Remembering Peter Berg

by: Heather on 08/30/2011
Posted in: Events

New Society Publisher's roots are deep in the soil of bioregionalism - a movement based on recognizing, nurturing, sustaining and celebrating our local connections and sense of place. Peter Berg was a champion of this movement from its earliest beginnings, and he dedicated much of his life to realizing its goals. We were tremendously saddened to hear of Peter's passing, and we are honored to share the following tribute by Stephanie Mills:

In Memory of Peter Berg 

When Eqbal Ahmad died in 1999, Edward Said ended his fine memorial to his friend and colleague “His friends grieve inconsolably,” a heartrending phrase that began reverberating in my mind when I learned of Peter Berg’s death. Then came these lines from one of Jim Dodge’s Piss-Fir Willie Poems: 

“The hardest work you’ll find in this world / Is digging the grave for someone you loved.” 

The struggle to accept the reality of Peter’s demise and even to hint at what his life and work meant to me has been that kind of hard.  

In 1970, as a young activist, I was already witnessing the radical import of ecology being leached out of environmentalism.  The environmental movement was becoming instrumental, managerial, and centralist, distancing itself from the counterculture and comporting itself as though late industrial civilization could and should continue its trajectory, but in a lite clean cosmopolitan fashion.  Power relations between Homo sapiens and other living creatures, between researchers and the laity, bioregions and nation-states, consumers and subsistence peoples, and other structural issues weren’t up for discussion downtown.

Vexed, I began work on a manuscript titled Whatever Happened to Ecology?   Shortly thereafter, I discovered that what had happened to ecology was Bioregionalism.  It was a more fitting response to the planet’s ecosocial crises than lobbying the Feds to ensure that things got worse less quickly. 

Planet Drum was the vehicle for my introduction to bioregionalism and Peter Berg was the driver who welcomed me aboard. Early on, Peter’s genius and ultra hipness overawed me. He didn’t let my trepidation skew a respectful collaboration that grew into genuine friendship. Over the years I spoke at some of Planet Drum’s conferences, contributed occasionally to Raise the Stakes, and, thanks to Peter’s initiative, co-guest edited a Bioregions issue of CoEvolution Quarterly (No. 32, Winter 1981). It was an education. Bioregionalism—the congresses, the worldview, the practices and rhetoric changed my life and shaped my own writing, speaking and teaching. 

Bioregionalism makes such good sense that it now, if under many other names, has the quality of obviousness. But it had to be thought up and Peter Berg, never content merely to theorize, was a leading theorist.  “Visionary” is an overworked term, but Peter was that, and intellectually rigorous, too. He articulated his ideas with a poet’s care and an organizer’s discipline.  Which is why, along with its paramount biocentrism, Peter’s opus is durable goods.

“Who am I? Where am I? and What am I going to do about it?” was the bioregional activist’s catechism The fundamental requirements of sustainability were: “Restore natural systems, satisfy basic human needs, and develop support for individuals.” Carve those in living rock.   

Utterly devoted to his purpose, persistent in his work, Peter Berg was nevertheless a rare ecological activist being devoid of piety or Puritanism.  More pagan, he was viscerally attuned to biogeography and natural history—the peregrines, the yerba buena, the serpentine, the fogs, and the seismicity of Shasta bioregion.  With like intensity, he savored journeys and art, food and drink, writing and teaching, and his family’s life.   

Peter was geopolitically aware and astute, but expended little intellectual energy on breaking news.  He was sharply aware of the severity of the ecological crisis, but didn’t found his rhetoric on disaster. His work focused on our being one species-kind, inhabiting diverse bioregions, capable, through our cultures, of life-enhancing participation in the planet’s ecology.Once when I was batting about some apocalyptic ideas for an upcoming talk, he said, “Don’t start by opening a can of worms.”  Ever the bioregional organizer, he knew not to begin by appalling your listeners and diminishing hope. 

Wonderful to say, after I moved from San Francisco to Leelanau County, Michigan, my friendship with Peter and Judy persisted and deepened through correspondence, phone calls, and, when I visited the Bay Area, stays at their home.  The folder holding decades of postcards, letters, and dispatches from Peter is a trove of quick perceptions and deep reflections. 

“Talked to Roshi at this temple for 2 hrs. about direct revelations from nature,” wrote Peter in March of 2001, on the back of a postcard from the Tofuki-ji temple in Japan. “Good insights!”    

In addition to the travel vignettes, wide-ranging wit, and enthusiastic bulletins about Planet Drum’s programs, Peter’s letters also brought kindly concern and real understanding. He could be gallant! 

When I last visited in late March of 2011 Peter and Judy came to the airport motel to pick me up. Peter, physically diminished, but dashing in his fine black beret, emerged from their Prius with a Douglas iris to bestow, a flower from the his cherished and highly significant sidewalk native plants garden.  

The timbre of Peter’s voice was always fine.  During that last visit, Peter talked and talked, more compellingly than ever. Now the voice was hoarse.  He needed an oxygen lanyard most of the time.  Nevertheless on that last visit, in the course of a classic Berg and Goldhaft outing to meet one some wildness in San Francisco, we whirled up to the saddle of the Twin Peaks. The sight of the Pacific sundown wind currying the lush newly reinstated native grasses on a hillside called forth plenty of voice for Peter’s wonder and joy. 

For the loss to the bioregionalist community and the world of this brilliant guide; and for the loss of such a dear friend, I grieve--but I doubt that Peter would long countenance the inconsolability.

--Stephanie Mills

When Christopher and Judith Plant opened the Canadian office of New Society Publishers in 1990, their first project was Home! A Bioregional Reader, which was an anthology of writings from leading thinkers in the bioregional movement. The following is an excerpt from Peter's contribution to Home!, entitled "More Than Just Saving What's Left" - the call to action is as valid now as it was decades ago:

It's time to develop the political means for directing society toward restoring and maintaining the natural systems that ultimately support all life. Bioregions are the natural locales in which everyone lives. Reinhabitation of bioregions, creating adaptive cultures that follow the unique characteristics of climate, watersheds, soils, landforma and native plants and animals that define these places, is the appropriate direction for a transition from Late Industrial society. Environmentalism, at its best, reaches its zenith in a standoff. It's time to shift from just saving what's left and begin to assert bioregional programs for reinhabitation.

There is no doubt that Peter's work will be carried on through Planet Drum foundation and many others in the bioregional movement and elsewhere, but his presence will be sorely missed.

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