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Author Marcy Houle on Creating a Coalescence of Values in Oregon

November 5, 2019

Our University Press Week blog tour post features author Marcy Cottrell Houle, whose new book, A Generous Nature, celebrates some of the individuals and institutions behind the state’s progressive land-use policies.

Below, she elaborates on her motivations for writing A Generous Nature and her aspirations for Oregon’s future generations.

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Many authors envision writing a bestseller. Some harbor a wish to have their work become required reading in academic circles. Still more long for stellar reviews in the New York Times or the Economist.

Those are not my intentions for A Generous Nature. The muse that inspired this book was bigger, more fanciful, even outlandish. Like a burr, though, it stayed attached to me for ten years, never shaking off even when my writing trail wound up mountains and through thickets, or crossed rivers of doubt.

Witnessing newcomers flocking to Oregon—which remains near the top in the nation for in-state ingress—I realized something. People are drawn to Oregon for reasons of its livability and beauty. At the same time, few, whether long-term residents or brand new to Oregon, know what lies behind the exceptional qualities that draw them here. They don’t see the years of struggle it took to make all 362 miles of Oregon’s coast public. They don’t comprehend the efforts to produce and defend the incredible ruling, Senate Bill 100—a law, first of its kind in the nation, that created statewide land-use goals protecting farm and forest lands from urban sprawl.

They don’t recognize the face behind the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Act that protected 292,500 acres of spectacular basaltic cliffs and flower strewn forests and was the only stand-alone conservation legislation ever passed during the Reagan administration. If not for one tireless woman who faced steep and vociferous opposition every step of the way, this national treasure would be covered with development.

Oregon’s fifty-nine designated wild and scenic rivers remain safeguarded because of the work of one man who took a serious challenge to their integrity all the way to the supreme court of Oregon—and won. A beloved park near Portland, Tryon Creek, would have become 650 acres of condominiums and homes if not for a woman who started a “kitchen counter drive” to save it—and succeeded.


The achievements go on, but the stories of the people behind them, who gave great gifts to all Oregonians, I saw with despair, were being lost. Without that understanding, I realized those things that make Oregon an outstanding place to live could easily be undone.

It is happening everywhere. Nationwide, environmental laws are being relaxed or eviscerated. Incremental loss of natural areas, agricultural lands, and forests is on the verge of happening in Oregon. For those of us who love this state, sitting back and watching Oregon’s inspiring model being whittled away is not an option.

That was my motivation for writing A Generous Nature. The book showcases what lies behind Oregon’s good fortune. It strives to elevate understanding that Oregon didn’t just "happen." Rather, the devotion, sweat, persistence, and commitment of many individuals made it the place it is today.

A Generous Nature is also an attempt to resurrect and revive the Oregon spirit, giving it life for a whole new generation of Oregonians. These stories highlight the citizens who did this great work—not for themselves alone, but for our benefit and for future generations of Oregonians. They are filled with inspiration and values for living. At the same time, however, they offer a challenge, reminding us of our responsibility to carry these values forward.

That is where my dream of the Five O’s begins.

The Five O’s are organizations, based in Oregon, that in every step of writing A Generous Nature I hoped would catch a glimpse of this vision and become partners to spread the word. Nearing completion of the book, I reached out to all five, asking for their support of this mission to help Oregonians develop an appreciation for what people have done in Oregon’s past. With that understanding, I believe the Oregon has a better chance of keeping its remarkable, progressive ideals alive.

What was my appeal exactly? That A Generous Nature would be published by Oregon State University Press. From there, that it would be picked up by the Oregon Historical Society, which could act as a repository for the valuable interviews and be a facilitator in launching the book’s purpose. I reached out to Oregon Public Broadcasting, asking if they might follow up these amazing stories and bring to life these individual’s work in other media forms in future programming. I adjured the Oregon Community Foundation—a generous organization that gives grants and scholarships throughout Oregon for the advancement of collaborate action, stewardship, equity, diversity, and inclusion—to lend their support. In my request I urged them to donate a copy of A Generous Nature to every public library in Oregon, through the Oregon Library Association, my fifth O.

What is wonderful to see is that each of the Five O’s has risen to this challenge. They have embraced the Oregon spirit and hope to pass it forward.

This clarion call is not just for Oregon. Every state has an opportunity to find its own Five O’s, to spread stories of citizens endeavoring to save this earth. Inspiring stories can act as a call to action. For they tell us this truth: we can be the future we wish to see.

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