The People Who Wouldn’t Mind if the Pacific Northwest Were Its Own Country
Last weekend I went to Cascadia Rainingman Festival to talked to Pacific Northwesterners who dream of a utopia based on environmentalism, renewable energy, and rejecting the influence of the rest of America.
GIFs by Kelton Sears
The first thing we heard when we pulled into the Finney Farm was the clattering of drums, followed by a high-pitched howling noise.
Suddenly a wild pack of young girls came running out of the woods waving sticks in the air. The youngest, maybe two years old, had sticky berries smeared across her face. She was inexplicably waving a $5 bill in the air. The leader of the pack, maybe 13, suddenly noticed us and halted her group—who all promptly dropped their sticks.
“Oh, hi, I haven’t seen you yet, so I guess you’re new here,” she said. “Well, um, welcome to the farm. If you go way down the forest trail, past the big fallen tree, you’ll find a clearing that I think would be nice to set a tent up in. I dunno. You’ll figure it out.”
Then the pack took off howling back into the woods.
We were here for the Cascadia Rainingman Festival, held on Labor Day weekend at a gorgeous 100-plus acre organic farm in the foothills of the North Cascade mountain range in Washington State. Unless you follow the fringe politics of the Pacific Northwest, you’re probably wondering what Cascadia is, and that’s a tricky question, because self-described “Cascadians” hold all kinds of different beliefs. (The first of many workshops at the festival was titled “What is Cascadia?”)
The idea of Cascadia can be traced back to the 70s to a couple of sources. The most prominent is Ernest Callenbach’s 1975 classic Ecotopia, a goofy but lovable utopian novel full of solar panels, ritualistic warfare, and druidic sex. In the book, the West Coast secedes from the US to form its own country, Ecotopia, a land governed by president Vera Allwen, of the Survivalist Party. In Ecotopia, people have completely shifted to renewable energy and have structured their entire lives around the concept of ecology and sustainable living. They smoke marijuana freely, wear rain-resistant fitted serapes, and are all borderline tree worshippers. (This may not sound that odd to you if you’ve been to certain parts of Seattle.) The first US journalist ever permitted in the country serves as the book’s naïve narrator. He’s really freaked out at first, but he comes around and falls in love with the place.
The term Cascadia didn’t start being used to describe a real-world culture until a professor at Seattle University named David McCloskey started using the term in his class “Cascadia: Sociology of the Pacific Northwest” in the late 70s. Geologists and botanists had long used the term “Cascadia” to refer to the bioregion of British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon, a naturally linked ecological region connected by shared watersheds and the Cascades. But McCloskey was the first to link “Cascadia, land of falling waters” to what he perceived as an emerging “sociocultural unity.”
In 1994, a Portlander named Alexander Baretich designed the “Doug Flag,” the unofficial flag of Cascadia. Featuring a Douglas fir and blue, white, and green stripes (for the regional landscape’s colors), the flag quickly became the dominant symbol of the nascent Cascadian identity, making its way into cheeky microbreweries’ beer labels, Portland Timbers MLS matches, and an increasing number of local gay pride, Occupy Wall Street, and environmental protests.
Since then, the Cascadian movement has birthed a vast, decentralized network of groups who meet up in cities all over British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon. For some, it’s chiefly an environmental cause. For others, it’s a chance to decolonialize a region of the US whose culture is already distinctly un-American. For a few, it’s a shot at Ecotopia-style secession. But in the end, what it really boils down to is a new identity, one that is uniquely Pacific Northwestern. Cascadians are quickly recognizing that despite the vast array of cultures and attitudes that make up the region, many people here share the same set of values: an affinity for nature, a distinct open-mindedness, and a desire for societal and technological progress.
But rather than explaining it for them, we asked seven people at Rainingman to tell us why they identify as Cascadian. This is what they said:
Portraits by Allyce Andrew
Brandon Letsinger, founding director of CascadiaNow
For me, being Cascadian is a way of living, the choices we make in this region, and the interconnectedness of the area, both culturally and geographically. What I love about Cascadia is it’s this region that’s brought together by the commonalities of all these layers. It starts with the ecology—we share the watershed of the Columbia and Fraser rivers. From that comes this interconnected culture, whether it’s beer or art or music or food, and within that all these other things as well.
CascadiaNow is working to establish this regional identity so that we can stop identifying as American. It’s about reframing things so that we think of ourselves as inhabitants of this place. When that perspective shift happens, you can start thinking about what living in this place means, both as a cultural identity, socially, and, in the end, politically. Why is our political system failing us? I know we can do so much better here.
Alexander Monsanto, a Seattleite who works in finance at Nintendo and is studying computer programming
I grew up in the region, but I was born in Puerto Rico. I think that’s part of the reason I resonate so deeply with decolonization. Puerto Rico and Washington are both under control of a capital that’s something like 2,000 miles away.
So much of the original culture has been washed away through colonization. We could start with things like renaming Mount Rainier Mount Tahoma, like it used to be called.
I marched with a Rainbow Cascadia flag in the Pride Parade in Seattle because I think it’s important to show other LGBTQ people and minorities that we identify with Cascadia too, so people don’t think it’s some sort of radical separatist movement or some white supremacy thing—we have to show that the idea of the whole concept is actually all about inclusivity.
Lennée Reid, a spirtualist and poet from Olympia, Washington, with her daughter Olivia
I identify with Cascadia because it’s a region I feel connected to with the Earth, and a region that possesses an openness with ideas. The way that I put it is, “I will not get stoned or shunned for expressing my different ideas” in Cascadia. That’s just not how it is here.
It’s all these different ideas and cultures coming together, connecting with the Earth and looking to sustain each other—that’s the flag, that’s the tree. I think there should be a mountain on it too, in my personal opinion [laughs]. I want to raise my kid with the vibes and the values here.
Illona Trogub, a farmer and chef from Portland, Oregon
I think identities are really important. I’m Jewish and Russian by birth and I question what that means. I’m from Ukraine, and while I was living there it was still the Soviet Union. So am I Soviet? Am I Ukrainian? Am I Russian because the language I speak is Russian? I really question these ideas of borders and nations and states. When I came to the US and the Soviet Union collapsed, I had to say I was from a country that no longer existed.
Looking at the vastness of the US and Canada, the diversity of cultures that exist here, and the lack of representation of the people living throughout—I had to severely question whether or not it’s worth it to identify as this giant structure… you know, as American. I’d much prefer to identify with the place where I inhabit, the place I want to learn and know.
When I got to British Columbia, I knew it was that region I wanted to know. I wanted to learn about the food traditions and the culture of the Secwepemc people. Those traditions have been ravaged by racism, though, which is why I’d like to work to create a culture that respects those traditions and gives them space to recreate those original cultures of place.
When I say, "I’m Cascadian," it means the Pacific Northwest is the place I want to know deeply, and that has called me home to it.
You can read Illona’s thesis from Portland State University on Bioregionalism here.
Andrew Lee, a Vipassana meditation practitioner and wanderer from Vancouver, British Columbia, by way of Calgary, Alberta
I believe in bioregionalism. I believe a lot of political borders weren’t drawn properly. Western North America was drawn out by a couple of explorers who were staking out land for whoever they represented at the time. I know David Thompson staked out British Columbia for Canada, and I remember someone telling me if it weren’t for a fork in a mountain valley that John Thompson took, Washington might have been part of Canada.
Bioregionalism makes sense in that regions with a similar biology and culture of people should have their own country. Everyone here is a lot more open minded. People live here more sustainably. I think it’s the mountain culture. I believe that mountains have a very humbling force, and people who live around them naturally have more of an affinity for nature and work to take care of it. The idea of raising chickens in your backyard is probably a lot more foreign in the East, but here it’s more commonplace. People grow their own food here all the time.
Kelly Dale, a hairstylist from Seattle, and his son Milo
Milo: I like Cascadia because—‘cause it feels good. ‘Cause, when it’s night, then my eyes can see at night.
Kelly: Yeah? Because when it becomes night, your eyes can see the stars?
Kelly: Milo is four and a half. He’s a typical city kid that doesn’t get out at night very much and doesn’t get to experience the sky at night.
Milo: Sometimes I stay up late at night to look at the sky. But not tonight. It’s going to rain tonight, but our tent will keep it out ‘cause it has a cover.
Kelly: This is maybe our fourth camping trip, and that’s part of why Cascadia is important because…
Milo: WE WENT TO CAMPING IN BREMERTON AND THERE WERE CANNONS. They were not new though. They were very old.
Kelly: Cascadia is important for me, and in raising Milo, because it’s about opening your eyes to the magic of the place that’s around you, so you’re not always on the internet going, “Where can I go that’s not here?”
Milo’s learning about where we are on this floating rock spinning through outer space, in this galaxy, on a planet called Earth. That’s kind of how I brought up Cascadia to him—I told him, “We live in this state, but also in this great place called Cascadia.” We talk about being a steward to the environment and how coal terminals and oil pipelines impact our region. He’s already talking about renewables.
Milo: I love this place I love this place I love this place I love this place. I want to get a camping trailer. Imagine if a camping trailer were right there, but it just stayed there FOREVER and you LIVED in it.
Amy Carlson, a jeweler and singer-songwriter from Seattle
Cascadia just resonates so deeply with who I already feel I am and where I am. Being a part of a community that really wants to change themselves, the people around them, and the area around them out of this sense of needing to be a part of the nature and ecology here.
(On Cascadian Black Metal, which is a thing): I think a lot of the things bands of that genre, “Cascadian Black Metal” or whatever you want to call it, the subjects they sing about, the song structures, the sound in general—I think they just resonate with a lot of the ideas behind the Cascadian movement. There’s a lot of melodies and song structures in that genre that come from Northern European music—and a lot of the early settlers here in the Northwest were from that region, you know, Swedish, German, what have you. Those cultures also have a close connection with nature, I mean, that shit goes back through people’s family histories. When you’re around the ocean and the mountains and the woods, you can’t help but draw from that.
Kelton Sears plays in a "treepunk" band named Kithkin, and writes about news, music and the future for Seattle Weekly.
Allyce Andrew is an Acadian lover of unicorns and likes photographing forests, mountains and witchy women.
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