Mossback writer comes to Darvill's to warn of Pugetopolis

Puget Sound writer-editor Knute “Skip” Berger will read at Darvill’s from his latest work, Pugetopolis: A Mossback Takes on Growth Addicts, Weather Wimps, and the Myth of Seattle Nice on Friday, April 17 at 7 p.m.

Berger is widely-read throughout the Northwest, as the Editor/Columnist for the Seattle Weekly, and currently as contributor to Seattle magazine, Washington Law and Politics, Crosscut.com news website.

Pugetopolis is a compilation of editorials and columns, mostly from the last five years, that sheds light on Berger’s perspective of the pitfalls of unbridled growth in the region, and “the wisdom of that.”

“Pugetopolis,” Berger says, is an old term from the 60s, originally implying advocacy of the development and urbanization of the Puget Sound region. But even at its origin, the term carried a warning. “To me, it’s a matter of scale and what you allow to drive the agenda,” he says.

“It’s a real dilemma. We have an economic system based on the notion that endless growth is the source of prosperity. It’s in our pioneer DNA.”

While many came to the NW, seeing the area as a resource-rich area “ripe for creating economic paradise; others had a utopian vision to create another kind of paradise.”

While Berger feels that growth should be controlled with laws and policies that limit the “free market” of unregulated growth, he acknowledges, “It’s hard to come up with a common vision of a future when we feel that someone’s trying to take it away from us.”

“What’s most important is to recognize we’re not living in a ‘blank slate;’ we have history and it’s really important to find ways of respecting what is already here and to shape it positively.”

Mossback is an old term Berger came across while researching pioneer accounts in the old Tacoma Ledger. When the railroads brought settlers to the area, newcomers were disparaging of the earlier pioneers, whom they called “Mossbacks.”  The term had the regional meaning of the settlers who had dug in and gathered some moss. Though meant as a term of disparagement, Berger adopted it as his moniker, saying, “People rooted in the Northwest have something to be proud of.”

Two related misconceptions that Berger has observed newcomers bring with them to the Northwest are that the Puget Sound area is a blank slate where you can do whatever you want to do in pursuit of individual ambition; and that everything her is purely natural. “It really isn’t the case that we’re an “island” of naturalness,” Berger says. He cites Seattle’s “complex and inconvenient” urban environment as being “harshly terra-formed at the expense of the landscape.”

Historically, the city and the area have washed away hillsides, filled in tideflats and estuaries, built canals and dammed rivers. Now, Berger warns of the “everyday drip, drip, drip of oil, prozac” and other pollutants that we allow into the Puget Sound waters. “The way we live is not compatible with our ideals.”

Being a third-generation Seattleite himself, Berger has fond recollections of the Seattle Center, where the World’s Fair took place from April to October in 1962, and the site continues to intrigue him.

“It’s a wonderfully complex and much-argued-over unsettled gem of the city. It literally is for all people, although it’s about to lose the Fun Forests, which is too bad. It combines sports events with high-mindedness and a Coney Island feel – I love that.

“It continues a tradition of early-60s idealism; it’s very compelling that way. It’s kind of cornball, but I’m a big fan.”

At 55, Berger has seen the evolution of  journalism from the printed page (he was given a subscription the Sunday NY Times at the age of 11) through his high school and college years as editor of newspapers at Evergreen College, to the Seattle Weekly and its Eastside counterpart, Eastside Week. Now a writer for crosscut.com, published by erstwhile Seattle Weekly publisher David Brewster, Berger embraces online journalism.

“I’m a reluctant convert, but I’m convinced that the technology makes it compelling.” Berger cites the accessibility both for those wanting to publish, and those wanting to read and report on the news or other research.

When he subscribed to the Sunday NY Times, it would arrive at his Seattle home the following Thursday. Now, information, news and research is available instantaneously with the click of a mouse.

While the immediate accessibility of news is undeniable, the quality of journalism remains in question, Berger notes. “People will have to look for it. It’s difficult to be an authority on the web, commenters and the public will let you know if you’ve screwed up. But by and large, it’s a positive thing.

“However, readers will have to be more watchful and aggressive about how they find information, and how they respond to it.”

Long and often a visitor to the San Juan Islands (his family owned a cabin on Shaw Island until the 1970s), Berger now enjoys the lifestyle of a professional writer, and plans to begin work on a non-fiction book this fall. It will look at historic and contemporary issues, and touches on the San Juan Islands, he hints.

After a debate with NW writer Tim Eagan last February on the issues of boosterism and development, Berger praised Eagan’s summation. He paraphrased Eagan, saying, “Our task is to find a way to build a city or community that lives to its environment. That matches the integrity of our incredible natural landscape.

“It’s a high bar to set, but a worthy ideal.”

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