CHANCES ARE pretty good that everybody is going to hate this.
Sorry for the wet-blanket launch. But we are here to engage in the ill-advised task of chatting about the true “character” of the Northwest native, and this is probably the best way to clear the decks of any pretense.
The problem with this risky venture is that Northwesterners, for all their fleece-vested, Subaru-wagon blandness, are actually somewhat complicated. That makes discussing the collective Northwesterner’s soul a lose-lose proposition, bound to offend, befuddle and provoke general unpleasantness.
Well, have at it, people. As our junior-high football coach loved to exclaim with a grin at practice, as we puked our guts out after running wind sprints: “Such is life in the Great Northwest!”
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And such it is.
Conveniently, for our purposes, one of the most prevalent traits of a true, wet-side Northwest native — defined here as any person born in the blackberry thicket on the windward side of the Cascade Crest — happens to deal with this very point. After decades of top-secret status, we’ll just cut to the chase and lob it out:
We really couldn’t care less what non-natives think about us.
Sure, we’ll be friendly enough with the encroachers — even the dreaded Californians — at barbecues and dog parks and the like. We probably will get along with, befriend or in extreme cases, even marry one of you. We’re flexible that way.
But you’ll never be one of us. Yes, some of you have blended in by learning to properly string up a big blue tarp and smoke up a coho. You could pass for a native. But you’re not. Got it? The good fortune of being born here brings with it a physical imprinting: You are a literal product of the fine mist, heron feathers, fish bones and short winter days that define us. If you’re not . . . you’re not.
Outraged yet? Disgusted? Please see football practice, above.
Not only do we not care how you feel about us, we’re constantly bemused that you seem so obsessed by this apparent need for local validation — the laugh-out-loud notion that, “If we can’t get the stodgy natives to change the rules around here, we should at least let them know what we think!”
Knock yourselves out, folks. Just do it somewhere out of earshot; some of us have important oysters to shuck.
This is just the first layer. Peeling away toward the heart of the Walla Walla Sweet onion that is a Northwest native’s world view will reveal sections that seem petty, interesting, complicated and often contradictory. And, being just one man’s opinion, they are likely to be challenged by everyone else with a pulse.
That’s OK. At the risk of being voted off the island, your correspondent — an Overlake Hospital-born, lifelong Puget Sound resident and a fifth-generation Northwesterner — has volunteered to do it anyway.
There’s even a potentially good reason — one that involves our mutual future, which we will get to later, if you make it that far. So without further ado, The Northwest Manifesto, Take One.
THE BIG PICTURE
As you’ve just seen, we are mildly self-righteous. We know we’ve landed, by accident, in a special place (one inhabited by real natives before our great-great-greats came along to mess it up), and we don’t want to jinx it by over-analyzing. We don’t hold meetings or wear matching jackets. But you don’t see many of us doing one-way U-Haul rentals to Florida, either.
More than most Americans, we are shaped by our environment; our souls are fired by the natural world around us. The local grass being brilliant green, its color elsewhere is of little interest. Even those who trot the globe profess that few places offer as much natural diversity, so many wild places, so many rock-timber-and-sea touchstones, so close to the wi-fi-and-fish-’n’-chips comfort of a major metropolitan area.
A regular diet of trouncing through the snow at Mount Baker, catching surf perch at Kalaloch and dozing in wildflowers at Sunrise — or just knowing that we could — brings perspective, and serves as a powerful common denominator.
This is in our bones. It’s worth noting that our ancestors arrived to find nature with a decided upper hand. Their battle for survival could have gone either way. We latecomers know we get the good parts of the wilderness without most of the bad; all of the hacking into it having already been done.
So we feel blessed to live in a good place that now feels, to many of us, alarmingly less so. And while accepting growth as inevitable and to some degree good, we can’t help but harbor resentment — general, not personal — that the place was better before the transplants showed up.
Because of that and other factors, the Northwest we’ve all come to love feels like it’s on the brink — of something. We locals are being quickly outnumbered, outpriced and outvoted. The old sense we had that everyone could live the same good life here simply by working hard, staying humble and planting rhodies seems to be slipping away.
Part of this is clearly our own fault. The inborn, self-satisfied contentment and rugged individualism that define us in good ways also stand as barriers to action. We’ve all got long to-do lists for the place, but little seems to get done anymore (see: traffic, financing of government, land use, pollution, public education, etc.). Without conscious intent, we’ve developed a self-defeating, passive-aggressive civic operating mode that often results in inertia.
See what you’re dealing with? Well, that’s our objective. Natives still hold the keys to large parts of the power structure, and our offspring tend to follow similar paths. Given the challenges of denser population, if we’re all going to get along and not turn into something truly awful, such as, say, Southern California with left-lane campers, it seems useful to at least understand where the native group is coming from, what it’s clinging to so desperately, and why. To wit:
THE BASICS: WHAT WE NEED
Cover. Those old-growth trees, that droopy moss and the impenetrable thickets of blackberry, morning glory and scrubby alder that smother your soul and make you feel caged in? They soothe us. It’s the sort of privacy screening God intended for sane people who like to go about their business undisturbed.
Rain. Sorry, but yes, oh yes. Nothing says, “Aah: No pressure!” like a drizzly, dark weekend morning. The lush, comforting cover (see above) cannot stand without low-hanging clouds and their necessary twin, incessant drizzle. We at once bemoan and love the nine months of wet weather because surviving the gloom without letting it send us into therapy is a shared experience with our ancestors.
Saltwater. The outer ocean and inner Salish Sea are our lifeblood. As sources of inspiration and natural governors of human expansion, the inland waters tie us together and keep us apart. Saltwater warms us in winter, cools us in summer, soothes our nerves for a lifetime. Whales still live there, for the time being. Whales! The gasp that escapes you as you plunge into the icy grip of saltwater is the sound that confirms you’re alive — at least for another 15 minutes, give or take. Increasingly, we care a lot about what goes into it.
Big trees and big rivers. Most of the biggest trees are gone; the ones that remain are sacred. We stand beneath them in awe and swear they can hear us thinking. Rivers don’t care, they just run. You know that sound you hear standing along, say, the upper Stillaguamish, when the current pushes a rock the size of a microwave into another just downstream, making an ultra-low-frequency clonk that reverberates all the way to your feet? That’s sweet music, baby.
Mountains. Ever since we got here, the thin air and sweet smell of alpine vistas have been magnets. Our great-great grandfathers climbed Rainier in wool pants, our great-great-grandmothers kick-stepped alongside in wool skirts. The million-and-first glimpse of that magnificent heap of rock, on a bluebird day, still makes us giddy.
It is a general theme. From time to time in the Olympics or Cascades, we come upon a sweeping view, a glacial face or a come-to-life alpenglow painting that makes us literally stop in our tracks and sigh. We survive winters by soaking up the cold, nourishing light of alpine snow and ice. We perfected mountain climbing and leave-no-trace, and if we take the rest of our lives off, that’s saying something.
Salmon. Nothing, perhaps short of a marathon run of old J.P. Patches reruns, will make a native more misty-eyed and feeling reconnected to the land than watching salmon spawn in a local stream. If you are a native who hasn’t done this, you are a traitor to your own place. And for those seeking honorary native status, this is a good place to start. Many of us really do view salmon (and the orcas who rely on them) as indicator species for what makes the Northwest unique. When they are finished, so are we.
A nook, crannies optional. We are nesters, requiring an appropriate nest. Hence our fixation on housing and home life. (Only in the Northwest and, perhaps, Scandinavia, will people enjoy devoting hours of free time to product research on the latest trends in LED light bulbs.) Yes, we travel, taking occasional trips to, say, Connecticut, mostly to get away from all the people from Connecticut now living in Bellevue. But at heart we are homebodies. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
WHAT WE BELIEVE
People shouldn’t make a scene. The old Northwest, at its best, was a middle-class haven. We need another Dan Evans, or Booth Gardner. The only really relevant stat on the nursery tag for that shrub/tree you are planting on our mutual property line is: “Maximum Height.” Any idiot should know how to read a tide table. There’s something inherently obscene about owning your own island.
Coffee is golden; clam chowder is white. Everyone should have a companion as useful as a good cast-iron skillet. Any day you wear gaiters for any reason is a good day. Crew-racing is a perfectly acceptable substitute for church. Things started to go downhill around here right about when Bumbershoot ceased to be free. Mooching and jigging are not interchangeable.
Religion is fine; keep it to yourself. Wealth is also fine; keep it to yourself. Obscene wealth was made to be given away (credit: Bill Gates). Few things in life beat a good, long-term neighbor. The charge of a chinook salmon on the end of a line truly conveys electrical current. Fried razor clams are one small sign of a possible higher power. Camping and climbing build character.
Our greatest historical shame is our forefathers’ treatment of the region’s first natives and immigrants — and their inability to foresee that resources are finite. Our greatest gift to the next generation should be fixing some of those mistakes (see: Elwha River). Puget Sound sunsets cure almost all ills. Bait boys and girls should be tipped. There’s nothing productive about a necktie. Cabin or tent trailer: OK. Second home: Not OK. Sadly, as time marches on, the epicenter of our empire, Seattle, gets less and less desirable as a place we would choose — or can afford — to live.
WHAT WE LOATHE
Self-important imports telling us how to act/live/change. What, exactly, makes you qualified to give that advice? Why would you presume that we might welcome it? If the place you came from did things so much better, why didn’t you stay there?
The heat, my God, the heat. It is acceptable in small doses, such as on Seafair Hydro Sunday, the wedding we’ve planned in the backyard, or that eight-day backcountry trek through the Bailey Range in the Olympics. But that’s about it. We tolerate, rather than enjoy, summers like the most recent. Related pet peeve: TV weather people treating the increasingly frequent stretches of insufferably hot/bright/dry/barren summertime weather as “great news!” If you’re seeking a true native from mid-July through mid-September, look in the basement.
“The Freeze” nonsense. Having trouble meeting someone? Concluding it’s a serious enough problem to make you think twice about staying? Running out of money from all those copays to your shrink? Get your face out of Facebook, go volunteer at a school or library, join a kickball league, attend a lecture or engage in some actual human activity. One-word condensed version: Adjust.
Lines, of any length, for anything. Life is simply too short. If we wanted to queue up like lemmings for any purpose, we would live in Philadelphia. Single allowed exception: REI garage sales.
WHAT IT ALL MEANS
We’re not sure. But we’re guessing some of you will have opinions. Depending on your own views, all of the above might be considered either a bold statement of principles or a feeble cry for help. If nothing else, maybe it will serve as a good set of talking points for the next meeting of the support group, “What the Hell is WRONG With These People?” held weekly in the lobby of your Belltown condo.
Remember: Just because we don’t care what you think about us doesn’t mean we won’t listen — if not for serious constructive dialogue, at least for sheer amusement. Our local icons tend to be people who never took life too seriously.
Ron Judd is a Pacific NW magazine staff writer. Tom Reese is a Seattle-based freelance photographer.