On some level it may be possible to get a sense of the culture of a place, the feeling in the hearts of its people, simply by taking in its geography. Manhattan is utterly artificial, a dominion of pure human invention. When you walk its canyons, mingling with the other inhabitants all dressed in black, you are completely engulfed by the power and hubris of twentieth century technology, from the Empire State Building to Rockefeller Center to Wall Street. The one part that is green – Central Park – is literally surrounded by towering buildings, and is itself completely artificial, a architected fantasy of nature, constructed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in 1859.
This geography accurately reflects the soul of the populace. Manhattanites believe in nothing so much as the possibility of self-reinvention. We live to enlessly create the world anew as an extension of ourselves. From the galleries of Chelsea to the power lunches of Wall Street to the crowds streaming through the theatre district and Times Square, what is valued and exalted is what is created from the mind, and reality itself is bent to the will of human intellect.
Seattle, where I find myself this weekend, is different. The iconography of Seattle is defined by the tension and opposition between the Space Needle and Mount Rainier. Unlike New York, The Seattle/Redmond area nestles its metropolis within nature, its urban centers of gravity happily split down the middle by a huge natural lake. People here can certainly be as brilliant and intellectually inquisitive as New Yorkers, but they also incorporate an idea of nature into their internal rhythms. They dress down, go hiking in the mountains on the weekends, wear earth tones, and project the laid back air of people who think of themselves as somehow “organic”. Even the iconic music of disaffected protest is Grunge, rather than Punk – not so much Johnny Rotten as Kurt Cobain.
I am enjoying this brief vacation from assertive black into easy earth tone, although even here I walk about in my New York wardrobe. It is not so easy for a Manhattan boy to go native. But I love the feeling, at least for a while, of immersing myself in a great metropolis that is presided over by the vast presence of Mount Rainier, looming upon the horizon like an ancient and watchful God, ever casting its spell upon the culture and the hearts of a city’s populace.