Cascadia, the Elusive Utopia: book review, part 2

Yesterday, I posted initial thoughts about the book Cascadia, the Elusive Utopia: Exploring the Spirit of the Pacific Northwest. In the first post I gave an overview of the text, and here I approach the question of where Cascadia is, and whether or not there is a nature-based spirituality in this region. Tomorrow I’ll discuss whether or not any nature-based spirituality found here can be properly termed a “civil religion,” which some of the authors of Cascadia, the Elusive Utopia assert.

Where is Cascadia?

Although individuals involved in ecology and bioregionalism have used the term “Cascadia” for at least 25 years, it is perhaps not a term known to most, whether local or outside the region. It is also not a geographical location that is easily defined, even by the authors of the book. Editor Douglas Todd defines Cascadia, for the purposes of this text, as Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. He defines it thus in order to use data collected based on state and province boundaries.

Not all the contributors utilize these geographical boundaries. Philip Resnick discusses Cascadia as a “rainforest climate” (Resnick in Todd, 2008, 119), which only pertains to the western portion of the region. Elsewhere in the book, the Rocky Mountains are mentioned as the “backbone” of the region (Wexler in Todd, 2008, 216). The Cascade Mountains and the Rocky Mountains begin in Alaska and run south through California and southeast through Idaho and Montana, respectively. Some maps of Cascadia also include portions of Nevada and Utah (see map at left).

If we define Cascadia as a bioregion based on geography, the region is decidedly larger than Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, and it contains a much wider range of cultures and spiritual emphases, not to mention a variety of climates, from beaches to high deserts, fertile valleys to rugged mountains, and temperatures from subarctic to subtropical. Defining a uniform culture in this region proves suspect, let alone basing that culture and its spiritual expressions on the region’s geography, since the geography is so varied. If we are to assume a connection between land and culture or spirituality, I think that defining Cascadia so broadly limits the ability to describe meaningful connections between the land and its effect on human populations.

Rather than talking about a bioregion of Cascadia, the Environmental Protection Agency’s website utilizes the term “ecoregion,” defining these regions by attending to climate, geology, and ecology to create ecoregional maps such as the one at right (Environmental Protection Agency website, “Level I-III Ecoregions”). On this map, the region others call “Cascadia” is broken up into smaller, geographically and meteorologically similar regions. West of the Cascades, north into parts of Alaska, and south into the Redwoods, is one ecoregion called the Marine West Coast Forest, while most of the rest of Cascadia, including eastern Oregon, eastern Washington, and Idaho, is in the ecoregions of the Northwest Forested Mountains or the North American Deserts.

In my anecdotal experience, and based on the voting patterns of the area (for example, see the red and blue portions of the map of the Pacific Northwest at left, and the virtual blue line down the “left coast” of the United States), the EPA’s ecoregions describe more clearly the cultural differences apparent in the bioregion of Cascadia. The culture of “spiritual but not religious” emphasizes care for the natural world. This description fits many in the culture of those living west of the Cascade Mountains, which also contains the largest cities of the region.

This map of the “American Nations” shows the region “Cascadia, the Elusive Utopia” terms Cascadia into the Left Coast and The Far West

If we are to posit a bioregional connection between spirituality and the land, the land must be uniform enough to make the connection clearly. Therefore, I would define Cascadia as the Cascade Mountain range west to the Pacific Ocean, which would be the western portion of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, in addition to the northern portion of California and the southern portion of Alaska. Utilizing this definition makes it more possible to note correlations between the culture and the land (see map at right showing cultural “American Nations”). Making generalizations about connections between culture and land are not as possible when discussing the entire region generally called Cascadia, due to its huge variety of geographical and meterological regions.

Is there a nature-based spirituality in Cascadia?

Given that the majority of the population of Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia lives west of the Cascades, we can assume that the polls referred to by the authors regarding culture and spirituality show data mainly from this western ecoregion. If we posit a cultural similarity within this region based partially on the land and partially on the shared history and economy of this region, can we also see a shared spiritual sensibility?

Authors draw our attention to a number of nature-based spiritual practices and religious sects in Cascadia. Most of these find their epicenter west of the Cascades. It is curious to recognize that those living in the western part of Cascadia are apparently more drawn to nature-based spirituality than others from the US and Canada, but the authors do not do the work here of drawing conclusive evidence between the land itself and the propensity for nature-based expressions of spirituality. Since the surveys they refer to did not explicitly ask about nature-based spirituality, we do not know whether those who are “spiritual but not religious” find more meaning in their experiences in nature than in a church building, for example.

We also do not know if this type of connection with nature extends east of the Cascades. Although those living east of the Cascades hold differing political beliefs, outdoor recreational activities are important in eastern Oregon and Washington, Idaho, and Montana. Would those who practice these outdoor activities speak of them in religious terms in the same way as more urban, western Cascadians might?

Another important question that would need to be clarified is whether the culture defined as “Cascadian” is simply an iteration of the urban cultures in the United States and Canada. Certainly, the cities in this region have their own native quirks, as does any city. Is the nature-based spirituality hinted at in Cascadia a reflection of the urban-rural divide, or does it truly reflect the particular land of Cascadia? These questions are not answered in the current work. More research would need to be done to show true correlation, let alone causation, between the geography of the Cascades and the region’s “spiritual but not religious” sentiment.


Todd, Douglas, ed. Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia: Exploring the Spirit of the Pacific Northwest (Vancouver: Ronsdale Press, 2008).

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