The Main Ecological Regions of California

In contrast to other parts of North America --- The Arctic Tundra, the Great Plains, the Prairie Lands, the Eastern Woodlands, etc. --- California is a rather small region with extraordinary geographical diversity. The combination of an ocean coastline, coastal mountains of moderate elevations, interior valleys, the great Sierra Nevada and Cascade Mountains, and both high and low deserts, provided diverse habitats for a multitude of flora and fauna. Contrast, for instance, the habitats provides by the Salinas Valley, along the central coastline, and the Coachella Valley, in the southern interior. The Salinas River runs into the Pacific Ocean at Monterey Bay; the Valley floor is dark colored soil enriched by long-term decomposition of plant materials; hillsides are covered with grasses and oaks; the climate is moderate in temperature and higher in moisture content and retention. In the Coachella Valley, we find sandy desert terrain; surface waters percolate into underground aquifers and move toward the Salton Sea, which has no outlet; plantlife is sparce, though the trained eye will see mesquites, agaves, creosote, and various seed-bearing plants; the climate is very hot and dry to an extreme. By no surprise, the kinds of animals we will see in these two valleys are very different from each other.

The ways in which plant and animal communities co-inhabit geographically distinct environments are studied in ecology. The principal strategy in ecology is recognition that everything is interdependent. Each element of an environment has need for nourishment and appropriates other elements of the environment for its growth and survival. In exchange, every element of an environment contributes something back to the interdependent complex. For example, mice appropriate and consume a wide variety of plant materials; but mice also provide food for snakes and hawks. [See Links to Ecology, The California Environmental Resources Evaluation System - CERES, or The Evergreen Foundation, in Canada.]

Another way of recognizing California's diversity, then, is to examine its geographically distinct regions from the point of view of ecology. This is, of course, an impossibly complicated task; the whole state could be divided into innumerable micro-ecological niches. Even along the Pacific Coast, where there is general similarity from north to south, there are quite different ecosystems to be observed, offering different species of flora and fauna to be studied. In this overview of California, we offer only six ecologically distinct regions, though two of these are subdivided.

What makes these ecological regions interesting to a study of California's Native people is that early humans entered into the natural balance of flora and fauna cooperatively. Thus, as human lifeways developed, they acquired distinctive characteristics that bear important relations to the ecological niches in which they lived. The intimate relationship between culture and ecology, indeed, must have kept people focused on their traditional homelands and inhibited most tendencies toward expansion. In California, life became so environmentally focused that many more than one hundred different tibes and tribelets were well established by the 18th Century, when Europeans first began to explore the region.

In contrast, European economic and technological developments, as early as the 15th Century, had stimulated considerable interest in exploration of the world and European nations were already aggressively expansive. As the industrial nations developed out of these European origins in the 19th and 20th Centuries, the character of human ecology changed dramatically. Americans, today, demand more-and-more of their environments and contribute back less-and-less. Americans are so dominant, indeed, that their environments are "human built" rather than "natural." The ecology of any American environment, today, must contend with the human, first, as the major factor in determining the conditions of all other fauna and the flora. Because of this, most of California has changed in dramatic ways and in just a very short period of time. The changes can be seen everywhere; but nowhere are they more significant than in the state's Great Central Valley. In his diaries, John Muir wrote about walking through the San Joaquin Valley in spring, finding the valley floor so lush in wildflowers that one could not step without taking some toll of plants and flowers. Around the southern end of San Joaquin Valley, there were large lakes, marshlands, and extensive deltas; tules grew twelve feet high. But no one driving along Interstate 5, today, could possibly even imagine this.

The ecology of natural environments is diverse; it is a trait of modern human environments that they tend away from diversity toward uniformity. Modern humans try to do the same thing wherever they go! Thus, people who lived cooperatively within natural environments developed lifeways that were compatible; and this meant that human cultures were equally diverse. The influence of ecology was usually supreme. For example, the tribes of the California's northwest coast and neighboring interior valleys spoke different languages that belonged to quite different language families and that indicate different geographical origins in remote time. However, the cultural traditions of these tribes --- housing, food utilization, costuming, narratives, spiritualism --- are strongly similar if not, in fact, the same. Long exposure to the same environment seems to have been the greatest influence in shaping their cultural life.

Another interesting example, is the case of the Cahuilla, of Southern California. In their case, the ecologies of local environments seem to have caused a group of people with common origins and cultural coherence to spread out across several ecologically different environments! They inhabited the desert floor of Coachella Valley as well as the San Jacinto and Santa Rosa Mountains and the adjacent interior valleys and mountain passes to the west. They undoubtedly improved their situation, in this way, since any one of these ecological regions could be seasonally unreliable and food was usually sparce in any of them. While the Cahuilla lived far apart, their cultural traditions provided many ritual opportunities through which food and other resources could be shared all around.

In the maps that follow, each of the major ecological regions has been highlighted in color and sub-regions, where they exist, have been labeled. There is a brief description of each region accompanying the map. For increased detail, you can click on the map for a larger version.

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