Bioregional Denial, or the Great Sycamore Debate of 2014

Tonight I’m a little grouchy. I was just ranting about (1) what I consider the delusional landscaping of the area in which I live and (2) my frustrated search for affordable bones from pastured animals for making soup stock.

The sycamore has become the symbol of what I think of as the local Bioregional Denial. All over town there are American sycamores (Platanus occidentalis). (This is similar to the London plane tree for you Brits.) They are all sort of stunted and miserable looking; their leaves wither and fall off all through the year. I know trees drop leaves all the time but we are talking autumnal levels of leaf debris here. I get very angry looking at these poor unhappy trees in the middle of lush, useless lawns which, through no fault of theirs, are guzzling too much of our already crtically low water supply. My mother, the victim of my rant, said (mainly just to be contrary to my contrariness) that she likes a nice sycamore tree. (As do I–in its proper environment.)

P. occidentalis, the American sycamore (a healthy specimen)

P. occidentalis, the American sycamore (a healthy specimen)

Climatically, this is a transition zone between arid Mediterranean-like chaparral and the Sonoran desert zone. Platanus occidentalis does not grow here naturally and clearly doesn’t thrive when imported. And yet there is a local species, the California or Western sycamore (P. racemosa), which is beautiful, drought tolerant, and suitable for urban landscaping. (My mother said the California sycamore must be short and ugly like a valley oak. This is how I can tell she’s just being ornery, because live oaks are gorgeous! Anyway I’ll let you be the judge but I think California sycamores are plenty attractive enough for urban parks and yards.) I cannot grasp, and believe me I’ve tried, the mindset of a person who would settle in Arizona and then attempt to turn it into Ohio. If you want the environment to look lush and verdant, then live where it rains a lot! This is Bioregional Denial–the inability to accept the place you live for what it is.

P. racemosa, the California sycamore, in an urban setting

P. racemosa, the California sycamore, in an urban setting

The sculptural beauty of a valley oak (Quercus lobata).

The sculptural beauty of a valley oak (Quercus lobata).

In a way, I’m guilty of it too. I’ve already expressed my inability to get in touch with this place. I was thinking it was down to the fact that I just don’t like arid environments at all. But I’m starting to think that it may be, at least in part, because of the pervading Bioregional Denial. It’s confusing when a place is wearing a veneer of another place.

And that brings me around to the second source of my irritation.

One thing that bugs me about one-diet-fits-all (or one-herb-fits-all) claims is that not only does it not recognize differences between individuals but it also overlooks differences between bioregions and what is available there. I completely understand the motivation, when a diet or other health regimen has worked for you, to want to share it with everybody else. It’s a laudable instinct, really–I mean, people are just trying to help. I get that. I do it too.

I wrote about my archaeologist’s view of the paleo diet recently. (Summary: It’s not really ancient at all, and it’s not the end-all-be-all, but if you can afford to do it it’s probably pretty good for you.) Another thing I perhaps should have pointed out then is that the affordability and viability of any paleo, whole foods, organic, or local diet varies according to where you live.

I lived for about a decade in Minnesota. Over time I really grew to love the place, even though my friends from California think it is insane to love any place with six months of snow. And I admit, that wasn’t my favorite part, especially when nursing the bruises resulting from each year’s Annual Black Ice Slip ‘n’ Fall. But I digress. My point is that if you want to go paleo/organic/whole foods, Minneapolis/St. Paul is actually a great place to do it. In the winter your produce won’t be local of course, but you can still get oragnic foods at the plethora of independent co-ops and you will have affordable pastured meat and dairy coming out your ears. Game meats, if you’re into that, are also plentiful and indeed one of the traits I found most charming among ‘Sotans is the surprisingly (to me) large number of people who will happily collect and eat road kill.  Well, if it’s a deer or a goose or something. And, you know, if it’s fresh. I assume.

In general, the western US is a bigger market for organic foods that the central, southern, or eastern regions (source), but here’s the thing–the western US also includes the desert Southwest. And–crazy, I know–deserts are generally not big food-producing regions. So they are not good places to try and find organic produce or pastured meats or dairy if you are low- or even middle-income. You can get some of them shipped, but the cost is very high–way too high to make paleo or fully-organic diets really feasible, I would think. I mean I’m sure many people manage it but I know they aren’t living on minimum wage. An organic vegan diet might be more doable, I’ve never tried it, but even then it’s going to be relatively pricey.

Bioregions of North America

Bioregions of North America

This has nothing to do with whether these diets are good for you, or whether your individual health and ethics warrant such a regimen. There are a lot of intertwined issues here including wealth inequality, food production practices, and what I think of as nutritional anthropology (not sure if that’s actually a thing–somebody should get on that–what I mean is the cultural patterns of what is deemed healthy and nourishing and what’s not). But if we were truly paleo, we would be eating regionally-specific local diets, something we in the industrialized world really can’t do these days, in large part because we’ve totally destroyed/disguised our bioregions. I would have to drive 70+ miles to get to a place where I could forage (there are some urban parks which are closer where a few things could be gathered but not significant amounts of anything) and the only wild animals I’ve seen here are a couple squirrels (each sighting about a year apart), a handful of possums, two mice, and a coyote a couple years ago. This is the extent to which our Bioregional Denial has displaced us.

I can’t help but wonder what else we have displaced; or if we haven’t displaced them, what has happened to them? As far as I’m aware, every culture in the world except for modern scientific materialists perceives, or used to perceive, their land to be inhabited by a community of other-than-human beings–animals, plants, stones, spirits, ancestors… What happens to them when their land, their place, is covered with a pastiche of alien suburbia? How do they feel about this bioregional masquerade?


2 thoughts on “Bioregional Denial, or the Great Sycamore Debate of 2014

  1. Excellent post. I appreciate it greatly for two reasons:
    1. I share the frustration you express. It galls me considerably that folks who move away from a particular bioregion because of some element they no longer wish to tolerate (usually something related to cold weather) insist on having the same landscapes and/or yards they left behind (which just don’t work well). As you state, often this requires far more water than is naturally available in the new bioregion. The Southwest is full of such examples – Phoenix yards with lawns, cotton growing in Arizona, etc., etc.
    2. You’ve reminded me why I continue to remain in Western New York State (core of Laurentia). We are blessed with many small family farms supported by a particularly strong local foods movement that has grown enormously over the past 10 years. With a little research and planning, It allows me to source over 90% of my food locally year-round, including organic crops and meat. And, let’s not forget that the beautiful American Sycamore thrives here and is quite tolerant of the many pressures put upon it by humans (road salt) and nature (little damage under heavy, wet snow – a common occurrence during early Winter lake-effect storms.

    Thanks for sharing your frustrations. Perhaps you can influence your end of the country to think and act bioregionally while here in the Buffalo metro region, I attempt to teach folks how to appreciate the many gifts we have, a tougher job this year after a record cold Winter. Keep up the good work!

    • Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts. I’m glad to hear that the local foods movement is doing so well in your part of the country–I think it could ultimately do ok here but there is a lot of education to be done first, I suspect. But in the meantime your comment is making me consider new ways to actually DO something in addition to venting my frustrations!

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