Ella Rhoads Higginson, who later became the first poet laureate of Washington, wrote of greed eroding the beauty of her state in the 1890s.
It might seem like just yesterday that an avowed Pacific Northwesterner wrote: “I hate this many-headed thing called Civilization that is tearing away from us Westerners the things we love!”
And it would be easy to find people today who would unequivocally agree with this plaintive cry, who have glumly observed the vestiges of old Seattle torn down and replaced by gleaming angular towers, who have witnessed Microsoft, Starbucks and Amazon occupy Puget Sound like bristling corporate military camps, who have been backed up in the traffic that chokes our roads, and who have seen the spectacular beauty of the Northwest gradually transformed beyond recognition and rarely for the better.
However up-to-date this heartfelt lament seems, it was written in an 1892 essay titled “The New West” by the Northwest’s own author Ella Rhoads Higginson, who later became the first poet laureate of Washington. When I was working on my book “Selected Writings of Ella Higginson: Inventing Pacific Northwest Literature,” I discovered this essay where Higginson writes of watching her beloved Northwest exploited by those she described as “money seekers who come here only for gain,” who were “blind to the grand and lonely beauty of our opal seas, our emerald forests, our silver ice streams” and “our high and lofty mountains that rear their glistening domes into the clouds.”
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Though Higginson is little known today, over a century ago she was the most influential Northwest literary writer in the United States. Her depictions of mountains, forests and waters of the region introduced the then-unknown Northwest to an enthusiastic audience. Higginson’s award-winning writings were the first to prominently place the Northwest on the literary map of the United States.
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So, when she wrote about alarming changes in this region, readers took notice. It was then and is now hard to stop the money makers, near impossible to ignore the demands of profit and jobs. We all know the arguments, and they were the same in the late 19th century as they are today.
With her writer’s talent and her passionate love for the Northwest, Higginson saw more clearly than most what would be irrevocably lost. She was present at the beginnings of such destruction, hating the newcomers who came to “tear down our forests, rip open our mountain sides, blow out our stumps with giant powder, [and] dam up our water ways.”
She could not have imagined the immense population of the region today and what would be needed to support such massive growth. But she rightly feared the changes to come.
Higginson’s foes were recent arrivals, “sleek, sharp, prosperous Easterners,” who moved to the Northwest to exploit and profit off the land. Since her time, both newcomers and locals have sought such profit, just as new arrivals, like me, have moved to the Northwest and become dedicated transplants, loving the region with the zeal of converts.
As 59 construction cranes (at last count) loom over Seattle, as Viadoom becomes a memory, and as “camping” in the freeway left lane is a reality, growth may feel like an unstoppable force. Maybe it is.
For many of us, the Puget Sound remains our breathtakingly beautiful home, whether we were born here or are newcomers who came here and were born again. It is our sacred charge to love this place, to protect it and to fervently protest the things that would damage it. In doing so, we clearly and loudly proclaim our identity as hardcore moss-backs.
In her 1892 essay, Higginson herself declared: “If to love every inch of this free noble West with a proud and passionate love” and to hate destructive progress “is moss-backism, then I am a moss-back to my very finger ends!”
Well over a century later, we’re completely with you, Ella, moss and all.