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Thursday, July 7, 2016

Northwest Notes

-- By Tom Phillips

The Palouse, Eastern Washington
To judge by the news in Seattle, Lewis and Clark discovered America.  The business section of the Seattle Times covers western firms almost exclusively, and lists only Northwest stocks.  These are led by some of the biggest companies in America -- Amazon, Microsoft, Boeing, Starbucks, all headquartered in the Seattle area.  Washington is one of the most prosperous states in the US, kicking off so much tax revenue that the legislature just reduced tuition at state colleges by up to 20 percent.  Meanwhile, housing prices statewide are rising at the fastest rate in the US.

Eastern Washington produces and exports a staggering quantity of  food and drink -- wheat and barley, beans, apples, peaches, grapes and berries, wine and beer.  The Palouse in southeast Washington -- wave after wave of gently rounded hills -- is the most densely cultivated farmland in the world.  Unlike most of the country, Washington State is a net winner in world trade, exporting much more than it imports.   

The eastern US gets little attention.  Red Sox Nation does have an outpost -- a pizza joint called Bostons in Bremerton, with the Sox logo in the window.  In downtown Seattle, another Bostonian runs a bar called the Owl and Thistle, where you can hear Irish traditional bands on weekends.  There's also a thriving New England-style contra dance scene.  Just as pioneers from Dixie settled in the Southwest, there is a northern route to the Pacific, and echoes of the Northeast in the Northwest.

An echo, but not even a hint of nostalgia.  Americans move west, not east, and the migration never stops.  As in pioneer days, we vote with our feet for nature over culture, outdoors over in, space over comfort, adventure over safety.  Today we also choose technology over philosophy, trucks over cars, Asia over Europe, etc, etc.

The Seattle Art Museum has almost no European art -- a few paintings by followers of Dutch and Italian masters, a single Monet, a negligible early Matisse, a Pissarro by a son of Pissarro.  It does have an arresting exhibit of West Coast art -- mostly from LA in the 60s and 70s -- light and color over form and substance.  The centerpiece is a huge column of clear plastic, a translucent totem pole.  Natural light is part of the work, and the SAM had the sense to display it in a room with a view.  We also discovered a genuine painter from the Northwest, Morris Graves.  In a 1933 self-portrait he looks startled, embarrassed, as if he just walked out of the woods into civilization.

Morris Graves, self-portrait
But for beauty in Seattle, people don't go to the museum, they just look around.  With snowy mountain peaks on the horizon, the land sprouts evergreens, apple trees, blackberry bushes, all growing to abnormal heights.  Everything is "by the water" --- a big glacier long ago scoured crazy fingers of the ocean into the land, and the Seattle area is a random series of peninsulas and islands left on the high ground.  Puget Sound is ubiquitous, always moving, rippling and running.  We went to a wine-tasting on Bainbridge Island, at a little homestead with the Sound burbling beyond the hedges.  I was naturally offended by the upscale atmosphere of leisure.  But I was also intoxicated by the cool, sun-splashed air, the green all around, the water going by, and the buzz of pleasant chatter among the motley crowd, mostly middle-aged and older white people, but with a smattering of color and tattooed youth.  The moderately-priced wines were better than ordinary.

Bodies here are routinely defaced with ink.  Teenagers cover themselves with indelible cartoons and slogans -- how long do they expect to live?
Critical Thinking in Seattle, continued:   The Seattle Times food critic, Bethany Jean Clement, wrote a column aimed at the pretentious language people here (and in New York) use about the stuff they eat and drink.  Here's a food critic (not a "foodie," she insists) who knows the relation of food to life.   It's never "sinful," never "addictive," not even "decadent" or a "guilty pleasure."  Neither is it to be compared with art -- no menu or wine list has really been "curated."   And let's not get cute -- appetizers are not "apps," and it's a restaurant, not a "resto." There are only so many synonyms for "delicious," she writes, "maybe an indication that our predecessors were generally smart enough to sincerely give thanks, eat and move on to the next thing."  Amen.

Copyright 2016 by Tom Phillips

For an earlier blog on a New Yorker in the Northwest, click here

For more "vivid travelogues," click here