Northwest Reverence, Frustration, and Vision

To celebrate 27 years of publishing Whatcom Watch, we will be printing excerpts from 20 years ago. The below review is from the May 1998 issue of Whatcom Watch.

Editor’s Note: “The Good Rain” was selected by the Whatcom Community College faculty as the 1998 “Book of the Year.” Timothy Egan was the Pacific Northwest correspondent for The New York Times in 1998. He is currently an op-ed columnist for the paper.

The Good Rain
Across Time and Terrain in the Pacific Northwest
by Timothy Egan
Knopf, 1990

Reviewed by Adam Borries

From the introductory pages of “The Good Rain,” Timothy Egan establishes his appreciation for this beautiful country, a theme which he echoes throughout the book. The story begins when Egan climbs through Mount Rainier National Park in search of an appropriate resting place for his grandfather’s ashes, someplace that would return him to the streams he loved to fish. At last he comes to a glacier on the north side of the mountain — perfect. His mission completed, he becomes intrigued by the glacier named Winthrop. Curious as to how such a white, Puritan name found its place among the native Indian names around it, he discovers the glacier bears the name of a nineteenth century traveler, Theodore Winthrop.

Fascinated by Winthrop’s record of his journeys through the Pacific Northwest, Egan resolves to follow his footsteps, and thus begins his adventure. Along his journey, Egan expresses his high regard for the region and its history, but not without a deep frustration over the fact that so much of it has been lost and cannot be recovered. Even so, he does not despair that the land will be lost completely, but rather hopes that man will finally be reconciled with nature.

Wherever he goes, Egan shows appreciation, even awe, of the mixture of beauty and power in the northwest territory. In the very first chapter, he visits the mouth of the Columbia River, the symbol of Northwestern power. Egan marvels at the incredible weight of the current as he describes the coldness of the waves splashing over the edge of the boat from the throat of this monster as it “collides head-on with the Pacific breakers” (p.17).

Later, Egan visits Crater Lake, the great pool of the Cascade Mountains which lay hidden from white men for so long. Visitors, gazing on the spectacular lake from the platform of the national park’s viewing center, nearly have the fresh, clean air taken from their breath by the hypnotic sight of the deep blue lake. Every chapter of the book, be it on the cities of the Northwest coast, the wildlife, or the ice-capped mountains, reflects Egan’s reverence.

Egan’s appreciation becomes even more apparent as he gives the history of the places he visits. In the case of the Columbia River mouth, Egan tells of how long explorers searched in vain for the passage which would open up the Northwest. Guarded by a bar of camouflage, the Columbia was sought by and kept from such famous explorers as Francis Drake and Juan de Fuca; even Captain James Cook tried and failed three times. A former midshipman of Cook’s, George Vancouver, returned on his own some fourteen years following, but sailed straight past the Columbia’s elusive opening. He was outdone a few weeks later, when an American named Robert Gray finally opened the Northwest Passage to the civilized world.

Throughout “The Good Rain,” Egan never misses a chance to share the past of the Northwest. He tells how Vancouver Island became “the toe of the [British] Empire” (p. 64), set apart from the rest of North America as a gentleman’s residence. He recounts the more recent story of Fred Beckey, a truck-driver-turned-mountain-climber legend in his own time. And Egan often uses the words of past figures to describe the amazing sights of the Pacific Northwest, such as when, in the chapter on salmon, he quotes the explorer Charles Wilkes: “The salmon leap the falls; and it would be inconceivable, if not actually witnessed, how they can force themselves up, and after a leap of ten to twelve feet retain strength enough to stem the force of the water above ….” (p.181).

Winthrop’s Travels
Most often, of course, Egan shares the observations of Theodore Winthrop, the young traveler and novelist whose steps he traces. When Winthrop traveled the Pacific Northwest in 1853, he left behind a record, a book titled “The Canoe and the Saddle,” one of the first and, even now, best books ever written about the region. (p. 9). At every turn, Winthrop gives grandiose descriptions of the wild country. With a dramatic flare, he portrays the waves of the Columbia River, the peaks of the Olympics, the towering trees of the Oregon country. Describing Mt. St. Helens, the “Queen of the Cascades,” Winthrop said:

Exquisite mantling snows sweep along her shoulder toward the bristling pines. Sometimes she showers her realms with a boon of light ashes, to notify them that her peace is repose, and sometimes she lifts a beacon of tremulous flame by night from her summit (p. 150).

Winthrop left not only a descriptive account of the area, but also his vision for the future of it. To Winthrop, this “strong, savage, and majestic” landscape was unalterable by the hand of man; instead, he predicted that in the Northwest, the land would benevolently dictate the lives of men, giving rise to a new sort of man and “elaborate new systems of thought and life.” To Winthrop, the Northwest would be the harmonious culmination of all that was good in man and nature.

Prophecy of a New Avalon
But for all of Winthrop’s glorious vision and all of Egan’s vast appreciation, there is still an overwhelming frustration permeating “The Good Rain,” for Winthrop’s prophecy of a new Avalon is far from realized; instead of nature directing civilization, man has beaten the land into submission to his demands. Gazing on the virtually untouched hills of the Puget Sound, Winthrop reflected that the “shape of the world has controlled or guided men’s growth …” (p. 94), but today, men’s growth manifests itself on that same place in the leveled-out city of Seattle. Once, the region was busy with the work of beavers, the hunt of wolves, and the play of otters, but one way or another these all gave in to the march of the Europeans.

Even the salmon, the icon of the region, by whose reaches Egan defines the Pacific Northwest itself, have been subdued by the advance of man. “The Pacific Northwest is simply this,” Egan says: “wherever the salmon can get to” (p. 22). But if this definition is accurate, then the Northwest has long been shrinking. Though once they filled every far-reaching corner the water would allow, the salmon are now sparse, casualties of mass commercial fishing, the turbines of hydroelectric dams, and clearcutting of forests.

Most heartbreaking of all is the story of natives, prosperous peoples undone by strange outsiders coming to their land. Before the Europeans, according to Egan, the tribes of the Northwest lived in bountiful bliss, living off the produce of the land. They took salmon from their waters almost effortlessly, ate from all kinds of wild berry bushes, hunted elk for meat and cut cedars for homes. To show their abundance, the tribes would even compete to give each other the best gift. When white men arrived, however, they taught the Indians how to farm, presumably with good intentions, but by disregarding what they knew, the natives quickly lost what they had. Then came the smallpox, which sometimes wiped out entire tribes, and the rush by eastern settlers for land, which forced the remaining Indians into a fraction of their territory. Today, only a small, sad remnant is left of the content tribes of the Northwest. With their land covered with modern structures, they are only now making a comeback to regain their prosperity.

Adapting to the Land
In spite of all this, Egan still finds hope for the Pacific Northwest, for he sees the people, ever so slowly, adapting to the land, instead of forcing the opposite. Victoria, he says, is a prime example of how a city can flourish without eradicating its surroundings. The Puyallup Indians, once declared extinct, recently signed a deal for $162 million dollars for their land. Many towns built around the sawmill are now changing their focus to more renewable sources; Egan describes one town near the Columbia Gorge which has regained its pride and economy through the industry of windsurfing (p. 234). Apple farms and vineyards are thriving in Eastern Washington. Finally, after a long struggle against the land, Egan sees Northwesterners as coming into partnership with it.

Could this be the fulfillment of Winthrop’s dream? Yes, says Egan. Winthrop saw the beginning of a cultural shift from the East to the West; now the age of the Pacific, long foretold by Winthrop and others, is coming upon us.

The Pacific Northwest has much to be admired, but it also leaves much to be desired. Its history has much cause for respect, but also for regret. Winthrop left a description of an unspoiled land, and with it a glorious vision for the future. Since then, the land has been invaded and subdued, but not entirely tamed. Winthrop’s dream still lives. According to Egan, we have entered an age in which accordance with nature is recognized as a virtue. Egan closes the book with these words:

[E]verything Winthrop reveled in, the glaciers, the virgin forests, the green islands, the plump rivers, the fir-mantled volcanoes, the empty ridge of the high desert, Grandpa’s trout streams, and the alpenglow, are here — a land that has yet to give up all its secrets (p. 254).

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