What Makes California Different? (The Extreme Mosaic Effect)

As bouillabaisse is to broth, as a zoo is to a cattle ranch . . . If Nevada is a cattle ranch and Oregon is a poultry farm and Arizona is a flock of sheep, the California Floristic Province is a zoo. It may not have any cows or sheep, but it has plenty else.

The California Floristic Province is a fairly sharply defined, discrete, unique geographic entity—in fact it has often been compared in this way to an island. And yet its uniqueness and isolation does not rest on any one feature, . . . or rather, it does—that feature being heterogeneity/diversity.

For example, California is supposed to have something like 500 different soil types, while most other states have fewer than 20. And the same is true of other features, like plant life, and (formerly) human societies and languages. That is not to say that the soils, plants, and native languages of adjacent states are merely a subset of those in California. Quite the other way around; to a very great extent, the soils?, plants, and languages of California are endemic, i.e. found only in California, and likewise many of their counterparts in adjacent states are not to be found in California. This is what makes travel worthwhile. (The CAFP has no true deserts, no rich deciduous forests.)

And the same is true within California; in other words, it’s remarkable diversity is not so much within a given area but between adjacent areas, large expenses of any one soil or vegetation type of (formerly) even language are something very hard to find; this extreme mosaic effect is, if anything, the prime hallmark of California. This kaleidoscopic, natural fragmentation is probably more extreme here than anywhere else in the U.S., and for many of us, it is a large part of what keeps the place so interesting. You can travel farther here in a shorter distance than anywhere. Even if you were never to travel more than a day’s walk from home in any direction, you would have enough “spice of life” near at hand that one lifetime of exploration would not exhaust the supply of novelty. You never have to be bored.

Certainly our predecessors the Indians found plenty of all they needed to feed body and soul within their own little community territories and became so contentedly stable and sedentary that by the time the whites arrived the Indian cultures had evolved and diversified to the point of rivaling and even exceeding the diversity within many other species here.

But the trend ever since has been to homogenize (expand).

It might be an interesting exercise to do a little snooping around your own neighborhood—presuming you can find some land close by that hasn’t been made over by human engineering—and see how many variations you can find along as many lines as possible—or whatever interests you.

For example: landforms, from mima mounds to coastal cliffs to landslides and soil types, and vegetation types, and rock types.

More interesting—and challenging—is trying to reconstruct how all these things got to be the way they are, and how much of it can be attributed to recent, direct or indirect human agency versus purely “natural” processes.

How much of the vegetation in your neighborhood is “native” to the spot, and how much exotic?