The Fifth World


We belong to the land. We know it like our own limbs, like our own hearts. Every creek and eddy, every tree and flower, every bird and insect, we know. Some families may range over a wide territory, but they still know it intimately. We speak the language of the local animals and heed the warning calls of birds and beasts. We learn them so well that we usually don’t even realize how much we rely on them until we go somewhere else and find them not there anymore. Then we suddenly feel cut off and alone, nervous because we suddenly realize that we do not know this land, and it may not take care of us like our home would.

Family and land — how could we even separate them? The land provides us with all that we need. We eat the plants that grow in it, hunt the animals that dwell in it, drink the water that flows through it, breathe the air that stirs it, and in all these ways the land flows through us and becomes us, and we become the land. When we die, our bodies go into the land and become the soil, become the grass and the trees, become the insects and birds and deer. Some families see in this the relationship of a mother and her child, because the land takes care of us. Some families see in this relationship the intimacy of lovers. Some elders say that the land looks after the family and the family looks after the land because you cannot separate them. In truth, the land looks after itself, or put another way, the family looks after itself, or put another way, the land and the family exist as one.

In the modern world, bioregionalism can describe a political, cultural, or ecological movement to center human life more in one’s local bioregion. Kirkpatrick Sale describes bioregionalism with reference to the Spanish term querencia, “a place where one feels safe, a place from which one’s strength of character is drawn, a place where one feels at home.”

Living locally shapes the human mind to a particular soundscape in close relationship with other-than-human neighbors. Like any other animal, humans recognize the songs of birds and the calls of different animals. They may not see for miles off into the distance, but the eagle can, and they recognize the eagle’s calls and the way it flies when it sees prey. The whole world becomes an extended set of senses for people in the Fifth World. Modern trackers refer to this technique as “concentric circles.” For people in the Fifth World, it has become an instinctive response. Sneaking up to surprise them in their own territory seems all but impossible. Every rodent, every bird, every insect in their territory rushes to alert them to your intrusion. To invade the native territory of such people means more than just challenging the family; it means challenging the whole land itself. Such incursions usually end quickly and decisively. They have become exceptionally rare, because their outcome has become such a foregone conclusion.

That also explains why such people speak so easily about their territory as the whole world. Beyond it, they no longer have that relationship. They find themselves removed from that web of relationship, in an alien and possibly hostile environment. They lose that extended set of senses, and it afflicts them profoundly. Life in the Fifth World means life rooted in the land. The land empowers her and strengthens her. They call it paradise, wherever it may lie, with good reason. Their tales all echo the spirit of the land, the genius loci that echoes in the bird calls and the streams and the way the winds blow through the trees.