Oh, Cascadia!… What Are You, Exactly?

Fiercely independent (but not in a militia kind of way). Environmentally progressive (forget about Hanford for a second). Dark, hoppy beer. The Timbers Army flag. Cascadia, a land whose mythos has grown faster than its population in the past two decades. Grandeur! Hoopla!

cascadia
‘The Doug’ by Alexander Baretich, a popular Cascadian flag

What the hell does it mean?

The name has been used for hundreds of years to describe our region. It was not until the 1980s that Seattle University professor David McCloskey used Cascadia to describe the bioregion and the sociocultural atmosphere of what is known as the Pacific Northwest and beyond.

Washington, Oregon, western British Columbia, and parts of Idaho and Montana comprise Cascadia, but the notion of using geography to define it kind of defeats the purpose. Think more climate, soil, geography, people, and culture. And beer. Things we are proud of here in the far Northwest.

Cascadia is more than just what Oregon and its near neighbors have in common, though. It is a manifesto and a state of mind.

And lest we forget to mention it, since the two-year-old article is mentioned on almost every website devoted to Cascadia, the region was voted #7 on Time’s list of regions most likely to secede. Unlike the connotation of the word in other regions in the United States, secession in Cascadia means something positive. It starts with the land.

Bioregionalism

A bioregion focuses not on human boundaries but on shared characteristics of the natural world. Cascadian advocates mention the abundance of water and renewable power, as well as the incredible beauty. Environmental activism tied into the back-to-the-land movement also factors heavily.

Bioregions are defined by watersheds, soil, and animals.

“Everything begins with the earth, the ground we stand on. In its natural integrities, Cascadia bodies forth in a long series of linked landscapes running in belts north and south, parallel to the coastline,” wrote McCloskey.

The political and cultural norms of the people who live here are shaped by these forces and in a cyclical fashion become a defining characteristic of it. Bioregionalism can trump nationalism and focuses instead on local knowledge and identity.

The movement encourages an ownership of and connection to local materials and an embrace of all that is native and unique to the bioregion. In turn, this strengthens the ties in the region and creates a shared identity that can be used to advocate for progress.

What connects a Libertarian Corvallisite to a Democratic Seattleite should be stronger than what might connect two Democrats from different bioregions.

In Cascadia, this means more than just feel-good fraternity. Urban planners seized onto the idea of an ecolopolis. Distinct from a megalopolis, eco-focused planning in Cascadia would mean smaller cities connected by working landscapes and wild lands. Planning at the Cascadia level was meant to intelligently anticipate future growth and economic potential.

Criticism

“I live in a great, green land called ‘Cascadia.’ It is a long ‘cool country’ poured from the eastern rim of the North Pacific Ocean. Cascadia is a land all its own,” McCloskey wrote quixotically.

The romance of the region is clear in much of the writing about Cascadia: tumbling water, verdant forests, and progressives who give a damn about ecological and social issues.

But something is missing. Where are Bend, Yakima, LaGrande? The arid lands. Many of the areas that contribute to Cascadia’s economic and natural resource bounty, and certainly its agricultural power, seem to be left out of the romance.

This Cascades divide is not new to anyone who has lived in Oregon or Washington. The rhetoric of Cascadia seems to play directly to this divide instead of breaking it down. Whether this is an oversight or speaks to the political strata that run north to south along the Cascade ridge is unclear. If it truly is a bioregional movement, it should speak to all and work to bridge political boundaries.

The movement of Cascadia has come under other criticism, as well. The Center of the Study of the Pacific Northwest notes that while those like former Seattle mayor Paul Schell have touted partnerships and trans border trade, there is economic advantage for some but not all. Schell, the Center notes, extolled the environmental legacy shared by those in the region, even while he made his money as a land developer.

The movement for a free Cascadia, though, is not often rooted in economic arguments.

Those who push for Cascadia to become an independent state typically do so in non-violent ways. They have web forums and groups. Or they advocate at local levels to change the culture at the grassroots level. There are workshops on resiliency and local food groups. There are pride stickers featuring a Douglas fir, and of course there is soccer.

There is pride in the land and the people. Perhaps when so much at the national level lacks logic or empathy, a dream of a free state—no matter that it is utopic—creates a space for real possibility.

By Sally McCoy

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