In this book Dillard tells stories about the first European and Asian settlers who came to eke out a living in and around Bellingham, a city that sits north of Seattle and is only 27 kilometers from the Canadian border.
It's been something of a strange read for me. I am awed by Dillard's writing, which is clear and flows so beautifully. And yet, I'm also aware that I am reading about the region where I was born and where I lived for the first 24 years of my life.
The events she wrote about happened long ago - a century or so before I was born in Seattle in 1965. The stories begin in the Civil War era when the region was not even a part of the United States - Washington didn't become a state until 1889. That distance meant I could read them as if I were a foreigner or an anthropologist encountering a strange new tribe, marveling at their exotic old ways.
But I didn't need to rely on her descriptions of rain forests, lousy weather, and rocky beaches because I already had memories of these things in my mind. Nor did I need definitions for the local words Dillard used - words that I learned as a child: Lummi, potlatch, Salish.
I could read the book with a combination of cool distance, flashes of recognition, and mild pleasure at my inside knowledge.
All that was working for me until I arrived at Book Five, Chapters LIX/LX. I was reading and my chest got tight and I felt such a longing for 'home'. There went the distance. Instead, I keenly felt that connection to "the vanished times and places and people" I was reading about - things that were closer to me than I wanted to admit.
In that part of the world, my family logged and fished and built dams. They cleared forest and farmed. They ate salmon and picked oysters off the beach for dinner. When I was a child, my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents taught me how to keep a fire burning in a woodstove, how to make pie, how to make quilts, how to catch a geoduck. All things that are not much use to this woman sitting in an Ikea chair on the 14th floor of a modern apartment building in Osaka, Japan.
A few years ago I would have packed those stories and feelings up and stuffed them into a dark little compartment in my mind. Why? Partly because I assumed that the French would not find any of this interesting - who wants to listen to an immigrant with boring stories of the rustic Old Country? But mostly because when I thought about it, I grieved, and, at the time, that seemed to me to be both a waste of time and an impediment to integrating in my adopted country.
But this time I didn't reject the memories, I embraced them. I looked up one of the songs the settlers were singing in the book and I listened to it. Something in me settled, and I smiled and tapped my foot to the music.
Living in the present doesn't preclude loving where you're from. It's a false choice and anyone who asks it of any immigrant anywhere in the world will find no friend in me. Because if I can (and I do) love my Pacific Northwest world of lumberjacks, flapjacks, mossy green forests, fiddle music, plaid shirts, jeans from Tweedy & Popp, dogfish, killer whales, barbecued oysters, Olympia oysters, wood houses, wooden boats, earthquakes, and volcanoes that erupt from time to time, then so can they love whatever world once harbored them.
And may we, like the original settlers in the Pacific Northwest, come to love the places we land every bit as much as the place we left.