Thursday, March 17, 2011


How does an artist find a place that he (or she) can call home? In my case, I found home purely by accident. I was hired in 1976 to teach at the University of Washington, and so made the long cross country drive to Seattle from Long Island where I'd been a doctoral student in philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. At the time I'd never been west of the Mississippi, but as soon as I caught my first glimpse of the city gleaming in the distance I knew this was where I was meant to be.

Seattle, I discovered, was peopled with every sort of American I could imagine: Native Americans, whites who sprang from old Scandinavian and German stock, Chinese, South Koreans, and Japanese, Hispanics, Senegalese, Eritrean, Hindu and Sikh, Jewish, gay and lesbian, and blacks whose families settled in the territory in the late 19the century. It was a liberal city remarkably similar in texture and temperament to San Francisco (both are built on seven hills, have burned to the ground and have steep streets), and in the 1980s was selected as the most literate city in America.

Former UW president William Gerberding once referred to the northwest as "this little civilized corner of the world," and he was right. The "spirit of place" here is civility, or at least the desire to appear civil in public, which is saying a great deal. The people--and especially artists--in this region tend to be highly independent and tolerant. My former student David Guterson, author of Snow Falling on Cedars, is a native northwesterner, and once told me that the people who first journeyed this far west, so far that if they kept going they'd fall into the Pacific ocean, mainly came out this way to escape other people. Predictably, their descendants are respectful of both the individual and different cultural backgrounds, and at the same time protect their privacy. They acknowledge tradition but don't feel bound by it. As physically far removed as they are from cultural centers in New York, Boston, D.C. , and California (the distance from those places is both physical and psychic), they are not inclined to uncritically follow fashions or the opinions of others, and instead pursue their own singular visions. I'm thinking right now of people like Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Ray Charles in 1947, Bruce Lee, playwright August Wilson; artists like Jacob Lawrence, George Tsutakawa; and highly esteemed, award-winning writers such as Raymond Carver, Ken Kesey, Sherman Alexie, Octavia Butler, Timothy Egan, Theordore Roethke and his student David Waggoner, and Jonathan Raban, an immigrant from England who captures the ambiance of this polysemous, book-hungry city perfectly when  he says:

"It was something in the disposition of the landscape, the shifting lights and colours of the city. Something. it was hard to nail it, but this something was a mysterious gift that Seattle made to every immigrant who cared to see it. Wherever you came from Seattle was queerly like home...It was an extraordinary soft and pliant city. If you went to New York, or to Los Angeles, or even to Guntersville, you had to fit yourself to a place whose demands were hard and explicit. You had to learn the school rules. Yet people who came to Seattle could somehow recast it in the image of home, arranging the city around themselves like so many pillows on a bed. One day you'd wake up to find things so snug and familiar that you could easily believe that you'd been born here."

In other words, this is an ideal environment for nurturing innovation, individualism, and the creative spirit. Here, we find a pre-given poetry in the lavish scenery right outside our windows, which dwarfs, predates, and no doubt will outlive by millennia everything we write about it. The mountains rise 12,000 feet above the sea. There are magnificent, rain-drenched forests, treeless desert lands, three thousand kinds of flowers, glacial lakes, and hundreds of islands in Puget Sound: an enveloping landscape as plentiful and prolific on its enormous canvas as I suppose we as artists would like to be on our smaller ones. Thus, it has always struck me as fitting that Sea-Tac was one of the first airports in America to set aside for its travelers a room specifically for meditation.

The Pacific Northwest's geographic diversity, its breathtaking scale, and our Lilliputian niche in the shadow of such colossi as Beacon Rock on the Columbia River or the majestic Mount Rainier, humble in the healthiest way a person's ego with the ubiquity and antiquity of the pre-human. It reminds me of my place as but one among uncountable creatures in a vast commonwealth of beings that include western bobcats, the Canadian lynx, white-tailed ptarmigan, and quail. It never fails to deflate my sense of self-importance. It tips me easily toward an almost ineffable feeling of wonder and awe at this overly-rich and inherently mysterious world in which I so fortunately find myself thrown. If you're standing, say, on Orcas Island, you can see whales cavorting in viridian waves, and the air out there on the islands is so clear, so clean, each breath you draw feels like some sort of blessing. These Northwest experiences always help me take the long view on life's ephemeral problems. Need I add that this opportunity to step away from the hectic pace and cares of city life whenever one wishes is a fine stimulus for art, philosophy, and spiritual contemplation? And all those inward activities are enriched by the misty, meditative mood invoked by the Northwest's most talked about feature---rain---and the wet evening air that causes portions of the geography to gleam, and hazes other parts, sfumato, from November through February, in an atmosphere that is a perfect externalization of the brooding inner climate of the creative imagination. With weather like this, it's easy to stay inside until the springtime and just read and write.

Being a transplant like Raban, and a lay Buddhist practitioner, an upasaka, means that even after living here for more than half my life, I don't take the gift of this beauty for granted, nor the existential room given to a Seattleite to stretch out his spirit and body. My wife and I happily raised our children here. They can truly call this place, accurately described as a "city of neighborhoods," home. Our daughter Elisheba, a conceptual artist who graduated from Cornish College for the Arts, especially can make that claim. On Capitol Hill five years ago she opened Faire Gallery/Cafe, which features two jazz performances a week, occasionally a play or open-mic poetry night as well as each month a new art show and comedy performances by young, local talent. Faire is where I hang out these days, doing my local appointments there in a vibrant atmosphere - straights and gays, students and Goths --that recalls the free-wheeling creative vitality of Berkeley in the late 1960s.

For Seattle is, whatever else, a place where the young, single, iconoclastic and open-minded seem to thrive. On March 12, 2007, the county where I live, King county (originally named after the obscure vice president William Rufus de Vane King), changed its official logo from an imperial crown to the image of that great civil rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate; he joins Duwamish Indian chief Sealth (Seattle), who represents the city, and George Washington, avatar on the state's logo. If he were alive today, King might not describe the Pacific Northwest as exactly the Promised Land, but I believe he would be pleased by how the Seattle people I know and work with, however imperfect we all may be, do strive to realize in ways both quotidian and grand his dream of a "beloved community" here in a city poised at the edge of the nation's western end.

(The above is excerpted from my essay "Northwest Passage" in Smithsonian magazine, September, 2008.)

1 comment:

  1. As a recent transplant to the PNW, I share your exhilaration for the vibrant and expressive flora and fauna of this place. Thanks in particular for detailing the etymology of Dr. King's county. I was born in Memphis, so this touches me all the more. Sharon Brown