cascadia rising
Image: Kate Madden

THIS SPRING, Adidas unveiled a nationwide TV spot selling a spiffy new device that allows soccer players to track how far and how fast they run. Between shots of players in soulful pregame mode, jump cuts bring a spine-tingling vision to the screen: a flag slowly waving in murky light, its blue, white, and green stripes united by the black silhouette of a Douglas fir.

“Revolutions,” a narrator growls, “are born from simple ideas.”

The “Doug Flag,” as it’s known, is real (at least for a small subculture), and it waves for Cascadia, a proposed nation combining Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, even distant reaches of Idaho and Montana. Political dreamers, environmentalists with a poetic bent, and tongue-in-cheek commentators have touted this concept for years. Portland artist Alexander Baretich designed the banner back in 1995; a satirical “Republic of Cascadia” website went up in 1998, promising to “liberate our nation from … Amero-Canadian despots!” On a less jocular note, the Cascadia Green Building Council has linked sustainable architecture and construction industries across the “bioregion” since 1999.

The idea seems whimsical, certainly—especially given some advocates’ declaration of a “Cascadia Summer” replete with events organized by the Rainbow Family and Earth First. On the other hand, with the US hurtling into another divisive election year, maybe Portlanders can find solace in this backyard shadow-state. As the hot dogs char on the barbecue this Fourth of July, savor the fact that, in 1813, Thomas Jefferson wrote to Astoria’s founder that the new Pacific settlement would be “the germ of a great, free, and independent empire.” Cascadia!

Lately, the Cascadian dream appears to be fermenting. Time magazine recently hailed Cascadia—alongside Tibet, Scotland, and the Basque Country of Spain and France—as one of the world’s “Top 10 Aspiring Nations.” The tricolor that waves in a multinational sports company’s ad has also boldly risen at Occupy protests. This spring, thousands of fans circulated among Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver as the three cities’ soccer teams battled for the Cascadia Cup. That other local “country,” Beervana, even dubs a microbrew style “Cascadian dark ale.”

“Cascadia is happening now, person by person. It’s like a virus in the system.” — Alexander Baretich

Our proposed homeland looks good on paper: this 500,000-square-mile chunk of resource-rich country, stretching from sea to Rockies and from the Yukon to northern California, would have 15 million people, making it the world’s 20th-most-populous nation. International dynamos like Intel, Amazon, Nike, Microsoft, and Boeing would pump $675 billion into Cascadia’s GDP, creating an economy bigger than that of prosperous Switzerland.

In the 1970s, environmental scientists began to see the region as a distinct geological area, with its own biological and environmental signature. Ernest Callenbach’s 1975 sci-fi novel Ecotopia portrayed a sovereign haven of free love and groovy alternative medicine (and, on a less groovy note, separate city-states for African Americans). Over the past 40 years, political groups of all stripes—from gay activists to white nationalists—have espoused different visions of a breakaway Northwest.

What defines this fantasy realm? Geologists say plate tectonics and common watersheds. Economists say high-tech industry and natural resources. Progressives say medical marijuana and gay marriage. “Everyone projects their own desires onto Cascadia,” says David McCloskey, the Eugene-based sociologist who was the first to use “Cascadia” in its modern sense back in the ’70s. “It’s become a brand. You can buy a Cascadian sink and toilet—with eco-flush.”

For a “nation” with only one large military base, even fewer military aspirations, and no Rick Perry–like political figures musing about going it alone, Cascadia seems destined to remain a dreamland, albeit a handsome one. “Seventy percent of the population lives within view of a white-coned peak,” notes McCloskey. “Cascadia is not just an idea. It’s a place, and it generates an experience we love.”

Yet culturally, Cascadia’s ragtag forces are on the march. The soccer rivalry has minted flags, stickers, and arm patches. Cascadia Matters, a group of artists in Bend, is producing a documentary to emphasize the region’s environmental unity. Cascadia Now, a Seattle-based outfit that began in 2005, organizes groups in Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver, BC, to work for “integration and increased autonomy.” (“We stay away from the word ‘secession,’” says Brandon Letsinger, a cofounder. “We use ‘community independence.’”)

Baretich, the Doug Flag designer, is a self-described “guerrilla teacher” who takes over empty rooms at community colleges to deliver classes on “Memetic Cascadia.” “Nationalism is exclusive,” he says. “Bioregionalism is inclusive. A lot of people think we want secession. I don’t think about that. It’s about survival. It’s about localization and supporting local economies. Still, if we ended up as a country, that’d be OK with me.”

But consider: political nonexistence might be Cascadia’s greatest asset. This phantom country gives Northwesterners a rare chance to belong to a “nation” that doesn’t demand taxes or wage wars, and isn’t run by insufferable politicians. And, should you feel the urge to pledge allegiance, you can still salute a flag.