Photo credit: Daniel Boone Rodriguez
When my husband and I moved to Oregon eight years ago, I couldn’t get over the fact that the grass stays green in winter. To me it’s striking, but he grew up in the Pacific Northwest so he never thought about it until I pointed it out. It’s a small thing, but I always think of it when anyone remarks on the distinctive sense of place in my debut novel, If, Then
, which is set in Oregon, because it’s emblematic of how I took advantage of an outsider’s perspective when I wrote the book.
Familiarity can dull our experience. We’ve all felt this when we visit someplace new and our senses come alive in a way they don’t when we’re home, living our routine lives. Colors and shapes and textures jump from the landscape, smells and sounds pop. These things aren’t remarkable for the people who call the place we’re visiting home, but for us even the most everyday details are striking.
As a writer I’m most interested in those kinds of details — the stuff of life that goes unnoticed — so an outsider’s eye is invaluable when I’m creating places and characters and scenes. I took advantage of this in If, Then
in lots of ways. I’m not a surgeon or a wildlife biologist or a real estate agent, but I spent a lot of time with people who are when I was writing the book, and I studied the parts of those jobs they would never remark on — the smell of Betadine soap at a hospital scrub sink, the texture of a frog’s skin as you hold it in your hand. I asked a lot of questions they found strange, like: What does it sound like when you’re nailing a “For Sale” sign into wet grass?
But more than anything else, I used my outsider’s perspective when writing about the natural world — the part of living in Oregon that’s a complete contrast from where I grew up.
In Oregon the landscape demands your attention.
I spent most of my childhood and early adulthood experiencing nothing wilder than a Vermont ski hill. I grew up in Pennsylvania, an hour and a half from both Philadelphia and New York, in a Victorian house my parents were gradually restoring. They both worked at universities and their free time — and by extension my free time — was spent inside with books, or other indoor pursuits. My mom was a librarian and I spent a lot of time hanging out after school wandering the stacks.
When my husband and I moved to the Pacific Northwest, I had never been on a hike where I couldn’t hear traffic in the distance. The only wildness I encountered was in novels — the moors in Jane Eyre
and Wuthering Heights
, the island in Robinson Crusoe
. While everything in my life on the east coast had been oriented to the indoors, where it was warm and comfortable, out west it was flipped.
In Oregon the landscape demands your attention. The mountains scrape the sky; the ocean batters and churns. A typical morning in winter is cloaked in fog as thick as smoke, and in the spring it isn’t unusual to get hailed on or see a rainbow at least twice a week. People who grow up here take these things as a matter of course. But for me this place is remarkable; I am continually distracted and enchanted by it.
Then there is the wild danger of this place, which locals only shrug at. You aren’t supposed to turn your back at the coast because sneaker waves can suddenly appear and pull you out to sea. Roads get snowed in, and people have taken a wrong turn in winter, gotten stuck, and died. Not to mention the very real possibilities of earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions. My husband would say this is a dramatic description of where we live, but compared to the cities and towns and freeways where I grew up, where freezing rain was the worst you could expect from nature, I’d say it’s the landscape that’s dramatic here, rather than my description of it.
People in Oregon also seek out wildness — and the danger inherent in wildness — in a way I find both astounding and inspiring. They go hiking alone at dusk on trails posted with mountain lion warnings. They backcountry ski in avalanche zones, and surf on stretches of ocean known for dangerous waves. Every weekend, it seems, a climber falls off Mount Hood and has to be rescued by helicopter.
Even if you aren’t looking for it, wildness finds you in Oregon. In my little town, in my suburban house, wildflowers sprout in my grass and errant lichen climbs my fence. Wasps build nests in our eaves. Families of deer block the street, and surly wild turkeys congregate on my neighbor’s front lawn. At night you hear the hoot of barn owls.
The experience of wildness in the everyday, and the sense that just beyond domestic spaces there are things that are unknown and unpredictable, shaped my book If, Then
— and it’s also why living here will never become fully routine for me.
I’m not really an outsider anymore. I’ve changed since moving here. We’ve been in Oregon eight years and I’m as loyal to certain mountains and trees as I am to my favorite books. I still love reading and writing on my couch with a cup of tea, but if I’ve spent the whole day indoors I get squirrelly. I’m not a mountain climber or backcountry skier — I’ll never be those things — but I wouldn’t trade my summer weekends looking for wildflowers or exploring lava tubes. I love being deep enough in the forest that I have no cell service, hiking at night when there’s no light but the moon, no sound but the gentle crunch of my snowshoes on the ground. There’s just enough danger in these things to make them a thrill, to sharpen my senses to small details that might otherwise go unnoticed.
÷ ÷ ÷
Kate Hope Day
holds a BA from Bryn Mawr College and a PhD in English from the University of Pittsburgh. She was an associate producer at HBO. She lives in Oregon with her husband and their two children. If, Then
is her first book.