Across Time and Terrain in the Pacific Northwest
Vintage Departures, 1991
This book, written in the late 1980s (and published in the early 1990s) chronicles a journey and all its reflections brought on by a chance thought: while distributing the ashes of his grandfather, Egan becomes curious about how the glacier he visits got its name.
I take Grandpa out of the pack and set him next to a rock. No wind. From below comes a marmot whistle, a high pierce. I think: Winthrop. What is an old Puritan’s name doing up here, on the frozen side of a mountain that wasn’t even spotted by white men until after the Revolutionary War? What cartographer’s trick, or cheap flatter, placed the name Winthrop here, a country of noble Indian names — Tacoma, the original word for this mountain; Sluiskin Falls, named for the native who first led whites to the demon-dwelling pit of fire at the summit; Ohanapecosh, where the rivers meet below. Most of the English names were coined by syphilitic prospectors and timber beasts — the Frying Pan Glacier, Old Scab Mountain, Anvil Rock, Panhandle Gap. Why Winthrop? It’s too genteel for this massive chunk of glacial anarchy….
This leads Egan to discover that Theodore Winthrop named the glacier in 1853, during a summer visit to the Pacific Northwest. He also wrote a book called The Canoe and the Saddle, which Egan buys from a rare books dealer. In 1853, Winthrop traveled from Vancouver Island through Puget Sound and then up the Columbia River. More than 130 years later, Egan makes the same journey, chronicling the differences.
The journey is at times harrowing, amusing, sublime, and tragic. Egan’s writing throughout is beautiful. This beauty makes it painful, at times, as when he’s talking about the extraction industries that have nearly destroyed the Pacific Northwest. Each chapter visits a locale that Winthrop visited in 1853, usually at about the same time of year as Winthrop did. Egan uses the location to focus on a particular aspect of the PNW, examining, for instance, Vancouver’s role in the British Empire, the development of the red delicious apple, or a nearly-forgotten court case that made the first cracks in the Communist with hunts (with tragic long-term aftereffects). Particularly hard for me to read was chapter 10, “Salmon,” which looked at the extent to which the rivers of the NW have been dammed, and what that has cost our our rivers. Hydropower is not “clean” at all. The rivers are shallower, slower, warmer, less alive. Salmon runs that used to number in the millions now number in the thousands, on a good year.
At times, I found his writing to be a little heavy-handed, and there were the occasional missteps such as referring to a woman ranger as a “rangerette.” But overall I found “The Good Rain” to be a fine, if saddening, read about the state of the Pacific Northwest in recent history.
Mirrored from Nature Intrudes. Please comment over there.