How Well Do You Know Your Own Bioregion?

A 20-question quiz may reveal gaps in your knowledge—and spur more learning.

young girl sits by a flowing river

Xurxo Lobato / Getty Images

My favorite weekly newsletter is written by Rob Walker. It's called "The Art of Noticing," which is also the title of his 2019 book. Today, when I opened the latest newsletter, a list of questions caught my eye. Titled "Where You At? A Bioregional Quiz," there were a number of questions aimed at testing the reader's knowledge of their natural surroundings. These struck me as difficult and baffling questions, such as "Name five resident and five migratory birds in your area" and "From what direction do winter storms generally come in your region?"

I dug a bit deeper and found out that the original quiz, comprised of 20 questions, was part of an article for the scientific journal Coevolution Quarterly, published in the winter of 1981. Authors Leonard Charles, Jim Dodge, Lynn Milliman, and Victoria Stockley are credited with creating the first "bioregion audit"—a template that's since been copied by numerous others.

A bioregion, for those unfamiliar with the term, refers to land or water that's defined by ecological systems, rather than physical boundaries. It is a cultural concept that includes people, recognizing them as integral players in a region's life.

As I studied the full quiz, I grew increasingly distressed by my lack of good answers. I've always thought of myself as being in touch with my natural surroundings. I spend a fair amount of time outside (or so I thought), but there are clear, significant gaps in my basic factual knowledge about the bioregion I inhabit. Why am I so woefully uninformed? Is it because I was never taught, or have I failed to teach myself?

It got me thinking about the things we choose to teach children and the things we do not. None of what I know about the natural world in my corner of Ontario, Canada, came from school, at least not to my recollection. What I know came from hours spent observing things on my own, from getting hauled on guided nature walks by my parents, from visiting provincial parks with particularly engaging exhibits, from paddling a canoe around the lake I lived on, from trudging out a mile-long dirt road to catch the school bus every day. 

Some of my knowledge was gleaned from my dad, who always tracked the daily winter temperature lows on his calendar and told us kids when it was (and wasn't) safe to walk on the frozen lake. Some came from my mom, who taught me to observe snow fleas—tiny black specks congregating in snowy footsteps—as a sign that spring is coming.

cutting holes in frozen lake

Katherine Martinko

Meanwhile, schools spend much time and effort educating kids about faraway places. My children have done research projects on tigers, emerald cockroach wasps, aardvarks, and Rio de Janeiro's harbor. They don't know nearly as much about chipmunks, trout, pine trees, and the geography of the Canadian Shield. They can name capitals of African nations, but I suspect they'd struggle to name the trees we see on our favorite path, and they certainly cannot identify the current phase of the moon. (This is getting better, now that they're enrolled in a weekly forest school.)

It makes me sad. We should spend less time romanticizing the flora and fauna of exotic foreign landscapes and more time getting to know our own backyards—because that is, after all, where we spend the most time. Naming is a powerful tool. It leads to recognition and appreciation, which in turns stimulates a feeling of belonging, of ownership, and ultimately, of protectiveness. We must know things in order to love and defend them.

The bioregionalism quiz is a valuable exercise for all, but it should be taken well beyond the initial reading. It should, as Walker suggests in his newsletter, be a departure point for further learning. He writes, "It gave me an idea: Pick one of the questions you don’t know the answer to—and make it a point to learn what that answer is. After you’ve mastered that, move on to a new question." Get guidebooks. Ask more experienced naturalists to take you out. Use Google. Go outside with all your senses alert. Put in the hours.

The list of 20 questions can become your syllabus. Let it guide your curiosity, either as an individual or as a family, and help you to expand your knowledge of the "life support" systems that enable your existence in a particular place. You may find that home suddenly becomes more exciting, and definitely less lonely. You may even be less inclined to leave it for more exotic climes.

You may find, like author Jenny Odell in "How to Do Nothing," that tuning in to one's bioregion is at first disorienting, but ultimately fulfilling. (Walker also referenced Odell, which sent me scrambling for her book, which I enjoyed greatly.) She writes, "I began to notice animal communities, plant communities, animal-plant communities; mountain ranges, fault lines, watersheds... Once again, I was met with the uncanny knowledge that these had all been here before, yet they had been invisible to me in previous renderings of my reality."

You can see the full list of 20 questions here, but I will share my five favorites:

  • What soil series are you standing on?
  • What were the primary subsistence techniques of the culture that lived in your area before you?
  • When do the deer rut in your region, and when are the young born? 
  • From where you're reading this, point north.
  • What spring wildflower is consistently among the first to bloom where you live?

I'm curious to know how Treehugger's readers do on the quiz. Feel free to leave comments below.

View Article Sources
  1. Peter Berg, "What Is Bioregionalism?" Cascadia Now.