The Pacific Northwest of North America, as seen from the International Space station. Photo by Jeff Williams, courtesy of NASA.

What is Cascadia?

“There are those to whom place is unimportant
But this place, where sea and fresh water meet,
Is important–
Where the hawks sway out into the wind,
Without a single wingbeat,
And the eagles sail low over the fir trees,
And the gulls cry against the crows
In the curved harbors…”  –Theodore Roethke

When asked about why I’m interested in the notion of Cascadia, I often talk about a hike I once took to the top of Desolation Peak. It’s a remote mountain in North Cascades National Park, but it can be done as a day-hike. You’ve got to take a boat up Ross Lake to get to the trailhead, and the steep, exposed switchbacks make for a grueling trudge in summer, when the trail is snow-free for a few short months. At the summit is an old Forest Service lookout, famed as the spot where Jack Kerouac spent time scanning for fires, jotting notes, meditating, and getting spooked by the loneliness. The lookout shelter is still there, and on a clear day the panorama is astonishing. All around you are the glaciated peaks of the North Cascades, the jagged summits of Canada’s Coast Range, the ice-cream cone of volcanic Mount Baker.  Inside the lookout cabin with windows on all sides, you can still observe the old fire-finder (though it’s no longer used–satellites have made it obsolete). It’s a circular table with a couple of viewfinder sights for pinpointing the location of a fire. On my visit the fire-finder and old map were still intact. Clearly marked about halfway through the map was the Canada-US border on the 49th parallel. And to my surprise, everything north of that line on that map was blank. No topographic lines, no ridges and valleys. Just empty white space. If a fire was burning just a few miles to the north, in that other country, it wasn’t considered the Forest Service’s problem.

Obviously, this approach has some limitations–the main one being that fires don’t respect national borders. And that’s the reason I like to think about Cascadia as a region; because sometimes it’s necessary to look beyond the invisible, imaginary lines we draw on maps.

So what do we mean when we say “Cascadia?”

Cascadia–the region also known as the Pacific Northwest–is a vast landscape of mountain ranges, meandering rivers, temperate rain forests, dense cities, sprawling suburbs, sagebrush desert, irrigated farmland, and an ecologically rich inland sea. It spans an international border, and is home to 16 million people of varied ethnicities and cultures.

The term “Cascadia” is generally used to refer to the bioregion that encompasses the drainages of the greater Columbia and Fraser Rivers. This territory, extending over half a million square miles, crosses numerous political jurisdictions, and includes most of Washington, Oregon, British Columbia, some of Northern California, as well as parts of Idaho, Montana, and Southeast Alaska. If it were its own nation, the region would have an annual GDP of close to a trillion dollars, putting it in the top 15, somewhere on the scale of Indonesia, Mexico, or the Netherlands.

But Cascadia isn’t really a nationalist movement. Rather, it’s an awareness of a region, a biologically significant place. It’s no accident that one of the symbols of the  Cascadia bioregion is the Douglas-fir, the massive evergreen tree whose native range overlaps most of Cascadia– from the Skeena River in British Columbia south to Cape Mendocino, California.

Why bioregionalism?

For many, the concept of Cascadia has emerged an effort to understand a larger bioregion that extends beyond the straight lines of national borders. Having a bioregional approach encourages thinking about the entire ecosystem (including the human population within it). To take just one example: the relationship between salmon and the orca whales that feed on them are effected by the health of the entire Salish Sea, an inland waterway that crosses the U.S.-Canadian border and includes Puget Sound, Georgia Straight, and the Straight of Juan de Fuca. Pollutants that flow down streams into salmon spawning grounds don’t stay behind national borders. To have a better understanding of the health of those populations (and how to fix them) you need a regional perspective.

Place and the knowledge of where you are is critical to bioregional understanding. In his book The Practice of the Wild, poet and essayist Gary Snyder encourages looking beyond borders and at the same time focusing on the local: what are the native flora and fauna? What is the geology and topography? How do weather patterns affect where your live? Snyder argues that having this deeper understanding of nature is actually the foundation of a richer culture. Speaking of the range of the Douglas-fir, he notes:

“The presence of this tree signifies a rainfall and a temperature range and will indicate what your agriculture might be, how steep the pitch of your roof, what raincoats you’ll need. You don’t have to know such details to get by in the modern cities of Portland or Bellingham. But if you do know what is taught by plants and weather, you are in on the gossip and can truly feel at home. The sum of a field’s forces becomes what we call very loosely the “spirit of the place.” To know the spirit of a place is to realize that you are a part of a part and that the whole is made of parts, each of which is whole. You start with the part you are whole in.”

This magazine springs from a desire to understand those parts, especially the human ones — how do the stories and interactions of those of us who live here fit into the larger whole? Because really the only thing required for a person to call themselves “Cascadian” is to reside somewhere within this landscape defined by the drainages of the Columbia and Fraser Rivers. That’s it. You live here: no nationality or citizenship matters. You’re a part of the local ecosystem. And the varieties of human ideas and culture within that ecosystem are equally vast. Except perhaps for indigenous people, we’re all relatively new immigrants to Cascadia. And those immigrants have brought with them a panoply of cultures, religions, languages, histories, beliefs — all situated in this corner of planet earth.

But bioregionalism isn’t simply provincial–it acknowledges that these local ecosystems are part of a larger whole. Anthropogenic climate change, to take just one example, is already having profound effects on the region–whether it’s shrinking glaciers, warming streams, rising sea levels, or incidence of pine-bark beetles leading to higher forest fire risk. And similarly, the region contributes to those changes. Cascadia is home to some of the world’s most successful companies, and Amazon, Microsoft, Nike, Starbucks, and Boeing all have impacts, some positive and some negative, on our larger world.

In addition, awareness of Cascadia and the regional cooperation and autonomy this notion represents now has new urgency after the US election of 2016. Though Cascadia has a wide range of political views, it  tends to skew toward the progressive side of the scale. The “Upper Left Corner” of North America doesn’t just refer to location, and in many ways Cascadia has taken a lead on issues ranging from gay rights to environmental awareness, from creation of consumer co-ops to legalization of marijuana. Cascadia is increasingly on the front lines defending against right-wing policies emerging in Washington, DC and Ottawa. Attorneys General in Oregon and Washington have filed suit to fight exclusionary immigration policies and efforts to roll-back the social safety net. Sanctuary cities from Bellingham to Eugene are defying federal executive orders — on the grounds they have a sovereign right to protect the health and well-being of their citizens. Opposition to fossil fuel companies has made Cascadia a “thin green line” in the fight against new pipelines and coal terminals that threaten to increase climate change. Cascadia Magazine is committed to documenting these new movements protecting local populations and looking beyond to the prosperity and health of the world beyond the Pacific Northwest.

Crossing borders

And yet Cascadia isn’t a monolith of opinion. If you cross the crest of the Cascade Mountains, you’ll find the political and social cultures are very different. While Cascadia’s booming metropolitan areas are about social experimentation, liberal government spending, vibrant creativity, and an anything-goes approach, the population outside the dense population centers tends to be conservative, traditional, community-focused, and skeptical of the power and wealth of city-folk. While there are exceptions, there’s no denying that a huge divide exists between urban and rural communities in Cascadia, between the eastern and western portions of the region. We hope this magazine can help bridge that divide.

But we’re also committed to exploring the creative vibrancy and experimentation –wherever it’s happening in the region. We want to offer a space for intellectual investigation, to explore ideas and trends wherever they may be happening. Cascadia doesn’t have a lengthy history or the depth of literary and artistic achievement you find in Asia or Europe. But that’s not to say vital thinking and art aren’t happening in our region–they are, and we’re convinced that the region needs a new publication to explore this explosion of creativity. And we hope to do it in a way that’s inclusive, that doesn’t define Cascadia in the old terms of colonialism that European explorers and settlers brought to the Pacific Northwest, and which continues today in the United States and Canada. Contrary to the popular image the Northwest has sometimes encouraged– that of a predominantly white and middle-class population– Cascadia is a region with a diverse population, and those voices normally excluded from power need to be heard. Cascadia Magazine is committed to providing a space for a diversity of voices and experiences.

We don’t always have to look to New York, Toronto, or Los Angeles for validation of the innovation and creativity happening in the Northwest. This magazine aims to explore what’s going on in Cascadia and share it with those who live here, and also with the wider world. This is what we want to document: the ideas and culture percolating in the Cascadia bioregion. Whether it’s a new arts organization in Spokane, or a group working to end homelessness in Eugene; if a novelist in Victoria has something striking to say about relationships, or a researcher in Seattle has found an innovative approach to cancer, we want to tell those stories, all of which are part of what we call Cascadia.

–Andrew Engelson