An American Religious Identification Survey in 1990 pointed to the Pacific Northwest as home of the greatest number of people who, when asked their religious preference, said "none." A new ARIS survey says that number has increased in Oregon from 18 to 24 percent and in Washington from 15 to 25 percent, giving rise to this region being called the home of the "unchurched."
However, the latest ARIS survey, by Trinity College in Connecticut, notes the Northwest has slipped into second place behind New England, where Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine all lead Oregon and Washington as home of the "nones."
According to the just-published "Cascadia: the Elusive Utopia." (Ronsdale Press, Douglas Todd, ed.), a lot of these "nones" in the Pacific Northwest are actually very spiritual, walking a path of their own making, but not into organized religions and churches.
Sociology professor Mark Shibley of Southern Oregon University wrote the lead essay called "The Promise and Limits of Secular Spirituality in Cascadia."
"This region is different. The people here are not as connected to religious institutions," he says.
The alternative spirituality here shows itself in two main ways, Shibley notes: "nature spirituality," such as you see in the secular environmental movement, and the more well-known New Age spirituality, where the gaze is shifted inward.
Cascadia is considered to be Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, a region noted for its independence — a spirit that spawned the State of Jefferson movement in the mid-twentieth century. It tried to make a new state of Southern Oregon and Northern California, an area removed from all major centers of population and political power.
Shibley, a native Oregonian, says he's not an adherent of either New Age or nature religions. But he did come of age in the 1970s and "I've hiked the wild areas and stood on top of mountains reading 'The River Why' and Gary Snyder and Barry Lopez and I do know the mountain-top epiphany."
In its politics as well as its religion, Cascadia, says Shibley, presents "an anti-government sensibility. The world out there is pretty screwed up and we want to be left alone to do our thing."
Our sense of nature spirituality goes back to pioneers and ranchers who didn't have or want a lot of churches around them, says Shibley, and it got extended and shifted by Baby Boomers who "settled in the hills and became part of that experiment and invented this new culture that is less exploitative of resources and wants to care for that resource base for generations to come."
In his essay, Shibley singles out Chant Thomas, a longtime resident of the Little Applegate who describes, in a time of despair, hugging a big Ponderosa pine, which he intuitively recognized as a "sacred tree." Other people followed, establishing the spot as a "place of power" deserving of protection of the "new natives" who love and honor it.
The Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, aside from any ecological justification, must be honored as wilderness in the spiritual sense, writes Shibley, because "the idea of wilderness "¦ is the spiritual core of an emergent new culture."
To flesh out these Cascadian concepts, the Tidings interviewed Ashland residents for whom nature is a key part of what they know as spirituality. They are:
Steve Scholl — writer and lecturer on spirituality, leader of tours to Morocco and to sacred music festivals (see www.imagine-adventures.com), native Oregonian.
Aylah Hallel — chief priestess of Rowan Tree Pagan Ministries in Ashland.
Dominick Della Sala, Ph.D. — chief scientist, National Center for Conservation Science and Policy, Ashland. Raised Catholic in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Claire Krulikowski — Author of "Moonlight on the Ganga" and "Living a Radical Peace." Does copywriting and event P.R., lives in Talent.
1. In your life, is nature a source of the spiritual or sacred?
Steve — Yes. Nature is part of my spiritual practice. It's not central but is an essential part. To live and breathe in Southern Oregon and in a matter of seconds to be on a trail in the woods away from the daily grind. I've lived most of my life where nature is accessible. Nature, rather than a big building, becomes my monastery, my sanctuary.
Aylah — Yes, I was raised in the mountains. I was already hopelessly in love with nature. I had already spent my childhood "¦ climbing trees, hiking, swimming, and camping. To me, nature is incredibly sacred. Out in nature is really the only place I feel in my heart that there is something "bigger." Because I feel that nature is god I feel that the elements of nature — the sky, trees, animals, mountains, rocks, streams and rivers — are her keepers, looking after her, and me, presiding over the ecosystem, causing balance in our atmosphere, and perpetuating life as we know it.
Dominick — Absolutely. There are lots of different sources. Nature is the core. It's earth-centered, an awareness of things greater than me, that science can't explain.
Claire — It has been. It's not predominant. It's a lot of why I chose to live in Washington and Oregon. I learned of the little beings that lived around there, entities I considered wood nymphs. It was a life force. I had healings in nature. Once I was sick and was going to die. I hugged this tree and asked it to take the condition from me and in moments I was relieved. I realized there were spirits beyond what appears as the material.
2. Have you experienced some kind of opening, epiphanies or mystical awareness at a particular point in your life?
Steve — I've had dozens of moments I would call ecstasy or deeply felt times in nature, where it's blurred between the identified self and what's beyond it, a sense of becoming one with existence and not encased in a head and body. Once on a walk, I felt I was gone. The Sufis call it annihilation. I and the trees were not there. For a brief moment, I felt gone into identification with all creatures. The barriers between subject and object were gone and it was something beautiful, magical.
Aylah — My family and I camped a lot in remote places, many times we had to hike into where we camped — I had always, from a very young age, felt that something was watching over me while we were out there — I always assumed it was the nature spirits. I always felt loved and cared for while I was out camping and hiking. One day I was at Lithia Park doing a Silence Meditation. When I finished and opened my eyes, all of nature was 'talking' to me — the rocks, the water, the trees all seem to be speaking a language I understood, telling me that they loved and appreciated my existence and they were grateful for their own existence.
Dominick — I experience it every time I'm in nature. It opens me up to all possibilities. It allows the spirit to connect with persona every time I'm in nature.
Claire — In India, I kept being called to the Ganges, the sacred river. I was a hard-headed businesswoman at the time. Anytime I listened, it always led me to the river and I would see a lot of the meaning behind what I was seeing and trusting that kind voice.
3. The Pacific Northwest, according to surveys, has the greatest number of people, often described as "spiritual, not religious," who don't embrace church or organized religion as their primary focus. If this is true for you, why?
Steve — Yes. I'm not affiliated with any community. I was, but I kept finding it more and more of a straight jacket. It became unhealthy. I'm in the category of "unchurched." I study religions and am sympathetic to Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism but these are so connected to pre-modern times. The new spirituality is post-denominational. Oregon might be a bellwether of that. It's seen around the world. People see that it (organized religion) doesn't speak to the spiritual depths. Those of us on this sort of lonely path find ways to connect with each other in non-authoritarian, non-hierarchical, non-sexist ways. It will be interesting to see if the unchurched can provide a sense of community. Those of us who left it miss the community and ritual.
Aylah — I don't think that a person has to go to a building r come to God through any one person. The trees have always been my temple. Even at a very young time in my life when I did go to church or seek advice from a pastor or priest — I would always go climb a tree or sit in the woods and let the dirt and trees and animals tell me what they think.
Dominick — It's true. I was born and raised Catholic. I felt more connected in nature than in church. It's not to say that people can't get connected in church. My personal spiritual connection is nature-based.
Claire — It's true. I was raised Catholic on the East Coast. At an early age, I remember chewing my nails as the priest talked and would focus on other things. I knew it wasn't the truth or the whole truth and that religion limited God instead of expressed God.
4. The Pacific Northwest also has a tradition of being non-traditional, of being the place for people who love independence and the right to think and live as they please. Does the freedom to define religion for yourself play a role in your being here? How?
Steve — Yes, it plays a role in my life, moving away from the institutions because of the lack of freedom. Institutional leaders tell you this is how you have to believe and that doesn't work for me. Being in this place makes it easier. The more unchurched spiritual quests people have, the more they say this is normal. A lot of people are anxious to leave the church, although you still have a social life there.
Aylah — I think so, especially in Ashland. I am pretty much out about my spiritual beliefs and no one seems to care. I teach others paganism and magic and feel perfectly free to live the way I choose. This area is such a melting pot of religious and spiritual beliefs, and there seems to be a lot of respect for each other and our beliefs.
Dominick — Yes, it does. It's important raising my daughter to be tolerant of all religious beliefs. We take her to church, synagogue, Muslim and Buddhist. It's important to have an independent nature and religious freedom and this region does.
Claire — I ran as fast as I could to get away from the East Coast mentality. I sensed that other places and thought systems would be less fault-finding and into victimization. It's the way they were taught religion and family. You don't find that here.
5. In your life, how do you experience your communion, oneness or wholeness with nature? What do you do and what is it like?
Steve — To be quiet, still, to stop the incessant chatter of the mind by a stream in the woods, instead of being in a building — that's a huge part of it.
Aylah — I feel the closest when I am out in nature. I like to camp, hike, swim, picnic, and just about anything outdoors. With coven rituals, we spend part of the year doing rituals indoors. As soon as the warmer weather comes, the community is very excited to get outdoors and start doing our rituals in the wild.
Dominick — It's as simple as being in the garden, dealing with the day-to-day stress of how we destroy Mother Nature. As long as I can focus on the spiritual connection with things "¦ that's what I do.
Claire — It's a matter of being aware and courteous to nature around me, putting seed and water out for animals on the hot days and on the first day of the year. I spend a lot of time with animals and walking in the breeze and the trees. It's very refreshing, inspiring and healing.
6. What is it about the Pacific Northwest that keeps you here, that you couldn't find anywhere else?
Steve — We're interested in different cultures and aren't wedded to this spot. Here, what comes is the sense that this is home, my place I'm identified with. This is natural, the love for the land in which you live. I treasure it. It's absolutely perfect, a beautiful spot. This is our place.
Aylah — I love the mountains and the trees. I love Ashland, because it's nestled into the mountains. A person can look in any direction and see mountains, and many times while driving, deer and other wild animals will cross in front.
Dominick — I came here in 1998 as one of the team that identified the Klamath-Siskiyou as one of the Top 10 Temperate Conifer Regions in the world, because of the old growth forest and the exceptional plant and wildlife. I'm here because it's a special place to science and on a lot of different levels.
Claire — The beauty of nature and the hillsides. If I were anywhere else it would be near the ocean. The East Coast is flat and doesn't have that kind of strong natural energy I feel here.