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robertogreco : vancouuver   1

Metafoundry 1: Black Start
"Last month, I was in San Francisco for a few days. Being in California, if you’re from the East Coast, just feels different, in a way that I've never satisfactorily articulated to myself, but then I find myself whooping when I first spot the Pacific Ocean as I cross the peninsula from SFO to Highway 1.

Part of it is a lifetime of living with the mythos of California. Quoting Charlie Loyd: "…California, America’s America: beautiful, dysfunctional, dominant, infuriatingly calm about itself, vastly more diverse and complex than even the best informed and most charitable outsider gives it credit for, built on bones, overflowing with demagogues, decadent, permanently reinventing itself."

But part of my experience of San Francisco, and Seattle and Vancouver, is that the underlying land shapes the city, rather than the city shaping the land. This is literally the case in Boston and New York, where the edges of the city defined by landfill, so all you are aware of in the city is the city. In San Francisco, the bones of the land are apparent in every direction you look, hills rising and falling and beyond them, the sea. The original grid of San Francisco was laid out for the dozen or so blocks of the settlement of Yerba Buena, and then as the city grew and grew the grid was just extended in all directions, heedless of the underlying topography—so today, the topography defines the paths through the city. Every San Franciscan I know thinks about the city in three dimensions—which routes to one’s destination involve the least climbing, the Wiggle, where the beautiful views are.

I miss Toronto, my hometown. I miss its unparalleled diversity. I know it’s not what was when I was growing up there, but I miss living in a place with a determined commitment to collectively making the lives of its residents better. When I was there in June, I found myself driving in an unfamiliar part of the city. The wide road was lined with modest but pleasant single-family homes, and every few blocks there was a small park and a school. Peace, order and good government. What I don’t miss from Toronto is the physical geography—the city sits on the fertile lowland between two rivers and, besides being on Lake Ontario, has virtually none to speak of. When I trained for a marathon in grad school, I would head due north up a major street for mile after mile, the road gently sloping upwards as I went away from the lake, which meant a gentle downhill as I returned home. That’s basically it. The city is defined by the city.

In contrast, when I miss Seattle, I miss the landscape. I miss seeing the Cascades and the Olympics on clear days, and I miss coming over a hill and seeing Puget Sound. But above all, I miss Mount Rainier. I still remember the first time I saw the mountain. I vaguely knew that you could see Rainier from the city, but I was completely unprepared when I turned a corner and saw this giant stratovolcano just looming. My relationship with the person I was in Seattle to see ended not long after, but I have yet to fall out of love with Rainier. Years later, I moved to Seattle to do a sabbatical at the University of Washington, which has a long quadrangle, the Rainier Vista, aligned with the mountain. For a year I walked past it every morning and evening, pausing on the days I could see the peak. Almost the last thing I did before returning to the quietly rolling New England landscape was to get a tattoo of Rainier on my ankle. The lock screen of my phone is a photo of the peak I took from a mountain meadow within the park.

Some Japanese immigrants to the area have called Rainier 'Tacoma Fuji', but Mount Fuji is known for its symmetrical cone, and part of the beauty of Rainier to me is its distinct asymmetry—the prominences on its flanks would qualify as mountains in their own right. I don’t suffer from Stendhal Syndrome in its traditional form, but there are a few places in the world where I have to work hard not to be physically overcome by beauty. One is the Marin Headlands, and the view over the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco. Another is the east coast of Vancouver Island, looking over the Strait of Georgia towards Vancouver. And one is still pretty much every time I see Rainier. The beauty of San Francisco and of Cascadia is a wild beauty, the juxtaposition of human habitation and landscape, but one where the landscape holds its own. I was in Switzerland a few years ago, near Lausanne, and I've never been in a place that looked more like the tourist conception of the place. The mountains were high, sure, but the green velvet of pasture was spread high on their slopes, dotted with placid brown cows. The net result was one of pastoral domesticity, where the mountains were tamed. It was pretty, but it wasn't beautiful. The West Coast is beautiful.

But even before I set eyes on Rainier for the first time, I knew that it was dangerous. The primary risk isn't from a Mount St Helens-style eruption, but rather from lahars, the mudslides that would result when the heat from the eruption melts the glaciation on the peak. A hundred and fifty thousand people live nearby, in what appear to be gentle flat-bottomed river valleys but which are actually the paths of previous lahars. In 1985, twenty thousand people, including two-thirds of the population of Armero, Colombia, were killed by lahars resulting from the eruption of the Nevada del Ruiz volcano. Partly as a result of that tragedy, Rainier is the most instrumented mountain in the world, providing about forty minutes of warning to the nearest community, and schoolchildren there do volcano drills, fleets of school buses waiting to rush them out of the danger zone. The best estimates are that there’s a one-in-ten chance of lahar flows that make it as far as the Puget Sound lowlands within a human lifetime. And a repeat of the massive Osceola Mudflow, five thousand years ago, would send glacial mud as far as downtown Seattle, and cause tsunamis in the Sound and in Lake Washington.

The wildest of wild West Coast beauty: that Mount Rainier, the greatest physical threat to Seattle, is celebrated and beloved."
seattle  washingtonstate  2014  westcoast  landscape  mountrainier  cascadia  beauty  debchachra  toronto  california  vancouuver  britishcolumbia  charlieloyd 
september 2014 by robertogreco

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