Here is a part of my ongoing project on understanding “Westness”, the quality (qualities) that make the West west, and not, for instance, east. (You’ve seen some of the poems belonging to it before – on this blog.) It is a project that keeps getting out of hand. Witness for yourself: This is the first of several concerted efforts (written last February).
In composing these poems, I asked myself what about the term West makes it useful for defining a region, particularly in conjunction with modifiers like “Pacific,” “North” and “Coast.” To me all three modifiers are deeply connected to the idea of Westness, but it is unclear when they are in combination whether the general sense of the regions is more strongly coloured by “West” or by the modifier(s). That is, the Pacific North West is nearly the same as the Pacific North. Alternatively, a certain region of the Pacific and the North are so often imagined together with the West that Westness is Pacific and Northish: absurdly, the Pacific Northwest is the West Westwest.
Defining Westness is harder than wrestling an octopus. One cannot even say with certainty that it is distinct from Eastness, since both East and West are scalable regions and simultaneously directions that overtake each other (our planet being perplexingly round). In other words, Western Canada has its own little East. The Fraser Valley has its own littler East. Even Vancouver Island has an East. And in terms of direction, if an explorer is traveling East, she will never stop being in the West. Unlike North and South, West cannot claim an ultimate location – a place where Westness might be conceivably concentrated. I know of no West Pole.
There is a ray of hope. Etymologically speaking, “West” is rooted in the Proto Indo European wes, meaning “evening, night,” while “East” is from PIE aus “to shine” or “dawn.” Etymology may then be the key to opening or imagining Westness. But then too, by a strange quirk of etymology, both East and West are orient-ing directions. I do not like to believe they can be solely defined in opposition to each other, though opposition has been an important part of imagining either one in the past. What then is Westness? In these poems I think of it in terms of nature (also a fiendishly slippery word) and a kind of otherworld. I am inspired in this by a passage from JRR Tolkien’s essay on Faerie Stories:
The realm of the fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveller who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost.
The West I am familiar with – parts of the coast from Cannon Beach, Oregon to Nitinaht inlet, British Columbia – is too full of fire hydrants, tennis courts, libraries, gas stations and the internet to properly qualify as Faerie. One can navigate those things more or less comfortably, which is not a usual feature of the otherworld. But the natural (I use that word reluctantly) or non-human world exists much less accessably alongside them like an otherworld or Faerie might in Tolkien’s stories, or in the older stories he drew on. In some of the poems I experiment with the idea that our West might be equivalent. There are significant links between “otherworld” and the North American West in larger terms. The West has frequently been understood as frontier by, for example, geographers James R. Shortridge,
The term ‘West’ has always represented ideas of frontier and undeveloped potential for Americans. As the nation matured in the nineteenth century, ‘West’ was applied to a progressively smaller area (326)
and DW Meinig, “This famous West is generally synonomous with the Frontier and thus is less a place than a process” (159). Like the otherworld it is a place of both potential and danger (the wild West), and the Pacific really is like another world under the surface. And the expression “going west” means “to die” (according to the OED, from WWI, possibly rooted in Celtic understandings of the West as land of the dead), which is the ultimate frontier.
If we entertain the possibility that the West is (un)natural, is an otherworld kingdom right at the borders of being human, and Westness is partly the quality of “otherness” associated with the inaccessibility of all firs, glaciers, gulls, rivers, tides etc, then who belongs to the West? I think black bears, white tailed deer, orcas and pink salmon are at home there. But birds more than any animal to me have potential for representing Westness. Birds move freely from world to world, busy with errands alien to us. They frequent hard-to-reach places. And their nests are usually tucked away out of sight. For instance, the gangs of gulls looking for trouble every day at UVic: where do they come from every day? Is it a long commute? In the instant you notice a startled wren, it dives headfirst into a nearby shrub. Too bad! Of course you could go after it on your hands and knees if you really wanted to, but the wren’s paths are not your paths. By the time you got the branches out of your eye, it would be vanished. Birds appear and disappear mysteriously; half the time it is impossible for the average person to know if he is feeding the same ducks that came looking for breadcrumbs the day before. They all dress the same.
The incredible mobility of avian otherworlders is worth reflecting on because it illustrates the extent to which the West is in our faces – how much the human desire to know, to take (in uncomfortably colonial terms) and to discover is thwarted by our limitations. Even though the wild West has been inhabited in ever greater numbers, in the nerve centres of our kingdom of concrete, plastic, steel and glass, of our electric networks, the West’s people continue to tease us from the rooftops.
I do not know exactly why I (and I suppose, many others) have such a strong desire to know where gulls come from, or where wrens go. Probably it comes out of a combination of similarity and difference to human life. Birds are similar enough to us that it is entertaining to imagine their secret lives and compare them with our own. I aspire to write herons and owls as well as Don McKay writes juncos and crows. But maybe Westness goes beyond the lives of the West’s people. After all one has to account for the surprising impact of the landscapes that we live in or near. It is hard to overstress the richness of the Pacific Northwest’s forest, mountains, and beaches for metaphor. I wrote in “Understanding Hollydene” of an excess attached to beaches, deriving the notion from the “surfeit of expression” DH practitioner Alexander Galloway sees in rainbows. I think now that unusually high degree of excess characteristic of West Coast beaches is characteristic of West Coast forests and mountains too. Forests, for example, are less changeable than the ocean, but their flotsams and jetsams are comparable. All the time trees are tossing away wildly intricate leaves and needles and cones like so much trash. There is enough for the West and its people and us. The beautiful thing about leaves, needles and cones is that they are not much diminished by inflation.
The combination of otherworldliness, or a perpetual sense that the true West is inaccessible except by secret doors (yet very near), and excess, or an overflowing muchness of expression, is something unique to Westness. There is at least one other quality of Westness that is related to both of the qualities already discussed. As an otherworld, as a frontier, an unknown, the West is not especially safe. That is, Westness cannot be only romanticized birds and trees even if the romanticizations are apt. It must involve or evoke something more serious – probably hardship, possibly death. I particularly like Tolkien’s description of the realm of fairy-stories because it contains “joy and sorrow as sharp as swords,” which are necessary ingredients in my view for Westness. The deeper one goes into the territory of the West, the sharper they are, not only because hardships are likely to increase in frequency and intensity, but because the deep West forces introspection (whether it manifests merely as apparent wilderness, or something more abstract, like advanced age).