the human element as well. What happened to the land when it was colonized? Was it clear cut, mined, and stripped of all resources without regard? Has the land healed or is it still raw and angry like an open wound? What peoples lived in the bioregion before it was colonized? What happened to them? Are they still there? How angry are they? How assimilated are they? How much of their traditional knowledge have they maintained? Are there any records of their animal and plant folklore, medicinal preparations, uses of natural resources, or seasonal migratory habits? What were their rites and ceremonies regarding the land and its denizens – physical and supernatural? What spirits did they believe in? How did they communicate with them and what offerings were given?

Do not attempt to follow and steal their culture as you will fail and offend. A classically trained French chef doesn’t take the wild foods of the Pacific Northwest and try to cook as the Natives once did, but instead he will use those local ingredients and the knowledge of how they were once prepared to cook in the style he was trained in, creating something new. Using this example, focus on the relevant lore that can help you be more respectful to the land spirits, the genius loci, of the bioregion where you live without trying to copy the “religion” of its indigenous people. Were lakes asked permission before one slipped a boat in the waters to cross them or fish them? Which plants or trees were considered the most powerful, were treated with the most respect and awe, and whose harvesting for food, medicine, or magic was the most highly ritualized? Which spirits were believed to be friendly and which were dangerous and to be avoided? What spirits were asked for permission before hunting or foraging? What offerings were considered perfect, acceptable, or paltry? What offerings were considered offensive and should be avoided?

Learning such things can help you to avoid pissing off powerful spirits of plants, animals, ancestors, land features, and the region itself. It is a common belief in many animistic cultures that offending a spirit can lead to being cursed with illness, bad luck, loss, haunting, and other unpleasant things with the worst usually being death. The ancient Greeks believed that if you cut down trees without permission or regard, the dryads would curse you with never-ending hunger – a curse of insatiability leading to obesity.

Get Your Hands Dirty

A wise man once told me that knowledge is attaining information, but wisdom is knowing how to apply it. Wisdom will only come with rolling up your sleeves and diving in. This is the part where you forage plants for food, medicine or magic, take them home, process and preserve them, and then turn your harvest into usable finished products. Talk to animals, plants, trees, rocks, streams, rivers, lakes, and the land as if they can hear you and will respond. If you cultivate a relationship with them over a long period of time, eventually they may react to you. Don’t expect them to speak English or even words, instead try to learn their own tongues. What does a happy and friendly tree look and act like as opposed to an unhappy hostile one? Learn how to appease unhappy spirits with proper offerings. They may still hate other people, but they will warm up to you and then you can put in a good word for others.

“O most powerful spirit
of the bush with the fragrant leaves
we are here again to seek wisdom.
Give us tranquility and guidance
to understand the mysteries of the forest,
the knowledge of our ancestors.”

— Invocation of Manuel Córdova-Rios, 1979

Look, listen, feel. What is the land trying to tell you? Is it thirsty and unhappy, is it drenched and fertile? Did frost come too late in the spring and kill all the flowers resulting in a fruitless year? If you pay attention to your surroundings day to day, week to week, month to month, season to season, eventually you will flow harmoniously with the nature around you. You will simply “know” things without having to look in a book or perform a Google search. You’ll have become familiar with your bioregion, it’s changes, seasons, wildlife migrations, and weather patters and in turn, it will come to know you. Maybe it will speak to you in dreams showing you that poplar buds are ready to collect now, the first nettles are popping up from the thawing earth, or  where a tree fell so you can harvest the wood and bark. Perhaps the animals will come to you in your dreams too and teach you their wisdom, sharing their power and their medicine.

In Conclusion

The philosophy and practices of bioregional animism are a step towards healing the relationship between humans and nature. We must become healers and start the hard work of relearning the song of the land under our feet so we can play our part in harmony instead of harm. We have been ignorant, careless, and disrespectful for a long time and now it is our duty to repair the damage and teach our children the error of our ways and how to undo what we have done. If we don’t take action ourselves and we don’t teach our children how to heal the land, there will be nothing left for the future generations of humans and there will be nothing “natural” left of nature. It is time for us to sing new songs and tell new stories, to write ourselves into the future as wise stewards and healers of the land. Where will you begin?


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Join the discussion 7 Comments

  • dre says:

    “Within the perspective of animism everything is sacred and alive, even the profane and the ordinary. Everything is holy. Every action is holy, no matter how seemingly mundane…”

    “So far bioregional animism may seem more of a practical way of life than a spiritual one, but again we must remember the invisible line between the sacred and the mundane. Bioregional animism is not a spiritual path, it is not a denomination or a tradition, it is the way you choose to live your life every day and the conscious choice to interact ethically with nature. It is a lifetime commitment requiring every day action and practice.”

    It’s late, and I am probably totally misreading you, but the two statements above seem to contradict one another. Can you clarify what you consider to be the line between the mundane and the sacred in this context and why you do not consider animism to be a spiritual path? As always, another thought-provoking and well-timed post. Thank you for all that you share here. I particularly loved the Lithuanian tree prayer–we are having our county forester out next week to help us establish a stewardship plan for the forests on our farm. Also I just met a local who is working to reestablish a rare native tree thought to have been decimated by blight in the last century, and I’m going to help by growing and planting seedlings here. The trees are speaking loud and clear. 🙂

    • Sarah says:

      By “invisible” line I meant imaginary as in there is no line but the one that we create ourselves. I do not personally consider animism to be a specific “Religion”. It is a vast term encompassing the beliefs and practices of countless peoples from countless lands through countless ages. It will never be organized into an agreed upon set of beliefs as with the more common theisms and I think it would be detrimental if it became so. It is often the nature of Pagans to try to turn any belief into a tradition or specific spiritual path, but I think trying this with animism would be futile as it’s beliefs and practices are supposed to be so ingrained, so mundane, that we don’t even think about it.

      It should be a way of life, as natural as breathing. The rites so mundane, an outsider would see them as no more than making a cup of tea. My parents are animists and never knew it, still aren’t aware of it, and have never heard of animism. They attend church every Sunday. I once met a nun living in the wild North who was the most animistic person I’ve ever met. She too had never heard of animism. They have no name for their philosophy and no need to name it or quantify it. I see that as beautiful.

      How wonderful that you have land to work with – what a perfect way to get your hands dirty to do good! I wish you blessings and success with restoring the native tree population.

  • Yvonne says:

    Thanks for writing this! I live in an area which has hardly any truly wild nature left, it’s mostly cultivated. But there’s so much to see and learn. Since I actually pay attention, I find out new things every season. It’s a never-ending life lesson.

  • Sarah, I got so much out of reading this.

  • HAwen says:

    Lovely, thank you. I had no idea anyone else was still doing BRA.

  • Elisa says:

    Sacred and Mundane to me, while being different are both ‘holy’. I do not yet see a contradiction. I had a wee bit too much sugar and a breathing treatment. I will come back and read this one again when I can better attend it.

  • Pamela says:

    “Every plant, animal, river, mountain, rock, moonrise and sunset is holy. Every living thing is a conscious spirit, a little god, with its own powers, knowledge, and purpose in the web of life. Every living thing is treated as one human should treat another; with respect, with awareness of existence and individual rights, and with honest communication.”

    YES 😀

    Thank you for sharing this Sarah. I enjoy reading your posts, they are very spiritual, practical and sensual 🙂