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Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia – Exploring the Spirit of the Pacific Northwest

By Douglas Todd

Review By Laurie Ricou

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 164 Winter 2009-2010  | p. 117-118

Fourteen individually authored chapters (and several supplements) reflect on a shared and bifurcated bioregion and, in the process, assemble the varied ways in which the designation “Cascadia” has been applied. Among the surprises in the collection, one, attractive partly because of its relative daring, amounts to a history of the International Peace Arch at the Blaine, Washington/Douglas, British Columbia, crossing. Author Eleanor Stebner comes to this topic by way of a brisk search for a symbol of Cascadia. For all the obviousness of the Douglas fir, salmon, and so on, she lights, with only the slightest trace of irony, on the Peace Arch. Because I have twice written a little about this site, I was pleased to discover here several details I did not know; for example, that “it was one of the first structures along the Pacific coast to be built earthquake resistant” (197). I like the way Stebner sets the monument into an architectural history of monuments – usually celebrating military triumph. Her summary of the “two-way” symbology of the gateway Arch might also describe the dynamic of the book as a whole: “It was a portal … having the role of moving people from one reality into another reality: people crossed from one country into another country, and from conflict into peace” (201).

The sections in this collection – often overlapping, even repetitive – are less essays than printed talks. They retain, that is, much of the tenor of a fairly informal not-too-academic conference (one I unfortunately could not attend) convened by editor Todd at Simon Fraser University in 2006.

Cascadia – repeatedly recognized in the collection as concept and dream rather than as mappable territory – is identified by the relative absence of affiliation to the institutional church and a strong sense of allegiance to a spirituality discovered in non-human nature. In this secular but spiritual world we find reiterated in various forms the importance of rivers (though not much, oddly, on cascades), salmon, and proximate mountains; coffee and fleece also take a turn. Cascadians are concerned for the integrity of the natural world, inclined to a slightly separatist scepticism about tradition, and in love with novel freedoms.

This complex of shared characteristics predictably attracts a few resisters whose comments open portals from one reality into another reality. I liked Patricia O’Connell Killen’s caution that a Cascadian sense of unconstrained freedom may lead to the eroding of memory. Her call for a biocentric memory that includes human history in a larger storying of “all living things” (82) seems thoughtful and is a useful analytical tool. Speaking of history, Jean Barman’s overview review of borderlands finds an Aboriginal peoples’ “cascadian” region precontact and deftly connects its functional region to the northwest economic region that existed before any political lines were drawn. Phil Resnick is decidedly more cautious about the Cascadian notion: he emphasizes, quoting Conrad Cherry, the US belief “‘that America has been elected by God for a special destiny’” (116), which inhibits much impetus towards a binational culture. Resnick does, however, if only hesitantly, endorse “coastal mountains and Douglas firs” as a significant “common denominator” (120). And, perhaps most resonantly for readers of this journal, he urges that more attention be paid to the “territorial [mountainous] divides” that create “two BC’s, two Washingtons, two Oregons” (118).

Resnick flirts here with a concept of double centres that is, to my mind, the one that a reader of this collection might most want to develop: that is, that the imagined Cascadia might invert the heartland/hinterland dichotomy to a centre/centres imaginary (and that means many more than two). The idea is introduced in this book most tellingly in Mark Shibley’s reflections, especially when he quotes David Oates: “‘two-mindedness is what I’m after.’” Which is to say that we each have our cherished (read local and immediate) “Sacred Spaces” but that we must realize that “they speak for everywhere” (48). Resnick’s centres overlap, and two-mindedness is not a dichotomy, as Peter Drury urges. For Drury sustainability might be found simply in “contemplative walking” (151) which is deeply spiritual while simultaneously honouring nature.

One aspect of Cascadia seems odd to me: a book that purports to be “exploring the spirit” pays very little attention to the arts. One essay, by Paulo Lemos Horta on magic realism, focuses on literature. Beyond that, there’s but the occasional reference to Jack Hodgins, David James Duncan, and John Muir. Even Nicholas O’Connell’s study of the sacred in Pacific Northwest writing gets only passing mention. The potential for including more references to painters, architects, composers, and writers is particularly evident when we find, in a supplementary section titled “Contemplations,” George Bowering saying perhaps more in a page and a half than what is said in the rest of the book combined: “In Cascadia, in the Pacific Nation,” Bowering writes in his ironic and spare musings, “we prefer spirituality to religion. We like to be breathed into, to be, as they say, inspired” (266). Then he argues the spiritual advantages of being lost – walking.

I happened to start reading this book when I was at the midway point of a thirteen-week course devoted to Pacific Northwest writing. My students were trying to create deep maps of such topics as surfing, avalanches, and the fabric arts. Several of them had already discovered Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia and were quoting it in class and in drafts of their term projects. They found it a useful support, one worth reacting to. So do I. Students of British Columbia should have this book in their personal libraries.

PDF – Book Reviews, BC Studies 164, Winter 2009/10