Book Buzz: Cascadia Field Guide

Cascadia Field Guide: Art, Ecology, Poetry edited by Elizabeth Bradfield, CMarie Fuhrman and Dereky Sheffield

The collection Cascadia Field Guide: Art, Ecology, Poetry is a love story masquerading as a field guide. In the book, 14 artists and more than 100 poets and writers express their devotion to the bioregion through black-and-white illustrations, place-inspired poetry and evocative prose.

Whether you have a longstanding love affair with Cascadia or are new to its charms, this field guide is a fresh and intimate illumination of the extraordinary place we call home.

Editors Elizabeth Bradfield, CMarie Fuhrman and Derek Sheffield describe Cascadia — a unifier defining the Pacific Northwest by watersheds rather than political borders — as stretching from “Alaska’s Prince William Sound through British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon to northern California’s Eel River, and from the Pacific Coast to the Continental Divide in Idaho and Montana.”

In their introduction, the editors acknowledge that unlike traditional field guides identifying plants and animals by appearance, habitat and behavior, Cascadia Field Guide employs stories, art and poetry to introduce readers to 128 beings (their preferred alternative to species) that live in the 13 bioregions of Cascadia. They capitalize the names of the named beings to highlight their individuality and agency. The result is not a complete taxonomy but a reverent story of connections that create place.

This is a literary rather than a scientific guide. You might not learn the average life span of a Steller’s Jay, they write, but you might learn how it feels “to have Jay on a branch by your shoulder.”

One other distinction: Measuring 6 inches wide, 8 1/2 inches tall and 1 inch thick, the 396-page field guide won’t fit in a pocket and it’s most likely too heavy to lug along on a backpacking or kayaking trip. Read it when you’re back from the trail to recall the wonder and to reestablish a connection with place.

The guide’s stories are inextricably linked — like the natural world they celebrate. For example, in the Tidewater Glacier section, former Washington State Poet Laureate and Bellingham resident Rena Priest celebrates Salmonberry in her poem, “Tour of a Salmonberry.” The closing notes of Priest’s poem (“float above the earth, feel/the sun, and return”) flow seamlessly to a description of the early spring runs of Eulachon (also known as Candlefish, Ooligan, Hooligan and Saak), which is fished for food, for use as a natural preservative, and for its oil, which is fatty enough to serve as a light source.

The Bull Kelp entry that follows deepens the connection, revealing that the long, hollow stems of Bull Kelp historically served as flexible tubes for storing and transporting Eulachon oil.

The writers — some well-known, others emerging — have deep ties to the region. Their work is shaped by this place and their poems add a layer of intimacy.

In addition to Priest, local writers featured in Cascadia Field Guide include Robert Lashley, Donald J. Mitchell, Nancy Pagh, Jeremy Voigt and Jane Wong. The art of Raya Friday, a member of the Lummi Nation, illustrates the book’s Outer Coast section.

Friday’s preferred medium is glass and her open ocean illustration that begins the section is like a stained-glass window, evoking reverence for tufted puffin, spotted ratfish, Dungeness crab, Heermann’s gull, tomcod/bocaccio, giant Pacific octopus, sea otter and Bigg’s killer whale.

The book’s organization is, the editors admit, a bit loose. It’s as if you’re seeing Cascadia through the branches of a Western Red Cedar — veiled, slowly revealed, an invitation to explore more deeply.

This is a book that encourages you to see and to know but also to feel. The writers ask the reader to “listen to rain patter on the broad-spanning leaves of Devil’s Club,” “… close your eyes and take a deep breath, smelling the unique mix of wet rock, Bunchgrass, dust, Lupine, Desert Parsley, and everywhere, the distinctive bite of Sagebrush,” to “lie back, close your eyes … thank the stars above … for your time” here.

Reviewed by Mary Vermillion, community relations manager, Whatcom County Library System

Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, July 10, 2023