Edited by former natural resources lawyer Penny Harrison, Open Spaces magazine has always struck me as an odd duck, an uneasy hybrid of general interest journalism and policy wonkery, poetry and prose—City Club meets literary salon. But the Open Spaces anthology is essential reading for anyone moving to Cascadia and to the rest of the world—despite a typo on the very first page, and a few dense articles more appropriate for a policy seminar. “The greater culture is coming to us,” declares one of the region’s finest writers, John Daniel, in the opening essay, “turning in our direction to drink from the wild perennial springs of vitality and hope.”
While stories about arts, gardening and poetry provide variety, the book’s title suggests its main subject: the relationship of Northwest people to the natural environment, with meaty disquisitions on land-use planning, arcane but critically important water law, the Endangered Species Act, dam removal and other issues that still heat the headlines, providing critical context for current events. It would have been handy to see the date of each original publication; the region’s changing fast, and some essays work better as history than current affairs journalism. Eric Redmond’s story about view-blocking megahouses documents a change in Seattle’s character as big money flowed in. Stephen L. Harris’ explication of Cascadia’s geologic volatility benefits from recountings of Indian legends and pioneer history, not just subduction zone analysis. Roy Hemmingway’s explanation of salmon life cycles reminds me of John McPhee’s careful New Yorker explanatory journalism.
The magazine’s emphasis on environment slights other vital aspects of Northwest life (class, race, culture, business, etc.), but it’s unfair to ask Open Spaces to be what it’s never intended to be: the general interest Northwest magazine the region so desperately needs. Except perhaps for Oregon Quarterly and Oregon Humanities magazines, it’s hard to imagine where else you’d find this kind of history- and context-laden discussion in Northwest mass media.
Though dotted with esteemed Northwest literary voices like William Kittredge and the great Montana writer David James Duncan, the roster boasts many names more familiar from the news pages. Pieces by government and activist figures like former Arizona governor and Clinton cabinet secretary Bruce Babbitt and current National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration head Jane Lubchenco offer valuable policymakers’ perspectives.
Although many aren’t
professional writers—a jazz pianist, a neurosurgeon, a law professor,
biologists—the prose isn’t as dry as you might expect. Often it rises to
real eloquence, as in Duncan’s and Daniel’s pieces, as well as in the
plangent essay by one of our most insightful and graceful writers,
Kathleen Dean Moore, that closes the collection. Combining poignant
memoir, keen observation and penetrating insight, the
philosopher-author’s “Fire and Water” embodies what Open Spaces aspires to be: a place that pulls together solid knowledge and lyrically expressed wisdom.
GO: Open Spaces editor Penny Harrison and contributors John Daniel, Linda Besant and Kim Stafford read at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Wednesday, June 22. Free.