Region As Rabbi by Todd Wynward

Todd Wynward writes, farms, teaches and leads wilderness trips in northern NM. He is an animating force behind TiLT, an intentional discipleship co-housing community in the Rio Grande Watershed. His new book, Rewilding the Way, is to be published by Herald Press in 2015.

This is the first post in an 8-part series covering unique experiments in Watershed Discipleship: every Friday until Advent on RadicalDiscipleship.Net.
We will not save a place we do not love.
We cannot love a place we do not know.

Ched Myers, citing Senegalese environmentalist Baba Dioum

This is the vital adult education of our time: to become re-placed in our watersheds. To love a place, we must first know it. This means paying attention to it: paying attention to its seasons, its species, its attributes and its attitudes.

I began to seek the wisdom of my watershed about five years ago. What could it teach me about how to live as a place-based person? As I learn to re-inhabit the place I live, I see my region as my rabbi in three specific ways.

Watershed as Sustainer, Teacher, and Corrector
Try on this idea: All of my food needs, my watershed can provide. Sounds crazy? It does to me. Sure, most humans throughout history were sustained by their watersheds, but those were primitive people, right? What about my Italian parmesan and my Florida orange juice? What about my olive oil and coconut milk?

Can all the items my family loves be sourced in my bioregion? Of course not. But this question leads me to two others: First, what can be sourced from our watershed? In the high deserts of New Mexico where I live, the answer is bleak. For us to obtain the foods we love, I’d have to drive hundreds of miles before I found the first orange tree or avocado orchard. This leads me to a second question: To what extent can we become creatures who thrive within the limits of our bioregion? In other words, to what extent can we adapt?

Wait—me, adapt to my watershed? As an entitled American caught up in affluenza, this idea is not only absurd; it’s scandalous. I buy whatever I want whenever I want, without a second thought to planetary consequences. Limit my lifestyle? Adjust my appetite? I’m an American, dammit!

Yet my watershed, as rabbi, corrects my spoiled behavior. Just like in any master-apprentice relationship, my rabbi corrects me as part of my training, just as a master re-forms an inappropriate disciple. This is a true conversion, metanoia, the same kind of shift that early followers of Jesus underwent. They were taught to walk away from the self-protecting, self-promoting values of Empire and instead care for the poor, love their neighbors, give riskily and trust in daily bread. These ancient precepts are central to the Jesus Way; they are equally central to the teachings of my watershed. They cause me to look anew at the two troubling and transformative questions I raised earlier: What can my watershed provide? How can I adapt my wants?

An Eccentric Experiment
A few years ago, some neighbors and I decided to have some fun with these questions. Instead of bemoaning northern New Mexico’s arid high country, we began to explore what food sources could thrive in our dry mountain environment. With a perverse joy, we began to break from Empire-based thinking, and see if we could be happy with what our watershed provided. My ranching friend, Daniel, managed small herds over the years to see which livestock could thrive with minimal inputs while being maximally useful to us. What has he found? Goats and sheep, we keep. They adapt well to our bioregion, are manageable, and provide milk, cheese, meat, kefir and yogurt. But yaks? Not so much. After years of experimentation and hard work, Daniel concluded they’re more trouble than they’re worth. As for vegetables and fruits, we’ve found success with plenty of the usual fare—carrots, onions, garlic, beets, tomatoes, zucchini, apples, plums, greens galore. Also, under the guidance of my mentor gardener Seth, I’ve adapted my habits and taste buds. I now appreciate hand-ground cornmeal, new types of beans, high-altitude quinoa, plum preserves, wild amaranth and lamb’s quarters, sorrel, kale chips, broccoli leaves, and new varieties of squash and potatoes..

I’m finding many of my current life practices—habits formed unconsciously within a culture of excess–have no part in the life of a watershed disciple, nor of a serious Jesus follower. Even as I adapt, however, a part of me wants to remain an unconscious and self-absorbed consumer. Do you feel it too? We both know it’s easier to remain a spoiled child instead of mature into a responsible adult. Yet in this “watershed” moment of history—with humanity’s existence in the balance–it’s clear our watersheds call us to do something old-school: repent, turn around. To what extent can we thrive within the bounty—and the boundaries—of our bioregions? We’ll only know when we start trying.

One thought on “Region As Rabbi by Todd Wynward

  1. Thank you for this article. Most of us need to be reminded of the huge footprint we create by eating what we want, when we want it. What have you learned about the edibility of native wild plants?

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