I fall in love with landscapes, seascapes, rivers and lakes the way other people fall in love with humans. I grew up in New England and the Atlantic Ocean was my ocean. There were family gatherings on Block Island, and when we lived in Maine the long empty beach at Reid State Park was our secret retreat. Summer holidays were in Acadia National Park and once in a funky old weather-beaten house high above the hissing shore. And it was my ocean—clean, rock-edged, barnacled, with its own distinctive odor—when I had a house in Newfoundland and scrambled up on Burnt Cape to watch the whales below or looked out at night to see the lights of what they said were Russian trawlers. Later when I traveled I saw many of the world’s seas and oceans. In the low countries the North Sea was part of the Atlantic that I still associate with sautéed skate. Along the east coast of South America the Atlantic seemed darker, more impersonal. To me the Mediterranean seemed a painted sea, its fire-rimmed human history constantly vibrated with reminders of gods and goddesses. The deeds of long dead people diluted the sea’s own character. The Indian Ocean, fringed with pastel waves, remained more a name than a place. In my twenties on a trip to Japan I met the wrongly-named Pacific, a heartless, stormy bitch that threw a passenger down the stairs and broke his neck, heaving snarls of water as we skirted the Aleutians. From the shores of Japan the Pacific showed classic beauty, but I had already taken against its violent personality. The maps show us the human-named five or seven oceans and dozens of seas and specific waters. The Atlantic remained my true ocean; it was not easy to accept that there is only One Great Ocean embracing all.
I loved the Atlantic when I was young, but I was a fickle lover. I moved many times, always inland, always west with forays to the arid New Mexico, then spent a long time in the high Rockies where an inland ocean had once lapped, evidence of its presence in alkaline soil, shells and fishy backbones. When I left the high country I moved again toward the setting sun, attracted to the Pacific Northwest by its natural beauty, vigorous geology, its marine littoral biology, an interlocked world of forest, river and ocean.
I was annealed not only to the Atlantic ocean but to the rivers of the land, and the names of Washington streams delighted me—Snoqualmie, Klickitat, Yakima, Queets, Dosewallips, Elwha, Duwamish, Hoh, Skokomish and Skykomish, Snahapish and a hundred or two more. Wet country. And when I heard that the Elwha River, blocked by power dams for a hundred years, was being undammed I was on my way.
One of the first exploratory trips with my youngest son Morgan, who lives in Seattle, was to see the Hoh River and the rain forest and the site of the now-removed Elwha dam. I wanted to live in a place where this gargantuan habitat renewal project was unfolding. And standing on Rialto Beach watching the Pacific Ocean send in its curling waves made me think of Leonardo de Vinci’s intense sketch-book studies of flowing water where he tried again and again to catch the shapes and patterns of liquid movement in the chaos of the moment. So much of life is trying to find the patterns.
I found a house about twenty miles east of Seattle, a house surrounded by a red cedar forest. Although I admired the beautiful red cedars and knew of their importance in the lives of native coastal people, I gradually discovered that I was allergic to them, not just the pollen, but their presence, their exudation of histamine. Only if I was away from them did I feel well.
I believed I would have to move back to the east, to the Atlantic’s rim. But when I returned there to look for a place, I found a shoreline crammed with expensive houses, harbors stuffed with pleasure craft and only a few boats that followed the disappearing fish. The once-clean shoreline was scabbed with plastic potato chips bags and battered water bottles. The cut-over woodlands seemed pitiful after the north west coast; climate change had brought new insect pests, including the tick that carries Lyme disease, and blackflies, where there had been none twenty years earlier. I headed back to Washington.
Somehow, in my slow lifetime travel west, somehow I had drifted to the edge of ocean again. Not the beloved Atlantic of my young days, but the Pacific, with its fringe of eel grass, its flashing black and white orcas, scattered islands and orange-barked madrona trees a place of mystery and mood to explore and observe for the rest of my life. And for me to receive the PNBA Award feels like being welcomed into this extraordinary corner of the country. This must be the place.
Annie Proulx’s PNBA Award plaque will be presented at her Seattle Public Library Event with Elliott Bay Book Company on April 27, 2017 at 7:00pm; she will also be celebrating the paperback release of her novel. Watch the Elliott Bay Book Company and SPL events listings for more details. You can enjoy essays from the other winners of the 2017 PNBA Book Award and past years in our archive.