Regional Wrangle – Part I: Getting Past Landscape

This is the first in several parts of posting updates about last Thursday’s Regional Wrangle at Richard Hugo House where I wrestled with Lyall Bush on the topic of “Is there a Northwest literary style?” It’s a vile topic that inspires a great deal of boredom from just about anyone who actually produces work in the Northwest and a strange kind of bored anger by people from outside of the region. However in talking to Lyall Bush this last spring he realized that there was more the issue than the use in marketing various regional products to tourists: salmon, mass produced Haidi art, and trips to Mount Rainer. I also realized that the topic was completely obscured by the supposition that all northwest literary work has to bare obvious tokens of “northwestness.” This was handily summarized recently in Ryan Boudinot’s SALMON, TREES, CANCER: A PRIMER
How to Write a Great Northwest Novel.

So Lyall and I opened the topic up and invited people to buy some drinks and talk on the topic. Gregory Hischak was kind of enough to serve as the referee and by the end of the evening I think he didn’t want to here a single more invocation of Murray Morgan or drizzle.

I’m going to post several things to keep the record, starting with my comments.

Getting Past Landscape

I am thinking that regionalism can be thought of the in the way you might think of surrealism. Where surrealism is the investigation of the individual subconscious; regionalism is the collective subconscious.


There are several implications, I think, in thinking about it this way:

* It is a generative process rather than a crucial process. Surrealism works primarily to create work. Playing a game of Exquisite Corpse produces a tremendous amount of writing, and not all of this writing is necessarily good writing.

* Regionalism can never arrive at an accurate description of its subject. My thought is that a work engaged with regionalism produced a model of how the region might be. I suspect all creative works offer up a vision of how the world might be; in this case, the vision being offered up is limited to the specific locality of production. As a matter of production it might be thought of prison labor, the subject is also the site of production.

I also don’t know if there is a regional idiom, but I do think there is a regional sensibility. There probably is not a northwest sentence for instance. I began thinking about this trying to prove that there was a sentence readily identifiable as one generated in the North Pacific Coast. I perhaps could find one, but then the topic would become narrow to the point of being uninteresting. However I think it is more likely that there isn’t some utterance that is an unmistakable Northwest utterance (unless it using some nouns associated with the region, geoduck or salal or something). There isn’t really a Northwest accent, for instance. Clark Humphrey mentioned that Tracy Ullman in preparing for the movie, I Love you To Death, said it was impossible because she couldn’t find a way of speech that was readily identifiable as Northwest. The movie was filmed in Tacoma. Someone else mentioned the strange way of speech, unrecognizable, found in a movie like This Boy’s Life. My own way of speech and thinking about my family language comes from Kentucky. My mother’s family can talk, but when they talk, they are talking from another region. When I talk, speaking from the Northwest, they tend to get very, very confused.

There are however, northwest manners — to respond to the first of Christopher Frizzelle’s tangental reports on this line of inquiry (Report1;Report2) — there is a northwest world view. I’m pretty sure about this. Don’t you think immigrants to a country or region are intent on assimilation. When they come to the Northwest they don’t know this isn’t just any old American place, but this a particular Pacific Northwestern place and so they quickly strive learn the manners and moirés of the place, unwittingly adopting and perpetrating a certain mindset. Frank Boas, when asked to make an assessment of the effect on European immigrants to the United States, found immigrants “assimilated rapidly, taking barely one or at most two generations to fall in line with the host population on almost any measure you can care to name.” (The Modern Mind) This mindset, I wonder, if it is a kind of subterranean structure, a hidden mountain range as real or unreal if you like as Mount Rainer? This I would define as a sensibility as a way of thinking about things.

When I was in the military, in Basic Training, I served in the pine scrubs of southern New Jersey at a military base, Fort Dix, built for World War I. Standing in the mothball smelling where houses surrounded by decades of ancient equipment, it seemed to me there that Fort Dix had always been there; at least since the Civil War. It was expanded in World War II. It was unlike anything in Washington State. Even Fort Lewis with it’s military campus is unlike the humid and collapsing barracks of Fort Dix. Not only was the place alien but I was surrounded by kids who’d come out of places just as remote and unassimilated as I had — black guys from South Chicago who passed around pictures from high school graduation where there was a stadium of just black faces. It was commonly assumed among the Chicago guys that white guys had never seen black guys. Guys from California and New York knew otherwise, but they were just as dazed as everyone else and didn’t say a thing. (In my geeky, regional ignorance, as soon as I was appointed a platoon leader, I would perform the ministry of silly walks, unaware that I was referencing a parody of a goosestep and on the dusty New Jersey asphalt that subtle chain of reference was broken. One of the Chicago guys whispered to me, “Man, you’ve got to stop that.” Mexican guys from Texas and no Mexico who’d grown up in small farming towns and understood English but only speak in Spanish in the evening and during the day would nod and smile and only break out in their voice when they did pushups.

After a month in this alien place — the first time I’d been outside of the Pacific Northwest, I received a postcard with a stamp that had the image of Mount Rainer on it. My friends from Tacoma and Skykomish and I passed the image back and forth, an odd little icon, that represented where we were from.

Coming across images of Mount Rainer out of context always brings with it a shock of my relation to something out of the context of the region I’m in; perhaps there is an echo of Mount Rainer left in the cheap beer, Rainer Beer, that used compete with Pabst Blue Ribbon as the quick to drink and quick to throw up beer. From across the room I’m arrested by an image of Mount Rainer from the 1860s in a painting in the LA art museum. In a glance I’m no longer in LA but I’m several thousands miles from the Nisqually Delta.

In Bruce Barcott’s book, he wants to understand our region by getting to know Mount Rainer. He writes, “Like rain and trees, the mountain is a continuous presence in our lives, but in our psychological landscape it is occupies a place separate and greater than the forests and falling water. […] This strange relationship we have with the mountain is romantic, uninformed, and even presumptuous. Rainier is a mountain few of us know.”

And so he wants to get t know Mount Rainer by reading about it — and climbing on it.

This is I think a mistake. To really get to know Mount Rainer, I suspect he would discover more about “this strange relationship,” by carefully compiling images of the mountain found on garage doors throughout the region.

Why did the person living in this house feel compelled to paint Mount Rainier on his garage? If this were just a single instance, I could understand this as the eccentricity of a lone muralist. From this man’s garage, Mount Rainer is actually visible on a clear day. Albeit between fog, smog, and hazy days there are few clear days. There is no way he could actually paint the mountain accurately. A similar image, only more starkly insane, covered the garage of a building near the house where I lived for a time on the North Fork of the Snoqualmie under the peaks of Mount Si. This was a picture of Mount Si, an image taking from the image that was visible just standing looking at the garage. It invited comparison with the mountain and so became less a depiction of the mountain than a depiction of the depiction. What are these painters painting?

They are not painting the mountain, but that they are painting wilderness. Wilderness is less of a place in the Pacific Northwest then a state of mind.

I grew up in the Snoqualmie Valley in the 1970s and early 1980s. They valley was in the middle of its transformation from a cluster of small rural logging towns, Duvall, Carnation, Fall City, Snoqualmie, and North Bend. Weyerhaeuser operated a mill in Snoqualmie. Kenmore Loggings trucks careened out of the mountains. The Milwaukwee Railroad still pulled trains over the South Fork. Hobos camped under the cottonwood growing near the Snoqualmie. My elementary school was within view of the mill’s smokestack, edged by a corn field, and dairy farm. Recesses usually smelled like manure or paperpulp or diesel from the farmer’s tractor. From the soccer field, we could also see the cliffs of Mount Si. If we looked carefully enough in the spring, we could also see the specks of mountain goats making their way across the face. There was a sense that just over there, just out there, just beyond the planned unit development, on the other side of the river, up on the side of the mountain, there was wilderness. Wild animals lived in the wilderness. The Green River killer discarded his bodies at the edge of the wilderness. Cougars and bears and Big Foot lived in the wilderness. As a grade schooler Big Foot had the reality of Santa Claus. Periodically sightings appeared as a human interest story on the news. Even aware of the ironic tone of the newscasters and my parents bemused warnings didn’t undercut the sense that in the wilderness things were different then they were in the playground.

Sometimes on the school bus we talked about what was at the top of Mount Si — not at the top of the popular trail — but beyond the Haystack — my father and I sometimes hiked back there. We’d been on the forbidden western face as well and once found a mountain goat skull, a foreboding example of why the western face was forbidden. The weather pushing up against the peaks had shattered the granite. The cracked stone broke loose, leaving long slopes of crushed stone, boulders, and there was always the danger of an avalanche. Living near the slopes of Mount Si I could sometimes hear the stones start to move, a long, echo rumbling that growled and rattled for long minutes. In the aftermath, I would look at the mountain to see if things had changed.

It seems removed, safely contained in the city or in tract house within view of the mountains. Hiking for the day among the stumps, through clear cuts, and under power-lines, the vastness of the wilderness seems slightly put on; after all the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area is a park. It has park rangers. And the history of the place is just as business like as elsewhere. Sunday Lake on the North Fork used to have a tin refinery. Many of the mountain sides hold old mines. The workers lived in cabins. Throughout the forest, there are trestles and train tracks and signs of the economic activity, the business of extracting what there was take to take from the mountains. The space seemed more like discarded plots of failed business then wilderness. For one thing, they were not pristine or untouched. Instead the land had been discarded like an apple core.

However, if you have ever been lost in the woods, it is easy to understand that the wilderness even if people have been there before with their trucks or light gage trains pulling out logs the wilderness is vast, empty, and this emptiness is fundamentally unsafe primarily because there are other people out there as well. Everywhere there are signs that people have been there. I once spent a sweaty morning hiking up a bramble choked stream bed, climbing up the vertical face of empty waterfalls, to a lake cupped in a hollow rounded by cliffs and massive snags. The lake seemed completely distant from anywhere. The sound of the lake water sloshing against the granite cliffs echoed throughout the entire basin. A bird squawking from a tree sounded too loud. On the shore of the lake, I found a towel: Auburn High School.

It is wilderness but this doesn’t mean that is primarily a reservation for rare tree species, an eco-habitat for vanishing raptors, but rather it is a vast jumble of non-civic space that is decidedly not rural, suburban, or urban. Neither is it purely a park. Park land is only one part of the swatch of land that includes land owned by small owners and vast pieces owned by corporations such as Weyerhaeuser.

To travel into this space is to take what you can on your back and once you are in the only company you have is what’s in your head. It doesn’t take long before you are in the woods and the half remembered jingles, the ads, begin to disspaite and you find yourself keeping company with the interior monologue you didn’t know you had running.

If the other spaces in the Pacific Northwest — the rural, suburban, urban spaces — are about the connections between people — this space is about the isolation of the individual. It exerts a cultural draw.

Near my house, in the shadow of Mount Si, someone had painted Mount Si on their garage in garish paint. Near my wife’s childhood house in the foothills near Renton in the shadow of Mount Rainer, someone had painted Mount Rainer on the garage in garish paint. In the northwest there is an urge to represent the wilderness — it’s obvious symbols — in whatever material is handy.

For a long time it made no sense. But in talking to hikers like my father the wilderness is a deeply personal, nearly spiritual space. It is in the wilderness listening to themselves think and seeing themselves act in a zone outside of the codified space of the urban/suburban/rural they come to speaking terms with their subconscious.

The Mountaineers Club and REI serve similar civic functions — they are a way to make this connection to the wilderness.

In Northwest literature the draw of how to represent the wilderness has been one of the primary vectors of meaning.

Looking at some passages from Northwest Literature, I will show how similar writers use the image of rain, how these images follow certain patterns, and how these patterns have less to do with the representation of our physical landscape and everything to do with our internal landscape. To me, then the most exciting Northwest Literature has escaped the burden of physical representation. What is tricky about this writing as regional literature is that it often lacks the obvious tokens of our region: drizzle, salmon, software, biotech, coffee, Douglas fir, salal.

1st Avenue
Edward Dorn 1963

It is about noon. Bill Elephant sits behind the wheel of the black panel truck jabbering about Alaska and fish traps, Kodiak bears, and the thinning population of Koniags amidst whose dwindling little villages sit colorful Russian Orthodox churches, the last remnant of the dreamy murders starting with the curiosity of Vitus Bering. We wait for a red light. Looking through the rain, the soft misting air, for a place to park. And then later, the walk down Occidental Street. Bill is a Totemist. His mother is Klikitat. His father was Russian. He says he read about it Wagnalls encyclopedia. He is a large man with a truck of a nose. Rather small but not mean eyes. Interested eyes.

The rain comes down softly. A soaking thing. There are colors to be seen through it, blue houses, brown office buildings standing like dumb machines along the zealously laid out streets. It is said they washed the steepness of the hills of Seattle away with pressure hoses, they drive the summits right off into Elliott Bay, such a placer mine is civic interest. Civic power, like the inimitable pimp Mercer returning east to pick up the brides those stalwart greedy men forgot to rush to get here. When the hills were made normal the traffic started, no longer baffled. The rain would not have achieved this. The rain would never have denuded the hills, not this soft eternal rain. The city rain is quite different from the country rain and the difference doesn’t all lie in where it falls. Along the wide streets that disclose their exact period, a period different from than issued from the progressive brain that devised Canberra, or than was slipped from under the lid of the pompous lid of the idle brainbox that that contained the boulevard of Buenos Aires, no these middling width streets of Seattle, neither narrow nor not narrow, came from under the thriving lids of merchants who would abide no width but the exact one suited for their commerce. The major streets are named for early merchants. Mercer, Yesler, etc. This is an order born of commerce, dry goods, the streets are now crowded with the feet of consumptive buyers in whose hands crowded the feet of consumptive buyers in whose hands the grimy change of their cold northern lives is transferred in bags. An oversized carrot, a massive cabbage, a grotesque squash, milk crackers. The oversize cabbage & carrot comes from that lingering light and ceaseless rain which filters down from the northern curve. And the latter-day wise men with a touch of Midas in their eyes know that it is Food you must turn everything to. EAT!

No No Boy,
John Okada, 1957

When she was not lying or sitting almost as if dead in her open-eyed immobility, she was doing crazy things. It had started with the cans, the lining of them on the shelves, hurling them on the floor, brooding, fussing, repacking them in the boxes, and then the whole thing over and over again until hours after Ichiro had gone. Then silence, and he forgot now whether the silence was of her lying or sitting on the bed, the silence which was of the water quietly heating to boil. Following that silence had come the rain, the soft rain as always, drizzling and miserable and deceivingly cold. And he had not heard a sound, but when he had gone to her bedroom to see about throwing another blanket on her, she was out in back hanging things on the line. How long had she been out in the rain, he couldn’t say. Her hair was drenched and hanging straight down, reaching almost to the tiny hump of her buttocks against which the wet cotton dress adheres so that he could see the crease. He called her from the doorway and was not disappointed when she hadn’t heeded him, for that was how he knew it would be.

Another Roadside Attraction
Tom Robbins, 1970

Off the Pacific shore of Washington State the Japanese Current — a mammoth river of tropical water — zooms close by the shore on a southerly turn. Its warmth is released in the form of billows of tepid vapor, which the prevailing winds drive inland. When a few miles in, the warm vapor bangs head-on into the Olympic Mountain Range, it is abruptly pushed upward and outward, cooling as it rises and condensing into rain. In the emerald area that lies between the Olympics (the coastal range) and the Cascade Range some ninety miles to the east, temperatures are mild and even. But during the autumn and winter months it is not unusual for precipitation to fall on five of every seven days. And when it is not raining, still the gray is pervasive; the sun a little boiled potato in a stew of dirty dumplings; the fire and light and energy of the cosmos trapped somewhere far behind the impenetrable slugbelly sky.

Puget Sound may be the most rained-on body of water on earth. Cold, deep, steep-shored, home to salmon and lipstick-orange starfish, the sound lies between the Cascades and the Olympics. […]

It is a landscape in a minor key. A sketchy panorama where objects both organic and inorganic, lack well-defined edges and tend to melt together in a silver-green blur. Great islands of craggy rocks arch abruptly up out of the flats, and at sunrise and moonrise these outcroppings are frequently tangled in mist. Eagles nest on the island crowns and blue herons flap through the veils from slough to slough. It is a poetic setting, one which suggests inner meanings and invisible connections. The effect is distinctly Chinese. A visitor experiences the feeling that he has been pulled into a Sung dynasty painting, perhaps before the intense wisps of mineral pigment have dried upon the silk. From almost any vantage point, there are expanses of monochrome worthy of the brushes of Mi Fei or
Kuo Hi.

The Skagit Valley, in fact, inspired a school of neo-Chinese painters. In the Forties, Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, and their gray-on-gray disciples turned their backs on cubist composition and European color and using the shapes and shades of this misty terrain as a springboard, began to paint the visions of the inner eye. A school of sodden, contemplative poets emerged here, too. Even the original inhabitants were an introspective breed. Unlike the Plains Indians, who enjoyed mobility and open spaces and sunny skies, the Northwest coastal tribes were caught between the dark waters to the west, the heavily forested foothills and towering Cascade peaks to the east; forced by the lavish rains to spend weeks on end confined to their longhouses.

Consequently, they turned inward, evolving religious and mythological patterns that are startling in their complexity and intensity. […] Even today, after the intrusion of neon signs and supermarkets and aircraft industries and sports cars, a hushed but heavy force hangs in the Northwest air: it defies flamboyance, deflates introversion and muffles the most exultant cry.

Glutton
Perry Phillips, 1994

I was visiting a friend in San Diego, trying to get away from the Seattle rain.

Allan Stein
Matthew Stadler, 1999

My story began propery in the perpetual darkenss of last winter (almost spring it was March) in the city where I used to live. Typically I woke up in the dark, 6 a.m. on most days, delivered from sleep by the icy stream of air spilling in my open window. The lighted clock of the railroad tower said six exactly. This round clock of black iron and creamy glass was the first thing I saw in the mornings. No one was ever on the way to work yet, no hand the lumbering buses and trucks started with their tentative, practice engine roars. (Later, in clouds suffused with the bright yellow and opion-poppy-orange of the risen sun, they would billow in every district of the city like grim flowers and release their belched gray emissions, which gave a pleasant taste to the winter air.) I am a teacher, or had been, which explains the early hour.

Hope is Not His Job
Slim Moon, 2002

The hand on the small of his back is dry and wrinkled and cold, though his back is wet and hot. She never gives him enough of what he needs. He is waiting on a bench under a wooden shelter by a railroad track that runs up a narrow gulch with mountainside running high and steep very close in on either side. Green wet mountains thick with young trees and dense underbrush and rotting slag. The boys on the other side of the of the tracks are throwing pennies at him. He tries to ignore them. There will be a train, the trail will pass by, the boys will put the rest of the pennies on the tracks, the train will pass by and the boys will go home. There is an envelope taped under the bench, but only the Sleeper knows. The boys do not know about the envelope that is taped under the bench under the wooden shelter by the railroad tracks at the base of the mountains. There is no dog.

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