Notes of a Bioregional Interloper
Over the past few years I’ve started to feel bothered, even embarrassed, by how little I know about this giant rock I live on. My recent library checkout patterns are telling: books on birds, trees, mountains, and watersheds. (I can sometimes be found flipping through the heavy Audubon Society guide to Western Forests while standing under various trees in Oakland.) Such an impulse is symptomatic both of curiosity and something like guilt, a desire to make up for thirty-one years of almost total ignorance. But most urgently, it stems from a painful sense of alienation from the living things that can help us define home.
In the 1970s, Bay Area environmentalist Peter Berg began articulating the idea of bioregionalism, a way of aligning one’s identity, culture, and land use practices with an ecologically bounded area. Berg, when asked where he was from, would reply that he was a resident of the Sacramento River watershed. Other life organized itself around watersheds, the logic went, and so should humans. Of course, such an idea was not new; bioregionalism as defined by Berg described what Native American people had developed for ages. It implied a deep rapport with, and responsibility to, a specific ecosystem whose balance must be maintained at all costs.
One of the few bioregions that some people do identify with politically and culturally is Cascadia, which (depending on who you ask) includes parts of British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and parts of northern California, though often not including the Bay Area. Cascadia can also be understood as a movement for bioregional awareness, encouraging permaculture farming, business co-ops, anti-federal-government and anti-capitalist sentiments, and independence (if not formally) from the US and Canada. Beyond a feel-good “back to the land” rhetoric, the stated goal of independence is no less than surviving global warming or economic collapse. Peter Berg is an obvious influence, but some Cascadians also cite the 1970s cult novel Ecotopia, in which the Pacific Northwest — this time including San Francisco — secedes and organizes itself into sustainable, free-love-practicing mini-cities that express “religious fervor” for stable-state systems. Inhabitants of the fictional state of Ecotopia worship trees, live in modular and biodegradable tube-houses (cf. Ant Farm), and are governed by the Survivalist Party. In real life, the Cascadian flag is a silhouette of a Douglas fir against bands of green, white, and black.
Recently while birdwatching on the Wood River Wetlands in Oregon, I met a fellow birder who lit up when I mentioned Cascadia and that I was from the Bay Area. “Oh, thank you for coming here!” he said, motioning around. “Isn’t it beautiful?” The wetlands had been restored in the ’90s after having been drained for agriculture, and the birds had come back — something he was visibly proud of. We watched a white-faced ibis land in the distance. He insisted that I visit the Cascade–Siskiyou National Monument, considered one of the crown jewels of Cascadia for its unusual geology and biodiversity (and whose current boundaries, like so many things, are threatened by the Trump administration).
City-dwelling people, myself included, sometimes seem to appreciate wilderness in negative terms, that is, for what it doesn’t contain (buildings, cars, cell service) — it’s not obvious that it may be full of other things instead. At the Green Springs trailhead in the Cascade–Siskiyou Monument, a sign casually mentions that before settlers arrived in the 1880s, the Klamath, Modoc, and Shasta people had used this land for thousands of years. Although it may have looked the same, this wilderness was once both legible and provident. These were not just “pine trees,” for example, but species that we now call Douglas fir, white fir, Ponderosa pine, and incense cedar, each with specific characters and uses as medicine, dye, elements of steam baths, caulking material, food (not only pine nuts but the bark itself), and so on. Reflecting on this always makes some parts of the “settling” of California and Oregon in the nineteenth century sound to me like someone breaking into an apartment full of things they don’t know how to use, or stealing a book in a language they don’t know how to read. Besides the obvious injustice, this informs my feeling doomed never to experience the outdoors as anything but an illiterate interloper. Now, arriving at the trailhead with cardboard-like energy bars after a harrowing, gravelly drive in an under-powered sedan, and finding the landscape teeming with nonchalant and self-sufficient residents (“if you were a Western Fence Lizard, you’d be home by now”), was enough to make me feel like a kind of Earth n00b, an ill-adapted human.
From the trailhead, the Soda Mountain Wilderness unfolded like a text in distinct sections, each an expression of a different set of rules. It began with the marks of shade: cedars overlooking carpets of miner’s lettuce, dusty blue oregon-grapes, creeping snowberries, and a secretive blue skink. These gave way abruptly to a drier vocabulary, with Oregon white oak and manzanita growing next to the brittle remains of nine-leaf biscuitroot that had flowered in spring. It was just after lizard mating season, and baby lizards could be seen in abundance, clinging to their hot rocks. Then into the dark and unfathomable pages of an old-growth forest whose inhabitants I could occasionally hear but never see, with the exceptions of a hermit thrush — hiding, true to its name — and an unidentifiable furry orb that scurried into a bush. Pine cones were the words I was trying to learn: Ponderosa’s were big with spiked tips (“prickly Ponderosa”), while white fir’s were green and hidden at the tops of the trees. The cones of Douglas fir were small with three-pointed protrusions sticking out — Native folklore described them as the feet and tails of mice that had scurried inside during a fire, knowing that Douglas fir are fire resistant.
When I returned the next day to a different spot on the trail, near Pilot Rock, it was empty. Smoke from the Chetco Bar Fire had kept everyone away, allowing me a private conference with the thistles. I found the trail strewn with volcanic rocks in colors I didn’t know how to read — dusty reds, blues, and greens — but which had something to do with their days inside the earth. More inscrutable forms sprouted as I climbed: alien-looking fireweed flowers and hanging clusters of the tempting but poisonous-looking (later confirmed, though not by eating) red baneberry. At last, as if in response to the sheer volcanic rock jutting 570 feet up into the sky, colors seemed to leach out of the top of the hill, leaving sparse phrases of pale rubber rabbitbrush and white-blue juniper berries, with a tiny, brave Sierra stonecrop clinging to the bottom of the rock itself.
There is something sort of comical about eating a peanut butter sandwich while sitting on solidified andesitic magma that broke through the Earth’s crust twenty-five million years ago — but it’s also reassuring. Left to their own devices, certain parts of the physical environment change at a rate that is imperceptible to humans. Others change quickly, but cyclically, and most of it stays put. There’s a resulting sense of truth and stability in this — from the self-evident history of an old rock to the regionally specific logic of prairies, forests, and creek beds. Things grow here and not there. And with totemic species come totemic smells, totemic thoughts, totemic states of mind. What happens in Cascadia stays in Cascadia.
For that reason, beyond its practical emphasis on local networks, there’s something about bioregionalism that seems to satisfy the age-old human longing to be a member of a community, to be both in and of a place. On the way up I had admired how well the lizards blended into their rocks, having adapted enough to almost become the rock. I wished that I too could take on the accoutrements of a landscape. (And I began to understand why, on my long walks in Oakland, my pockets tend to accumulate acorns, feathers, and redwood cones).
On my way out of Cascadia, on the recommendation of an Ashland local, I stopped at Mt. Shasta City Park, where one finds the headwaters of the Sacramento River as a spring of pure, drinkable water emerging from the hillside. The spring was surrounded by Burning-Man-looking (Cascadian?) types, some filling up plastic jugs with the legendary water, others just lazing about on rocks or literally playing flutes, as if practicing a kind of water worship — a scene straight out of Ecotopia. (“There is hardly an Ecotopian who doesn’t spend some of his time […] just looking at water. The national bird, I am told, is the egret…”) I found myself surprisingly unnerved by the whole thing, partly because I stuck out in my not-very-flowy clothes and A’s hat, but mainly because it threw my own alienation into contrast. To me, the water I drink has virtually no identity. But people here spoke of specifically loving this water, which had begun as snowmelt and filtered through lava tubes in Mt. Shasta for fifty years before arriving in the creek. The closest I’ve ever come to such a relationship was later Googling “where does Oakland get its drinking water” (answer: the Mokelumne River, which I’d neither heard of nor seen). Besides this, such a direct and unmediated relationship with water — not only of seeing your water source, but drinking straight out of it — contained an immediacy so foreign to me that it seemed to be violating some rule. I was reminded of the first time I ate a California blackberry growing in the Oakland hills. It had felt furtive and transgressive, even though blackberries are food, designed to be eaten by animals like me.
Such are the hangups of a contemporary human, for whom the character of her bioregion (Central Coast, according to some maps) is often screened away. My bioregion has no flag. In the meantime, I like to entertain the idea of, after the ravages of Manifest Destiny, a kind of Manifest Dismantling. Peter Berg, inspired by weeds growing in the cracks of pavement, ripped up part of the sidewalk in front of his San Francisco house and replaced it with a native plant garden in the 1980s. Giving a tour to visitors, he said he was “secretly pleased to believe that seeds from these plants blow out and into other sidewalk cracks and are propagating more of these natives all over the place, instead of the European invaders.” In the past few years, the city of Oakland daylighted Sausal Creek from beneath concrete in Dimond Park, and a UC Berkeley class collaborated with Urban ReLeaf to grow seventy-two coast live oak trees (the Oakland namesake) to donate to neighborhoods in West and East Oakland.
A certain dismantling in the mind is also helpful. When I arrived home and visited my parents in nearby Morgan Hill, I noticed the ghost pines in the hills around their house for the first time. Ghost pines, which look like cloudier, grayer Ponderosa pines, are endemic to California. They often grow alongside oaks, and were prized by the Miwok for their giant cones full of pine nuts. I realized that they’d been invisible to me until now — actual ghosts, growing where they have always grown. And this keeps happening, interloper though I may be. When I pay it enough attention, the land discloses itself to me with surprising ease: its seasons, its smells, its patterns of trees, its edible berries, its chirps and squawks. Wilderness is always also growing in the cracks. As Aldo Leopold wrote at the end of A Sand County Almanac, building a relationship with land “is a job not of building roads into the lovely country, but of building receptivity into the still unlovely human mind.” Such expeditions feel less like setting forth than coming home to what was already there.
Note: All images were taken in the Soda Mountain Wilderness, with the exception of the last three, which were in Morgan Hill.