Book sets out in search of elusive utopia

Published on Thu, Sep 24, 2009 by Tara Nelson

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The Pacific Northwest is known for its rugged and beautiful terrain that includes evergreen trees, beaches and spectacular cascading waterfalls. But it is perhaps lesser known for its eclectic residents who are less institutionally religious and more spiritually oriented than any other distinct geographical area on the continent.

It is this nature-revering, secular-but-spiritual lifestyle that is explored in Vancouver Sun journalist Douglas Todd’s new book "Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia – Exploring the Spirit of the Pacific Northwest" ($21.95, Ronsdale Press). In it, 15 of Cascadia’s leading writers, scholars, bio-regionalists and social theorists weave together essays, photos, maps and well-cited studies to illustrate the Pacific Northwest as a geographically and culturally isolated area with a distinct “spirituality of place” in which its nearly 14 million residents gain their sense of the sacred through the land.

From “spiritual entrepreneurs” such as Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now and Neale Donald Walsh, author of Conversations With God, to a theosophist named Brother Twelve, a Rolls-Royce-loving Indian yogi, and former Tacoma housewife J.Z. Knight who claims to channel a 30,000-year-old warrior spirit called Ramtha, Cascadians are more devoted to personal freedom and their individual search for spirituality than their mainland counterparts.

In fact, Cascadians are twice as likely to never attend church or just go once a year than their national counterparts (51 percent as opposed to 29 percent), and only 29 percent said they agreed with the statement “the world will end in the battle of Armageddon between Jesus and the Anti-Christ,” according to one survey by Toronto-based social researcher and contributor Andrew Grenville.

With its cultural pluralism, future-orientedness and an intense focus on health and healing, Todd asserts that Cascadia, commonly referred to as “Lotus Land,” could serve as a model of sustainability for the rest of the world.

Raised in a “fundamentally atheist” family in North Vancouver, Todd said he developed an interest in spirituality early on, earning a degree in comparative world religions from University of British Columbia.

Todd, now a spirituality and ethics reporter for the Vancouver Sun, has won more than 60 journalism honors and educational fellowships, is a two-time winner of the Templeton Religion Reporter of The Year Award, which goes to the top spirituality writer in North America’s secular media. 

Q: What was the inspiration for the book?
A: It was partly inspired by two Americans and partly through my job at The Vancouver Sun. One of those Americans was Patricia O’Connell Killen, who teaches religion at Pacific Lutheran University. She was involved in a project called Religion by Region with Mark Shibley, a professor at Southern Oregon University. The study looked at how the different regions of the U.S. have distinct religious character. What I found surprising was how distinct this area is and that British Columbia is even more exaggerated in spiritual openness than Washington and Oregon.

The other part is there are not many books about the culture and spirituality of this region. Unfortunately, I was sort of the expert in religion and spirituality and I’m just a journalist. All the scholars we do have up here are looking at ancient Mesopotamia, they’re not looking at what’s happening now. But what’s happening now is fantastically fascinating, it’s so exciting to cover as a religion and spirituality writer because it’s different in terms of global history to have a region that is so strongly anti-institutionally religious. That and it’s so commonplace now, it’s almost trendy to be spiritual in this region. I wanted to get all these people together from the U.S. and Canada to talk about this.

Q: You were raised in a fundamentally atheist household. How do you think that has shaped your work?
A: Now it’s extremely normal to grow up in a completely atheist household, it is a reaction to fundamentalist atheism to be curious about religion. The first time I went to church I was 19, and it felt very England, I thought there is something going on here. There was something about the architecture of churches that makes us numinous that gives us a sense of the sacred.

Similarly, a lot of people here feel the numinous in nature, in the wilderness or walking on the beach, which is totally fine. Here, the cathedral is the universe. The landscape here is so beautiful and overwhelming, we’re different from other parts of north America, here nature is in your face, like the bears come into our backyard. The book is saying what our spiritual identity is out here.

Q: You mention in the book that there is a drawback to our forward-thinking, hyper-individualistic culture. Can you explain?

A: We are a little more individualistic than the rest of the continent, one of the reasons we avoid religious institutions, we’re not trusting of establishments. That is the dark side of individualism where you do your thing and I’ll do mine. In an ideal community that wouldn’t be the place. And while I know what they’re trying to say – institutional religion has done a lot of terrible things – it’s not all bad.

The other problem is we seem to have this collective lack of memory – we don’t care too much about the past.

Q: Why is your book titled the elusive utopia?

A: Utopias are always elusive in a sense, and there are lots of problems here in terms of overfishing, over-logging and poverty. There are so many people who have come here who have come to create utopia, a lot of individuals who want to come here and get away from their past and do something new, something never seen before and not tied to traditional ways of doing things. They have this image of the last paradise on earth.

Q: What can you say in terms of Canadians and Americans working together to achieve this utopia?

A: Cascadians are the most likely across the continent to want the border to be more open. There’s a lot of admiration by Americans about what's going on in Vancouver, I think there should be more admiration by Canadians of what’s going on in parts of Washington, Oregon, such as Seattle, Bellingham and Portland. Partly, the book is a vision of let’s do more together. Let’s take seriously this region as a bioregion and love it and protect it and learn from each other.