FROM THE MUDDY NADIR of the Willamette Valley to storm-wracked Tahola to the frozen taiga of Chandalar Fork, the Northwest has been shaping its people for generations, perhaps millennia, before Hollywood, the recording industry and various media discovered it as a phenomenon. For those whose first light was the murky partiality of a Northwest winter, the region is a dream that, however dark, is comforting, and they are loathe to wake from it. It is also raw. There is a newness to it, and to many of the inhabitants.
"Chances are you're not from here," says Portland writer Katherine Dunn, author of the 1989 novel (and bestseller) "Geek Love." "And if you are, odds are your parents weren't. If they were, their parents weren't."
It is, by its very definition, eccentric, far from the center. It stands at the extreme edge of the country - in fact, of the continent. Those who come to it, Dunn says, are "the disaffected."
"We don't come from a stock that was happy where it was. We didn't hit the shore, set up camp and stay put. It's the crank element, the heritage of the cantankerous" that makes the Northwest distinct.
Distinctness. It is another way of saying, to one degree or another, one does not belong.
Northwesterners simply don't belong. They don't belong to the rest of the nation. And though each person in the Northwest seems as distinct from the other as from the whole, perhaps some commonality exists in that incidental occupation of the fringe. At a time when America's gaze is most insistently directed at this little piece o' heaven and, in response, Northwesterners have begun to define themselves instead of letting others do it, it might be appropriate to survey the situation: What do others think of the Northwest? What do Northwesterners think of themselves? How and why has this part of the country started to wield such tangible cultural power?
THE FIRST THING you notice is the genuine, unpretentious oddity in the cultural landscape. It's just not that unusual that someone dedicates his entire life to covering his home with bottle caps and bike reflectors. Not in the Northwest. A handsome mass murderer with a genius IQ and a yen for nurses? Not too far from the norm in the place that produced Portland Wrestling, the Sasquatch and J.P. Patches. The Northwest was doing for itself what it is now doing for the nation for long years before MTV sailed into Elliott Bay to capture the quaint inhabitants in their colorful native costumes.
The Northwest is that region of the country that encompasses the states of Washington and Oregon. It can expand to include Idaho and British Columbia, even perhaps Alaska and Montana (but never, ever Northern California). Though each of those states is quite different, they all share a certain "Northwesternness." But what does that consist of? Loggers and potlatch? That wouldn't work. Washington state's economy has only 1 percent of its jobs tied directly to wood products. And potlatch ended somewhere near Longview.
Perhaps it is something constitutional instead. The Northwest is at the end of the world. The poet Richard Hugo, Seattle native and veteran of 13 years at Boeing, might have put it best in his poem "La Push": "Your land ends at this border ... Swim and you are not in your country."
There are secrets here. The land was built on secrets. And everyone has them: prison record, draft evasion, broken heart, lost virtue, a falling out with Mankind. They came here to build lives of seclusion. Pilgrims of the individual life, they came to "be themselves." This tradition of being yourself, not giving in to the expectations of others, and its correlative "live and let live,"' are what make the Northwest so odd, and so vibrant.
Every Northwesterner has an uncle who baked bread, knew "The Village Smith" by heart and invented solar houses, or a grandmother who used to correspond with Walt Whitman, or a grandfather who was a Puyallup brave, fought in World War II and brought his beautiful Italian bride back to Tacoma, or a great aunt who played the trumpet for the mountain lions in the Okanogan. It has given birth to a panoply of characters who would make any medieval bestiary as believable as a zoo guide. Bruce Lee, Ted Bundy, Jimi Hendrix, Dixy Lee Ray, Emmett Watson, Wayne Morse, David Lynch, Narcissa Whitman, Lynda Barry, Gus Van Sant and hundreds of others have arisen from the mossy hold of some hidden locus dei to give voice to their own particular visions. And the only thing they have in common is their uniqueness.
But how did it happen? How did a place that for 200 years of American life had lain quietly indulging in private its revelatory mysticism, decorative obsessions and religious paramilitarism suddenly become so popular? Timothy Egan, Northwest correspondent for The New York Times, outlines the process of media discovery in his book "The Good Rain: Across Time and Terrain in the Pacific Northwest." It started, he says, in the mid-1970s with Harper's proclamation that Seattle was the most livable city in the nation. This hue and cry was picked up and passed on in succession by Rand McNally, Sports Illustrated, Esquire and "60 Minutes" and continues right up to the present with Conde-Nast Traveler and the Atlantic. Even the high-fashion designers at November's New York showings were reported by The New Yorker to be reworking in $1,000 silk chiffon the plaid shirt so beloved of mill workers and waterlogged skateboard punks.
The Northwest did not rise unheralded like a second sun into the national consciousness. The nation was aware that something separated San Francisco from Canada; they just weren't certain what. They were pretty sure it had trees. During the advent of media attention it was clarified: There were definitely trees. But the image of the "lawyer-turned-carpenter" and all the quality-of-life hokum, the smilin' lumberjack and flaxen-haired farm girls feeding horses in the Old Testament light of an Olympic Peninsula farm, though still exerting its influence on urban professionals in Los Angeles, New York, and D.C., is starting to be replaced by a stranger image, one truer, perhaps, to the spirit of those iconoclastic, isolated and peculiar pioneers.
It is the image, via MTV, of Seattle's Pearl Jam and Nirvana and the iconoclasm and individuality they represent; of television's "Simpsons," begat by Evergreen State College graduate and Matt Groening; of "Northern Exposure," the somewhat cutesified L.A. version of a typical Northwest town, set in Alaska but filmed an hour east of Seattle, and its ursprung, "Twin Peaks," through the increasingly popular movies of Portland filmmaker Gus Van Sant, with their moody, internalizing light and marginalized but eloquent characters.
In all of these things, that initial character that defines all discourse about the region remains: the unlikely, soul-chilling or hilarious oddity, rendered with complete matter-of-factness. Is this just the noise of media barons farming the wilderness for a new marketable cliche to take the place of the tired East Coast townie and the spent Southern belle? Perhaps that has something to do with it but, as was pointed out earlier, this is the way Northwesterners have always thought of themselves: odd - so what? And now the very people who are defining the way other parts of the country and the world see the region are people from the region. They are the primary source of this unusual vision.
"I SEE MY WRITING as the process of looking at the usual, but from two steps to the side," says Dunn.
Novelist Ken Kesey, an Oregon native and author of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "Sometimes A Great Notion," "The Bus" and, most recently, "Sailor Song," believes that approach has a spiritual origin in the movement of the American sense of self and perception.
"I believe the edge of American consciousness flowed out and turned right,"' Kesey said. "I find something very old here, and very new. People who think they've already found the answer are living in the past. Up here, we're locked into the future. Our way of looking at things has a strange turmoil in it."
"The metaphor of the subterranean," Dunn believes, "is at work in a lot of Northwest writers and artists. Zooming in closer and closer and closer, then below, to the worms and the centipede. (Van Sant's) movies are like that. So are (Spokane native David) Lynch's."
Van Sant himself is one of the Northwesterners to have the greatest effect on how we see ourselves, and how others see us. His movies "Drugstore Cowboy" and "My Own Private Idaho" utter the moodiness, internality, contrariety and moral inclusiveness of the region and its inhabitants. And there is a miracle a minute, but the miracles are the thief-in-the-night variety: the revelation of the ordinary, the comfortable ordinariness of the unusual. His taciturn analysis is typical of that internality.
"The weather keeps me in, keeps me working," Van Sant said.
It keeps one "in" in more than the sense of simply out of the rain: It keeps one inside, in the recesses of the mind where the springs of eccentricity have their beginning. Just as the landscape protected early settlers from prying eyes and ill-intentioned neighbors, so the geography of isolation protects strange notions from the blanching effect of homogeneity, and the cave of the skull provides the solitude necessary for following one's own ghosts.
As far back as the early 1800s, the Northwest was attracting, and producing, poets and writers. John Muir wrote, "In these Washington wilds, living alone, all sorts of men may perchance be found: poets, philosophers, even full-blown transcendentalists, though you may go far to find them."
Those intellectual resources endured, and eventually it fell to someone to mine them. That someone was the University of Washington, which, in the wake of World War II, instituted one of the first creative-writing departments in the country and brought poet Theodore Roethke to guide it. It flourished under his demanding hand, a poet with a personal weather as stormy and unpredictable as the weather of his adopted home. Under his tutelage a generation of poets emerged: Richard Hugo, James Wright, John Haislip, William Stafford and others.
Over the last 25 years, however, perhaps as a lazy misreading of that program and its poets' focus on the personal and immediate, the Northwest has become renowned for producing poets of thunderingly marginal talent and stultifyingly regular diction who write with such literal-mindedness as to bore any thinking person to death. (Hence, its popularity primarily with other poets.) The prose front on the other hand, perhaps because of its neglect by writers, has skirted around the end to score some significant victories.
In the 20 years after Ken Kesey's "Sometimes A Great Notion," there was little enough writing that was able to sustain that pitch of inspiration. But a couple of writers labored away, tending the light until the congregation came home. One was Raymond Carver, born in Clatskanie, Ore., and raised in Yakima, Wash., who, before his death in 1989 of cancer, revitalized the short story and redefined the lived life of the lower-class Northwest, the Northwest of alcoholism and violence, the poverty-stricken rural and underpaid suburban Northwest of salesmen, mill-pond accidents and disfiguring illness. The other was Tom Robbins, monk of the Odd, producing cartoonish novels like "Still Life with Woodpecker, "Another Roadside Attraction" and "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues." (The latter is also soon to appear as a movie by Van Sant.)
In the past few years especially, however, the Northwest's legacy of the intellect has truly come into itself again. Sports journalist Dunn's "Geek Love" and Tobias Wolff's "A Boy's Life" have sent up bright flares from this swampy corner of the world, bright enough to be seen in New York and L.A. Dunn's book had a protracted stay on The New York Times bestseller list for 1989 and Wolff's is now a movie. It is important to note that both of these books cover different sides of the same idea of the Northwest, as a haven of the unique experience. Dunn writes of love among circus freaks, and Wolff the weather of his own childhood.
WHY DID THOSE CAMERAS GET trained on this region? Why did the bizarre vision of the Northwest capture the mind of the nation? Before this, "Louie, Louie" (by the Seattle band the Kingsmen) and TV's "Here Come the Brides" were the extent of nationwide exposure. Why now?
"America needs us now,"' Dunn confidently states. "And they're ready for us. Body piercing and tattooing, New Age religion, a mainstream pop figure like Madonna making a book of extreme sex fantasies, it's a strange time. We're the prime region. Besides, it's easy to live here. As long as you don't scare the horses they leave you alone. There's room."
This notion that the people of this region are supplying something of psychological or spiritual necessity is a strong theme with Kesey.
"I wasn't for Clinton until he played the saxophone. People don't think it's important, but it is. It's absolutely necessary that a president plays the saxophone. That's a West Coast consciousness.
"American history is totally involved in the attempt to escape European brainlock. Here in the Northwest we are the last chance for that escape. We are learning from the Earth. Our position in history" is what motivates us, he thinks. It is what attracts others to us.
The vast numbers of people moving to Portland and Seattle are testament to that attraction. Is it a "West Coast consciousness" attracting them? Or are they dragging with them, embedded like cultural or psychological DNA in the tissue of their lives, the very things that they are fleeing? Will the landscape change the newcomers? Or will the newcomers change the character of the land? It is a question that must be asked on every level of inquiry regarding the character and future of this region.
There are no pat answers. It might be of use to remember, however, that the original settlers of this region were themselves fleeing. If they gave the land anything, they gave it the furtive sense, the sense of flight, of seclusion or hermitage. As long as the many writers, business leaders, film makers, herbalists, chain-saw sculptors, painters, science-fiction writers, cartoonists, scholars, medicine men and lawyers let each other dress up in clown suits and armor plate, luncheon meat and bark, scuba suits and old pieces of shag rug with sawdust in them, let each other caper madly back into the hills singing "Big City," "I Got You, Babe," "The Mourner's Kaddish," "Non Nobis" or the theme from "The Beverly Hillbillies" without wrinkling their noses at each other in disapproval, as long as the region continues to honor the absurd, the deviant, the profoundly odd, the disturbed and the revelatory with the same ease and matter-of-factness it has in the past, worrying less about arts centers and more about art, less about morals and more about mortality, less about town meetings and more about tonsils, it might well remain what it most certainly and gloriously is: The Last Weird Place.
Freelance writer and poet Curt Hopkins originally wrote this for Old Oregon magazine in Eugene. He's lived in several Northwest towns, including Seattle. Christine Castigliano is a Seattle Times news artist.