Exceptional Mountains: A Cultural History of the Pacific Northwest Volcanoes

Exceptional Mountains: A Cultural History of the Pacific Northwest Volcanoes

by O. Alan Weltzien
Exceptional Mountains: A Cultural History of the Pacific Northwest Volcanoes

Exceptional Mountains: A Cultural History of the Pacific Northwest Volcanoes

by O. Alan Weltzien


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Over the past 150 years, people have flocked to the Pacific Northwest in increasing numbers, in part due to the region’s beauty and one of its most exceptional features: volcanoes. This segment of the Pacific Ring of Fire has shaped not only the physical landscape of the region but also the psychological landscape, and with it the narratives we compose about ourselves. Exceptional Mountains is a cultural history of the Northwest volcanoes and the environmental impact of outdoor recreation in this region. It probes the relationship between these volcanoes and regional identity, particularly in the era of mass mountaineering and population growth in the Northwest.
O. Alan Weltzien demonstrates how mountaineering is but one conspicuous example of the outdoor recreation industry’s unrestricted and problematic growth. He explores the implications of our assumptions that there are no limits to our outdoor recreation habits and that access to the highest mountains should include amenities for affluent consumers. Each chapter probes the mountain-based regional ethos and the concomitant sense of privilege and entitlement from different vantages to illuminate the consumerist mind-set as a reductive—and deeply problematic—version of experience and identity in and around some of the nation’s most striking mountains.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803290402
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 08/01/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 256
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

O. Alan Weltzien is a professor of English at the University of Montana–Western. He has published many books, including a memoir and two books of poetry, and is the editor of The Norman Maclean Reader.

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Exceptional Mountains

A Cultural History of the Pacific Northwest Volcanoes

By O. Alan Weltzien


Copyright © 2016 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8032-9040-2


The Legacy of Exceptionalism

In various travels and expeditions in the territory, I had viewed the snow-peaks of this range from all points of the compass, and since that time ... I assert that Washington Territory contains mountain scenery in quantity and quality sufficient to make half a dozen Switzerlands, while there is on the continent none more grand and imposing than is presented in the Cascade Range north of the Columbia River.

— Lieut. A. V. Kautz, Overland Monthly

The towering position of the volcanoes in the Northwest ethos is foregrounded in regional literature and historical writing. Exceptionalism — the notion that we're something special, given our landscapes — provides the preferred rhetoric, a chauvinistic master trope, in the fond story many northwesterners tell of themselves. To understand that story, we must define that sensibility then trace its evolution. The Northwest's special endowment depends in part on what I will call the sociology of the snowpeaks. At the top of the region's remarkable topographies float the volcanoes, as virtually every contemporary Northwest literary history or general history claims, and above them all floats Mount Rainier — Tacoma, or Tahoma in the Yakama language — undisputed crown of the lower forty-eight states' upper left corner. Like Pacific salmon, Rainier, in its myriad views, poses as the quintessential Northwest icon. As such it has served as a commonplace market brand and television backdrop, even appearing on commemorative postage stamps. Its image endorses a range of products and, since 1987, it has graced Washington State license plates. Rainier is ubiquitous.

Rainier figures centrally in Washingtonians' mental map. The Evergreen State's topographies write its psychological landscape, and at its imaginative center rises Mount Rainier, the state's biggest mountain and epitome of the acute lure of the West Coast's volcanoes. Only four peaks outside Alaska and Hawaii — California's Mount Whitney and three in Colorado — edge slightly higher, but Rainier's mass and isolation dwarf them. Rainier looms almost three miles above Puget Sound, Washington's inland sea, only forty-five miles or so west of it. Certainly since white settlers began crowding the old Oregon territory north of the Columbia River, some have been trying to take its measure and absorb it in sundry ways. Coming to grips with Rainier pinpoints but one story of regional identity formation as its potential meanings inform northwestern self-representations.

The challenge of language and self-referentiality was captured by novelist Thomas Wolfe on July 2, 1938, at the tail end of his whirlwind tour, The Great Parks Trip, when the North Carolinian writer confronted Rainier in Saturday morning sunlight: "We stood trying to get its scale, and this [is] impossible because there was nothing but Mountain — a universe of mountain, a continent of mountain — and nothing else but mountain itself to compare mountain to." The challenge of Rainier or the other volcanoes consists in part of articulating exactly what they mean, given their unique stature and size. The difficulty — or for Wolfe, impossibility — of understanding in no way lessens the chronic effort to do so: a rich history of affinity and interpretation, particularly as these compose one idealized self-portrait.

Defining the volcanoes means defining ourselves. More recently, journalist Jon Bell writes in On Mount Hood: A Biography of Oregon's Perilous Peak that the first sight of Hood "brands your perception, marks your memory, nearly sends you careening off the road." Many — whether natives or newcomers — struggle to understand their own stature in relation to these tallest of all mirrors. They try to absorb their endless astonishment into quotidian lives, which proves an endless frustration and pleasure. Journalists, climbers, and legions of residents and visitors assign widely variable interpretations to the Northwest volcanoes.

The volcanoes' meanings spread far beyond the scientific and factual and across the gamut of subjective human experience. When people gaze upon the volcanoes, they unwittingly study one palimpsest upon which Northwest psychology has written itself. One strain runs through the evolving gaze: some conclude that these peaks are special and we must not be far off the mark, ourselves. Along the way such settlers old and new have come to regard themselves as unique, like the Northwest volcanoes themselves, the latter constituting the outer sign of election and inner grace. This theme of good fortune threads through contemporary regional history, journalism, and literature. That story of self-regard seemed firmly established well before the twentieth century's end, the volcanoes proving a signal instance of what two scholars have recently called "ecotopian exceptionalism."

Rainier and the others dominate the literature just as they dominate the skyline. The special claim of regional literature derives from the population's obsession with our remarkable landscapes. In Northwest literature, landscape has always been foregrounded as its storytellers and writers, like good Emersonian transcendentalists, have probed a spiritual connection between self and physical environments. In the regional psyche, the Cascades divide west slope green from the brown beyond the mountains' east slopes, and the volcanoes crown the range, lending it superior beauty, shape, and excitement.

Late Northwest composer Alan Hovhaness voiced an ancient and abiding view when he defined mountains as "symbolic meeting places between the mundane and spiritual world" (Notes to Mysterious Mountain, 1955). Volcanoes with their visible-invisible connections to earth's interior pose a special case, and when Northwest writing turns to the volcanoes, it strains to capture spiritual experience. West slope urbanites, especially after a Northwest winter, typically recharge their batteries when freshly spying a nearby volcano. When those long seasonal carpets of stratus clouds lift and the jagged line of Cascades, highlighted by the line of volcanoes, becomes visible again, a large segment of the population feels newly grounded and privileged.

Writers repeatedly describe the Big One as "almost godlike," "the physical presence of God," and such deification seems unavoidable. In Greater Portland, historian Carl Abbott states, "Mount Hood hovers over Portland like a watchful god." The presumption of deity is common among the snowpeaks. If Rainier and Hood are godlike, at least when visible, what does that make those who lived or live within their sight? How does their fond gaze circle back and enlarge themselves? Rainier inspires the development of a robust if not inflated regional ego. The reverential language of the past 150 years rebounds onto its users, and manifestations of this tendency can be plotted as increasing legions of admirers have come to the volcanoes.

The volcanoes exert a magnetic attraction over nearby urbanites, Northwest poet Tim McNulty, for example, proclaiming Rainier as "recreational Mecca and spiritual retreat." "Recreational Mecca" and "spiritual retreat" tug against one another as they recommend different behaviors. For example, how active or passive should our bodies be near this place? Yet both beckon people closer, as pilgrims enacting a spiritual discipline. The summons leads to both a healthy — or unhealthy — self-esteem and to a range of unintended effects. The influence of mountains upon identity formation, a commonplace in the literature of mountaineering, gains fresh force in the history of Euro-American testimony about Rainier, particularly from those who most literally close the gap between selfhood and divinity: climbers.

I am treating Mount Rainier as the epitome of the Northwest's volcanoes, as its height, size, and reputation both old and new proclaim its dominance over the regional imagination. Of course, some portions of the population ignore the volcanoes just as many depend upon them in various ways.

Shifting landscape priorities and styles of tourism meet in the Pacific Northwest. This "national drama of self-affirmation," one could claim, manifests itself with particular vigor in the "new" Northwest: a region that has been variously interpreted, like California, as "West of the West." The myth and its accompanying drama of self-affirmation gain particular potency in the Northwest, for in its "sacred ground" casual tourists and natives alike raise their glances and confront a mountainscape unique in the lower forty-eight states, one from which they continually draw sustenance in negotiating and confirming their identities. In the national imaginary the region shines as an ultimate American West, a last best place, a culmination of our westering yearnings. From the nineteenth century through the early and mid-twentieth century, styles of tourism shifted from primarily a spectator mode to increasingly participatory roles as more tourists actively used their bodies within their chosen landscapes. In the Northwest the stage was thus set for hikers, climbers, and skiers to turn to the volcanoes for their status.

This deepening cultural embrace of the volcanoes tells an important regional story, and a key strand of Northwest identity can be plotted through writing devoted to them. To trace the evolution of that strand means to analyze and critique the sense of special regional endowment. Reviewing that literature shows regional identity transitioning from hinterlands to hot spot, from being a shy, gawky kid in the back of the class to a preening, self-impressed star. Nineteenth-century accounts of the mountain, particularly Theodore Winthrop's (1863) and those pioneering climber-writers collected by Paul Schullery (1987), reflect the growth of exceptionalism. A series of twentieth-century texts, culminating in the representative figure, in the early twenty-first century, of poet and mountaineer, Gary Snyder, document its legacy and durability.

The evidence addresses two fundamental issues: How do visitors or artists voice a volcano and give it language, and how do they speak of themselves after encounters both distant and close up? To write a volcano is to bring it into human reference and impose some human scale: to bring it down to the size of words even as those words insistently point above and beyond themselves. To write Rainier assumes as well that such endeavor uniquely fits and belongs to this giant volcano, not the lower volcanoes — let alone any old jagged peak. The survey yields a story of dramatically changing regional self-definition, one that tilts from periphery to center. Along the way, a spiritual and emotional reliance upon this huge icon has grown exponentially. Increasingly, many mark themselves as distinct and privileged according to their relationships with it.

Of course, the region's white history poses only the most recent episode in the ancient drama of human contact with volcanoes. A short span of historical time, one defined by white migration and settlement, has resulted in a dramatic paradigm shift. For Native peoples such as the Nisqually and the Yakama, the values attached to what whites call Mount Rainier accrue from untold centuries of living nearby. For Native peoples, veneration proscribes visitation: Tahoma stayed off-limits because of its sharply divided meanings. Ta-co-bet, meaning "nourishing breasts" or "the place where waters begin," is home to "Sagale Tyee, the Creator, the Great One" as well as angry "spirits of the mountain." The story of Nisqually origins and migration explains their anxiety and caution about the latter. Sluiskin and Indian Henry, Klickitat and Yakama guides, respectively, of the first (1870) and subsequent (1884) Mount Rainier ascents, did not step onto snowfields or glaciers due to longstanding tribal taboos. Most Native guides remained below snowline though some individuals climbed, perhaps on vision quests.

If local tribes almost entirely worshipped the volcanoes from a distance, believing them the domain of demonic spirits expressed in occasional eruptions (e.g., the nearly annual eruptions of Mount St. Helens, from 1831 to 1857, known to the Cowlitz tribe and stray white traders or settlers), white visitors enacted contrary impulses. Modern attitudes toward the sacred volcanoes precisely reverse Native attitudes: many are discontent with distant "holy land," and want them close up and personal, in the foreground.

Nineteenth-century writing about Rainier illustrates the origins of that tribal-white reversal. Initially the volcano stayed in the background. On May 7, 1792, the expedition led by George Vancouver, at anchor in what they named Discovery Bay, first sighted the mountain Vancouver named for an officer friend. An expedition artist made a sketch of the view and Vancouver interpreted the volcano as a promising sign for British settlement of the region. The sketch, or at least a London artist's engraving of it, as the original no longer exists, bears little resemblance to Rainier's sprawling dome; rather, it suggests an auspicious symbol, but nothing spectacular in its own right. For Vancouver and his practical British colleagues, agents of Empire, Rainier formed a scenic backdrop for agricultural settlement, a new colony; the volcano per se held less interest except, perhaps, as a source of rivers. What mattered were the forested and watered landscapes below it, and their potential uses. Forty-one years later an adventurous Scots physician, William Fraser Tolmie, trekked from Fort Nisqually into what is now Mount Rainier National Park (MRNP), botanizing for herbal plants. Tolmie, after whom a peak is named in the park's northwest quadrant, is the first recorded Euro-American to directly approach the volcano.

Subsequent generations of American visitors, disciples of philosopher Edmund Burke's gospel of the sublime and the picturesque, seized upon the volcano itself. Like the initial influx of European mountaineers, they pursued and described sublimity in romantic terms, and the volcanoes drew them like flames. They had absorbed the crucial paradigm shift from "mountain gloom" to "mountain glory": instead of ugly excrescences best avoided, mountainscapes became, by the nineteenth century, a key topography of the human psyche. The Theodore Winthrops had been nurtured on William Wordsworth and the other romantic poets, for whom mountaintops presaged states of eternity to which the imagination continually strives.

Winthrop, Rainier's single most important nineteenth-century advocate, left an ambivalent legacy in the cultural embrace of volcanoes. For Winthrop, Rainier comprises his north star, as he structures his travel narrative, The Canoe and the Saddle, around the mountain. Winthrop emphasizes Rainier's transformative potential and the "spiritual benefits of both the mountain and the region as a whole." Those "spiritual benefits" became a watershed of regional self-regard. The Canoe and the Saddle, widely reprinted in the two decades following Winthrop's death in 1861 at only the age of thirty-two, extravagantly promoted the far-flung region and its premiere mountain. An outsider, Winthrop worshipped Rainier as eagerly as he ignored his native guides, their tribes, and signs of white subjugation increasingly evident around him.

The tendency toward adoration and private communion not only feeds self-esteem but can remove celebrants from responsible participation in history — in those processes, malign or otherwise, that characterize their own time. Carried far enough, the worshipful pose becomes solipsistic and blinds one to surrounding ground realities including the fundamental differences between self and the object of worship. More than anything else, climbing into an ostensibly metaphysical realm expands the inflatable boundaries of selfhood: that is the guarantee of mountain glory that spread rapidly by the late nineteenth century. But personal mountain glory often fostered gendered nationalist and imperialist agendas common in much mountaineering rhetoric of the twentieth century — political fallout from the romantic gospel of sublimity.

Winthrop's literary responses to Mount Rainier set a pattern that continued through pioneering accounts of climbs and across the twentieth century. It's an old story of seduction and addiction, of participating in the "aesthetics of the infinite"; or it's an old story of pilgrimage. In this pattern, imaginative or physical exposure to Rainier resembles a love affair, an enchantment transitory or sustained, in which the visitor loses herself in the beloved. Near or on this magic mountain, the pilgrim is temporarily transported out of clock time as she surrenders to it. Since indigenous peoples around the world construe particular mountains as animate beings, and many religions venerate particular summits as sites for revelation, climbing a volcano recapitulates an archetypal journey with an archetypal plot (approach, difficulties overcome, summit climax, descent denouement). Climbing a volcano — "alive" in a way other mountains are not — only adds frisson to the journey.

To apply Winthrop's sermon and ascend Rainier means to encounter a timeless ideal and to open oneself to epiphany — and the lingering effects of its enchantment, the possibility of permanent change, of personal transformation. This mountain fever, the promise of the climber's high, teases crowds, in our time, onto snowfields and glaciers.

Mountain fever derives from a special kind of concentration, an almost trance state of heightened awareness dependent upon the rhythm of legs and lungs. Extreme focus and exertion prompt extreme perception and meditation in this restatement of the archetypal journey. This zone proves an addiction for masses.


Excerpted from Exceptional Mountains by O. Alan Weltzien. Copyright © 2016 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
1. The Legacy of Exceptionalism,
2. Standard Routes, Standard Highways,
3. Cities and Their Volcanoes,
4. Green Consumerism and the Volcanoes,
5. Wilderness and Volcanoes,
6. Volcanoes and Crowds,

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