The unrealistic beauty of the Pacific Northwest

A new book of essays documents an acclaimed travel writer's discovery of the most improbable of landscapes

Charles Petersen
September 20, 2011 4:25AM (UTC)

The Pacific Northwest is an improbable landscape. When Jonathan Raban first encountered it through the writing of Bernard Malamud -- whose novel about his time in Oregon, "A New Life," is a little-known masterpiece -- he thought Malamud's description of the Willamette Valley must have been the product of an overactive imagination. How could it really be true that the richest farmland in the world would be nestled between two mountain ranges, the Cascades to the east, the Coastal Range to the west, with a desert and an ocean on just the other side of both? "It read like the landscape of allegory," Raban observes in "Driving Home," his new collection of essays -- not a real place, but something out of "the freehand, fantastic tradition of the Jewish folktale." Only years later, when Raban met a professor who knew the area, did he learn that Malamud's novel was actually something of a roman à clef, with real people to match its closed-minded, casually anti-Semitic characters, and a real landscape to match what had seemed too dramatic to be real. "No," he was told, Malamud's novel was not a work of "ambitious fabulism"; rather, "the landscape of the Pacific Northwest was in itself an unrealistic stretch of country -- it was just naturally fabulous."

Barnes & Noble ReviewIt has been one of the great pleasures of the past 20 years to watch Raban discover this landscape for himself. A member of that generation of British writers and journalists that includes Martin Amis, Christopher Hitchens, Julian Barnes, and James Fenton, and one who cut his teeth as an essayist and book reviewer in the bibulous atmosphere of 1970s Fleet Street, he shared with his peers a passion for America (in addition to Raban, three of the four aforementioned writers now live in New York or D.C.), but with an eye that has roved much farther afield. In 1980, he floated down the Mississippi River in a one-man boat, resulting in the bestselling travel book "Old Glory"; 10 years later, doing research for his second book about America, "Hunting Mister Heartbreak," he set up house in the backwoods of Alabama -- not exactly the kind of place you'd expect to find a guy like Amis or Hitchens. Raban headed to Seattle for what was to be the book's final chapter, but a month's stay turned into something longer. He explains what happened in "Why Travel?," one of the many incisive short essays included here: "On the road, I am a champion pesterer, milking people for the workaday details of what they do and how they do it, and always the underlying question is Am I cut out for this, could this life be mine?" In Seattle, Raban got one attractive answer too many, and 20 years later he appears to have settled in for good.


The longer Raban has stayed in the Northwest, the richer his writing has become. Reading the essays included in "Driving Home" is like watching a 20-year time-lapse film, where not just the view but the camera itself seems to change from shot to shot. In the early days, he finds himself literally out of his depth: While sailing on Puget Sound, his electronic depth finder begins to show land just feet beneath the keel; he scrambles to turn the boat around, then realizes that the depth finder, faced with water hundreds of feet deeper than the Thames, was simply seizing on "false echoes and familiarities ... in a vain effort to regain its footing in the world." For Raban, this story becomes a metaphor for his own experience:

My new city and its hinterland felt deceptively homely. Their similar latitude gave them the angular light and lingering evenings I was used to. Their damp marine weather, blowing in from the southwest, came in the right direction. When the mountains are hidden under a low sky, one might almost imagine oneself to be in Britain.

Such were the false echoes that Raban's floundering sense of place at first threw back. But as he stays longer, and the mist lifts from his eyes, he doesn't just make out the mountains on the horizon -- he starts to see the landscape and its people with a clarity unmatched by most natives.

"Landscape is land shaped," Raban insists, "land subordinated to a vision or a use." Looking at nature, Americans tend to see either commodities for harvest or a wilderness in need of preservation -- either a land completely shaped by the hand of man, or one that shouldn't be touched at all. Raban finds himself constantly stumbling over this dichotomy: "In your innocence, you see a tract of green forest reaching up a mountainside: wrong. It is (you are informed) a tree farm, a plantation of firs, all exactly the same age and size." By that standard, almost everything Raban had grown up with back in England -- where the last wilderness was chopped down centuries ago -- was simply not "natural." But then what is "nature"? Does the hand of man really pervert all it touches? This is the theme of one of the best essays in the collection, "Second Nature," where Raban compares the British and American conceptions of landscape and then goes further, to pick out the class resentments -- taken for granted in the U.K., hidden beneath the surface in the U.S. -- that animate so many of our arguments about conservation. "The treatment of the logger, proud of his skilled and dangerous job, as a reckless vandal; the subordination of rural work to the recreational interests of urban sportsmen and nature lovers" -- this, as much as hardheaded fear of change, Raban argues, is what makes so many Americans in the countryside revile those from the city.


Throughout, Raban writes with a suppleness and slightly jaundiced good humor that makes almost every essay, no matter the subject, read like a tipsily candid after-dinner conversation. Rather than John Muir, whose overblown language has been recycled into countless brochures and hiking books, Raban takes as his aesthetic guide George Vancouver, the British sailor who was the first European to explore the Northwest and who, though at first he found the place charming, concluded his trip in deep depression. Vancouver, Raban suggests, should be taken as "the patron saint of all Northwesterners who have felt walled in by their mountain ranges, or suffered a jolt of depression when faced by the black monotony of the fir forest under a low, wintry, frogspawn-colored sky." If Vancouver is a saint, then Raban is his apostle, and the Northwest should feel itself lucky to have found a writer as fabulous -- filled to overflowing with stories, meaning, and insight -- as the landscape itself demands.

Charles Petersen

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