BY BRIAN LIBBY
Over the Christmas holiday, I did a lot of driving within Oregon for get-togethers with family. I drove to Eugene on the day of the 24th, to McMinnville the evening of the 24th, and to a farm outside Gaston on the 25th. At first my focus was the holidays and the relatives I'd see, or the caffeine I'd need to get through two marathon days. But as I made my way through the Willamette Valley, with its lush greenery, fertile farmland and gently rolling hills, the landscape itself gave me pause.
I'd already grown up in the Willamette Valley, born in Eugene and raised in McMinnville. But I rarely, if ever, thought about the natural beauty surrounding me. Oregon's natural wonders seemed to be more dramatic sites like Mt. Hood and the Cascades, the Columbia Gorge, high deserts to the east and the Oregon Coast to the west. But then, while in college in New York, the valley landscape upon my return seemed to look different, which was confimed by the awe my college friends would show when visiting.
The valley isn't comprised of soaring heights or crashing water, but it reminds us that the word "pastoral" has multiple definitions, all which fit the Willamette Valley. The word not only refers to the rural countryside, but also means idyllic, and "of or relating to spiritual care or guidance." If there is no singular postcard image of a peak or a body of water, there is the collective tapestry of land and sky.
What's more, the Willamette Valley is what our ancestors came to Oregon for. The Oregon Trail that carried thousands here during the Great Migration of the 19th Century eventually split two ways: to the southwest for those seeking fortune and fame, or to the northwest for those seeking fertile soil and quality of life. Today, it's not to say there isn't beauty or agriculture in California, nor is it impossible to get famous in Oregon. Yet these diverse landscapes - the brown scrubland with gold buried underneath, and the temperate greenery revealing the possibilities of the plow - still comprise much of our regional identities. I'd argue that the Willamette Valley is the essence of Oregon for this reason: it was the stage for the place that we made here.
In January, I'll be teaching a class called "Urban Discourses", which uses Portland as a template for learning about cities themselves. Although much of my preparation has centered on how our city resembles and differs from other cities - architecturally, artistically, economically - my mind often turns back to the landscape of Oregon and how it, along with the climate, defines us.
Airport Park near McMinnville, Oregon (photo by Brian Libby)
Just as rain makes the plants a particularly verdant green, for example, it also fosters a more mellow populace that favors reading books, making arts and crafts. It's cool enough here that we aren't sun worshipers bronzing to melanoma levels on our beaches. It's warm enough that we're not locked indoors all winter. Maybe some people complain about the rain, but the water seems to often wash away the most pretentious and extreme personalities back to points south or east. It reminds me of a Bill O'Reilly interview of David Letterman from a few years ago: O'Reilly was pestering Letterman to answer a question quickly. Reilly said, "Come on. Yes or no? It shouldn't take you more than a second." Letterman replied, "It takes longer for me because I'm thoughtful."
Oregon is thoughtful, and I reckon our mild climate and pastoral landscape, particularly the valley floor, fosters it. But perhaps we're also shaped by those who were here first: Native American tribes once flourished in the valley and throughout Oregon, instilling a value system of natural reverence that remains today. And Oregon was the last territory in the United States to be given up by Great Britain: is it a coincidence that we are unfailingly polite iconoclasts?
Even if one can't ever completely untangle why we are what we are, it's more than worth the time to set off from Portland to the south and west and simply get lost. Don't just drive on I-5 or even Highway 99W, but head off on those windy side roads as farmlands give way to forest, and as rivers like the Yamhill and the Santiam wind amongst the farms and small towns. To borrow from the state's former tourism slogan, things will look different here.