Here & Now Bioregionalism

We all might do well to remember that names are one measure of how one chooses to inhabit the world. — Lauret E. Savoy

Three years ago, I didn’t know any of the plants that live around me. The plants, more accurately, that I live among. I didn’t know them by name, by sight, nor by their place in an ecosystem. After deciding it was time for me to learn, I spent some time on the internet — as one does. I learned that English Laurel was a common choice for evergreen living hedges and had become invasive. It has broad, flat green leaves, and I mistook salal for it. Salal is a native shrub that is also evergreen with broad, flat leaves, though less shiny and oblong than laurel. It’s subtle though, if you don’t know what you’re looking for, to the brain that has not yet built the inroads for pattern matching. I learned that English Holly, also invasive, has waxy, evergreen leaves, sharply pointed, and mistook Oregon grape for it. Oregon grape leaves are similarly sharply pointed and can be waxy, though it doesn’t grow to be a tree, and its leaves are directly opposite each other, while holly leaves alternate on a branch. I mistook salmonberry for Himalayan blackberry — at least those are both in the rubus genus. It’s interesting to look back and realize that the only plants I knew the names of were invasive ones: education and outreach programs by the county and parks departments were working, I suppose, and this is good, but it does make you wonder. Wonder if there’s a more holistic picture that could be drawn and shared instead, one that doesn’t leave the people who are willing to learn only knowing what doesn’t belong without knowing what does, or could.

Soon after we moved out of the city, to a place where plants seem more relevant (their relevance actually unchanged, only their prevalence, and therefore their visibility has changed), a woman from the county agriculture extension office came and walked around our land with us and taught us about the plants. Most of her job was to visit homeowners who wanted to cut down a tree to open up their view of the water or build a new garage and were begrudgingly complying with the requirement that the environmental impacts be considered, and the project aborted if the impact was too great. The extension agent seemed delighted to be able to teach us things like “sedges have edges, rushes are round, grasses have nodes from the top to the ground” and that if you bend back the top leaflet of a salmonberry leaf, the remainder looks like a butterfly. This differentiates it from a Himalayan blackberry, on which all five leaflets of a mature plant are distinct. She was delighted that we weren’t asking how things could be different, or wondering how we could make the space meet our needs better. Delighted that the plants were our purpose, not something in the way of our purpose.

I can see things now that I couldn’t have seen before. Knowing the names of the plants has allowed this. In the context of time, it’s only very recently that most of us lost this ability at all. Not even the advent of agriculture would have rid most people of the need to look at the ground, to know what of the things that were growing there were edible, and which parts of them for which uses. Our survival relied on this for so long, only supermarkets really made it unnecessary in the day-to-day. It doesn’t feel unnecessary to me anymore, but I suppose in terms of survival it is. I can buy carrots and potatoes at the store without knowing what the green above-ground parts looked like — the only parts that could reasonably be used to identify something before digging it up. I could buy them without even knowing that they used to have green parts at all. I could survive that way, knowing none of those things.

I go for walks sometimes in forested nature preserves near my home, and I see things now, both during the drive to get there and during the walk itself, that I wouldn’t have before. If you know what to look for, you can see that someone has undertaken some restoration work, and that some of it has worked. The streets I drive to get there are lined with scotch broom and Himalayan blackberry vines that have been cut back so they don’t scratch cars or walkers along the sidewalk, but not actually removed. Some vines are visible twenty, thirty feet in the air as they arch over trees and begin making their way back down, searching for ground in which they can root and begin anew, spreading their genes, as is the biological imperative. Walking through the reserves though, it feels like I imagine an old, native forest would feel — fir, hemlock, western redcedar, and big leaf maple trees dominating, though perhaps a little closer together than an actual old growth forest might be, putting this forest’s second-growth, human-planted status on display. Some of the canopies are clearly unhealthy for it, not receiving enough sunlight, many of the trunks too thin.

Here and there in the preserves is a lone holly tree with a piece of pink string tied around it, marking it for removal, or a stump of nearly white wood four or six inches across, a dozen holes drilled into it, where someone applied stump killer after cutting a holly tree. Since cutting the tree doesn’t actually kill it, this is the best way to ensure it won’t grow back while still not applying herbicides to the surrounding area. There is also the occasional tree that looks like it was wrapped in thick, criss-crossing ropes, stopping abruptly around the height of an adult’s shoulder, a sign that English ivy once grew there. If let go, ivy will climb and encroach on an entire tree and carpeting the ground at its feet. Despite common misconception, English ivy neither smothers trees nor leeches the nutrients from it — it’s rooted in the ground and pulls its own nutrients from there, just as the tree does. Instead, if let go long enough, it will grow up to cover the whole tree and then put new vines out horizontally too, three, four feet in all directions. This acts like a sail, and when it gets windy, the tree will be blown over, or if it goes on long enough, even wind will not be necessary, the weight of the ivy will pull the tree over. This is how ivy kills a tree.

Along the edges of the parks, there are signs reading “park boundary,” a house sometimes visible on the other side. On the side of the trail with the sign, large laurel trees, someone’s escaped hedgerow, hanging with blackberry vines. On the other, ferns, huckleberries, native trees and rubus. Let it be known that within reason at least, management is possible. It’s visibly demarcated in places like these: this side managed, that side forgotten, or perhaps just inhabited by someone who doesn’t know. I can feel the difference. I wonder sometimes: can someone who doesn’t know the plants, the forest here — can they feel it too? Is it the knowing of the plants, the knowing which ones belong that makes me feel about them the way I do? Or does the forest actually feel different? I can’t go back to the not-knowing to answer this question.

That’s not quite true though. I know the plants here, but there are many places in the world where I don’t. I don’t even have to go very far, really. I visited a friend in Eastern Washington last spring, on the other side of the cascades — an entirely different ecosystem despite only being a two hour drive from Seattle. There were some familiar things: blackberry and scotch broom aside, bigleaf maple and hawthorn trees were there, snowberry bushes and Oregon grape. But new things too: Douglas fir and hemlock trees had given way to ponderosa pines, their needles comically large to someone used to the coastal forest trees. Lupine and arnica plants, blooming. Fewer ferns and mosses than I am used to because the climate is so much drier.

I asked the friends I was there to visit for the names of some of the plants, but they didn’t know. Software does though: there are apps that allow you to upload a photo of a plant, and it will suggest what you’re looking at, or at least some of the most likely options. I did this a few times along our walk, just to have something to hold onto. My friends were patient, but didn’t seem to have any particular interest in what I’d learned, though this place was their home. I wondered if they felt rooted there. I think of all the places I’ve lived before without learning the names of the plants around me. Did I feel rooted? I know there are many parts of feeling rooted in a place, beyond just plants. Memories, communities, history. For plants to not be on that list at all though is such a recent phenomenon in the realm of human time. For so much of our history, to know the plants was a matter of survival.

I am not the first person to find myself just on the other side of the Cascade mountain range and suddenly unaware of what is and should be in the forest there. The Timber Wars podcast by NPR tells the story of environmentalists in the eighties going head to head with foresters over the destruction of the Northern Spotted Owl’s habitat, though the owl was in many ways a stand-in for the forest itself, a way to make a more concrete legal argument for the forest’s preservation. The final episode in the series brings us closer to the present: it tells the story of a group that formed across the aisle to try to develop new logging practices that would allow for continued lumber production while also keeping forests healthy and ecosystems intact. Clear cutting is not the only way, and indeed, humans have been managing forests in North America for millennia, long before European settlers claimed control of land and eradicated the native societies that had been thriving in conjunction with the land for generations. Native Americans used fire and other methods to manage these forests, which have arguably adapted to being managed in that way.

This final episode centers on an environmental lawyer from Western Washington who visits a logger in Eastern Washington, and they actually go for a walk in the forest together. It’s the common tale of two people looking at the exact same thing, but seeing two entirely different things. The environmentalist from Western Washington saw a healthy, thriving forest. The logger from Eastern Washington saw a dense, overgrown, and overcrowded forest, more susceptible to wildfire and pests because of it. It would be easy to assume this difference in viewpoints was because of their different occupations, and therefore different incentives. But it wasn’t. The difference was because of the different forest ecosystems they were each familiar with: it turns out that a healthy native forest in Eastern Washington, with a much more arid climate and with a different makeup of species than their Western Washington counterparts, should look different. Forests in Eastern Washington should be less dense than a forest in the Western part of the state.

All that to say I suppose: there is no one way a forest “should” look, but most of us probably carry preconceived notions of this around with us, either from the forests near where we grew up, or perhaps from a nature documentary or Jurassic Park. But no matter how you feel at first, learning what’s there and what belongs there will almost certainly change this. I have felt this: knowing the names, knowing how peoples, long before my own, used some of these plants to survive and build their cultures: all these things are part of knowing the place as home.

When visitors come to the Pacific Northwest, a frequent refrain is: “It’s so green!” And with a large population of conifer trees that are aptly named evergreen and the nearly perpetual wet fostering a sheen of moss on everything, it is, indeed, green. But I haven’t always known this, exactly. Rather, I remember thinking of other places: “it’s so brown!” Or sometimes red, or blue, or gold: many places have a color, a tint. But it was all relative to the Pacific Northwest, my home, “normal.” Normal is, of course, relative. Everyone has their own baseline and it can shift. It took me several days in Tucson, for example, to realize that Saguaros were beautiful. It was only strange, at first, but as I adjusted, as it became more “normal,” I was able to eventually find the beauty in the sparse, and yes, brown, landscape.

The concept of bioregionalism first surfaced in the 1970’s, but I first heard of it in Jenny Odell’s book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. She documents her own journey of becoming aware of a place, though for her, it was more through birds than plants. She describes bioregionalism as being “first and foremost based on observation and recognition of what grows where, as well as an appreciation for complex web of relationships among those actors. More than observation, it also suggests a way of identifying with place, weaving oneself into a region through observation and responsibility to the local ecosystem.”

This definition feels good to me, safe. It feels like something I can do on my own. I can notice and acknowledge complex relationships, I can try to live responsibly on the land around me. But bioregionalism is more than just a sense of place, of home. It is sometimes called the “politics of place,” and asserts that human communities — their politics, cultures, economies, would be better organized around geography and ecosystems than by the existing somewhat arbitrary, and in most cases dramatically larger, geopolitical boundaries. Under bioregionalism, Seattle and Vancouver, British Colombia would not be in different countries (the concept of a “country” not really meshing with bioregionalism at all), but San Francisco and San Diego might be. As I write this, all passes across the Cascade Mountains, connecting eastern and western Washington are closed due to snow storms, so geographically are our communities separated. Expanding the definition of bioregionalism to include these things makes it a little more complicated, no longer something I can do by myself. By definition, it requires that I build a community on which I rely for my well-being, and which relies on me.

One of the interesting things to me about the idea though is the fluidity of the boundaries, how you couldn’t point to a line in the sand (or soil or rock or sea) and say, “there.” If you get on a plane from Seattle to San Diego, you will know without a doubt that you are somewhere new when you arrive, that the bioregion and the things that make it up have shifted. My mother still tells the story of when we took a tropical vacation somewhere when I was young, maybe five or six years old. The airport was small and the door of the plane opened to a flight of stairs that led to the tarmac. So when I stepped off the plane I froze, and then exclaimed, “Mommy, the wind is warm.” I’d never experienced such a thing before, and without having seen anything at all of the place, I knew that I was somewhere else. Not home. Even children know this without needing to be told.

But if you make the same trip via side roads in a car, the change will be more subtle, and you will only be aware of it by thinking back at the end of the day to what the landscape was at lunch, not a few minutes ago. In a world where the humans are more and more loudly breaking ourselves into different variations of “us” and “them,” I like to think sometimes of the people who live in these places and along the journey to get there. Like a series of overlapping venn diagrams, there is no clear way to say that we are not connected, when we so clearly are. This overlap, the connectedness of the not-so-disparate pieces is important for humanity, but just as important for other living things. Evolution is possible because of migration, because the only constant in life is change. Biodiversity depends on the porosity of our boundaries, and the connections between places.

Local (adj): characterized by or relating to position in space : having a definite spatial form or location

Bioregionalism is not the antithesis of globalism, it’s more like saying “shop local,” which is something people hear and know to mean “when you can,” not “to the exclusion of everything else.” Bioregionalism just defines both shop and local a bit differently — shop meaning: build community, source raw materials, produce, consume, and local meaning your bioregion — something with a definite spatial form and location. Here. Now. But even still: it’s not really an equal opportunity proposition. Resources are more scarce in some regions than others, and people who live in one place think it’s their right to exploit the home of another. As humans have become more technologically advanced, the impacts of our actions have become farther reaching: invasive species and greenhouse gasses don’t stay put. But these technological advances have also allowed us to thrive in places we might not otherwise be able to and allows for the possibility that resources could be spread more equitably — we can consume things that are produced somewhere we do not live.

Anthropologists and other scholars talk of the “homogenization of the world” to mean a cultural homogenization. That humanity has survived as long as it has is due largely to our ability to see the way someone else is accomplishing something better than we knew how, and incorporating that new method into our own lives, thereby increasing our efficiency or chances of survival. In a world of globalization, this has caused different cultures around the world to converge and lose some of their uniqueness, as knowledge and skills and cultural practices are passed back and forth (not always equitably or with consent and respect). This is unequivocally happening, though there is disagreement on whether it is a problem or not, and to what limits it will go — no one really expects us to eventually merge into a single global culture. But there is biotic homogenization at play too. Invasive species spreading around the world and in many cases causing extinctions of other species mean that ecosystems not geographically connected begin to look more like each other over time. An invasive species that is genetically similar to a native one can also interbreed with its native counterpart and eventually wipe out the original, genetically — this is extinction. This reduction in the variety of genetic lineages around the world may also cause fewer new species to evolve, though that is of course harder to quantify: you can’t count something based on its never existing, especially when there are so many species already that we haven’t cataloged yet, or that are disappearing before we know what we’ve lost.

When we lose the ability to differentiate our homes, is something critical to our humanity degraded? What is the value of a sense of home? The author of Out of Eden, a book on invasive species, spoke with someone who was willing to name this, a scientist who was willing to say, yes, this matters, even if it’s hard to quantify: “There’s a loss of the features that allow you to describe where you live. When you characterize where you’re from, you look out your window at the plants and animals, even if you don’t notice them immediately. I think there’s something terribly wrong with the loss of a distinct sense of being. It comes down to: Where is my home?”

This feels critical to me. It’s easy to say that invasive species are bad and biodiversity good because of the impacts on and resilience of an ecosystem, or even the economic impacts. But maybe having a sense of place on which a sense of home can be built also facilitates a sense of community, of reliance on each other. The original proponents of bioregionalism were thinking more broadly than plants, they were thinking of everything economic, cultural, spiritual, and political.

We can’t survive any other way. This is true of even the most ardently committed to self-sufficiency. It’s rare to find someone so far along the spectrum that they grow all of their own fruits and vegetables or produce their own eggs or meat or milk, but even those few who do, also rely on others. Growing plants to harvest the seeds to plant again next spring is a fundamentally different task than growing vegetables to eat this season, and most farmers or gardeners buy their seeds from people dedicated to this task, and for good reason. No more is making the glass or tin necessary to preserve food to get you through the winter something many of us can claim to do at home. Why should self-sufficiency be our aim anyway? Never in human history or prehistory have individuals or nuclear families been self-sufficient. We evolved to hunt and raise children and survive in communities. Living is too complicated, too precarious, to try to do it alone.

I began to wonder recently what percentage of the things we need could be produced and traded within one’s own bioregion. I wonder how much stronger our communities would be, how much less carbon we would emit, if we started where we are, and only procured things from farther afield when we couldn’t get it, or a suitable replacement, closer to home. If we shared a tool we needed sometimes but not all that often with our neighbor instead of buying our own. This necessarily asks us to reconsider our definition of “need.” But it also turns out that even if residents of New York state ate ⅓ less meat than they currently do, the land in the state could produce only 20% of the food the people who live there need to eat to survive. Which means the answer to these questions is, at least in many places: not enough. The world has become too complicated or too full for that level of regionalism, and the efficiencies gained by consolidating production are what have allowed us to support all the people currently alive, but it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition.

Barbara Kingsolver tells the story in her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle of a conversation she had with a gas station attendant in a drought-plagued region: it was supposed to rain the next day, and this person was put out because they wanted to wash their car. No matter that the rain was desperately needed. So even if it’s idealistic to think that we could all grow all of our own food or else buy it at farmers’ markets, maybe we should try anyway. Maybe we wouldn’t change the world and the vegetables would only supplement the ones we buy at the supermarket, not to mention the grains and oils and the spices, but at least we’d meet a farmer. At least when we looked at the weather forecast, the odds would be a little higher that we’d be able to consider things beyond our own need to wash our car or have a picnic. Maybe if we talked to a farmer we’d be a little more comfortable asking our neighbor what they have that we could borrow or share, what we have that they need — barriers to this kind of behavior are more cultural than practical, and meeting the person who pulled your carrot from the dirt would be good practice, a good reminder of the humanity that is behind everything we consume.

As Lauret Savoy writes in her book Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape, “if the health of the land is its capacity for self-renewal, then the health of the human family could, in part, be an intergenerational capacity for locating ourselves within many inheritances: as citizens of the land, of nations even within a nation, and of earth. Democracy lies within ever widening communities.”

How complicated the modern world is, and how interdependent our systems of production and our systems of being are, makes it nearly impossible to truly understand the tradeoffs or what we’ve given up. But I do know ths: In the end, we are all responsible. For and to ourselves of course, but also to each other. Nothing any of us does is done in isolation. As with anything, there’s a difference in knowing this to be true, and feeling this to be true. And the first step to feeling it to be true may well be the simple act of noticing. Noticing what feels different when you go somewhere new. Knowing what you can get from closer to home, from someone in your geographic community, and what we need to range farther afield for. Noticing a new plant, the change of the seasons, how a landscape changes over time and taking the time to wonder why.

Burdick, Alan. Out of Eden: An Odyssey of Ecological Invasion (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2005)

Davis, M., Chew, M., Hobbs, R. et al. Don’t judge species on their origins (Nature 474, 153–154, 2011)

Clancy, Kate; Ruhf Kathryn. Is Local Enough? Some Arguments for Regional Food Systems (Choices, A publication of Agricultural & Applied Economics Association)

Kingsolver, Barbara. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (Harper, 2017)

Lowenstein, Frank. Global Homogenization, Invasives and the Conservancy’s Mission (Conservation Gateway: The Nature Conservancy, 2011)

David B. McDonald, Thomas L. Parchman, Michael R. Bower, Wayne A. Hubert, and Frank J. Rahel, An introduced and a native vertebrate hybridize to form a genetic bridge to a second native species, (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), 2008)

Merriam-Webster, Dictionary, Online 2022

O’Dell Jenny. How to do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (Brooklyn: Melville House Publishing, 2019)

Oregon Public Broadcasting, The Timber Wars

Savoy, Lauret. Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape (Counterpoint, 2015)