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.
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John Muir, in the mountains he loved

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.

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.

That spiritual and environmental ethos is explored in a recent book, Cascadia, the Elusive Utopia: Exploring the Spirit of the Pacific Northwest. Edited by Vancouver Sun writer, Douglas Todd, the book is a collection of essays by writers and academics that examine the concept of Cascadia, here defined as Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia. How does our "folk religion" inform our vision of the future?

Todd writes the Sun's blog "The Search," a lively forum for thought and debate on Northwest religious, spiritual, and values issues. The premise of the book is to explore the make-up of our unique secular/religious character and how it is expressed in our political culture, civic life, our hopes and dreams for the region. The Northwest is notoriously unchurched. Two-thirds of us do not attend church regularly and many are so-called Nones, people who pick "None of the above" when asked to state a religious preference. If Muir and his descendants express our deepest values, what are we?

It depends on which Cascadia you're talking about. There's the "bioregion" defined by the larger ecosystem of watersheds, basins, and ranges; there's the trade entity often regarded as a Pacific Rim link; there's the old resource economy of timber, fish, and minerals, not to mention the new high-tech one reflected by Boeing planes, Microsoft software, and do-gooding global philanthropies personified by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. We're a place of Doug firs and salmon, software and Starbucks, Amazon and Vancouver's new Hong Kong skyline. As Cascadia contributor Mark Wexler, a professor at Simon Fraser University, notes in his essay, Cascadia is less a unified entity than a "hypothetical territory," an "inkblot" on which we're projecting.

Those projections are expressed strongly in some of the essays in this book: Cascadia is a environmentally aware bio-region that seeks both sustainability and social justice. We draw inspiration not simply from Muir but from the indigenous peoples whose values we share, or have co-opted. As native writer Eli Bliss Enns writes of the Tla-o-qui-aht people of Vancouver Island's Clayoquot Sound, the concept of everything in nature being interconnected (Hishuk-is Tsawak-nish) was already a fundamental indigenous belief before Muir's relatives showed up to trade for otter skins.

The ideals of the region, contributor Mike Carr writes, call for "reinhabitation" of Cascadia, a re-learning of how to sanely live in this place. As moderns, as Westerners, as rootless people mostly from elsewhere, as consumers of resources, a kind of re-education is in order: talking circles, watershed councils, affinity groups. That will help us to develop a "social ethic of deep interconnection, interdependence, and reciprocity" that can become a "socially shared norm."

Not all contributors to Cascadia drink the Cas-Kool-Adia, however. Some are skeptical. The dream is elusive, after all. One critique is that people here are too diverse and too independent minded to ever come to a consensus on what utopia should look like. Another is that while we're utopian, we're also anti-utopian. We consist of both urban planners and separatist cults. We may be spiritual seekers, but we also have strong libertarian impulses. And our lack of attachment to traditional institutions (church, government) is what draws us here, but it also undercuts civic consensus.

Two other troubles roil the Cascadian dream.

One is our future orientation. Here, history is often baggage to be shed. Patricia O'Connell Killen, professor of religion at Pacific Lutheran University, notes that "In the Pacific Northwest newness is often equated with significance, and so long-term commitment is difficult to maintain." Our obsession with change and the future is personified by Vancouver writer Douglas Coupland who is quoted in a chapter by the University of British Columbia's Philip Resnick: "The past? I don't want to see the past," says Coupland. "I want to see the future. I need to see 100 years into the future. I get very jealous of the future, because I know I'm not going to be around."

Our obsession with the new, with fast-forwarding, can be a kind of narcissistic drawback. We need to cultivate modesty, not hubris, Reznick writes. We might be known for high-tech innovations and futuristic world's fairs, we might see our older cities (Seattle, Vancouver) as blank slates ripe for erasing, but rushing toward the mirage of the Northwest's New Jerusalem keeps us from embracing what is.

Another drawback is that if a Cascadian utopia requires consensus, there is very little. Oregon writer Gail Wells warns that the name Cascadia "may ring sweetly in the ears of those sympathetic to nature-based spirituality, but it is rare to hear it on the lips of anyone at Weyerhaeuser or the US Forest Service...The very concept of Cascadia as expressed in this book is an argument, an 'askew' look at mainstream assumptions, definitions, and boundaries." The embrace of nature-based civic religion is mostly an urban phenomenon — ironically more at home, she says, in the land of SUVs and mini-mansions than in rural areas where people are closer to nature.

The Cascade Curtain between dry and wet sides of the mountains is a real and symbolic barrier that divides the region. But you don't have to go far east to find disagreement: look at the rebellion against the Critical Areas Ordinance in King County outside Seattle. A headline on a Seattle Weekly story about these new "green" rural regulations asked the question, "Why do they hate us?" We've pissed off the farmers in our own backyard, even while touting the localvore benefits of the 100-mile diet. Wells writes that Cascadia's urbanites talk about preserving wilderness while extracting resources from poorer countries that can't do the same. Our secular-but-spiritual ideals? "In its preoccupation with wilderness, its sacralizing of places where humans aren't, nature-based spirituality has a frankly imperialist dimension."

So, has the ghost of John Muir traded his hiking boots for a pair of jackboots? The rural property rights crowd might think so, as demonstrated by occasional sagebrush rebellions. But he has also infiltrated territories the corporeal Muir avoided like the plague.

Muir rejected cities and saw an urbanized America as corrupt, in need of a redemption that could be found in wilderness. Worster writes that for Muir "Nature was the best tonic for the nation's diseased way of thinking..." Green thinking today has urbanized in ways Muir could not have imagined. If the Cascadian dream is largely an urban one it is also one that is more integrated, that sees cities and nature as interconnected too.

Today's greens see larger cities not as the enemy of the wild, but essential to its salvation. Kyoto-friendly Seattle, skinny-towered Vancouver, new-urbanist Portland: Young urbanites live more densely, and if they do not roam the mountains as often as Muir, or even their baby boomer parents, they live more greenly in the urban environment, riding transit, biking to work, recycling religiously. They don't climb mountains, but they like to think they can live sustainably in an urban gem like Portland's Pearl District.

Cascadia, the Elusive Utopia is an excellent compendium of thought and reaction, of idealism and caution. Much of it reads as if there is little question about the type of utopia to aspire to, a society tinged with a kind of lefty socialist tribalism that Tweets. It's suggestive of the original roadmap laid out in Berkeley writer Ernest Callenbach's seminal mid-1970s book Ecotopia. He imagined a West Coast nation stretching from Northern California to the Canadian border. It was a green and pagan land, isolated from the U.S., going its own way, bound to itself by its ecological interconnectedness. One of its appeals was that it wasn't politically correct by today's standards (smoking and sex were allowed in Ecotopia, unlike some of our other PC institutions, like Olympia's Evergreen State College). Ecotopia still serves as the beta version of Cascadia.

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.

When John Muir visited Puget Sound country in the late 19th century, he was appalled by the environmental devastation he saw even then. That was partially off-set by the grandeur of Mt. Rainier, which he climbed, and which today still stands as a symbol of the world Muir so wanted to preserve. It presides over a landscape that today would likely make Muir weep, though he would not be surprised by the river valleys choked with sprawl and industrial parks.

We may not live up to his highest standards, but when you hear Cascadia talk to itself about what it values most, Muir is still a part of that conversation. He's not nudging us toward utopia so much whispering to us, reminding us to feel the spirit of nature as he did. If we do, we will act accordingly. We may not agree on everything, but we will at least be bound by a common experience of something bigger than ourselves.

NOTE: On Wed., April 22, a one-day conference will be held called "Cascadia: Religion, Spirituality and Community in Washington, Oregon and British Columbia" at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma. The event runs from 9:30 am to 3:30 pm in the Columbia Center on campus. It will feature contributors to Cascadia, the Elusive Utopia including Doug Todd, Patricia O'Connell Killen, Mark Shibley, and other scholars. The event is sponsored by PLU's Center for Religion, Cultures and Society. The event is free, but advance registration is required. Register by contacting and putting CASCADIA in the subject line. Persons who register will receive a guest parking pass and a map of the campus with directions.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.