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Archive for the ‘Washington’ Category

Just Askin" thanks to Daily Kow

Just Askin”
thanks to Daily Kos

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This is a question I’ve been asking myself every since I arrived thirty years ago. I’ve finally gotten down to “I know it when I see it.”

Of course it’s partially flat out geography. West of the 100th meridian to the Pacific coast was John Wesley Powell’s idea in 1879, the 100th meridian being where there was no longer sufficient rainfall (>20 inches/year) to support large scale agriculture without irrigation. It slices North and South Dakota as well as Nebraska about in half, then heads through western Kansas, across the Oklahoma panhandle and through West Texas to the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately, the coast from about San Francisco to the Canadian border gets a lot more than 20 inches of rain. Our own Port Orford averages 80. Still, the dividing line seems good enough to me because I know Seattle and Portland and Eureka are western towns (even though it’s generally raining).

Courtesy of radio-blogs.com

Courtesy of radio-blogs.com

Patricia Limerick adds some of her own characteristics beyond mere geography in Something in the Soil. And the plot thickens. Here are her ten common characteristics, noting that not every place has them all but there is sufficient overlap to “give the whole some conceptual unity.” Here’s my interpretations of her top 10:

1. The West is arid to semi-arid. Still pioneers came from that back east riot of green, and wanted to reproduce it here. Thus massive irrigation and inter-basin water transfer projects.

2. The West has lots of Native Americans. There are sufficient large reservations (as well as casinos) to confirm the Indians haven’t vanished and their culture(s) continue to contribute to the Western mythos.

3. The West shares a border with Mexico (which she labels a third world country) and took a large part of this US region from the Mexicans in a war of conquest. A strong Hispanic strand remains in the culture.

4. The West abuts the Pacific Ocean, making the US a bi-coastal nation, open to influences both from Europe and Asia.

5. The West contains a large amount of public land, most of it administered by the US Forest Service and the US Department of Interior (DOI).

6. Federal ownership, especially DOI, of vast western lands makes the federal government a central and critical player in regional governance and politics.

7. The West has had a long history of economic boom and bust from natural resource extraction industries.

8. The West has fed into its own myth of freedom and adventure. With that has come a heavy reliance on tourism as well as the need to meet mythic expectations.

9. The West serves as the nation’s dumping ground, for everything from toxic waste to troublesome groups of people (think Native Americans, Mormons etc.)

10. Putting all these factors together it’s clear the story of the West is hardly over., and the limits and results of past conquest of people and land continues to show on the landscape and the culture.

Overall while I’m not sure this is the list I would come up with, it seems to work pretty well overall. The underlining of the federal presence and role is a particularly valuable one.

But still I would have to say, simple geography works pretty well. As does, “I know it when I’m there.” It’s definitely “something in the soil.”

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Recently we picked up the 2000 book Something in the Soil by Patricia Nelson Limerick. Limerick is leading historian of the “New West Movement”, a group who, in the 1990s, broke away from Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1890 paradigm that the frontier was closed (and so in essence, the West’s unique history had ended) to a much broader and more inclusive, as well as continuing, story. The New Western History presents a more nuanced vision based on different historical “truths”. Here are four.

275534The West, in fact, continued to be settled long after 1890. Western history was hardly complete if defined by white male pioneers from “back east” but needed to include the women and children who accompanied them as well as people moving north, west, and east—Mexicans, African Americans,  and Asians. [Author’s aside: as well as “back easterners” arriving by ships coming up the Pacific Coast as they did to my coastal Oregon town] And don’t forget the continued present of Native Americans. Western history should re-focus away from the romance evoked by the word “frontier” and its underlying implication of US exceptionalism and onto the global reality that taking over Western lands was no more than another example of conquest. Finally it’s necessary to abandon the myth of black hat/white hat style of clear-cut morality which permeates western lore to acknowledge that the West is populated by folks as human as everybody else. As Limerick suggests we’re really all “gray hats.”

Although this new Western history may sound fairly “old hat” in 2014 (ignoring race, ethnicity, environmental issues and that the “end of the frontier” hardly ended the conflicts that continue to play out in the West? Seriously?) it was received by many as cutting edge, unorthodox, and to some historians borderline heretical when it broke into the old “frontier” paradigm.

I have to admit as someone who grew up back east knowing the West only through John Ford movies like Stagecoach, and TV series like Gunsmoke, the Lone Ranger, and Zorro (at least it’s a nod to Old Hispanic California) it rattles my mythos. And still living here, choosing to live here for most of my adult life, it can’t be denied there is something unique “out here.” While all the “out heres” seem so different—New Mexico, Montana, SoCal and the Oregon Coast hardly feel exactly alike to me—they are definitely more related  geographically and culturally to each other than they are to the backeast regions of New England, the South or the Midwest.

I was drawn to the title Something in the Soil. It felt, even vaguely smelled, somehow exactly descriptive of the West. As she explains, in fact, it was a (very negative) reaction of a Bostonian to Limerick’s new history paradigm. As she concludes: “Of course, the West has had a very full life as an abstraction, an ideal, and a dream. And yet the West is also actual, material and substantial—’something in the soil,’a set of actual places now holding layer upon layer of memory.”

WHERE MY WEST CAME FROM

 

 

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The Orchardist, A Novel by Amanda Coplin. Harper Collins. New York. 2012. 426 pp.

I was pointed toward this book by Amazon as an “if you liked this” (in this case Ivan Doig’s The Bartender’s Tale which I did [like, that is] but not as much as many of his others including Work Song, a sly rousing captivating tale) then “you may like this”, the second “this” being The Orchardist.

I’m not sure how one led to the other. True both are set in the West…but Doig’s West is definitely the West of the Imagination. In The Bartender’s Tale Doig tells a story of 60s’ Montana where men are men and drive, if not cattle, at least pick ups and large-finned American cars.

The Orchardist cover

The Orchardist cover
© Harper Collins and Amanda Coplin

OTOH, The Orchardist, is just that, the story of William Talmadge—a fruit grower living a bachelor’s life in the late 1800s in a valley near Wenachee in Washington’s Cascades foothills. The plot grows slowly from horrifying circumstances and a tragedy which involves him in the lives of two runaway girls.

Without a doubt, it is a beautifully crafted book. Before the end of the first page the author has showcased her remarkable skill with words. She describes her protagonist first physically, then with this: “He regarded the world—objects right in front of his face—as if from a great distance. For when he moved on the earth he also moved in other realms.” This sets the framework, the mood, for the novel itself. The descriptions of landscape, the orchard and nature are lush: “She said: Tonight the sky is the color of new plums.” Wow.

For sure, this is a tragic story. And yet, and yet…something is missing. While I cared about each character in the abstract, I found I had no particular feeling for any one of them. The friends, sturdy neighbor Caroline Middey and mute Nez-Perce Clee (who made an enormous yet thankless personal sacrifice for his friend Talmadge) were, for me, more realistic and textured, and much more recognizable, than the central characters—William Talmadge and Jane, Della and Angelene Michaelson.

The story covers over fifty years—1857 through the early 1900s—and develops relentlessly, although the pace feels set by the orchard’s seasons. The denouement, when it comes, seems inevitable.

Perhaps a better comparison than Ivan Doig might be another of my favorite authors, Thomas Hardy—the accepted master of inevitability, fate. But I connect viscerally and directly with his doomed characters: particularly, someone with, some might say, a similar background to the Michaelsons—Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Alas I could not with The Orchardist’s William Talmadge or the girls become women who populated his isolated life.

Final call? Great writing for sure. Narrative satisfaction. Not so much.

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After our Amtrak eastbound, seven hours late, 26 hour total coach trip (think steerage) we decided to change our return reservations to  “roomette.” No matter how much it cost. At least it sounded restful.

Shelby Ice Cream Stop © AME

Amtrak’s westbound Empire Builder pulled into the Shelby MT station around 7:30 pm, a mere two hours late.

Empire Builder Arrives in Shelby © AME

In contrast to our coach experience, we were greeted by a helpful and friendly porter, Patricia, who escorted us to our very own private, albeit very tiny, space. Two seats faced each other with a drop-down-from-the-roof bunk lashed to the ceiling above. The door slid shut. Ta-da! private room!

Two trains make up the eastbound Empire Builder. One originates in Seattle, the other in Portland. They connect in Spokane for the remainder of the trip to Chicago. Westbound is the reverse. One of Amtrak’s selling points for choosing sleepers over coach is that meals are included. But because the dining car is attached to the Seattle train, heading east dining isn’t a white table cloth affair: we heard dinner had come in a plastic box. But westbound, the dining car was six cars ahead. Dinner was served!

The menus arrived. “Choose anything!” the waitress encouraged. I went for the “Signature Steak.” Not only was it excellent (it came rare), it ended with a flourish the few days I’d spent as a vegetarian in Canada. I even had cheesecake for dessert.

Yes, Amtrak does serve a delicious dinner.

In Our Roomette © AME

Later, Pat came to prepare our room for sleeping. With the door closed and the beds made, our roomette now offered exactly one standing-room-only space. No turning allowed. I drew the top bunk: Only a few inches from the ceiling I could not sit upright. A “seat belt” hooked to the roof, presumably to protect restless sleepers from falling out. Midnight or so, I needed to get up. It required some finesse. First I jiggled free the safety belt and then crouching, with legs dangling over the side, I hunted with my foot in the darkness for the ladder’s first step, many inches below. Although I effected a safe dismount, the adventure left me wondering just how many other passengers over the age of 12 had ever ventured into the upper bunk.

Still that night I caught a glimpse of the bygone romance I had imagined. No whispering silk down the passageway, no muffled screams, no Poirot….just being lulled to sleep by the rhythmic rocking of the Empire Builder hurtling through the velvet night.

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“As you set out…hope the voyage is a long one.” C.P. Cavafy

Union Station, Portland OR © SR Euston

When we booked our first overnight Amtrak ride recently, I envisioned an Orient Express experience: mysterious women in flowing silk dressing gowns disappearing into sleek sleeping cabins; fine dinners served on elegantly appointed tables by men in dinner jackets; the train’s rhythmic sway lulling me to sleep as we slipped through the velvet summer night. I imagined Romance! Luxury! Intrigue!

The trip began auspiciously enough. We left Portland’s Union Station on Amtrak’s Empire Builder headed for Chicago precisely on time at 4:45 pm, anticipating our scheduled arrival in Shelby, MT at 11:43 am the next day.

Along the Columbia River © SR Euston

Behind Bonneville Dam © SR Euston

Remembering the tart online discussions about the Empire Builder’s difficulties—one blogger even admonished “Get over it!”—I realized on-time arrival was unusual.

In the Lounge Car © SR Euston

Still I never dreamed we would spend five hours stopped dead on a siding near the Dalles and another two (I don’t even remember where) languishing. Granted a series of brushfires near the tracks stalled us up. Even so.

Out the Window: Grain Elevators © AME

Seven additional hours spent in a semi-upright position in a not-so-comfortable-for-sleeping coach seat with no dining car until Spokane did not make for the relaxed, re-vitalizing journey I had envisioned. By morning even the train staff were as cranky as the trapped passengers.

Yet, in retrospect, delay had its advantages. We saw sunrise over the Eastern Washington wheat fields. We could wander from car to car and get off at stations to stretch.

At Whitefish Station © SR Euston

We passed through some of the very best scenery in daylight, along the Kootenai River and later skirting Glacier National Park. We had two volunteer ranger/naturalists join us to point out the sights—a rare chance for them to describe locations mostly passed through in darkness. Even if (bedraggled, tired and hungry) we didn’t make Shelby until past 7:00 pm, it truly was an opportunity to slow down and look around. On balance, we had, not your standard high-anxiety airplane trip, but rather more a Cavafy-style voyage.

And we learned two important Amtrak lessons. Don’t expect to be (even remotely) on time. And always book a sleeper car.

(Part 2: The Return: Romance, Sleep and Dinner too!)

Greeting the Dawn © AME

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