Impressions of the North Cascades
Essays about a Northwest Landscape
Part I: Landscapes of Memory
Introduction to Part I
The North Cascades is a wild landscape. Its wildness
is its most distinguishing quality, since the surrounding land has been
extensively sculpted by human activity. Gazing out from the summits of
Mount Fury or Sahale Peak today, one sees little sign that humans have
been active in this area. Appearances can be deceiving.
When we gaze upon such a wild landscape our thoughts
turn to geologic time scales. Glaciers grind the bedrock up high, while
meltwater gouges the hillsides and valley bottoms. For a moment we think
that we see a place as it has always been, but of course this is not so.
The landscape changes before our eyes. The mountains are wearing down,
the glaciers retreating, the flora and fauna changing with the climate.
The only constant here is inexorable change.
The North Cascades has a history that stretches back
billions of years, and the trained eyes of the geologist and
glaciologist are slowly unraveling the mysteries of this history. These
people study a natural history of ancient seas, colliding tectonic
plates, volcanic eruptions, and grinding ice sheets. The crash of
colliding glaciers echoes down the ages. Animals and plants come and go.
The trumpeting of mastodons and mammoths, the screams of saber-toothed
cats, and the croak of the raven are heard above the rush of water and
the roar of wind.
We look upon such landscapes as having no significant
human history, defined as they are by their wildness. Yet human history
also plays a part here. Native Americans came and lived on and with
this land. They gathered huckleberries, hunted goat, elk, deer, and
bear, fished for salmon in the rivers, and made a living. Their tools
were few, but they had what they needed. They struggled and loved and,
in ways that perhaps seem small from our modern perspective, made their
mark upon the land.
The Native Americans yielded to a human power greater
than theirs. They succumbed to diseases to which they had no resistance,
were pushed aside by technological might beyond their imagining.
European settlers came and trapped, prospected, mined, homesteaded, and
logged. They built dams on the rivers to power their cities and created
national parks and forests to preserve resources for human futures. They
decreed that the core of this landscape would be park and wilderness in
what Rebecca Solnit in Savage Dreams, has described as an attempt
"to save a few places from the fate of the rest and to prepare an escape
from the diminished beauty of the rest, a landscape of leisure apart
from the landscapes of work."
This landscape of the North Cascades has many
histories. We look first to the past, to memories of the landscapes we
find in rocks, glaciers, and the minds of people who have lived long in