Cascadia Redefined

Cascadia, the great ecoregion of the northeast Pacific Coast, is a term to describe something that deserves better. The short and skinny on it is that on the north eastern shores of the Pacific Ocean there is an arc of volcanoes in just the right latitude, catching the cyclones of the North Pacific and the winds of the turning planet to create landscapes of both water and drought.  That’s right, the tide zone…



Ozette, Makah Illahie

… above tide …



Industrial Ruins Washed up in Storm at Ozette. Makah Illahie

… the rainforest …


Cape Flattery, Makah Illahie

… the volcanoes …


Wy’east, from Yakama Illahie

… and the shrub steppe…


Dry Falls Debris Field, Sinkiuse Illahie


are one landscape. And that’s where both the amazement and the problems arise. Cascadia is sometimes an independence movement, for a new state in Western North America, cobbled together out of pieces of the old pre-1846 Oregon Territory, divided thereafter between the United States and Canada, sometimes an ecoregion and a cultural region, most notably defined as the basins of the Fraser and the Columbia Rivers, and the coastal rainforest zone from the redwoods of California to the archipelagoes and fjords of Alaska. This is salmon country. We could define our country, our illahie, to use the old Chinook Wawa (the language of this place) term for it, as salmon country, and pretty much get it right, but the Cascadia Institute defines it by water. I quote:


By gosh, yes, but only if the following image is defined by water in ways meaningful to it…



Dry Falls Monolith, Sinkiuse Illahie

… that are the same as this…


Funeral Island, La Push, Makah Illahie

… and the rainforest …


Douglas Fir, Quinault Illahie

… is viewed as identical to this …



Old Growth Blue-bunched Wheat Grass, The Junction Sheep Range, Tsilhqot’in Illahie

… because what the volcanoes do is cause the rain to fall to the West and the air to lift water out of the earth to the East. Until there is a concept that sees those as the same process, Cascadia is a colonial dream from the wet zone, meaning the Willamette Valley, Portland, Vancouver (both of them), Victoria, Bellingham, Olympia and Greater Seattle. It’s not water that defines this region. It’s the volcanoes. They harness the wind to create surface water and surface drought, two opposites bound forever, but it would be as silly to describe the rainforest as being a land of drought as it would be to describe the shrub steppe as a land of water. Fortunately, the Cascadia Institute doesn’t do that. Once it gets its water story out of the way, it hints at a geological story. Again, I quote:


And then speaks, mysteriously, of creative energies …


So, it’s not about water at all, but about some kind of dynamism, as human life here follows the patterns of plate tectonics. That’s the story. Perhaps great rivers rise in the region, but the rivers aren’t the story. The forces that make them are the story.

red rocks

Volcano Breaking Up, Nlaka’pamux Illahie

Water is only the story of coastal peoples in this zone. The rest of us are defined by the absence of water, here, where all knowledge of water is reversed. As long as Cascadia is defined by water, or by coastal population centres, Cascadia is just its coast and a hinterland, and that’s the old colonial story rewritten on our lives, that we just need to get past. There’s more, though. The cities on the coast, Portland, Vancouver (the Canadian one) and Seattle most spectacularly, are cities in the great nation states of Canada and the United States. They are the point at which the energies of those distant lands intersect with the illahie. They exist within this dynamism, but do not define it. To use them as models for the future culture of a “Cascadia” would be catastrophic. If there’s going to be a country in this place, it has to be a shared story, not of rivers running to the sea and salmon swimming back, but of how you can feel the mountains pressing down on you in the cold rain to the west, and feel the absence of the mountains turning you hot in the east, and if the land is the story, then, I’m sorry, but the land is the story.


Ancestor, Syilx Illahie

Anything else is colonialism.

Note: the texts from the Cascadia Institute are taken from the Cascadia Poetry Festival Website.

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