- On Sacred Ground: The Spirit of Place in Pacific Northwest Literature
William D. Pattison privately claimed that "Geography is a field of knowledge derived from territorial experience."1 How territorial experience is bundled and put to use is dependent, in part, upon individual predilection, persuasion, and profession. As educators, a portion of the charge given to geographers centers on developing communication skills with a variety of audiences.
Audiences, be they professional, problem-solving, public, explanatory-focused, or individual descriptive-narratives, have special needs—again, dependent upon purpose. In the case of regional description, for example, one can use any number of quantitative methods to portray "factual" information about a defined region. It is equally possible to use "qualitative" information to convey the nature of place to an audience. Nicholas O'Connell's tightly written history of the Pacific Northwest's literature is an excellent compass for students, teachers, and the general public to use as a reference, story, or jumping-off point for further research into the spatial character of the Northwest.
O'Connell prefaces his work with germane realities regarding the geography of the Northwest and how he defines its territorial boundaries. These introductory passages clearly set the stage for his historical approach to the topic of the significance of place in the region's literature.
Six chapters take the reader on a journey from "Early Native American Stories," "Journals of Exploration and Settlement," "Romantic Movement," Realistic Writing," and "The Northwest School" to "Contemporary Northwest Literature." The author proportions his chapters, to a degree, in an historical fashion, giving most discussion [End Page 119] to chapters four, five, and six—more recent and voluminous publication times.
Chapter one initiates readers to the vibrancy and richness of native oral traditions and cultures; cultures whose perceptions about landscape remain significantly different from those exhibited by the majority population today. O'Connell provides wonderful examples of native styles of interpretation and communication derived from the Northwest as a geographic entity.
Chapter two introduces "Western"-style thinking to descriptions of place. Here Western science emerges through the journals of explorers and cartographers whose mission primarily was to record for commercial and territorial expansion purposes. That environmental aesthetics entered into the descriptions recorded by these persons is more a function of encouragement for economic purpose than an expression of "literature" per se. Once identified as valuable, the journals of settlement efforts describe living conditions and patterns of work developed over the region.
The romantic movement, O'Connell concludes, contributed a literature focusing on individual or spiritual appreciation of place, yet missing an "…exact, nuanced vision of Northwest landscape and life" (p. 46). The examples cited throughout the chapter provide a more continental, or English Romance, perspective than a localized dynamic.
Over time, the use of romance as a substantive venue for describing the region was substituted by a more realistic, confrontational approach. Writers included in this group chose to describe personal confrontations with the environment, emphasizing, perhaps, individual achievement and prowess over the environment rather than the nature of the environment itself.
The realistic phase combines emphasis on clear portrayal of place; naming becomes important as a way of identification, whether it be of the locational, the floral, or the faunal identifiers of a particular place. Such realism is markedly different from the earlier, more spiritual or romantic descriptors of the region.
In the fifth chapter, "The Northwest School," O'Connell provides a neatly written summary of the influence of Theodore Roethke upon both the national and the regional perspective of the Northwest. The apparent dominance of Roethke and those poets associated with the [End Page 120] University of Washington during the 1950s and '60s is aptly documented.
O'Connell provides ample illustration of Roethke's influence yet is careful to acknowledge that while Roethke is recognized as the initiator of the "Pacific" school, he is not a sole star in the Northwest constellation of poets. In chapter five, he introduces other important Northwest poets—Stafford, Haines, and Wagoner—as examples of other major approaches to the interpretation of...