More (First) About What is California

To an inveterate analyzer-categorizer-reshuffler? like me, the simple (?) question as to just exactly what it is, is one of the most endlessly fascinatingly, frustratingly elusive questions about the place we call California, a question that sends you down a rabbit hole from which many have never emerged. To be more specific, the question I am talking about, just for starters, is what are the boundaries of California, in other words what bits of territory qualify as Californian and what bits don’t. 

Providing, of course, that you don’t probe it very deeply, the question seems so simple as to hardly merit asking. Anybody knows, either from a map or from intuition, what California is. But—and here waits the nearest entrance to the rabbit hole—by introducing the possibility of two options, i.e., map or intuition, you have already begun to dither, to feel that little uneasy itch that tells you you could be in for more of a ride than you bargained for. And then, even the one option of intuition automatically implies a potential infinitude of different intuitions, both human ones and the more down-to-earth intuitions of all the other living creatures inhabiting the place. I refer here only to those creatures which are incontestably Californian species of creatures, each of which has voted with its feet to define its own version of California simply by where it lives or not so simply . . .

[Continue to explore possibilities, alternatives, concepts]


  • Botanists use California Floristic Province concept. Boundaries based on vegetation, like most others, are most certain in the middle and most problematic and difficult to decide on around the edges.
  • Climates? Sunset Zones
  • A starting point that few would argue with is to start by defining the center of California as the Great Valley, the single great topographic feature that the state appears quite clearly to be built around (the “bathtub” model) will be ours for the purpose of this book. But, a legitimate alternative model could use the coastline or possible the entire Coast Range block . . . or only the Inner Coast Ranges?

[Randy, what does this follow from?]

“accretionary” process of tacking on outlying regions to the center (here the GV) until you get to the point where the decision becomes 50/50 or less as to whether or not to include. Do you stop at the Sierra foothills or continue to the crest? Or beyond to the east base? Do you include the Southern California portion? The Northwestern portion? (Discuss each at length later)

When you get to the transmontane deserts and Great Basin few would claim you are still in California. But what about northward, say to the Willamette Valley and Columbia River? A good number of  “California” plants and animals call these places home. Or how about even north to Puget Sound and Vancouver Island? There are plenty of true Californian species that extend even this far north, although very few if any beyond this point.

So then, do you give up fixed boundaries and call a place by its degree of Cal-ness? The degree of course would depend on which part of California you define as the center, and is the “center” a single point? (If so, I would probably vote for Mt. Diablo.) Or, is it a line? (If so, I would vote for the coastline from about Santa Barbara to about Point Arena?) Or, is it a three-dimensional patch of land? (If so I’m voting for the Great Valley, but the Inner coast Ranges would run a close second.)

The Californian-ness of any particular spot would have to be measured by how far its climate and flora and fauna, etc. diverged from those of whichever of the possible “center” is used as the standard.

Fascinating idea to follow up: degrees of California endemism in each possible “center”? And, is there a place where endemism is 100%, i.e. totally Californian? This really is a rabbit hole. 

Wouldn’t it be interesting to construct a map not of California, but of California-ness, with isobars showing percent of endemism! California as shades of gray! And this of course implies defining neighboring non-Californias, possibly Pacific Northwest, Great Basin, and Deserts. Are there any outlying areas of endemism to compare with California?