Sunday, May 18, 2014

In Honor of Cascadia, My Home

The Doug Flag, created by Alexander Baretich.
A month or so ago, I was browsing at Left Bank Books, a little anarchist bookstore collective on the grounds of Pike Place Market, when I came across a box of bumper stickers. On top of the pile was a sticker that featured the silhouette of a Douglas fir centered atop three horizontal stripes -- blue, white, and green. It was, unmistakably, a flag. Next to the flag, in all caps, read the command "FREE CASCADIA!"

Somehow, without knowing a thing about what Cascadia was, I felt that it must relate to a movement in the Pacific Northwest -- an expressed desire, perhaps, to take a different approach to how we live our lives here. I bought the sticker, went home, and began my research. Since then I've been to a Cascadia conference and a Cascadia organizational meeting, and for the first time in my life I've dipped my toe into a type of real-life social-political activism.

So, what is Cascadia? Well, it depends on whom you ask, but one interpretation that would find widespread agreement is that Cascadia is a way of thinking about one's sense of place, seen through the lens of our relationship to the natural environment. The lakes, rivers, mountains, waterfalls, flora, fauna, and seas are in large part the things that define Cascadia, which is the name given to our bioregion -- a region defined not by artificial political boundaries, but by shared ecological characteristics.

In the case of Cascadia, opinions vary on what ecological delineations define the region in a geographic sense, though a popular conception of Cascadia takes in a vast space that includes the Columbia River watershed, the watersheds of other Northwest rivers that flow into the Pacific, and a wide area encompassing the Cascade Range and surrounding lands. That conception of Cascadia stretches north into the Alaskan panhandle, south into northwestern California, and east to the Continental Divide and the Rockies. It includes all of the state of Washington, virtually all of Idaho, large sections of Oregon and British Columbia, significant fragments of Montana, California, and Alaska, and tiny slivers of Wyoming, Nevada, Utah, and the Yukon.

©Cynthia Thomas; taken from Sightline Institute.
For others, Cascadia takes on important cultural and political considerations, built around the shared values of the people who live there. That may seem like a tall order when you consider the political diversity of the Pacific Northwest. People on the coast tend to be quite liberal, while the farming communities in eastern Washington are more conservative, and a strong libertarian bent marks much of Idaho and Montana. But in my time here, and having the advantage of comparing this area with both the Midwest and East Coast, I've found one theme that uniquely presents itself across the spectrum, and that's a do-it-yourself attitude. It's probably something rooted in the region's history, when the white settlers were so far away from the population centers on the East Coast, including the nation's capital, that they found it easier, and in many cases necessary, to take matters of governance into their own hands.

Consider that Seattle, the largest population center in Cascadia, is 2,700 miles away from Washington, D.C. That's a five-hour flight even today. How can bureaucrats who are so far removed from daily life here in Cascadia ever hope to understand and effectively address the region's needs? The people best equipped to do that are the people who live and work here, who love the places they call home and know what's in Cascadia's best interests.

That's why there's an emphasis among those in the burgeoning Cascadia movement for taking local action and reclaiming the power to do so -- whether that means standing in solidarity with the region's workers for better wages and labor rights, protecting our waterways from pollution and our forests from being decimated, supporting the rights of the region's indigenous peoples, resisting corporate exploitation of people and the environment, promoting better transportation alternatives, shopping at locally owned stores, or even something as simple as promoting community gardening. It's the myriad small daily actions taken by ordinary people who are here, on the ground, with their roots firmly planted in Cascadia, that have the potential to transform our region for the better. Sitting back and expecting the nation's capital on the opposite coast to do everything for us won't change anything. Neither will blind obedience to its laws and demands. We do things our own way here, because it's the most practical, and most humane, thing to do.

The Cascadian flag flies at a Portland Timbers game. The Portland, Seattle, 
and Vancouver MLS teams compete annually for the Cascadia Cup.
That's not to say Cascadia is an independence movement, although that undercurrent does exist. Maximizing local autonomy, by way of building cooperative partnerships and alliances throughout the region, remains a central focus of the movement regardless of Cascadia's political relationship with D.C., or Ottawa, or the rest of the USA and Canada.

I therefore speak only for myself, and no one else in the movement, when I say that I wholeheartedly embrace the idea of Cascadian independence. I've always believed that accident of birth shouldn't dictate one's national loyalties, and I've long desired to expatriate to a place that better represents my values and would give my daughter the best opportunities in life she can possibly have. That dream, for various reasons, will probably never come true, but one of the things that made the idea of Cascadia such a revelation to me was that I could strive to build the kind of place I'd like to live in right here, amongst many like-minded people -- not in the place where I was born, but in the place I chose to call home. In his novel Ecotopia, Ernest Callenbach envisioned an enlightened independent republic consisting of northern California, Oregon, and Washington, and if Cascadia could strive toward building a new nation based on some of the ideals Callenbach imagined for his Ecotopia, we would be in a good place indeed.

Then there's that matter of scale again, with the people in Cascadia being so far removed from those who rule over them. Can a large nation govern effectively over such a vast area? Does a nation reach a point at which it simply becomes unsustainable and unmanageable? Would it perhaps be more effective to let states and regions go their own way and do what they deem to be in their own best interests? When you get down to it, how much do New Englanders have in common with Southerners, or Southerners with Californians, or Californians with Midwesterners? Is it possible that we're not even so much a nation as a collection of regions long ago cobbled together by misguided notions of Manifest Destiny?

Several authors in recent years have been confronting that very question, from Colin Woodard in American Nations to Dante Chinni and James Gimpel in Our Patchwork Nation. And several other authors all propose a similar response to that question, from Bill Kauffman in Bye Bye Miss American Empire to Leopold Kohr in The Breakdown of Nations, and from Thomas Naylor and William Willimon in Downsizing the USA to the contributors to Rethinking the American Union for the Twenty-First Century. The titles should tell you all you need to know about their visions of the future. All things end, even nations, and it certainly does no harm to think about what form of governance, if any, will replace our current systems, and what nations, if any, will rise up in the place of those that dissolve. If we want to, we can even have a hand in building the kind of world we'll want to see. For some of us here in the Pacific Northwest, that's where the idea -- and the ideal -- of Cascadia fits in.

But even if one rejects the idea of political downsizing and chooses to embrace our national mythologies as they've been handed down to us through the generations, the problem with large, unwieldy nations remains: By their very nature, they simply cannot be as responsive to their people's individual needs on a local, personal level as a smaller nation can. And smaller nations, perhaps even more importantly, tend to mind their own business on the international stage. Who wouldn't want that? I know that I, for one, would love to be the citizen of a smaller nation that favors peace over empire and aggression, that doesn't violate its citizens' civil liberties through massive espionage programs and unchecked detention policies, that's more concerned with tending to its people's health, education, and economic sustainability than in handing out subsidies and tax breaks to those who don't need them. A nation that puts people before profits, values family and community over the unbridled pursuit of material gain, and doesn't neglect, belittle, and penalize those who have nothing at the expense of those who already enjoy great abundance. A nation whose citizens respect both the planet they live on and each other. A nation of equal people who make the best decisions for themselves and their communities from the bottom up, rather than the top down. We could have that nation, right here in Cascadia. Getting there would not come without great effort, although peaceful separation would always remain the goal.
I realize that the very word "secession" carries a lot of historical baggage for Americans, but the desire for political self-determination need not be built on goals or ideals antithetical to human liberty. There are breakaway movements all over the world, many fueled by the simple desire for more local control or the pursuit of greater cultural, economic, or social justice. Scotland will hold a referendum later this year on whether it should break away from the United Kingdom. A similar vote in Quebec just barely rejected provincial independence back in 1995. In Vermont, one organization wishes to return the state to an independent republic, as it was between 1777 and 1791. (For more on the Second Vermont Republic movement, check out the collection of essays titled Most Likely to Secede: What the Vermont Independence Movement Can Teach Us About Reclaiming Community and Creating a Human Scale Vision for the 21st Century.) Even here on the West Coast, portions of southern Oregon and northern California once attempted to form their own state -- and they might have succeeded had the bombing of Pearl Harbor not diverted attention away from the idea. And finally, what is the United States itself, but a nation that long ago declared its right to secede from the British empire? All of these breakaway movements were and are built on the basic desire for something better.

And so it is in Cascadia, for those of us looking at the movement at least partially in those terms. If we so chose, we could embark on building a nation that in many ways might stand as an example of how to create a better world. Economically, an independent Cascadia could be a powerhouse rivaling Switzerland. Ecologically, it would be -- and is -- like no other place on the planet. Furthermore, consider that Thomas Jefferson himself expected that as the United States expanded westward, this region would one day become its own separate country, which he referred to as the "Republic of the Pacific."

Maybe Jefferson had the right idea all along. It's certainly an idea worth considering.

First row: Multnomah Falls, Oregon (Adam Sawyer/Craigmore Creations); Mount Rainier as seen from West Point Lighthouse, Seattle (Joe Lourencio/Panaramio); pisaster ochraceus starfish at Point Robinson, Vashon Island, Washington. Second row: Panoramic view of Portland (Little Mountain 5/Wikimedia Commons). Third row: Orca whale in Puget Sound (Carl Wodenscheck/; driftwood at Point Robinson, Vashon Island, Washington; Snoqualmie Falls, Washington (City of Snoqualmie); moss-covered trees; Federal Way, Washington. Fourth row: Panoramic view of Vancouver, B.C. (Tourism Vancouver/Molecular Origins 2014). Fifth row: Mount Hood, Oregon; salmon swimming through the fish ladder at the Hiram M. Chittendon locks, Seattle (Three Sheets Northwest); Mount St. Helens and the remains of a tree leveled in the 1980 eruption. Sixth row: Panoramic view of Seattle (markanon/Panaramio). Seventh row: Olympic Mountains (Dale Ireland/Kitsap Sun); Capilano Suspension Bridge, Vancouver (

But for now, simply increasing people's awareness of the movement is a leading priority. That's why my Cascadian flag is flying today and will be for some time to come. The "Doug Flag," as it's popularly called, incorporates the colors white, for our clouds and snow-capped mountains; green, for our verdant landscape; and blue, for the sky and our vast waterways. The Douglas fir, front and center, is a living symbol of the combined power of all three elements -- of nature itself standing tall, resilient, and defiant.

USGS/Robert Krimmel
Wikimedia Commons
I raised the Doug Flag at my house today because May 18 has been declared Cascadia Day. Some people are marking the day by traveling to the Peace Arch Park at the Washington-B.C. border to unfurl banners that inform passers-by in each direction: "You may be leaving [America/Canada], but you're still in Cascadia!" Work obligations prevented me from going, but I love the symbolism of the event, as a bioregion that crosses an international boundary line is being celebrated at a park that literally straddles that line -- part of it sits south of the 49th parallel, and part of it lies to the north, and those within the park can pass freely back and forth. Perhaps one day, there will be no international border there at all -- just the arch that reads, on one side, "Children of a common mother," and on the other, "Brethren dwelling together in unity."

So why is May 18 Cascadia Day? The date was selected in honor of the day Mount St. Helens blew her top in 1980. That deadly event reminds us of the magnificent power of nature and serves to humble us when we find ourselves under the illusion that we humans call the shots on this planet.

Cascadia is alive, as its flowing waters, lush forests, and active volcanoes all remind us. And today we stand in awe and reverence of the place we call home.

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