THE GOOD RAIN

Across Time and Terrain in the Pacific Northwest

By Timothy Egan

Knopf. 254 pp. $19.95

Several decades ago, when Boston expatriate Stewart Holbrook wrote "The Far Corner," still considered by natives to be the definitive profile of the region, the Pacific Northwest was remote and bucolic, a romantic and mysterious place of rain and rumor.

In the minds of outsiders, Oregon, Washington and Idaho, as well as bits of British Columbia, Montana and (God forbid!) Northern California, were provinces of fish, forests and wheat fields, a mote of beautiful, still mostly wild frontier waiting only for Americans to become restless once more.

The region's small cities were safe, clean and well managed, the air and water pure, and Northwesterners an independent breed who, with the odd exception, wanted to keep it that way.

As we have known since the Gold Rush, however, slogans like "Don't Californicate Oregon!" only stir the wanderlust of those who, having fouled the East and trampled California, seem more intent on re-creating their miasmas here, now, where there is a last chance to ruin everything.

Timothy Egan, a native of Seattle, reminds us of this in "The Good Rain" when he quotes Chief Sealth, sadly observing what whites had done to his tribe's once "emerald garden," site of the city named for him.

In 1854, Sealth wrote to President Franklin Pierce: "The whites too shall pass, perhaps sooner than the other tribes. ... Continue to contaminate your bed and you will one night suffocate in waste."

Egan is devoutly aware of Sealth's prophesy -- or curse. In the past 30 years he has watched the hordes come to fill the spaces between the mountains, clear-cut the forests, fish out the streams, fill in the wetlands and humiliate nature with their undisciplined sprawl.

"Gridlock and cocaine gang wars rule the valley in the city where I live," he writes. "Once it was full of small farmers and family merchants, a long, tree-lined boulevard with views straight up to the north spine of Mount Rainier. Now the farmers are all gone, and many Seattle merchants operate from behind bullet-proof windows, and the walls are spray-painted with the slogans of young men who kill one another because somebody is wearing the wrong-colored hat."

With great love and skill as a writer (he is the Seattle correspondent for the New York Times), Egan sets out to see what is happening to the Pacific Northwest; what has happened in the long busy years since Holbrook; how things may be in the future.

In doing so, Egan follows a trail broken in 1853 by Theodore Winthrop, a young man from New England (as so many early Northwesterners were) who returned from his explorations convinced that here was "The Last Great Place," a vast magnificence with the power to bring about "elaborate new systems of thought and life," as Winthrop wrote in his book "The Canoe and the Saddle."

"New systems of thought and life -- is that what's clogging the freeways of the Puget Sound megalopolis, the Willamette Valley and the urban forest above the Fraser River?" Egan asks.

Within a year, and recognizing that all of the Northwest is united by landscape rather than boundaries, Egan wanders purposefully. He begins by acknowledging an obligation to spread his grandfather's ashes on the slopes of Mount Rainier, and afterward travels unburdened into an experience of discovery offering revelation as well as despair.

Egan's profile of this region is complete from early history on down, from explorers and Indians to current Indians and exploiters; from corporations that would cut and run from the region's old-growth forests, devastating the environment to sell their logs and jobs overseas, to the Army engineers who, in their beaver-eagerness to control water, have all but destroyed the Northwest's salmon runs.

He visits Astoria, the oldest American settlement west of the Mississippi; tramps the ancient Olympic Rain Forest, sees the new wine region of the Yakima Valley; discusses tribal lands with the Puyallups, living on the foul doorstep of Tacoma, Wash.; visits the atomic abomination of Hanford, Wash., and the British anachronism that is Victoria, British Columbia; examines the recovery of the near-nuclear holocaust that was the eruption of Mount St. Helens, and the ecological survival of the grand Columbia River Gorge.

Egan gives us the work Holbrook might have given us if he were alive today.

The future of the Northwest will be a "Pacific era," as Theodore Roosevelt predicted at the turn of the century. Dependent on its scenery and promise, new industries should spare the forests for the tourists who will come: tourists from all over, but particularly from the Pacific Rim. "If they are lucky," Egan writes, "they will see a land not far removed from the cradle."

And he concludes: "Everything Winthrop reveled in, the glaciers, the virgin forest, the green islands, the plump rivers, the fir-mantled volcanoes, the empty range of the high desert, Grandpa's trout streams, and the alpenglow, are here -- a land that has yet to give up all its secrets." The reviewer is the book editor of the Portland Oregonian.