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Scottish Students Visit Strange Land: the Northwest

by Nicholas K. Geranios
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 18, 2004

SPOKANE, Wash. -- Ah, to see ourselves as others see us.

The guidebook for a popular Scottish university field expedition to the Northwest shows the region through the fond eyes of geography professors who bring a handful of students here each year.

They recently spent 15 days in the Northwest, traveling from Seattle to Baker City, Ore., and Butte, Mont. to examine land use issues.

Jon Shaw, a geography professor at the University of Aberdeen, has been leading student field trips to the Northwest for three years, along with colleagues William Walton and Keith Chapman.

The course is more popular than trips to Italy or Portugal, even though it costs twices as much, Shaw said.

"The American West has a powerful allure to people," Shaw said.

The guidebook produced by the professors for the students describes the qualities of this strange, foreign land "infrequently visited by Britons."

Students were warned about the dangers of the region.

"The Pacific Northwest is also home to numerous poisonous insects, arachnids and reptiles, such as Black Widow spiders and rattlesnakes," the professors wrote. "Bites from some of these can be lethal..."

"It is also worth bearing in mind that the Northwest is responsible for the re-birth of trendy coffee bars, such as Starbucks, which are hardly noted as purveyors of healthy potables," they warned.

The guide notes that restaurant meals are cheaper, but the customary tip is larger.

The professors discuss the beauty of the land, but warn against getting caught up in the local hyperbole.

"How many times have you heard the expression `God's country' deployed by locals admiring their surroundings?"

The region's history Is filled with "a manly series of events involving plenty of mining, logging, ranching and dam-building," but the guide notes many Northwesterners now seek to protect, rather than exploit, nature.

"Environmentalists have been a vocal minority in the Northwest for many years," they wrote, finding particular zeal in urbanites who exhibit "the self-righteous moralism of New England Puritans."

But the professors cautioned students against stereotyping the people they encounter.

"It is no more the case that all of those beyond greater Seattle and the Willamette Valley are check-shirted anachronisms than it is that the majority of city dwellers hug every tree they stumble across," they wrote.

"To describe the urban centres of Seattle and Portland as ecotopias is laughable," they wrote, warning of traffic congestion and pollution.

The guidebook emphasizes the vast sweep of the region, which could contain numerous countries the size of Scotland. They note the Columbia River Basin, which covers an area larger than France, has 450 dams and collects most of the water for the region.

But the dams have decimated natural salmon runs, they said.

The chapter on the Hanford nuclear reservation was headlined "Hell on earth."

Some students traveled to Butte, Mont., to study efforts to revive the economy after the collapse of its mining industry, a recurring theme in resource-dependent towns around the West.

The students were in awe of the vast Berkeley Pit open-pit copper mine in Butte, "largely because you don't see holes in the ground like that very often," Shaw said.

The visitors also puzzled over the fact that government land agencies work so hard to satisfy various stakeholders who have different opinions of how land should be used, Shaw said. In England, the government alone decides how public land is used. Private property rights are also less strict in the United Kingdom, where the government can tell private landowners what to do in some cases, he said.

Shaw did his undergraduate work at the University of Idaho and found the Northwest is the perfect place to bring his students for field studies.

The first thing the students tend to notice is the huge scale and distances in the United States. They also note that communities sprawl much more than in Europe.

"Spokane is the same size and population as Aberdeen, where they are coming from, but is four times the land area," Shaw said. "That always strikes them as odd."

Related Sites:
University of Aberdeen

Nicholas K. Geranios
Scottish Students Visit Strange Land: the Northwest
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 18, 2004

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