Northwest Exploration

Portrait of a region closely tied with nature and gaining importance

THE best kind of journalist gets beneath the superficiality of current events to the soul and spirit of his beat. If he is intimate with the culture and history in which he moves - whether it's the Pentagon or city hall or the Soviet Union - he will better understand and translate what may or may not be news. His readers will be far better served, and he will have a lot more fun. In his recent book, New York Times correspondent Timothy Egan does this for the region of the United States that, in many ways, is leading this country into the 21st century.

From the new corporate canyons of Seattle and Portland to the logging camps and fishing villages, from the days of George Vancouver and Captain James Cook to the new Asian immigrants at the cusp of the ``Pacific Century,'' Mr. Egan explores what is unique - and uniquely American - about the Pacific Northwest.

This is a region that still is tied very closely to the power and beauty of nature.

The mighty Columbia River, millions of acres of ancient forest, and 16 major volcanoes along a range that rivals the Alps are only the most obvious physical features to have attracted adventurers from New England and fugitives from California.

``The regional icons - salmon and trees and mountains and water - spring from the elements,'' Egan writes. ``If people here become too far removed from those basic sources of life, then they lose the bond to a better world.''

The problem is how to live off the fat of the land (as the Nez Perce and other tribes did for 10 thousand years) without despoiling it.

So far, as Egan points out, the record is not good.

Ninety percent of the original old-growth forest is gone. Half the natural salmon spawning grounds have been lost to 136 dams. ``Down-winders'' are plagued by disease a generation after secret atomic weapons plants were built in the high desert of eastern Washington at the end of World War II. Literally and figuratively, the western edge of the continent had to mean an end to 200 years of human (make that European emigrant) expansionism.

In recent years, there have been political checks to the push for domination symbolized by clear-cuts and the Grand Coulee Dam. Northwest forests are being viewed as truly national. The US Army Corps of Engineers has actually lost a fight or two. In fishing-rights cases, federal judges have acknowledged that tribal treaties were blatantly broken. And of course the place is still so beautiful that 40,000 new nature-thirsty souls come to live in the metro Seattle area alone every year.

AS Egan sees it, ``The larger question for the Northwest, where the cities are barely a hundred years old but contain three-fourths of the population, is whether the wild land can provide work for those who need it as their source of income without being ruined for those who need it as their source of sanity.'' Thus, the challenge is as much spiritual as it is economic or environmental. The lesson to be relearned is that ``without help, the earth can still tell a good story.''

Author Egan grew up in Washington state and lives there now. His roots are fairly deep, and that's an advantage. He has the two essential tools for first-class journalism - a natural nosiness and an ear for language. But his work would have been more complete if he had given the reader a fuller view of the region. Idaho is barely mentioned, Alaska not at all, and his trip to British Columbia seems to have been limited to Butchart Gardens and tea with the Vice Regal, Queen Elizabeth's representative.

An entire chapter is spent reviewing a horrific case of McCarthyesque anti-communism in the rural North Cascades without linking it to the Northwest's troubling history of prejudice: internment of Japanese-Americans, the treatment of Indians, and the more recent sprouting of skinheads and Aryan Nations neo-Nazis.

But journalism, as someone said, is the first draft of history. And ``The Good Rain'' is an excellent and timely portrait of a part of the world gaining greater importance in national and world affairs.

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