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Cascadians: Shared Cultural Traits, Values

Residents of the region have a subtle separatist streak and a passion for outdoor activity
'The Nation of Cascadia' 'Big Local'

'The Great Nearby'

Those are tags Washington-state writer David Brewster uses to describe the vast region of mountains, evergreens and vibrant cities he fell in love with decades ago when he began editing the once-legendary travel guide, Best Places Northwest.

Brewster has many motives for strengthening Cascadians' ties, for creating a richer regional identity among the people of Washington, Oregon and B.C., who may be connected by our approaches to literature, lifestyle, art, community involvement, music and personal freedom.

Highlighting how the 14 million people of Cascadia share many cultural traits and values would help the region become a "critical mass," Brewster said. It would help us make an impact on the global scene.

"A stronger notion of Cascadia would give us more international clout."

Living in the Pacific Northwest much of his life, Brewster is the former editor-in-chief of Seattle Weekly magazine and founder of a two-year-old online journal called Crosscuts, which covers Cascadia in part by linking readers to stories from the region's media.

"Many people [in Cascadia] ignore the regional as too parochial," Brewster said.

He has valid concerns about what could be called the current internationalization of Seattle. It's a worry to which residents of multicultural, high-immigrant Vancouver can relate.

There are so many people living in Seattle, Portland and Vancouver who come from somewhere else (more than two out of five Metro Vancouver citizens were born outside the country) that they may not be taking seriously where they now live.

Instead, they're devoting their energy to their foreign birthplaces, out-of-region business links or offshore travel dreams. They're jetting off here, there and everywhere, and creating pollution.

And they don't have much loyalty to Cascadia.

The best way to counteract the downside of this kind of globalization is to set down roots, develop a sense of place, find the universal in the particular, whether it's Cascadian outdoors, cuisine, literature, music, art or even language.

Most people don't recognize it, but there are, for instance, more than a few linguists who believe there is a distinct Cascadian dialect.

All Cascadians tend to avoid American twang, prefer bucket over pail, pronounce caught and cot the same way and know the meaning of the Chinook word saltchuck.

Thinking of oneself as a resident of the broader region of Cascadia creates a wider horizon of meaning, Brewster said. "It promotes an imaginative oasis."

It can create a sense of distinctiveness, not unlike the well-known cultural identities associated with New England, Quebec, Texas or the Maritimes.

A sense of something special

Setting aside that annoying international border, what do most British Columbians, Oregonians and Washingtonians have in common, culturally?

Many people say there is a subtle separatist streak running through Cascadia, a feeling that our nation's capitals are far away in Ottawa and Washington, D.C., and don't have a great deal of influence over us. Many people move to Cascadia to get away from their political, family and religious traditions.

Another common trait is a passion for outdoor recreation, from hiking to windsurfing (symbolized by Vancouver's 2.6-million-member Mountain Equipment Co-op and Seattle's equally expansive Recreational Equipment Inc., now with 80 stores.)

Since the rise of Starbucks, many have also talked of a pan-Cascadian love of strong coffee and sidewalk cafes -- not to mention constant discussion of stubbornly high real estate prices.

At the level of values, many have noted that Cascadians lean to liberal-libertarian instincts, a do-your-own-thing individualism, live-and-let-live attitudes and a sense that something special, maybe a little utopian, is emerging here.

SFU geography professor Warren Gill is one of those unusual Cascadians whose parents were born in B.C., specifically the city of Vancouver.

He has never had a home in any other city. Even though I've lived in Toronto and southern California after being born in B.C., our historical rootedness makes us both care about Cascadian culture.

As Gill grew up, he says the 49th parallel remained easy to cross -- until Sept. 11, 2001 -- and it was common to shoot south for a weekend. In contrast, he said, "Canada seemed so far away."

Tied together by logging, fishing and mining, and separated from the rest of North America by towering mountains, Cascadia became isolated from the mainstream of Canada.

"We evolved our own views of the world," Gill said.

We evolved our own culture.

Take cuisine: Pacific Northwest chefs have become known for their flair at integrating locally grown fruit, vegetables, meat and fish into dishes.

Whether they're using hazelnuts, cranberries, salmon or clams, Gill said chefs such as Vancouver's John Bishop and many others have for decades been cooking up a Cascadian cuisine.

"There is the bounty of the sea, which we all share in the Pacific Northwest. And there is also the bounty that is grown in the Lower Fraser Valley, Skagit Valley and Willamette Valley in Oregon."

Asian flavours also strongly influence dishes in the Pacific Northwest. Although this kind of East-West food fusion might be most obvious in Metro Vancouver, Gill has long seen it in restaurants such as Washington's 60-year-old Oyster Bar on Chuckanut Drive, where he noted the early use of Japanese breadcrumbs.

Gill, a specialist on the music of Cascadia, believes many bands coming out of Washington, Oregon and B.C. have shared a regional "tough sound," like that associated with Seattle's grunge (Kurt Cobain and Pearl Jam) and Vancouver's punk scenes (DOA and Pointed Sticks) and, I might add, Jimi Hendrix.

"The music of Cascadia is often rugged, like the geography," Gill said. There is an underground current to popular Cascadian music that remains strong despite the occasional rise of major mainstream artists such as Bryan Adams, Loverboy and Heart.

Gill speculates Cascadia's musical distinctiveness may have something to do with the Pacific Northwest having only a tiny population of black people. As a result, "Cascadia's white youth did their interpretation of black music."

A relationship with nature

What about aboriginal influences on northern West Coast culture?

Brewster finds aboriginal art and history is given a great deal of lip service in Washington and Oregon, but one has to go to B.C. -- which has more than twice as many aboriginals per capita -- to see it really flourishing, in art galleries, interior design, the Museum of Anthropology and Vancouver International Airport.

I'd maintain Cascadian visual arts also follow similar themes, mostly to do with the land and sea, influenced by aboriginal and nature-oriented spirituality.

The region's iconic visual artists, such as B.C. painters Emily Carr and Jack Shadbolt and Washington's glass-blowing David Chihuly, have all seen nature as a living symbol of transformation, power and myth.

In his book On Sacred Ground: The Spirit of Place in Pacific Northwest Literature, Nicholas O'Connell argues compellingly that the most important contribution Pacific Northwest writers have made to North American literature lies in the way they're "articulating a more spiritual relationship with nature."

That's true of everyone from B.C.'s George Bowering and Jack Hodgins to Washington's Tom Robbins and Oregon's Barry Lopez.

While many justifiably claim Cascadia's spectacular landscape has created the region's main "monuments," some architects have recently been trying to match nature's grandeur.

Eric Scigliano, author of Puget Sound: Sea Between the Mountains, told me over a Japanese-food lunch in this city he is a fan of Vancouver and Canada.

But I agreed with him when he said British Columbians can learn from the way Seattle has created some must-experience architectural monuments.

Compared to Yaletown's monotonous apartment towers, Seattle has some impressive highrises. It also has the controversial, Frank Gehry-designed Experience Music Project showcase and an impressive new downtown public library and art gallery.

Cascadia's media often cross borders. Just as many Canadians watch Washington-based TV and support Seattle's PBS channel, Scigliano, who is also news editor of Seattle Metropolitan Magazine, and his partner soak up a lot of CBC radio and TV, particularly for hard-hitting international news they feel they can't get from U.S. media.

Thinking of Cascadia as a cultural "nation" inclines us to try to learn more from each other, and one of those lessons could include civility.

At a social level, Brewster believes the residents of Washington state and especially Portland have strong consciences.

They tend to stress environmental values and taking seriously one's neighbour. Brewster recounts a funny study that tested how long it would take for Seattle and Portland drivers who get stuck behind another car in traffic to honk their horns.

While New Yorkers would have no doubt beeped their horns in a nano-second, Brewster said it took the typical Seattle driver 30 seconds to lean on the horn and in Portland, he said with a laugh, "they couldn't get anyone to beep at all."

Although the honking test was never performed in Vancouver, I would predict British Columbians share some of their southern neighbours' conscientious politeness (after all, we're famously "nice" Canadians).

Brewster, however, thinks the residents of Oregon and Washington could learn to loosen up from their fellow Cascadians in Metro Vancouver, who he believes are a little more like Californians.

"You're more comfortable having a good time."