IT'S A TRADITION to complain about the weather, but it's also becoming a Seattle custom to complain about the way that weather is covered by local media. So let me indulge.
Why are winter "storms" newsworthy? Wind and rain hit the Washington coast! Film at 11! Snow in the passes—in December! When a couple of fronts came through last week, KING-TV quickly dispatched a reporter for a live remote from Burlington, where the intrepid journalist found just enough breeze to muss her hair. Another reporter was sent to Westport to point out waves crashing on the beaches—oh, the humanity!--and to warn that rogue driftwood was a threat.
Dog biting man, in the form of raindrops hitting human heads, seems to be breaking news. How did we get to be such weather wimps? What kind of sissified Seattleites have we become that we cower at the threat of a seasonal shower? Or is there something more to it?
Our relationship with rain does seem to be changing. This year has been uncommonly dry. Our autumn just plain made me feel uneasy. My laden landmark poplars weren't ready to do their big annual leaf dump until well past Halloween. The mountains were naked. And the poor cedars were drooping and turning brown until the rain began falling earlier this month. Only now are the Olympics finally looking Olympian, showing off their white ermine mantle; only now are the cedars perking up. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer last week examined the Northwest's shrinking glaciers. Drier, warmer weather and its long-term consequences is really the weather story we ought to be thinking and talking about. That's much more newsworthy than another Snoqualmie River flood watch where moo cows might get their tootsies wet.
This points up the other huge local weather-reporting problem—the big disconnect between long-term reality and short-term benefit. Of course, this isn't only a weather problem. It shows up in how, as a culture, we're always more excited by today's short-term benefit than tomorrow's long-term price. Taxes, social security, transportation, even war: What it means to us today is what matters; what it means to us tomorrow is just the boring stuff. It's the Eyman and Enron mind-set.
THUS, WE SIT at home while the TV anchors squeal with delight because tomorrow is another sunny day, even if it's one step closer to a drought that's going to kill the fish, dry up our reservoirs, and drive up our electric bills. This is the world where every sunny day is a "nice" day or a "beautiful" day, even if it's also a day that's slowly sucking us dry of the vital, life-giving fluid that makes the Pacific Northwest what it is. Wake up, people. Water is good. Rain is good, as Seattle author Tim Egan reminded us in The Good Rain.
It would be easy to blame it on the Californication of the local populace. Once upon a time, the people who ventured up this way were, well, a little weird. One pioneer, C.B. Talbot, came here via the Oregon Trail at the time of the California gold rush in 1849. He described the decision every pioneer family had to make about whether to continue on to California or take the fork up to the Oregon Country:
"When the Oregon road was reached nearly every man who started therein was marked down as a simpleton or an idiot, or, in some cases, not in the best state of mind, since a man who would go to a place where there was no gold—when on the other road was heaven and heaps of yellow ore—certainly a man was not right who would do such a thing. Yet the Oregonian here left the road to 'bright jewels and the mine' and went down the middle of the other to the perfume of the apple and the pine."
Imagine that. Passing by the chance for sunshine and riches for the mere scent of apple blossoms and pine needles. OK, they were going to get free land, too, but it was hardly a picnic. Anyone who thinks the Northwest Indians or the early pioneers had it easy simply doesn't know what they're talking about—and has never spent a Northwest summer in a rain-soaked tent. The message is clear: The greedy softies went south, the tough-ass idealists headed north. Now, either we've gone soft, or we've been invaded by Californians who've fled their smog-choked paradise to re-create it up here. These are people for whom global warming is just a way to bring the world a little more sunshine.
YES, THE WEATHER can drive you crazy. But to move here and, especially, to stay here, you had to be a bit crazy to begin with. And whether you want to consider embracing the rain, as a friend of mine does, as a manifestation of Stockholm syndrome, the lousy weather is not only an integral part of our experience, it is a force that shapes us. We can live in houses, we can shop in malls, we can drive SUVs, but the Northwest weather cannot be controlled. It will not accommodate us; we must accommodate it.
Which goes back to why a gentle breeze at Alki Point tops Eyewitless News: because it is. Even mild weather is still something demonstrably beyond our control. And in a modern world where we seek to control everything completely, even a raindrop is a headline.
We should be grateful for that still.