As a native Oregonian, hikes in the Cascades and the Coast Range dot my childhood memories. My family and I, as a child and now with my own children, have taken trips to central Oregon’s high desert, the agricultural areas of eastern Washington and Oregon, the Wallowa Mountains, southern Oregon, and the spectacular North Cascades north of Seattle, in addition to a few trips jaunting across the border into British Columbia. The Oregon Coast beckons and serves as a place of rest and renewal, its raw nature calling me back to myself, to my location, to gratefulness for the mystery of the natural world that is so much larger than I. Camping, backpacking, hiking, biking, beach combing, sitting still in the forest, watching the stars, gardening: these activities connect me to the place I live in and to those with whom I’m sharing the experience, and also connect me to Godin a profound way. I recognize the presence of God during a meeting for worship inside a building, but the natural world grounds me spiritually in a way I deeply need and that differs from the way I connect from within the walls of a building. Outdoor experiences also call me to treat this space and its inhabitants with respect and care, recognizing the connection between my health and the health of the world around me, and the design of the Creator who wove consciousness into the make up of human beings.
I know there are many who experience a similar spiritual connection with the land of the Pacific Northwest, especially in its more majestic locations. Is this connection more prevalent in the Pacific Northwest and BC than in other American and Canadian regions? If so, is a spiritual connection based on specific geography? Is there something about the bioregion of Cascadia that draws people to notice a spiritual connection to the land? Is there a specific culture in the Pacific Northwest that is shaped by the land on which we live? Does geography shape the way we interact with the Spirit in this place?
If so, what is this particularity, and where does it come from? How might we define it, if it is separate from a traditionally defined religion? Is it classified as a civil religion, a modified version of an existing religion, or is it a new type of religion growing out of this place and time?
These are the questions with which I approached Cascadia, the Elusive Utopia: Exploring the Spirit of the Pacific Northwest. Setting itself a bold and challenging goal, this work of interdisciplinary essays tackles the question of whether there is a definable culture of Cascadia, how this impacts the region’s spiritual sensibility, and whether this spirituality has anything to do with the geography of the bioregion. Beginning with the term “Cascadia,” which they use to describe the bioregion of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, the authors cite studies indicating a higher percentage of individuals with no religious affiliation compared to individuals in other regions of the United States and Canada. The authors also note a distinct interest in spirituality, especially nature-based spirituality, in some areas of Cascadia. Similar to my own questions, the authors wonder whether there is something about the geography and history of the region that inspires “spiritual but not religious” individuals to relocate here, or whether the landscape itself helps shape this worldview. The text provides rich food for thought, giving just enough background and theory to provide a great deal of learning. It sparks questions for further study, some of which I will explore here.
The basic hypothesis discussed by the authors of Cascadia, the Elusive Utopia is that the bioregion known as Cascadia can be a helpful designation when discerning a particular culture and spirituality of the region, and that the bioregion attracts or grows those with a “spiritual but not religious,” nature-based understanding of spirituality more consistently than other regions of North America, due partially to the land itself. Some authors accepted and attempted to prove this hypothesis, while others rejected it.
From my own experience and from reading this and other texts, I do notice a propensity for those in this region to care for the natural world and practice a form of spirituality that is not as firmly tied to a particular religion compared with other regions. I question the assumptions of some of the authors, however, regarding the geographical boundaries of Cascadia, their ability to clearly connect nature-based spirituality with this bioregion’s landscape, and the designation by some authors that this nature-based spirituality is a “civil religion.”
I am breaking this review into three parts in order to make each post a manageable length. In this post, I will give a brief overview of the text. In part 2, I will discuss differing views on the geographical region under discussion when we use the term “Cascadia,” and then discuss whether or not the authors of Cascadia, the Elusive Utopia provide ample justification for positing a nature-based spirituality in this region. In part 3, I will turn to the question of whether such a nature-based spirituality can legitimately be called a “civil religion,” and also suggest areas for future research.
Overview of the Text
Cascadia, the Elusive Utopia contains essays by a wide range of authors from various disciplines, complete with author bios at the end of the book. The authors are historians, environmentalists, theologians and religious academics, literary personages, scientists and social scientists, political scientists, and ethicists, as well as a member of one of the tribes of the First Nations. They are mostly Oregonians, Washingtonians, or British Columbians, though a few outside voices were included as well. Each essay is well written and engaging. The book contains five sections of full-color photographs that illustrate places and individuals highlighted throughout the book, including maps. There is also a helpful index and a few endnotes per chapter.
The main basis for writing a book about the spirituality of the Pacific Northwest is a series of studies showing that a larger number of citizens of this region do not claim a particular religion compared to other regions, and yet they do not all count themselves as atheists. This leads several authors to conclude that Cascadians are “spiritual but not religious,” and many posit the presence of a nature-based spirituality in the Northwest. Mark A. Shibley writes a chapter entitled, “The Promise and Limits of Secular Spirituality in Cascadia,” pointing out that compared to the 14% of Americans generally who say they have no religion, 25% of Oregonians and Washingtonians say they have no religion, and more than 33% of British Columbians say the same. Also, 63% of those in Oregon and Washington are not connected to a particular worshiping community, and 80% of British Columbians. Contrary to the assumption this points to a lack of spirituality in the region, Shibley also notes that only 5-7% of Oregonians and Washingtonians and 14% of British Columbians say they are atheists (p. 34). This means that a large portion of Cascadians are “spiritual but not religious,” either involved in some sort of secular spirituality such as a civil religion, creating their own religion, so to speak, through their nature encounters, or they identify with a particular religion but prefer to practice it outside the walls of an institutional meeting space.
Each essay in this book contained interesting information, though the book as a whole lacked cohesiveness in areas such as: 1) the definition of Cascadia, 2) convincing the reader that there is a definable and unified culture of this bioregion, and 3) concrete evidence of any connection between spirituality and landscape in the region. I turn now to exploring each of these in turn in the next two posts.