The pioneers of this grand state often have their feelings brought to arms by the sneering remark of new comers, who term us 'mossbacks.' They tell us how things should be done, and how they are done 'back east.' Sometimes I feel like telling them to go 'back east' and be blessed. The pioneers that laid the foundation for the greatest state in the Union may not just suit the fancy of a 'down-easter,' but beneath the perhaps rough, uncouth clothing, there beats as true, kind, and loyal a heart as has ever been imported on a palace car.Another was Martha Ellis, a veteran of the Oregon Trail in 1852 and early resident of Puget Sound country: "Gradually the settlers recovered from the effects of the [1855 Indian] war and have done their best to help the development of their chosen state. Yet the new comers call them 'moss-backs.' I wonder how much more they could have done, with the same hardships to contend with, as the old pioneer." The pioneers believed they had earned their right to be here; it was that hard work and sacrifice that gave them the privilege to enjoy the Northwest's bounty. But they could not turn back the tide of change and new generations. Their feeling of being put upon and displaced by newcomers is still alive today. Growth has made native and longtime Northwesterners feel uneasy. The late Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer columnist Emmett Watson touted the virtues of "Lesser Seattle," an imaginary group with the sole purpose of "keeping the bastards out." In 1960s Oregon, Oregonian writer and author Holbrook was chief spokesperson for the James G. Blaine Society, a group that existed mostly as bumper stickers and buttons but was dedicated to fending off prospective newcomers. Though semi-tongue-in-cheek, such groups and their virtual followers embody attitudes that drive the local business lobby crazy. The growth-is-good crowd is quick to blame local not-in-my-backyard types when anything gets off-track. Republican legislators in Washington howled when Boeing announced that it was moving the corporate headquarters, saying selfish NIMBYs (read mossbacks) were responsible for ruining the local business climate. The fact that Boeing's decisions were being driven by, say, globalization had nothing to do with it, of course. Today, some developers have gotten a little savvier. They claim, for example, that building skyscrapers and condo towers is in fact good for the environment. They find that a green-washed message goes down a little easier. Never, of course, do they question growth itself. It is an inevitable tsunami, they say. Today's mossbacks take things in stride. While they are no longer pioneers or necessarily even sons and daughters of pioneers, they are people who believe that what makes this region exceptional is not the boom-time-hype of snake-oil salesfolk who tout growth as a good in itself, but rather people who put their faith in a more humble and unaffected quality of life. They respect the land and think newcomer pretensions are better left where they came from. They would also say that we now have traditions and habits of life and settlement that ought to be respected rather than run over. Modern mossbacks — still sneered at by many newcomers and outsiders — are not people who have settled the country but people who have been settled by it. We've been here long enough to put down roots and become part of the modern landscape. Mossback is an epithet to embrace with pride. The mossback spirit is captured in a song that first appeared in the Olympia Standard in 1877. The quirky Seattle restaurateur/folksinger Ivar Haglund learned it from his pals Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie; he played it on his radio show back in the 1940s and on TV commercials in the 1960s; he even named his flagship restaurant after it, "Acres of Clams," which is the alternate title of the song. The original title is "The Old Settler," and it records a pioneer's decision to give up the thankless hard work of the mines to eventually find true happiness on Puget Sound. The last verses capture attitudes that can still be recognized "natives" to this day.
I took up a claim in the forest And sat myself down to hard toil; For two years I chopped and I struggled; But I never got down to the soil.In just these four verses you have the classic mossback experience. A newcomer gets a foothold here, doing whatever it takes to stay. But by hanging on when the going gets tough, he finds that the magic and beauty of the place are irresistible. Now he can abandon traditional material values — gaining his freedom from the chains of ambition. He has discovered that the everyday world is a sham. The secret of happiness lies in letting go, getting mellow, and enjoying nature's bounty. Fulfillment is found through simplicity in this rain-nourished land. Or as Seattle historian Murray Morgan once put it, we see this as "a place to live rather than a place to make income from." Puget Sound is a slacker utopia attainable only by hard-work and sacrifice. If you want something else, there's always California or New York. The "Old Settler" also captures the conflict between old-timer and newcomer by raising the issue we still live with: Most of us came here as a result of unprecedented growth. That growth — including immigration — continues unabated. It threatens our quality of life and our mossback status. In a land of newcomers, the old-timers eventually are overwhelmed and marginalized. The song also hints at a kind of insecurity that comes from leaving the status quo behind. We desire the respect, even the adoration of an outside world that we've rejected. Yet by seeking validation, we jeopardize what we love by attracting new waves of immigrants and seekers, some of whom are openly exploitive. If people believe in our land's virtues, too many will come and Eden will be overrun; if they come and find us wanting, we are angered by their arrogant outsider ways. We'd rather be worshipped from a safe distance. I think this insecurity stems in part from what we're doing to the land. We carry a collective guilt about the way we've chosen to live in the Northwest, from nearly eradicating the native peoples to poisoning Puget Sound. Even the original settlers arrived with a mixed sense of awe and mission. The settler's job, as John Quincy Adams once said, was "to make the wilderness blossom as the rose." But in retrospect, we wonder: Did we make the land blossom, or did we spoil the garden? As we have seen the forests vanish and salmon stocks dwindle, we feel anger at what is happening, and a helplessness to prevent it. For any mossback, even one who has been here only a decade or so, it's easy to see the degradation of the environment and quality of life. We brood on the fact that our mode of living — our technology, our economy, our greed — have trapped us in a cycle that seems destined to destroy what we love because we love it. That is the mossback dilemma. But there is a way to respond. One is to take pride in place. Another is to recognize a sense of stewardship for land, nature, community, and history. Yet another is to try to cut through the hype that sells us stuff we don't need in the currency of our own insecurity.
I tried to get out of the country, But poverty forced me to stay; Until I became an old settler, Then nothing could drive me away.
No longer a slave to ambition, I laugh at the world and its shams, As I think of my present condition Surrounded by acres of clams.
And now that I'm used to the climate, I think that if ever man found A spot to live easy and happy, That Eden is on Puget Sound.
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