This week I am sharing an older piece originally written 30 years ago about the Columbia Gorge and how it stirred my visions for a better world in a place called Cascadia. Wherever you live, I hope you find such a place, and let it stir your own.
700 feet of water
ancient lava flows,
what water emptied
forms this beauty.
Never forget power,
ancient power of
lives here today
We see it calm
it was born in watery rage.
Sunday afternoon. First sunny spring Sunday after interminable winter rains, so Crown Point is crowded. Tourists. Locals. People in antique cars. Bikers. Cascadians seeking to fulfill long pangs and hungers for sunshine, taking in the rays like a wanderer might lap down the first water they’ve seen after days lost in the desert.
Crown Point is hundreds of feet above the Columbia River. Bonneville Dam is visible 20 miles up the Columbia Gorge on this clear and sunny day. Its orange high tension towers are framed by steep forested slopes that line the Gorge. Nearly to the dam, the remnant of an ancient volcano juts high into the air. Beacon Rock is one of the planet’s ranking rock outcroppings.
The visioning starts here, at Crown Point, with its panoramic overview of the Columbia Gorge. This vista reveals the two defining landforms of the Northwest – the Columbia River and the Cascade Mountains – come together as one. The span of the Gorge embodies the region’s climatic contrast. The eastern end, golden brown and nearly treeless, is the start of the arid inland Northwest. The western end manifests the very soul of Pacific Cascadia, lush, magical forests dressed in mist and moss.
From the Gorge the land rises toward three great Cascadian stratovolcanoes, Mts. Hood, St. Helens and Adams, though their native names so more fully express the music of their soaring visages, Wyeast, Loowit and Klickitat. I prefer and use these names over the blasé Anglo names of one-time admirals, ambassadors and presidents. The Gorge is the child of the tempestuous marriage of the volcanic earth, the big river and the Noachian floods it has channeled. Always melting mountain snows spurt out into a large family of Gorge waterfalls, while the mountains’ eruptions can be expected to occasionally layer in new landscapes.
The juxtaposition of mountains and water is the source of the Cascade Range’s name. Explorer David Douglas, climbing a cliff in the Gorge near present day Bonneville, viewed the waterfall-rich Gorge and the stunning volcanic peaks towering above. He called them the “Mountains by the Cascades.” “Cascadia is a land of falling waters,” wrote David McCloskey, a true visionary of this place, and creator of the most commonly used maps. If falling waters define the region, then the dense gathering of waterfalls in the Gorge makes it the spiritual heart of Cascadia.
In the same way the region’s most significant natural features come together in the Gorge, the major stress fractures dividing the human and natural worlds are also summed in this landscape: dams, salmon and the competing uses of water; forests and logging; the impingement of the cities on the countryside. The Gorge stirs musings on both the conflict between humans and nature, and how the two might discover a more harmonious flow.
The Gorge channels the central artery of circulation for an almost unimaginable region. Rolling by here are waters drained from the Grand Tetons in Wyoming, from the interior mountains of British Columbia, from the Continental Divide at the top of the Montana Rockies some 500 miles to the east. The waters wend down through inland mountain ranges, the Columbia Basin, the Cascade rainshadow deserts — draining Idaho, Eastern Washington and much of Oregon.
Beyond Crown Point the Columbia swells as it joins rivers emptying some of the wettest places on earth. Nearing the Pacific Coast it becomes a long and wide estuary, then one of the wildest, most dangerous joinings of a river and ocean on the planet. The largest river on the west coast of the Americas, the Columbia influences the ocean for hundreds of miles west, north and south.
Later channels of human activity piggybacked on the Columbia’s route render my perch at Crown Point far from a place of quiet meditation. Interstate 84’s river of steel, glass and concrete incessantly rumbles down the Gorge floor. Every semi pushes its own sonic wave through this deep trough. Multiple engines pulling a mile-long train punch through with a bass-rhythmic drone, putting a backbeat to this symphony of transportation. A hefty tug with 3,000 horsepower in its gut lets off a whir somehow both smooth and grinding as it pushes a river barge toward the Bonneville locks. Smaller pleasure craft dot the river but steer clear.
The river was Lewis and Clark’s route, and the highway that began the Euro-American settlement of the Northwest. Before railroad moguls Hill and Harriman laid their competing tracks on the river’s north and south banks, Oregon Trail pioneers came down the river on rafts. Then steamships plodded up and down the river, creating a historic current of relation between Portland and the lands east of the mountains. Old Portland’s merchants once dominated inland Cascadia.
The steel and asphalt channels that grew like symbiotic parasites off the path made by the river carry a lot more traffic now. Maybe someday the river will wash them away the same way it carved this Gorge. In some of the greatest floods known, which took place a mere 12,000 to 15,000 years or so ago, the massive Ice Age lake in the Northern Rockies created by glacial ice dams repeatedly floated them and cut loose with enough water to drown land to the Pacific Coast. Terrestrial tsunamis hundreds of feet tall scoured the landscape. Glacial Lake Missoula broke out over 100 times, transforming a narrow, V-shaped river valley through the Cascades into a wide gorge marked with sharp outcroppings of rock. The magical waterfalls fly from ancient creekbeds shaved in midcourse by the floods.
Now modern humanity has created its own controlled flood behind the many huge hydroelectric dams in the Columbia’s watershed. Some believe this has re-created the conditions for a new great inundation. A failure at one large upstream dam could send a wall of water causing a chain reaction snapping dams all the way to Bonneville, they speculate. Another ironic possibility opened by the white settlement of this land, by our Euro-American hubris.
I check out an Oregon Trail commemoration at Crown Point’s Vista House. Parked across from the historic stone-and-glass, Alpine-style lookout, a wagon and tipi commemorate the 150th anniversary of the trail (1993 as I write these words). The wagon is a lot narrower than I expected. Must’ve been a tough ride. Older folks in authentic pioneer garb toast marshmallows at a fire outside a pioneer tent. Some are probably descendants of people who crammed into those tight little wagons, but I doubt they had marshmallows on the trail.
I cannot help but empathize with the courage of trekking months across two-thirds of a continent on the strength of a dream. A humble little pile of rocks similar to a grave the pioneers left on the trail props up a wooden marker noting between “18-35,000 RIP” along the way. Though that doesn’t count the natives they shot, including a lot of friendly ones – the least sympathetic aspect of their journey.
The Gorge remains a route for wanderers infused with varied dreams. California always has beckoned as a western Shangri-La. But the Oregon Country, what we know now as the Northwest or Cascadia, was the original paradise of the far west. Utopians and dreamers of many strains were streaming to Oregon even before the U.S. stole California from the Mexicans. California and the modern Northwest still draw people seeking some or another kind of golden vista, and share in common a large percentage of population born elsewhere. This is a place to make a new start, in some eyes maybe even start a new world.
Yet if any truly new world is to rise here, it will be the diametric opposite of older new worlds, which were always new worlds to conquer. The exploration in Cascadia is rather a search for a harmony that lived here before us raging, hungry Europeans first came down the trail, down this river. We seek a new land of the mind and spirit that gives life a sense of reason and purpose. Now that an age of ruthless exploitation has driven material dreams against the wall, we look for an inner wealth of comity and connection, with the land and each other. We attempt to discover whether any new world can be called forth from this landscape, whether bleak, ravenous Western man will soon exhaust this seeming last paradise, or whether the paradisiacal can be rediscovered in the context we have created here.
It is the belief, the faith, that even in the mundane worlds of this political economy a new world can be born, that carries my Cascadian muse.
Can a scene, by its very magic and symmetry, birth a vision? If any one can, this one can. Today, clouds wreath the Gorge, caress the points, fill the top two-thirds of the scene with intricate, flowing shades from near snow-white patches to black-gray etchings, all kinds of gradings and variations. Living in Cascadia, one learns to appreciate the details in clouds as a substitute for sunshine. It is the days of undifferentiated gray that depress, not today.
Something in this scene is so full, so intimate, I can nearly break my heart reaching for it, trying to grab it. Yet it cannot be caught, only let in. I have often come to the Gorge in lonely, empty times, but this vista fills me. This scene is a mirror in which I seek my reflection, my place in this life. Over a long passage of years it has become a familiar friend. I feel this place as solace, company from which I learn and see lessons to take back to the human community.
It’s a tourist’s paradise at Crown Point, cameras out. And still I come here to practice the ancient craft of symbol-making, scrivening. Only language can carry my inner vision.
I walk below the Columbia Gorge Highway, which curls around Vista House, to more private perches beyond. I can’t imagine that these were not Native vision questing places. Now the elaborately folded clouds have gone further upriver, blown by a gentle wind. The sky is white-gray, gradually shading darker. In gentle flux this evening, the Gorge is always a weather generator spun by the climatic extremes on either end. This is one of the world’s dynamic places.
Here in this space of vision I see the place to which my life has come. It’s a human-scaled place. Cascadia is my macrocosm in the microcosm, my holographic piece of Earth that embodies the whole. And a place to express my joined practices of ecology and journalism, using story to understand how human and natural communities flow across the landscape, open a comprehensive vista.
The place I come to is, of necessity, visionary. For the answers and systems of the present do not satisfy, are no answers at all, just a train about to derail. Some better vision is called for.
I have seen the ecological society, have seen humans regain an understanding of themselves and their place in life, for ecology is the science of community.
I have seen our stupid and suicidal economy turn to human fulfillment and creativity, to a dynamic interplay nourishing human nature and all of nature alike, for ecology is the study of energy flows.
Somewhere, in my mind, my imagination, my vision space, I have seen these things.
Ecology is my way of seeing. The ecological view is also the way the human story will come out, I think, as the general systems language upon which a functional new world will be built.
For an ecosystem sense of the world, from the peaks of the mountains and high-country forests to the valleys, rivers and cities. From the top of the mountain to the inner-city neighborhood. Here is my seer’s peak, my high place from which to observe the world, standing here overlooking the Gorge.
Pay attention to context, sight tells me. Design our society, lives and communities within the ecological framework, and we will prosper, maybe even find some genuinely founded happiness in this life. Message from this core of reality, here at Crown Point.
Sometime well into the evening of a long summer day, inside the lengthening light, musing in my temple Earth. The cloud ceiling makes this an intimate, yet wide and large room, this Columbia River Gorge. Mosquitoes attack the “higher” life form. I squirm but don’t stop writing for a second. I am too busy biting larger bugs of social-ecological blindness.
Now comes thick rain, its mist catching the light to make this all feel so much more like a dream. The wall between exterior and interior dissolves. I feel myself inside this scene and this scene inside me. Rain increases, as if to acknowledge my receptivity. This landscape can make the world. Empty inside fills. Empties. Fills. Empties. Always goes like this, like this river.
Teaser photo credit: Columbia Gorge from Chanticleer Point. Crown Point and Vista House are seen in the upper right hand. Credit: U.S. Forest Service