A few weeks ago, I received an email from one of my old colleagues at Portland State University telling me a former student, Sky Hopinka, had been awarded a 2022 MacArthur “Genius Grant.” When I looked him up, I was pleased to see that his art is centered in the experience of indigenous people, including some from the Northwest.
Hopinka not only earned his BA from PSU but was born in Ferndale, Washington. And while his work in film, photography, and poetry is wide-ranging, several of his videos focus on Northwest indigenous life.
His first feature-length film, “maɬni – towards the ocean, towards the shore” (2020), for example, is set entirely in the Northwest world of its two indigenous protagonists.
The documentary, anchored in the Chinookan origin-of-death myth (a dialogue between a wolf and a coyote about the afterlife), separately follows two young parents — pregnant Sahme and Jordan Mercier, both friends of Hopinka’s — as they grapple with questions of legacy and identity.
Subtitles switch between English and Chinook jargon, yet the oral component (including Hopinka’s narration) occasionally fades into the backdrop with sound design that amplifies the crackling of a fire, the bubbling and thrashing of the ocean and waterfalls.
The natural world, with its never-ending tides and its cycles of life and death, provides a framework for the preservation of Indigenous culture, resilient despite its new forms and manifestations.
In reviewer Glenn Heath Jr. ‘s good (free) review for the Film Stage website, he calls “maɬni ” an “elegiac and at times mesmerizing feature debut.” His review gives a good description of the film’s content, including the ways Hopinka challenges traditional white use of ethnographic documentary to “exoticize non-Western communities.”
Here’s how he describes this shorter work: “Images and representations of two structures in the Portland Metropolitan Area that have direct and complicated connections to the Chinookan people who inhabit(ed) the land are woven with audio tapes of one of the last speakers of chinuk wawa, the Chinookan creole, chinuk wawa.”
According to the bio on his website, Hopinka is from the Ho-Chunk Nation/Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians, but during his days in Portland he both studied and taught chinuk wawa (Chinook jargon).
Hopinka’s work has appeared at numerous festivals, including Sundance, the Toronto International Film Festival, and the New York Film Festival. It has also been part of the 2017 Whitney Biennial, the 2018 FRONT Triennial, and Prospect.5 in 2021. It will be exciting to see what his MacArthur Fellowship allows him to do next.
“[E]mpathy is something I think a lot about. It’s also the relationship, as Adam Khalil put it, between knowledge and information around indigenous cultures. What does it mean to know something, and what does it mean to have facts about something or a culture or a community? And as I try to not explain things, I’m hoping that through context or the things that are nearby, an audience will be able to understand how I feel about them, or place themselves in a certain empathetic space where they may not know what’s going on, but they know how to feel about it.”
What they didn’t know was that the refuge had already been the site of a massive bloodbath a hundred years before.
From the late 19th C through the early years of the 20th C, one of history’s most dismaying fashion trends was the wearing of feathers and even entire birds on women’s hats. According to historian Douglas Brinkley, at the height of this trend more than five million birds were being slaughtered each year in the name of fashion.
More popular than all of these, however, were the feathers of Herons and Swans and especially the Great and Snowy Egrets, all of which could be found in the remote wetlands in and around what would one day become the Malheur refuge. The slaughter there was well under way when two of Oregon’s earliest environmentalist, William L. Finley and Hermany T. Bohlman, began to catalogue it and work to end it.
According to author Carey Myles, who writes about Finley and Bohlman in a chapter called “The Plume Defenders” in a new book about Oregon birding (A History of Oregon Ornithology, Oregon State University Press, 2022), the pair first arrived in the Lower Klamath and Tule Lake area in the summer of 1905, tasked by the National Association of Audubon Societies with “documenting species though notes and photographs, and determining conditions for birds.”
Having traveled on horseback from Ashland, Oregon, “carrying camping equipment, three cameras and 700 glass plates,” they created a blind with a large umbrella and a surrounding ring of green canvas and focused first on photographing American White Pelicans. In the hot, cramped interior, the two took turns bent over a large camera, photographing for up to eight hours a day before moving on to other species.
As Myles writes:
It wasn’t until spring and summer of 1908 that Finley and Bohlman were able to complete their inspection of Oregon’s interior wetlands by visiting Malheur Lake and the surrounding marshes. They were overwhelmed by the richness of birdlife they found there, but also dismayed to find that such remote marshes had been significantly impacted by market hunting…
They discovered a Western Grebe nesting ground shortly after plume hunters had been through. Finley and Bohlman were enraged to find the bodies of dead birds with just the soft breast feathers removed. Still, they kept the goal of using photographs to argue for conservation in mind. Finding a dead grebe in the water next to two downy, hungry chicks sitting in their nest, they took multiple photographs, taking care over the composition.
Their photographs, with the bird’s blood colored red, were used as lantern slides for Audubon Society lectures about the evils of the plume trade. According to the Friends of Malheur website, “their photographs and testimony caught the attention of President Theodore Roosevelt,” who eventually signed an executive order designating 80,000 acres around Mud, Harney and Malheur Lakes “as a preserve and breeding ground for native birds”–one of 51 bird reserves Roosevelt established during his presidency.
Today, the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is a rare and beautiful wetlands area teeming with birds of all kinds. For a list of species and information on what you’ll see there in different seasons, click here. And for directions on how to visit, click here.
[Dr. Paul Otto is a professor of History at George Fox University in Newberg, OR. His full bio can be found at the end of his essay.]
My partner, Lynn, recently published a wistful poem, “In this Green Green So Blue,” inspired by a camping experience in a pocket of Oregon old-growth forest with “vine maples and huckleberries,” “ferns and firs,” and “pale green streamers of moss” hanging from the trees. When we moved to Oregon from the Great Plains years ago, we soaked up this kind of natural environment whenever possible, having been starved of it while sojourning amid soy fields and corn rows.
Our new Oregon home struck a fine balance between the convenience of connection to town and engagement with the wild. The creek behind it emptied into the Willamette River, Douglas firs fringed the grounds, and big-leaf maples shaded the yard in summer. Best of all, our children could explore the broad ravine at the back of our lot.
At first, it was enough that the trees were green and the landscape was wild. But in time I began to regret my ignorance of the native flora. I knew Douglas firs, of course, but I was more familiar with the invasive blackberries and English ivy than the maples, snowberry, and various ferns endemic to the area. I knew better than to think in terms of “natural” vs. “cultivated,” but a full appreciation of the native biodiversity escaped me.
After a bit of study, though, I began to understand what “belonged” and what didn’t. I learned about big leaf maples and vine maples; about red elderberry and oceanspray; about sword, lady, and bracken ferns—all of which grew in our ravine. And my learning made me appreciate them.
I gained insight, too, into native and invasive fauna—discovering, for example, that the squirrels I saw were eastern fox squirrels, one of two non-native tree squirrels introduced into Oregon’s urban areas in the early twentieth century. From there they expanded outward, especially into nut orchards and forests, driving out the native species. Among the native varieties are the Douglas squirrel and the northern flying squirrel, which glide on air better than they walk on the ground.
I’ve seen Douglas squirrels in other parts of the state, and Lynn saw a northern flying squirrel while growing up in Washington State, but my only sighting of a native squirrel on my own property—a western grey squirrel—in 20 years of living on the edge of a forested creek came 15 years ago. More competitive and faster to replicate, the fox squirrels drove the natives out long ago.
Hoping that challenging the fox squirrels’ dominance in one part of the forest might make room for the return of western grey squirrels or Douglas squirrels, I’ve tried various methods of rousting them from my yard, including shooting them with a pellet gun. Some members of my family protested, though, finding the killing of any animal inconsistent with a general embrace of nature and its ongoing gift of life.
I respect the position of those who hold that the killing of any animal is wrong, but in terms of restoring ecological balance, I’m not sure it’s viable. Even the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife is opposed to relocating or even rehabilitating non-native fauna, dictating that injured invasive animals must be euthanized rather than medically treated.
The strongest protest I heard questioned the whole idea of “invasive” species, comparing it to the denigration of immigrants to the United States. I understand the analogy—I myself am part of an “invasive species,” those who not only came from elsewhere but killed and displaced the Native population.
Of course, racial and ethnic differences aren’t the same as differences in species, but human beings as a species are invasive everywhere we go. Technological ability, complex social patterns, and advanced thought have empowered us to establish ourselves anywhere we want to. If there was ever a time a being resembling humans lived in equilibrium with other species, it was hundreds of thousands or even millions of years ago.
Yes, many Indigenous groups have lived in greater ecological harmony with their surroundings than colonizing groups, but human beings have always changed the land to one degree or another. As I’ve become better acquainted with Oregon over the past two decades, I’ve come to understand the difference between a natural order that develops slowly without the invasive hand of humans and one that is little more than not having a lot of people around. That old-growth campground that inspired Lynn’s poem helped me see this.
On the surface, what old-growth forests offer are big trees to gush about. But if you compare them with re-established forests, you’ll soon note a great diversity of flora (and fauna). Along the western flanks of Oregon’s Cascades, the oldest forests contain a mix of conifers and deciduous trees, with Douglas firs, cedars, and hemlocks cohabitating with big leaf maples, Oregon ash, and alders. The understory reflects this diversity, with red huckleberries, thimbleberries, blue and red elderberries, and Oregon grape. Closer to the ground you’ll find even more variety: trillium, wood sorrel, false Solomon’s seal, and a whole host of wildflowers I haven’t begun to learn the names of. Added to this botanical display are a wide array of animals.
What’s missing from this picture? Himalayan blackberries, English ivy, and other invasive species, which once made up most of the greenery in that ravine behind my house. Poking out of the mass were a few ferns, firs, and big leaf maple, but generally it was a tangled mess of bramble and vines.
About 10 years ago, however, I began to restore the uncultivated parts of my property to something closer to its original botanical diversity. My community’s “trees for streams” program helped me in this project by providing free native grasses, shrubs, and trees. In those ten years, I’ve seen a huge transformation that has made this part of my lot far more appealing.
Why, you might ask, should I favor native plants over non-natives? Am I just being a purist? I don’t think so. Native plants not only increase biodiversity but also foster a healthier landscape. On my lot, for example, insufficient shade allowed blackberries to thrive. Along with the English ivy, the blackberries prevented other trees and shrubs from growing and providing cover. Exposed to the sun, the creek warmed. Without my restoration efforts, the ravine would have fewer trees, less wildlife, and a warmer, dwindling stream.
Now, however, the creek is increasingly shaded by Oregon ash, rose spirea, and an impressively fast-growing cottonwood. Two western red cedars and a growing understory of ninebark, flowering red currant, thimbleberries, and vine maples cover the hillsides. The variety of ferns has expanded to include deer and maidenhair ferns.
We’ve seen an expansion of wildlife, too. Great horned owls have taken up residence—evidence of a growing rodent population. Because the stream runs deeper and cooler, great blue herons are feeding there. And my wildlife camera has captured video of the illusive grey fox.
Employment and other considerations limit my choices about where to live, but I can choose how I live in the space where I reside. My choice is to work with the ecosystem and not against it. I’m not trying to recreate a pristine wilderness, only reverse (or at least slow down) the impact of others’ choices.
Perhaps my efforts at controlling the eastern fox squirrel population have been misguided or ineffectual, but I know that cultivating a natural space by removing invasive plants and replacing them with natives has helped rebuild a longstanding but sensitive ecosystem. And in restoring this natural order, I find that I’ve been restoring myself.
Dr. Paul Otto is a professor of History at George Fox University in Newberg, OR. An expert in the history of early America and Native Americans, he has authored The Dutch-Munsee Encounter in America: The Struggle for Sovereignty in the Hudson Valley and is currently writing a history of the use and development of wampum in the colonial northeast in the 17th & 18th centuries. An avid user of role-immersion pedagogy known as Reacting to the Past, he is also at work on several of his own scenarios.
Sometimes the sharpest observations of a place come from individuals who don’t reside there—people who visit not as tourists but as temporary observers, seeking understanding rather than snapshots.
Think of Alexis de Tocqueville, the Frenchman who toured America for nine months in 1831 and produced Democracy in America, a two-volume collection of his observations that is still one of the best depictions of the young country in the early 19th century.
Essayist Tom Montgomery Fate’s birthplace and touchstone for interactions with a new world isn’t France but rather Iowa, a flat land full of cornfields where the highest point has an elevation of only 1,670 feet. Yet when Fate was invited to spend two weeks at the HJAndrews Experimental Forest near Oregon’s Cascade Range in 2017—“to write and walk, and meet a few scientists—hydrologists, botanists, biologists”—he brought with him the same essential tools de Tocqueville traveled with: a keen eye, a discerning mind, and a facility with words.
In the essay Fate wrote about the experience, “Travel that Takes You Home” (which is included in his new collection of essays about places he has visited around the world, The Long Way Home: Detours and Discoveries, Ice Cube Press, 2022), he delineates in precise language and telling detail not only the important research Andrews scientists are doing on things like the evergreen canopy’s protection of ground-level plants from the extremes of climate change, but also the ways in which exposure to a Northwest forest might affect our understanding of what it means to be human.
Here, for example, is Fate’s description of pausing by a creek on a rainy day:
Now I’m sitting on a flat rock in the hard rain listening to the creek. This is my job: to sit in the rain and listen. Were it a deeper stream without rocks or deadfalls or much current, and full of sediment, it would be quiet and still (and more Midwestern). Lookout Creek is crazy fast from three days of rain, and full of rocks and boulders and deadfalls, and so it has a lot to say. Over time, the gurgling water will tumble and dissolve rock, and rot logs and leaves and carry them downstream, along with trout and pine pollen and needles and cones, and bits of moss and lichen. Over time it will reshape its bed and banks and habitat, physically describing its character and history in this forest. Over time it will reflect and respond to climate change and other challenges posed by human beings. Over time, as with all streams and rivers, it will measure and reveal both our culpability and response ability as a species. Over time it will measure who we are.
Over time. That’s two words. Not “overtime.” Not hours or numbers, but a river of light and darkness, of heat and cold. Over time, things change. Some change is dramatic—what ecologists call “a disturbance”—like the rotting 400-year-old Douglas-fir that fell across the creek 30 years ago during a flood. The crashing tree ripped a wide gash in the canopy, prompting slower, less dramatic change below: a thick stand of Alder trees sprung up on the gravel bar amid the flood of new light. When the Doug-fir fell, its bole and branches obstructed and partly dammed the creek, forming a deep pool—where, over time, native trout came to live, and to wait and watch for midges and flies to light on the water.
Waiting and watching. Over time. To stand by a river and go. That rainy day I lingered by the water all afternoon, scrambling around on the slippery rocks like the child I once was—completely lost in the moment—and hoping to see something: a bird, or a snake, or a beetle, or a frog, or anyone who might re-member me, and remind me how I belong.
What might be a common environment to a native Northwesterner, Fate sees as new and full of unique character. He observes not only the pine but the pine pollen, not only the fallen log but the tear it rips in the canopy.
Fate’s new collection is full of such trenchant observations of places like the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota,Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario, Nicaragua, the Philippines, and, yes, Iowa. It’s also full of deeper contemplations of our connections not only to place but also to family, faith, nature, and vulnerable populations.
To attend a virtual event at which Fate will read from and discuss his new book, sign up here. You can read more about the event here. It takes place at 5 p.m. PDT on Wednesday, July 20, and registration is required.
To purchase Fate’s book, simply click here or ask your local bookstore to order The Long Way Home: Detours and Discoveriesby Tom Montgomery Fate.
For more on Fate and his other books and essays, go to his website, TomFate.com.
Tom Montgomery Fate is the author of five other books of creative nonfiction, including Cabin Fever, a nature memoir (Beacon Press), and Steady and Trembling, a spiritual memoir (Chalice Press). A regular contributor to the Chicago Tribune, his essays have appeared in the Boston Globe, Baltimore Sun, Orion, The Iowa Review, Christian Century, Fourth Genre, River Teeth, and many others. Dozens of his essays have also aired on NPR, PRI and Chicago Public Radio.
I spent some time away last week catching up on reading I’d missed, including Naomi Klein’s provocative exploration of the link between globalization and climate change, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (Simon & Schuster, 2014). You can read about the arguments and evidence Klein presents in this important book here. What I want to focus on is what she says about those who are fighting for clean air and water in the Pacific Northwest.
“Indeed, the oil and coal industries are no doubt cursing the day that they ever encountered the Pacific Northwest–Oregon, Washington State, and British Columbia. There the sector has had to confront a powerful combination of resurgent Indigenous Nations, farmers, and fishers whose livelihoods depend on clean water and soil, and a great many relative newcomers who have chosen to live in that part of the world because of its natural beauty. It is also, significantly, a region where the local environmental movement never fully succumbed to the temptations of the corporate partnership model, and where there is a long and radical history of land-based direct action to stop clear-cut logging and dirty mining.” (p. 319)
As Klein says about a coalition that worked to stop the building of a pipeline across British Columbia, Northwesterners are well aware of how fortunate we are to still have access to pristine natural environments. We’re also aware that we have lost too many of those environments already–and that those who put personal enrichment above preservation of the planet are always seeking to profit from (and pollute) those that are left.
In the summer of 1956, at the suggestion of Oregon-born poet Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac hitchhiked up the Pacific coast to Washington State to live in solitude as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak in the Mount Baker National Forest. He was hoping to detox from alcohol, women, drugs, and all of the other things that kept him from writing. In the end, he stayed only two months and the solitude almost drove him crazy.
Kerouac described the experience at length in his 1965 book Desolation Angels, but the excerpt here, about passing through Seattle on his way to the lookout, comes from The Dharma Bums, published seven years earlier. I like it not only for the freshness of his description of my hometown but also because the area around First Avenue was still very much the way he depicts it when I was was growing up there in the 1960s and 1970s.
Kerouac on Seattle:
Then, while he sat in the main room, I went topdeck as the ferry pulled out in a cold drizzle to dig and enjoy Puget Sound. It was one hour sailing to the Port of Seattle and I found a half-pint of vodka stuck in the deck rail concealed under a Time magazine and just casually drank it and opened my rucksack and took out my warm sweater to go under my rain jacket and paced up and down all alone on the cold fog-swept deck feeling wild and lyrical. And suddenly I saw the Northwest was a great deal more than the little vision I had of it of Japhy in my mind. It was miles and miles of unbelievable mountains grooking on all horizons in the wild broken clouds, Mount Olympus and Mount Baker, a giant orange sash in the gloom over the Pacific-ward skies that led I knew toward the Hokkaido Siberian desolations of the world. I huddled against the bridgehouse hearing the Mark Twain talk of the skipper and the wheelman inside. In the deepened dusk fog ahead the big red neons saying: PORT OF SEATTLE. And suddenly everything Japhy had ever told me about Seattle began to seep into me like cold rain, I could feel it and see it now, and not just think it. It was exactly like he’d said: wet, immense, timbered, mountainous, cold, exhilarating, challenging. The ferry nosed in at the pier on Alaskan Way and immediately I saw the totem poles in old stores and the ancient 1880-style switch goat with sleepy firemen chug chugging up and down the waterfront spur like a scene from my old dreams, the old Casey Jones locomotive of America, the only one I ever saw that old outside of Western movies, but actually working and hauling boxcars in the smoky gloom of the magic city.
I immediately went to a good clean skid row hotel, the Hotel Stevens, got a room for the night for a dollar seventy-five and had a hot tub bath and a good long sleep and in the morning I shaved and walked out First Avenue and accidentally found all kinds of Goodwill stores with wonderful sweaters and red underwear for sale and I had a big breakfast with five-cent coffee in the crowded market morning with blue sky and clouds scudding overhead and waters of Puget Sound sparkling and dancing under old piers. It was real true Northwest. At noon I checked out of the hotel, with my new wool socks and bandanas and things all packed in gladly, and walked out to 99 a few miles out of town and got many short rides.
Now I was beginning to see the Cascades on the northwest horizon, unbelievable jags and twisted rock and snow-covered immensities, enough to make you gulp.
One year after Kerouac’s mountaintop experience, On the Road was published and his life was never the same again. Nor was his writing. Even The Dharma Bums, published just one year later, lacks the verve and swing of the book that made him famous. But even a lesser book can have its highlights–and Kerouac’s views of the Pacific Northwest when it was still considered the edge of nowhere are some of my favorite passages in all of his works.
A short time ago, I happened upon an article announcing that a group of writers who specialized in wine were starting a new print magazine dedicated to covering the NW wine industry. Called Great Northwest Wine, the publication is linked to a 10-year-old website with the same name, and most of the writers, editors and photographers involved with it used to work for Wine Press Northwest, a magazine the Tri-City Herald newspaper produced for 23 years before ending its run this past September.
According to the article, there are now over 1,000 wineries in Washington State, 900 in Oregon, 370 in British Columbia, 65 in Idaho, and “a handful” in Montana.
Even residents of the area assume wine-making is a fairly recent addition to the NW economy, but one website I found credits photographer Peter Britt with planting what he called the Valley View Vineyard in the 1850s. (Britt’s estate in southern Oregon is known today as the location for the Britt Music & Arts Festival, “the Pacific Northwest’s premier outdoor summer performing arts festival.”) According to HistoryLink.org, the first NW grapes were planted even earlier, in 1825, at Fort Vancouver, then an outpost of the British Hudson’s Bay Company.
The Oregon Wine site traces the origins of Oregon’s modern wine industry to 1933 when, in the days after the repeal of Prohibition, a group of entrepreneurs received “bonded winery status.” According to the site, Hillcrest Winery in the Umpqua Valley is the state’s oldest estate winery and it was Hillcrest’s Richard Sommer who planted the many varieties of grapes on which today’s thriving Oregon wine reputation is built.
The Washington Wine site tells us that around the same time Hillcrest was coming into existence, the Washington Wine Producers Association was being founded. By 1937, Washington had 42 wineries.
In Oregon, as anyone who knows wines at all can tell you, Pinot Noir is king, topping 60,000 tons in annual production, four times its nearest rival, Pinot Gris.
But this is a site dedicated to writing about the Northwest rather than the wonders of NW wine, so let me give you some sites that feature writing about NW wine as well as a few books on the subject for you to check out:
Despite Oregon’s geographic proximity to Hollywood, films shot in the state are a rarity. Rarer still are films actually set in Oregon, films that embrace it as a place unto itself. The singularity of the setting and its place in the American psyche may help account for this paucity. Oregon, and the larger bioregion of the Pacific Northwest, continues to occupy a place apart in the American imagination, ensuring that its presence in narrative ties neatly in with the storytelling motif of the monomyth, or hero’s journey. This trope refers to the quest in which an individual must enter the “other world” in order to achieve a victory before returning, changed, to the world from which they came. This storytelling framework helps account for the enduring popularity of some of Oregon’s most defining films: the adolescent quest narratives of Stand By Me, The Goonies, and Coraline.
For generations, “The Oregon Trail”—whether as an actual physical track, the beguiling siren for scores of itinerants throughout the 19th century, or as the setting for a ubiquitous computer game— represented the ultimate terminality, the promised destination at the end of the arduous odyssey. In some atavistic corner of the American psyche, the Northwest remains a transcendental locale shaped by the journey and the quest when contrasted with the “ordinary world” of the remainder of the country. On film that division is even stronger. Much of the Pacific Northwest is filmically distinct, encompassing ecological and geographical extremes and standing utterly apart. In cinema, Oregon is a fantastical place—the other world— where anything can happen.
In 1986’s Stand By Me, director Rob Reiner replaces the Maine of Stephen King’s original short story with the small town of Brownsville in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The Oregon landscape reflects and enhances the gauzy second-order nostalgia of the post-war pastiche, in which a group of boys encounter the ultimate terminality of death in the form of a rumored cadaver. Quietly moldering pioneer townships and vital, pulsing greenery, with death lurking in the margins, are perfect for inducing an “otherworldly” presence, which helps account for the movie’s enduring popularity. The environment is a strange and threatening place—full of rattling trains on narrow bridges, hungry leeches and murderous bullies—the crucible in which the realized adult is formed. To travel there, in memory or on foot, is a challenge.
Offering a more fantastical take on a similar adolescent quest narrative, 1985’s Goonies is another beloved classic with lasting influence among those who came of age in the 1980s and 90s. Trading the verdant landscape of the Willamette Valley for the riparian setting of the Oregon Coast and the Columbia River, Goonies has the feel of a 19th century “boy’s own” adventure transplanted to the gently decaying rot of Reagen-era Astoria.
The propulsive script is fully immersed in the tropes of the monomyth. In it, a group of children–the titular Goonies– undertake a collective quest to find a pirate’s treasure, dodging obstacles in the form of murderous gangsters and elaborate booby-traps, in the hopes of saving their neighborhood from development. The “otherworldliness” of its ordinary setting is established in the opening scene, with a high-speed car chase sweeping through Astoria and ending near the remarkable seaside monolith of Haystack Rock. Long before the Goonies embark on their own journey into the fantastical, the viewer is transported to the numinous landscape of the Northwest itself.
A more recent addition to the canon of coming-of-age narratives set in Oregon, Laika’s 2009 hit Coraline takes the uncanny possibilities of the region to the extreme. The protagonist, the eponymous Coraline, begins the story newly transplanted from Michigan to the damp surreality of Ashland, Oregon. It is a grim and sodden place, inhabited by eccentrics and semi-neglected children, where the ignored Coraline soon discovers a mysterious portal to a literal “other world” in the form of a sinister mirror to her own.
Here the usage of the hero’s journey is explicit, with the “other world” a defined location and named as such. Coraline’s journey to, and subsequent flight from, this other world helps define her presence in the ordinary world, the exoticism of the Ashland setting made pedestrian in contrast to the baleful other.
As a new cohort of artists and filmmakers arises in the Pacific Northwest, Oregon’s potential as a narrative setting remains large and largely unexplored. The success of Travel Oregon’s recent“Only Slightly Exaggerated” campaign, with its surreal Miyazaki-inspired depiction of the state, points to the ways the state remains distinct; with a setting that can accept, challenge and strengthen whatever narrative it encounters.
[Editor’s note: A more recent addition to the kind of Oregon cinema Schepps explores here is “Leave No Trace,” based on the novel My Abandonmentby Portland writer Peter Rock.]
Michael Schepps lives in Portland, Oregon where he is an editor for Kithe Journal, a publisher with Korza Books and a writer at large. In his free time he juggles, hikes and takes photographs of birds. For more of his work, go to MLSchepps.com and look for his debut novella Split Aces, to be released on January 22, 2022.