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Oregon West

A Field Survey

I’m captivated by the idea that landscapes express material culture. But what does the human compulsion to remake the lands we inhabit reveal about us?

Scrawled like hieroglyphs across the American West, these interventions in the land—from interstate highways to dammed and channelized rivers, from clearcut hillsides to vast terraformed farmlands, from sprawling suburbs to sublime wilderness areas—are ripe with meaning. At their worst, they tell a story of our need for control and our tendency toward violence. But they also speak to our ingenuity, our resilience and, even, our capacity for beauty.

The place we now call Oregon is where the idea of manifest destiny first became manifest. On November 20, 1805, the Corps of Discovery Expedition reached the Pacific Ocean at the mouth of the Columbia River, where the present-day town of Astoria sits. Within five years, Astoria became the first permanent U.S. settlement on the Pacific coast—and the first sentence in an ongoing story of environmental catastrophe in the American West.

I offer this survey of western Oregon landscapes to make sense of the complex narratives written into our exploits of the land, and hopefully to discover there a flicker of self-reflection.