This essay is excerpted from "Edge Walking on the Western Rim: New Works by 12 Northwest Writers," edited by Mayumi Tsutakawa with photographs by Bob Peterson. Due out this month from Sasquatch Books.
"Edge Walking on the Western Rim" is not a simple literary anthology. It brings together 12 writers from Washington and Oregon for a purpose: to reflect on their choice of the Northwest as a home for living and working. Why here?
In the following essay, local wise guy and novelist Tom Robbins gives us his answer to that question. Robbins was born in North Carolina but made his way to the Northwest during the 1962 World's Fair and stayed. During different times in the 1960s he wrote for both Seattle metro newspapers, then moved on to novels with "Another Roadside Attraction" in 1971. His new novel is "Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas," by Bantam. -------------------------------------
I'M HERE FOR THE weather.
Well, yes, I'm also here for the volcanoes and the salmon, and the exciting possibility that at any moment the volcanoes could erupt and pre-poach the salmon. I'm here for the rust and the mildew, for webbed feet and twin peaks, spotted owls and obscene clams (my consort says I suffer from geoduck envy), blackberries and public art (including that big bad mural the authorities had to chase out of Olympia), for the ritual of the potlatch and the espresso cart, for bridges that pratfall into the drink and ferries that keep ramming the dock.
I'm here because the Wobblies used to be here, and sometimes in Pioneer Square you can still find bright-eyed old anarchists singing their moldering ballads of camaraderie and revolt. I'm here because someone once called Seattle "the hideout capital of the U.S.A.," a distant outpost of a town where generations of the nation's failed, fed-up and felonious have come to disappear. Long before Seattle was "America's Athens" (The New York Times), it was America's Timbuktu.
Getting back to music, I'm here because "Tequila" is the unofficial fight song of the University of Washington, and because "Louie Louie" very nearly was chosen as our official state anthem. There may yet be a chance of that, which is not something you could say about Connecticut.
I'm here for the forests (what's left of them), for the world's best bookstores and movie theaters; for the informality, anonymity, general lack of hidebound tradition and the fact that here and nowhere else grunge rubs shoulders in the half-mean streets with a pervasive yet subtle mysticism. The shore of Puget Sound is where electric guitars cut their teeth, and old haiku go to die.
I'm here for the mushrooms that broadcast on transcendental frequencies; for Kevin Calabro, who broadcasts Sonics games on KJR; for Dick's Deluxe burgers, closing time at the Pike Place Market, Monday Night Football at the Blue Moon Tavern, opera night at the Blue Moon Tavern (which, incidentally, is scheduled so that it coincides with Monday Night Football - a somewhat challenging overlap that the casual patron might fail to fully appreciate); and I'm here for the flying saucers that made their first public appearance near Mount Rainier.
I'm here for Microsoft but not for Weyerhaeuser. I'm here for Longacres Race Track but not for Boeing. I'm here for the relative lack of financial ambitions, the soaring population of bald eagles and the women with their quaint Norwegian brand of lust. Yes. Ya. Sure, ya betcha.
But mostly, finally, ultimately, I'm here for the weather.
In the deepest, darkest heart of winter, when the sky resembles bad banana baby food for months on end, and the witch measles that meteorologists call "drizzle" are a chronic gray rash on the skin of the land, folks all around me sink into a dismal funk. Many are depressed, a few actually suicidal. But I grow happier with each fresh storm, each thickening of the crinkly stratocumulus. "What's so hot about the sun?" I ask. Sunbeams are a lot like tourists: intruding where they don't belong, promoting noise and forced activity, faking a shallow cheerfulness, dumb little cameras slung around their necks. Raindrops, on the other hand - introverted, feral, buddhistically cool - behave as if they live here. Which, of course, they do.
My bedroom is separated from the main body of my house, so that I have to go outside and cross some pseudo-Japanese stepping-stones in order to go to sleep at night. Often I get rained on a little bit on my way to bed. It's a benediction, a good-night kiss.
Romantic? Absolutely. And nothing to be ashamed of. If reality is a matter of perspective, then the romantic view of the world is as valid as any other -and a great deal more rewarding. It makes of life an unpredictable adventure rather than a problematic equation. Rain is the natural element for romanticism. A dripping fir is a thousand times more sexy than a sunburnt palm, and more primal and contemplative, too. A steady, wind-driven rain composes music for the psyche. It not only nurtures and renews, it consecrates and sanctifies. It whispers in secret languages about the primordial essence of things.
Obviously, then, the Pacific Northwest's customary climate is perfect for a writer. It's cozy and intimate. Reducing temptation (how can you possibly play on the beach or work in the yard?), it turns a person inward, connecting them with what Jung called "the bottom below the bottom," those areas of the deep unconscious into which every serious writer must spelunk. Directly above my writing desk there is a skylight. This is the window, rain-drummed and bough-brushed, through which my Muse arrives, bringing with her the rhythms and cadences of cloud and water, not to mention the twenty-three auxiliary verbs.
Oddly enough, not every local author shares my proclivity for precipitation. Unaware of the poetry they're missing, many malign the mist as malevolently as the non-literary heliotropes do. They wring their damp mitts and fret about rot, cursing the prolonged spillage, claiming they're too dejected to write, that their feet itch (athlete's foot), the roof leaks, they can't stop coughing and they feel as if they're being slowly digested by an oyster.
Yet the next sunny day, though it may be weeks away, will trot out such a mountainous array of pagodas, vanilla sundaes, hero chins and God fingers; such a sunset palette of Jell-O, Kool-Aid, Vegas strip, and carrot oil; such a sea-vista display of broad waters, firred islands, whale spouts and sailboats thicker than triangles in a geometry book, that any and all memories of dankness will fizz and implode in a blaze of bedazzled amnesia. "Paradise!" you'll hear them proclaim as they call United Van Lines to cancel their move to Arizona.
They're kidding themselves, of course. Our sky can go from lapis to tin in the blink of an eye. Blink again and your latte's diluted. And that's just fine with me. I thrive here on the certainty that no matter how parched my glands, how anhydrous the creek beds, how withered the weeds in the lawn, it's only a matter of time before the rains come home.
The rains will steal down from the Sasquatch slopes. They will rise with the geese from the marshes and sloughs. Rain will fall in sweeps, it will fall in drones, it will fall in cascades of cheap Zen jewelry.
And it will rain a fever. And it will rain a sacrifice. And it will rain sorceries and saturnine eyes of the totem.
Rain will primitivize the cities, slowing every wheel, animating every gutter, diffusing commercial neon into smeary blooms of esoteric calligraphy. Rain will dramatize the countryside, sewing pearls into every web, winding silk around every stump, re-drawing the horizon line with a badly frayed brush dipped in tea.
And it will rain an omen. And it will rain a trance. And it will rain a seizure. And it will rain dangers and pale eggs of the beast.
Rain will pour for days unceasing. Flooding will occur. Wells will fill with drowned ants, basements with fossils. Mossy-haired lunatics will roam the dripping peninsulas. Moisture will gleam on the beak of the Raven. Ancient shamans, rained from their rest in dead tree trunks, will clack their clamshell teeth in the submerged doorways of video parlors. Rivers will swell, sloughs will ferment. Vapors will billow from the troll-infested ditches, challenging windshield wipers, disguising telephone booths. Water will stream off eaves and umbrellas. It will take on the colors of the beer signs and headlamps. It will glisten on the claws of nighttime animals.
And it will rain a screaming. And it will rain a rawness. And it will rain a disorder, and hair-raising hisses from the oldest snake in the world. Rain will hiss on the freeways. It will hiss around the prows of fishing boats. It will hiss in electrical substations, on the tips of lit cigarettes and in the trash fires of the dispossessed. Legends will wash from the desecrated burial grounds, graffiti will run down alley walls. Rain will eat the old warpaths, spill the huckleberries, cause toadstools to rise like loaves. It will make poets drunk and winos sober, and polish the horns of the slugs.
And it will rain a miracle. And it will rain a comfort. And it will rain a sense of salvation from the philistinic graspings of the world.
Yes, I'm here for the weather. And when I'm lowered at last into a pit of marvelous mud, a pillow of fern and skunk cabbage beneath my skull, I want my epitaph to read, IT RAINED ON HIS PARADE. AND HE WAS GLAD!
---------------------- WRITERS AT BUMBERSHOOT ---------------------- Four authors contributing to "Edge Walking" will be reading for Bumbershoot audiences Friday Sept. 2 at the Bagley Wright Theater starting at 8 p.m. On stage will be Kim Stafford, David James Duncan, Colleen J. McElroy and Tom Robbins. Bumbershoot Writer-in-Performance is supported by The Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund and produced by One Reel.