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The Cascadian Dream

Can a Pacific Northwest utopia be shaped on the shared belief that nature is sacred? This latest installment in a series on regional identity looks at the patron saint of the environmental movement, John Muir, and how his thinking informs the desire for a new, greener, and elusive entity some call Cascadia.
John Muir, in the mountains he loved

John Muir, in the mountains he loved Library of Congress

It's a perfect place for a Northwest lesson in spirituality. We're in Seattle's Town Hall, a former church-turned-civic-space. On stage is Lee Stetson, an actor who's made a career out of channeling the spirit of John Muir. For decades, he's brought to life the man who preached the gospel of the sacred wilderness.

Like Muir, Stetson's got the long white beard, the twinkling eyes, an accent mingling Muir's native Scottish burr with the Westernisms of a son of the Sierra. As background, the audience has been treated to a snippet previewing the (Fall, 2009) latest PBS documentary series from Ken Burns, "The National Parks: America's Best Idea."

Stetson takes the stage, a friendly ghost called by our presence. He begins by talking about man's relationship with nature preserves. The first, he says, was the Garden of Eden, where a man and a woman and Satan tangled over a single tree. Muir, the father of the modern environmental movement, fought to create new Edens called National Parks, and to raise public consciousness about our wild lands and their importance to our spiritual lives. He called the Sierra a "holy wilderness" and likened himself to John the Baptist eager to immerse all of us "in the beauty of God's mountains."

Nowhere have those lessons rooted deeper than here in the Pacific Northwest, or Cascadia as some call it, a region that was rapidly populated in the decades when Muir's message was new and resonant. The gospel of Muir comes to many of us with mother's milk, or with school chalkboards and lesson plans. I attended John Muir Elementary School in Seattle's Mount Baker neighborhood. So did my father who remembered that in the 1920s, not so long after Muir's death in 1914, the students each year conducted a pageant commemorating Muir. A young girl would be chosen to embody Nature and she'd be surrounded by classmates under a large white sheet representing one of the flowing glaciers that naturalist Muir made famous.

From early nature worshippers like the Mountaineers to outdoor curmudgeons like the late Harvey Manning to the latter-day salesmen who tout British Columbia as "Super Natural," or Seattle as "Metronatural," the strains of Muir are heard throughout our public expressions of values and place. We believe in the towering transformative power of life lived in the shadow of nature's grandeur, that it connects us with something larger than ourselves, be it truth, beauty, love, Mother Earth, the cosmos, or God.

Muir wasn't the first white man to find the sacred in nature, but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he articulated a form of what we now know as environmentalism that was secular, yet powerfully spiritual. Writes University of Southern Oregon history professor Mark Shibley:

The prototypical religious experience of nature in the American West is the mountain epiphany, embodied in the adventures of John Muir....

Muir's romantic experience of the landscape as welcome ecstasy helped transform public perceptions of frontier wilderness in the late 19th century. His public testimony was pivotal in turning America's Christian impulse to subjugate godless nature to the celebration of God in nature, an ethos that pervades Cascadia.

In that context, Muir was indeed a character of biblical proportions, larger than life, the first green superhero. He could hop mighty crevasses, survive for days with no shelter with just a little stale bread to nourish him. He lived through tempests in treetops, rode an avalanche down a mountain, had a tolerance of suffering and a boundless energy that make many of his exploits unrepeatable. He inspires by example, even if most of us cannot literally follow in his footsteps. We look at the glow of sunrise on the Cascades or the sunset on the Olympics and share his ecstatic experience.

In his new Muir biography, A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir, historian Donald Worster traces the evolution of Muir's thoughts about the wilds and his spiritual impulses. Son of a fundamentalist father, a charismatic Cambellite New Testament Bible thumper, Muir escaped the oppressiveness of his father's Scot's Calvinism yet replaced it with a version of his own that still had it origins in America's Protestant values. Elsewhere, Worster has written that the lineage of Muir's thinking runs thusly: "From [Jonathan] Edwards to Emerson to Thoreau and then on to John Muir, Rachel Carson, William Douglas, and David Brower." He took old-time religion, married it with nature, made God optional, and turned environmentalism into what Shibley calls Cascadia's "folk religion." A secular faith that even atheists can embrace.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Apr 9, 8 a.m. Inappropriate

Knute,
I gave up on planning for a Cascadia decades ago when I watched the myriad of cities being created as well as the thousands of other districts, none of which coincide with others boundaries. What a mess. And all base on self interest and control.
So I now think we need to go beyond Cascadia and talk about regional planning based on long term survival. That is, a region, in the event of a disaster of mega porportions, has to be able to support itself with food, water, openspace, clean air and water and other natural systems.

We've seen what can happen with some minor/transient shocks like truck strikes, when food cannot get to us as fast as we consume it. We've seen climatic conditions change the way we communicate and travel. These are tiny compared to what awaits us, thanks to mother nature.
So, I propose that, as a federal concern, the nation be turned into survivable regions that overlay existing political boundries and districts and mandate a survival stragety that guarrentees long term survivability through self sutaining uses and behavior. By tying this requirement to life and death issues, we should be able to plan for cointinued existance rasther than the abstract and artificial system we have now.
I'm no the one to put the meat on these bones of Regionalism, but this type of planning has to supercede capitalistic tendncies and focus on the reality that in a time of challenge, we should be able to take care of ourselves.

Anyone who thinks this idea has merit, speak up. If you think it's not feasible, try to come up with another plan that addesses our sustainablility.

Art

Posted Fri, Apr 10, 6:32 a.m. Inappropriate

Ok Art, You want to create survivo-regions, something only possible with total gov authority, so we can become independent and self-sufficient?

Posted Fri, Apr 10, 10:15 a.m. Inappropriate

Hello Knute,
It is safe to say you "get" this region, including its culture and mindset, like few others.
I appreciate the way you think for yourself while dealing respectfully, insightfully and passionately with the themes we explore in Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia.
I suspect your readers will enjoy pursuing the topics in the book further at the April 22 conference at Pacific Lutheran University.
Thanks again for an amazing, probing piece of commentary.
Douglas Todd
www.vancouversun.com/thesearch

DTodd

Posted Fri, Apr 10, 10:18 a.m. Inappropriate

There is much food for thought in the piece on Muir and Cascadia. One paragraph stuck with me. Quote from Bergers piece.

“But Ecotopia's greatest virtue was that it was imaginary, a thought experiment, not a manifesto. Cascadia and Ecotopia, are great concepts to kick around, but to bring them to reality leads down the path, as Wells warns, to "moral absolutism." The fact that the Northwest is idealistic is a plus; that it is also wired to short-circuit utopianism is something of a comfort. Despite the widespread acceptance that nature is good and that we're spiritually uplifted by it, we haven't yet become secular fundamentalists. We're still an ecosystem that supports free spirits.”

As I see it the greatest danger to our well being is from moral absolutism not anything mother nature throws at us. It may be my imagination, but there seem to be a growing number of groups or organizations formed around how they feel we should all live our lives. A manifesto. They all insist their Kool Aid tastes best. While there are some issues like transportation power distribution water supplies etc. that appear easier to plan or organize regionally, they all create systems that make us totally dependent on the State. The dependent citizen has fewer choices. Jefferson foresaw the dangers of too much government as I suspect did Muir.
In a book called “The Vermont Papers” “reinventing democracy on a human scale” it clearly pointed to the serious problems in Vermont when the State or county snatched so much decision-making from local communities.

KK

Posted Fri, Apr 10, 8:21 p.m. Inappropriate

Religious fundamentalism, even in the guise of environmental sustainability, is as destructive to the human spirit, as any other utopian dogma, which subjects humans to an absolutist creed. I recommend that people read Thomas More’s original Utopia, to begin to grasp the horrors of total subjugation. Fascinating and well-meaning utopian settlement experiments throughout history have all died on the alter of absolute destruction of the individual.
Sacred is a dangerous word, and has meaning only in the context of ultimate authority which defines and enforces what is sacred. Nor should “sustainability” be elevated to a sacred text, but rather be treated as a set of realistic practices that enable both human society and the environment to maintain mutual integrity.
The natural environment of the Pacific Northwest is wondrous. Our region is relatively spacious by world standards, and out population is likely to double, from 12 to 24 million in the next 50 years, whether we like it or not. In the face of such inescapable pressure, the rational response is to ask ourselves what out there is so special (not sacred, but inspirational, renewing, or unique in the array of landscapes) that we must preserve it, by the only honest and safe way, by buying it, just as we have for most national park system additions in the last century. And while national parks may be one of America’s finest innovations, our so far enduring contribution to civilization has been a social system which respects both individual and communal rights, and explicitly rejects both a political or religious absolute authority.
Richard Morrill

DMorrill

Posted Sat, Apr 11, 9:06 a.m. Inappropriate

Here's a comment from local historian Junius Rochester, sent to the editor:

Your Cascadia is different than mine. When I speak of Cascadia it is confined to the western slope of the Cascade Mountains and extends from (perhaps) Northern California to the Alaska panhandle. In other words it comprises the green and lush slope facing the Pacific.

An aspect of Muir that can be embellished: his religious background provided both a knowledge of the Bible and the cadence of Biblical verse. His books, especially "Travels in Alaska," are replete with sing-song, soaring,inspirational-type phrases. I think his talent for words helped focus a great deal of interest on his conservationism (which was really preservationism - he didn't want mankind to touch anything) and other ideas. The early 19th century show-cased thousands of camp meetings, revivals, religious leaders (and kooks), all of which benefited Muir's work.

--Junius Rochester

Posted Sat, Apr 11, 11:47 p.m. Inappropriate

Dick (& Art),
" In the face of such inescapable pressure, the rational response is to ask ourselves what out there is so special (not sacred, but inspirational, renewing, or unique in the array of landscapes) that we must preserve it, by the only honest and safe way, by buying it, just as we have for most national park system additions in the last century."

I have been voting with our spare dollars: PCC Farmland Trust.

afreeman

Posted Fri, Apr 17, 9:23 a.m. Inappropriate

skip knute olson berger, cities are unhealthy. several generations of city life have essentially erased the sense of the natural world for city dwellers. national parks are becoming city parks. the internet is life. i was elected to the regional exec commitee of the sierra club in 1969. i was blessed to play football with dave brower, have wild blackberry pancakes with mardy murie at her home in jackson hole, and, at the first conference on wild rivers, hear ed abbey leap up on a lunch table and yell at us "backpack, climb mountains, run rivers, we'll outlive the bastards." my experience in those years taught me that the soul of the u.s. was in a religion of money and cities. so i began to move to smaller and smaller places. today i've lived on a small rural island for 28 years. many of my neighbors and i know that john muir meant well but the euro-christian ethos doesn't understand wilderness, that the earth isn't a religious experience, it's life, with great peotic beauty, to be sure. recently i was talking with a coast salish elder and asked him about the growing population of the earth and the predominance of the male culture for individual and collective violence. i asked him "if tragedy happens how will your people survive?" he looked at me and smiled. "we know how to survive here. you intruders don't."

lipotufu

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