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Introduction

Complexity and Regional Narratives
William G. Robbins

To study a place is to come to some understanding about the intimate connections between people and their earthly surroundings. Kathleen Dean Moore, one of the contributors to this book, contends that we humans have hearts and minds, we remember particular sounds, and we have memories of smell. "We Recognize landscapes the way we recognize faces." Our notions about regions and regionalism, therefore, have geographical and material reference points. As mentally bounded places, regions rest at the borders between geography and history. But to speak of the essence of a region is to address much more than an intellectual construction tailored to meet literary fashions of the moment. Because the term regionalism implies geographical and spatial dimensions, we should give special attention to material, tangible, even objective realities. Regionalism is best appreciated if its perspective is centered in the dynamics of social, economic, cultural, and biological change. Such an approach provides the best means to understand the persistent and increasing ability of humans to direct and control the forces of nature, the centerpiece to some of the best regional studies.1

Although our descriptions of places are fraught with ambiguity and sometimes blur the boundaries of culture and nature, scholars writing about the Pacific Northwest have usually defined the region in terms of the extensive Columbia River system, the vast North Pacific watershed that provides a physical description for people with a passion for geographic bounding. Referred to during the early years of European American penetration of the region as the Oregon Country, imperial policymakers eventually negotiated the political boundaries of the Pacific Northwest that we know today. But the greater transborder region represented more than a simple, politically circumscribed geography, because common cultures, resources and economics often transected the international boundary. In rough chronology, the Northwest's written narrative have featured Indian-white relations, the fur trade, subsistence agriculture, fishing, wheat farming in the interior, logging and lumbering, and the eventual industrialization of all forms of economic endeavor. Through more than 200 years of history, the more enduring and constant theme has centered on relations between the original occupants of the land and those who came to dominate the region.

For more than 150 years, Pacific Northwest writers have sought out the region's shared stories and traditions in an attempt to explain the common features of its places and people. They have also pursued larger questions about geography and the temporal nature of regions: "Where does a region begin?" In the more conventional regional studies, it has been customary to look to contemporary political boundaries to define spatial limits, lines of demarcation that reflected geopolitical and geometrical convenience rather than cultural or ecological reality. such boundaries meant little to aboriginal people, Mouat points out, because they possessed "their own sense of identity and region." Even more significant, he suggests, are the boundaries between nations states such as the forty-ninth parallel, al line "born of Euclidean geometry and geopolitics" that imposed an imperial agreement between England and the United States across the Northwest landscape. What Mouat and several other contributors to this volume offer is a framework of inquiry that embraces observable and empirical ways to assess changes in population, production, perception, the cultural interface with the natural world, and a host of other issues.

Since World War II, the revolutionary forces of an increasingly aggressive global economy have threatened to undermine regional culture and what had once been deep-rooted local traditions. Postwar affluence, the growing mobility of the professional classes, and the accelerating movement of capital around the glove have posed ever-greater challenges to the efficacy and meaning of regionalism. By the late twentieth century, placeless (and faceless) business people, many of them rooted in the world of information technology, were remaking former resource-dependent communities into gentrified and gentile homelands, a reflection of a sudden investment of new wealth and new values. Escalating real estate prices and rising tax base increasingly threatened lone-time residents in many rural settings. But gentrification has also crept into the working-class districts of major metropolitan areas such as Portland, Oregon; Seattle, Washington; and Vancouver, British Columbia endangering the process an older, deeper-rooted Northwest with its own complex and fascinating stories.

Michael Malone, the historian to whom this book is affectionately dedicated, believed that any fresh approach to understanding the American West should be multifacted and that it should recognize the region's significant features: its abiding aridity; the presence of the federal government; the importance of its extractive industries; and the persistent integration of the West with the global economy.2 Although those criteria fit the Pacific northwest only imperfectly because of the marine climate that prevails from the Cascade Mountains to the Pacific Ocean, the writer David Laskin notes that much of the humid northwest has less annual precipitation than New England, the Middle Atlantic, most of the Midwest, and almost all of the Southeast. But still, he argues, the "damp myth" persists in regional lore and literature and is intimately associated with the region's identity. It should also be said that the most productive agricultural area in the Northwest in terms of dollar return is Oregon's marion County. where irrigation water during the dry summer months makes possible an incredibly diverse bounty of fruit, vegetable, and grain crop production. The maritime Northwest, Laskin contends, has the greatest seasonal fluctuation between wet and dry of any region in the United States.

The second trademark that Malone identifies for the American West if an appropriate fit for the Pacific Northwest. The heavy presence of federal authority in Alaska and its equally important role in the economic and political life of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and the mountain counties of western Montana is apparent to everyone. If the american public is fascinated with the West as a unique place, then federal lands in the greater Northwest hold some of its most attractive treasures. The region's magnificent national parks, huge public ownerships in forests and rangelands, and an extensive and spectacular seacoast extending from the Columbia River to Alaska's southern coastline speak to a profound federal influence.3 The interests of the U.S. government in the far western reaches of the continent, Keith Benson indicates, appeared early and ultimately proved to be an enduring phenomenon. The imperial-minded Thomas Jefferson's directive to send Lewis and Clark to the Columbia river was one of the first examples of "federal expenditure in support of basic or applied science in the United States." The great railroad reconnaissance missions of the mid-1850's and the land surveys of the same period heralded similar federal activities in the region. Of course, the 1846 Oregon Boundary treaty itself, reflecting the collective ambitions of empire builders in Washington, D.C., and London, will continue to attract our attention as foreign border crossings, in the Far West between Canada and the United States become points of controversy.

The federal presence in the greater Northwest is especially apparent in the long-running political battles over government control of sizable portions of the region's land base. Nowhere is this more obvious than in Alaska, where the federal government owns 60 percent of the state's land base in conservation, military, and natural resource reserves. As Alaska historian Stephen Haycox indicates, "the federal government was the biggest employer and biggest spender in Alaska between 1940 and 1970," and today the state continues to rank very high in per capita federal spending. With its economy heavily dependent on natural resource extraction, Alaska's Northwest states. But with the state' s's burgeoning tourist economy now bringing in more than 1 million people a year, the time may be ripe for crafting what economist Thomas Michael Power Calls new environmental/economic stories.

Gail Wells indicates the complexities of those stories in her account of the different meanings that rural and urban oregonians attach to the state's Tillamook Forest, a vast timbered area that was repeatedly burned over in a series of dramatic fires between 1933 and 1951. When public-spirited Oregonians replanted the more than 350,000 acres in the 1950s, Wells describes the collective effort as "a deep attachment and affection for their landscape." The new stands of Douglas fir that eventually carpeted the old Tillamook burn represented a kind of human power over nature, and, Wells argues the replanted forest "became an icon of Oregon's cultural identity." But the utility of the new tillamook has been the subject of contentious debate between local interests who want access to the fresh stands of timber and urban communities in the state who want the forest preserved for its amenity values. What is needed most in this dispute, Wells contends, is a fresh narrative about the forest that is more complex, reflects our own person ambiguities toward nature, and suggests the need for some sort of compromise between the those who want to preserve the spiritual values of our forests and those who believe in the necessity of using them.

Thomas Michael Power suggests that it is time to move beyond the region's traditional economic stories, folk tales that have "become cultural beliefs unrelated to current economic reality." Power argues that today's new economic wisdom also suggest the need for new environmental stories, the "forces that are actually transforming our economy rather than focusing on the past." These new economic realities are vested in amenity values and nourishing the region's scenic splendors, the very features that attracted Connecticut investment analyst William Smith and his family to Bend, Oregon, for its mountainous vistas and access to outdoor recreation. "Now we're living where others are fortunate enough just to visit," he told the Eugene Register-Guard. "This business is portable--we can live anywhere we want."4 As such, William Smith is representative of what John Brinckerhoff Jackson has called the 'landscape of the temporary," people who are weakening place as a central experience in everyday life. Such free-floating mobility and placelessness presents a new set of challenges to sustaining a regional identity. According to the writer William Leach, Smith and others like him are undermining the notion that people have a civic responsibility to act as caring stewards for the places they call home.5

With demise of the Soviet Union and the full-blown emergence of global capitalism, there is abundant evidence that the historically migratory character of the Northwest population may be accelerating in recent years. Those developments have heightened the spirit of placelessness that seems to pervade the thinking of many newcomers to the Northwest. A Few years ago, the Wall Street Journal referred to migratory business professionals such as William Smith as the "footloose soldiers" of "history's mightiest cultural and commercial empire," a floating population rooted seemingly everywhere and nowhere at once. In his angry but provocative study, Country of Exiles, William Leach contends that such attitudes are "subversive of the notion of place" and promote the idea of placelessness as a ruling presence in our lives.6

Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, an otherwise unabashed admirer of globalism, points to the high risks for regional cultural and economic autonomy in his best-selling book, The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization. His argument followed the reasoning of the conservative economist. Joseph Schumpeter, who described the essence of capitalism as "the process of 'creative destruction,'" in which innovation supplants tradition and the present and future replace the past. The current era of globalization, Friedman warned, has caused widespread fear in traditional communities because of its capacity "to destroy the environment and uproot cultures." Seattle's Microsoft, Boise's Micron, and other manufacturers of cyber stuff are providing the infrastructure for the vastly accelerating pace of change in the nation's business culture that is weakening the meaning of place of citizens' lives.7

The transformation of former resource-based communities such as Bend, Oregon; Coeur d"Alene, Idaho; and Leavenworth, Washington are part of the continuing integration of the regional with the global economy (Bend added nearly 3,000 new residents in the last six months of 1993 alone).8 Alaskan coastal ports selling themselves to visiting cruise ships are certainly part of the new emerging globalism along with the influential tourist bureaus in every Northwest state and in British Columbia, each in their own way in the business of promoting their spectacular outback regions to make money. It is fair to point out, however, that Alaska has loudly protested the discharge of polluted water by cruise ships in the Inside Passage. Affirming a sense of regional identity and renewing the ties of affection that bind people to places can provide a powerful counterforce against placeless globalism.

In the introduction to Regionalism and the Pacific Northwest, a collection of essays published in the early 1980s, I observed that the study of regions was fraught with ambivalence and irony and that the intellectual confusion associated with such an activity might well be a lasting condition.9 One of the contributors to that volume, Richard Maxwell Brown, pointed out that scholars had never been able to agree on a singular approach to regionalism because of the inherent ambiguity and lack of precision involved. He concluded that fluidity and change, which was true for all scholarly inquiry, appeared to be he hallmarks of regionalism.10 But there was common agreement among most of the volume's contributors that the best regional studies were predicated on geographic and social reality and enjoyed some association "with loyalty to and sense of place."11 For scholars working the ground of environmental history, the reference to physically bounded places has special significance. A decade ago, historian William Cronon advised those specializing in the interface between humans and the environment to pursue "the tasks of finding subtler tools for building bridges among ecosystems, economies, and the cognitive lenses through which people view the world." Cronon believed that those tools were most apparent at the local and regional level.12

Although 'regionalism and regional identity are frustratingly slippery terms," as William Lang's essay indicates, the importance and meaning attached to such references pervades our thinking. Writing in the immediate aftermath of World War II, Roy Bessey, a planner and Interior Department field coordinator, reflected that some of the best thinking about regional problems was found in the Pacific Northwest. For Depression-era policymakers seeking a way out of the social chaos of unemployment and hardship, the best approach was to view the region " as an economic, political, and cultural unit. We in this area, "Bessey told a Reed College audience," are bound together geographically, physically, and psychologically." According to Bessey, formerly with the National Resources Planning Board, metropolitan influences and the transportation and hydropower potential of the Northwest's great river system bound the region together as a coherent unit. In the world of public affairs, especially among practical-minded planners, the Northwest was a distinct place with unbounded potential for improvement.13

Bessey's reference points, of course, were bureaucratic and addressed to the efficient development and administration of natural resources. Such singular and focused approaches to regionalism were devoid of ambiguity, speculation, and local nostalgia. In an essay published a decade ago, Michael malone warned scholars to avoid that which as "romantic, antiquarian, and . . . Irrelevant to achieving a true regionalism." For the greater American West to achieve a sense of itself, Malone suggested, the real challenge for scholars was to take advantage of public affection for the past to advance a convincing argument.14 To carry out such a task, writers should use their expertise as public intellectuals to examine myths and engage audiences in a dialogue about the meaning of the symbols and traditions that drive regional discussions. Historical understanding (and museum exhibits that strive to confront the complexities of culture and place) offer a way to enhance self-awareness about valuable local knowledge. In fact, the most attractive feature of the best Northwest writing has been its presentist impulse, scholars who have served as moral and ethical voices for a responsible civic conscience. My purpose here is not to survey such literature, but to remind readers of the important function provided by those who have written with compassion about the region and who provide a moral compass through their writing.

Katrine Barber, whose chapter takes readers on a narrative tour of the federally sponsored columbia Gorge Discovery Center (The Dalles, Oregon) and the Yakima Nation Cultural Heritage Center (Toppenish, Washington), illustrates persuasively the social responsibility of that enterprise. Those who monopolize museum narrative presentations, she reminds us, stifle alternative viewpoints and otherwise sanitize what is presented to the public. Quintart Taylor tells a parallel account of the hitherto silent stories of two African American women social activists who fought for social justice and racial equality in the region. In bringing these remarkable lives to public attention, he provides us with a powerful reminder that in matters of racial tolerance and racial equality, the pacific Northwest shared much with the rest of the nation. Susie Revels Cayton and Beatrice morrow Cannady, Taylor argues, are striking examples of two people whose experiences illustrate that the struggle "for social justice transcends racial, gender, and regional boundaries." Their lives also remind us that "standard" stories about the Northwest have a different meaning to its African American residents.

Roberta Ulrich's recent book, Empty Nets: Indians, Dams, and the Columbia River, is yet another reminder about the sixty-year collective struggle of a people in search of justice, the effort of mid-Columbia River Indians to gain replacement sites for their traditional fishing areas flooded in the Bonneville pool. Ulrich, a journalist who worked for United Press International and then the Oregonian, was the first reporter to regularly cover Native American issues for the Portland newspaper. In Empty Nets, she tells with passion and conviction the story of the River Indians' long and agonizing fight to assert their treaty-guaranteed right to fish "in their usual and accustomed places." But while they jousted with the Army Corps of Engineers, the river that coursed through their ancestral lands changed, the water grew warmer as the number of upstream dams increased, and the once abundant salmon runs, the lifeblood of aboriginal populations and arguable a regional icon for us all, continued to diminish. Finally, the National Marine Fisheries Service listed three species of salmon for protection under the Endangered Species Act. Empty Nets is a millennial story, linking 10,000 years of the region's human history with the twenty-first century.15

The essays in this book remind us that we pass through an ages-old, storied, and always changing landscape in our travels about the Northwest: the physical environment itself; Native American ecosystems; the early white settler regime; the industrialized landscape; and the modern "built" environment of cities, suburbs, and tourist destinations in our recreational back country.16 Although most people in the greater Pacific northwest now live in urban corridors--the Puget Lowlands, the Willamette Valley, the Spokane and Boise Valleys, lower British Columbia, and metropolitan Anchorage--the spacious countryside beyond those settings continues to fascinate and otherwise occupy our thinking. It can be said with some truth that the region's sense of well-being has been centered on celebrating the big outdoors. Long before Gore-Tex, Northwest residents looked to the sea, the Cascade Range, the Northern Rocky Mountains, the fjordlike northern Pacific Coast, and Alaska's amazing geography for recreational and spiritual nurture. For many in the Northwest, that affection for coastal waterways and the great outback beyond reflects the growing affluence of its population since World War II. It also suggest an attachment to the region's magnificent physical iconography, to a less layered landscape bereft of the effects of the built environment.

But the contributors to this volume make clear that regional narrative are never crisp, certain, and unequivocal. The stories about many of our places, Katrine Barber suggests, are highly contested: "We wage battles to determine dominant narrative because it is through stories that we build an understanding of place and of ourselves in connection to that place." We live, after all, in a long-inhabited region, one that traces its earliest human inhabitants to at least the late Pleistocene. The setting for Celilo Falls on the columbia river, Barber suggests, is a multilayered landscape with a richly textured culture and history. Presently inundated in the reservoir behind The Dalles Dam, the site was once the location of numerous wooden scaffolds built on basalt outcroppings and extending over the roaring water falls; adjacent to the falls were the drying sheds of a native fishery that dates back several millennia. this, the new regional identity associated with the Columbia River is literally an engineered phenomenon, a reminder that regions are often created through the destruction of other representations of place, including indigenous ones.

In the years following World War II, the busy working river a Celilo Falls ultimately gave way in 1957 to the vast stillness and sluggish waters that welled up behind The Dalles Dam. Where dozens of fishermen once deftly walked the scaffolding and where cables once crisscrossed the river, the area now lives on only in memory and in fading black-and-white photographs in historical museums. The ancient fishery at Celilo Falls fell victim to burgeoning economic and demographic growth in the Pacific Northwest, a boom that rolled out across the countryside, bringing good wages to the traditional lumber and agricultural sectors and beyond. Augmented by money flowing into defense and aerospace industries, especially around Puget Sound, federal funding attracted new people, additional capital, and fresh ideas. The Cold War rhetoric of those years created a sense of crisis, an atmosphere in which opposition to the big projects on the Columbia and its tributaries was deemed unpatriotic, un-American, and opposed to progress.

Fueled by the Soviet threat and fears of an energy shortage, policymakers and engineers in the nation's capital and a host of regional developers and politicians joined together to push through the last of the giant dam projects on the Columbia River system. When the work was done, the huge concrete structures turned generators, helped bring arid lands into cultivation, and provided convenient and cheep ship passage upstream.

Further upriver, postwar development plans embroiled the United States in transborder negotiations with Canada and the province of British Columbia, Again, the issue centered on controlling the flow of the great Columbia. Again, the issue centered on controlling the flow of the great waterway and the allocation of waters between the two nations. With the signing of the columbia river Treaty of 1961, Canada and the United States appeared to have resolved the issue of apportioning development of the river. However, when British Columbia posed objections to the agreement made in Ottawa, all came unraveled. control over the province's resources lay at the center of the haggling between the federal capital and provincial leaders in Victoria. Finally, with the 1963 election of Liberal Party candidate Lester B. Pearson as prime minister, matters moved to a close. Pearson, who believed the United States would get most of the benefits under the existing agreement, called for an immediate resumption of negotiations. President Lyndon Johnson and Prime Minister Pearson signed the second Columbia River Treaty and Protocol in September 1964, and agreement that ended twenty years of bitter wrangling over allocating water and hydropower between the two countries. Under the terms of the treaty, Canada agreed to complete three dams by 1973 that would provide 20.5 million acre-feet of storage; in return, the United States would finance most of the construction costs and purchase the hydropower.17

Those international protocols further advanced the ability of the greater Northwest to produce cheap hydropower and provided an additional attraction to investment capitalists. The inexpensive kilowatts and industrial rate fees proved a boon to the energy-consumptive aluminum industry, provided cheap electrical power to the Boeing Company, and lay the infrastructure for the eventual emergence of the high-tech sector. While metropolitan sprawl was extending further from Seattle, Portland, Spokane, Boise, Anchorage, and Vancouver British Columbia, some rural counties (especially east of the Cascade Range) actually lost population as agriculture, mining, and logging activity became increasingly mechanized. Like much of the rest of the nation, the postwar Northwest was comprised of a people in motion, many of whom were losing their provincial commitments and connectedness to place. "Our migratoriness," Wallace Stegner observed, was increasingly hindering us "from becoming a people of communities and traditions,"18 those new globalist threats to localism, traditional economic activity, and place-centered cultures and the influx of professionally mobile people from outside the Northwest threaten to weaken further regional autonomy. The important question for civic-minded regionalists, in my view, is to develop appropriate strategies to cope with the corporatization and homogenization of what we deem to be local and unique without, at the same moment, indulging in the defense of the quaint and anachronistic.

Notes

  1. See Donald Worster, Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979); Richard White, Land-Use, Environment, and Social Change: The Shaping of Island County, Washington (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1980); and William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983).
  2. Michael P. Malone, "Beyond the Last Frontier: Toward a New Approach to Western American History," Western Historical Quarterly 20 (November 1989): 417.
  3. Michael P. Malone, "The 'New Western History,' An Assessment," in Trails: Toward a New Western History, ed. Patricia Nelson Limerick, Clyde A. Milner II, and Charles E. Rankin (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1991), 100-102.
  4. Eugene Register-Guard, 16 August 1998.
  5. William Leach, Country of Exiles: The Destruction of Place in American Life (New York: Pantheon Books, 1999), 6, 16.
  6. Ibid., 28-29, 65. For the Wall Street Journal quotation, see p. 65.
  7. Thomas L. Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1999), 9, 11, 27.
  8. Bend Bulletin, 5 November 1993.
  9. William G. Robbins, Robert J. Frank, and Richard E. Ross, eds., Regionalism and the Pacific Northwest (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1983), 1-9.
  10. Richard Maxwell Brown, "The New Regionalism in America, 1970-1981," in Ibid., 62.
  11. Ibid,1.
  12. William Cronon, "Modes of {Prophecy and Production: Placing Nature in History," Journal of American History 76 (March 1990): 1130.
  13. Bessey's remarks are in Ernest Haycox, "Is There a Northwest?" in Northwest Harvest: A Regional Stocktaking (New York: MacMillan Company, 1948), 51n.
  14. Malone, "The New Western History," 99
  15. Roberta Ulrich, Empty Nets: Indians, Dams and the Columbia River (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1999) see especially 216-229.
  16. These ideas are borrowed from Edward Countrymen, Americans: A Collision of Histories (New York: Hill and Wang, 1996), 109.
  17. Paul C. Pitzer, Grand-Coulee: Harnessing a Dream (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1994) 338-340.
  18. Stegner is quoted in Leach, Country of Exiles, 28-29.
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