Sunday, May 10, 2015

Small matters

It doesn’t take much margin of change in nature to produce gigantic changes in eco-systems. I am not just talking about the earth as an environment for life, but the universe as a whole. If, for example, any of the values of the physical constants, that is, natural ‘laws,’ were to change only very slightly, certain cosmic processes would never have happened, star formation, for example, or the evolution of elements larger than mono-proton hydrogen. If a universe could exist at all, a big bang under a different set of constants might have produced nothing more than a vast, dark cloud of hydrogen gas. Anyway, my point is that it doesn’t take much change in a principle or function to effect much larger changes in ‘the big picture.’

My thinking about this didn’t come from contemplating the natural universe, but rather, the human one, and not in its totality, but in terms of its local manifestations. Why, for example, does it just ‘feel different’ when you move from one American state to another? Living in Oregon’s big city of Portland, which is not centrally located within the state but on its northern border, just across the Columbia River from the state of Washington, and working for the last twenty years in Washington, I experienced this every day. Though I crossed the border twice each day, living in one state, and working in another, the experience of difference never faded through familiarity. Vancouver, Washington (and the rest of the state) feels just as different from Portland, Oregon (and the rest of the state) as it ever did.

The United States are one country from a purely political perspective but, in case you don’t live here or haven’t visited its various regions, they really are a collection of countries of various sizes, all speaking dialects of a single language, English, but otherwise each very unique. This uniqueness comes from local history, geography, and climate, the various ethnic and religious mixes, the average educational level, the proportion of urban and rural, industrial, service, and agricultural work, and so on. The national motto, E pluribus unum, is well-chosen, almost prophetically, because this country is even more diverse today than it’s ever been. Sometimes it seems so diverse, or people with ambitions want it to be, that even here, as elsewhere in the world, separatist movements arise. Our local one is ‘Cascadia.’

Separatist movements here, however, are more romantic idealisms than actual movements. There are regional similarities in the states (and provinces, as at least one Canadian province is included) that comprise the ‘country’ of Cascadia, but they are mostly geographical and climatic. I can’t imagine a larger gap in regional characteristic between a metro sexual urbanite of Portlandia and a Montana cowboy, or between a rural hippie commune member from the hills around Coburg, Oregon, and a no-nonsense Idaho farmer. This ‘Cascadia’ with its rural ‘Reds’ and urban ‘Blues’ would be hardly less diverse in interests and priorities than the whole of the United States, a pattern, incidentally, which is historically traceable to other human societies all over the world and from ancient times.

City people have a different life than country people. Their music, their diet, most of their likes and dislikes, are all different and pretty predictable. My city of Portland, a micro-state of its own that is called ‘Portlandia’ and even has a situation comedy show named for it, also has a motto. ‘Keep Portland weird.’ This motto is not very old. It is actually imported from, of all places, Austin, Texas, and only twelve years ago. It could hardly be more appropriate for this city, and though it was brought in as a marketing ploy by Music Millennium, the youth of the city, much weirder than most, have been promoting it ever since. Never mind the older, sometimes native, inhabitants of Portland who don’t particularly enjoy thinking of themselves or their city as weird. Portland is just ‘weird.’

So, what does any of this have to do with my opening thoughts about changes at the micro or local level resulting in much greater ones at the macro or universal? This morning I was paging through the latest issue of Willamette Week, a Portland free newspaper representing its very ‘Blue,’ that is, left-leaning populace. I know that summer is coming and spring is already here in full force, but the sheer quantity of advertisements for amusements and for occasions and places of alcoholic indulgence just blew me away. Not that I am a tee-totaler by any means—my alcoholic consumption might amount to a dozen beers a year, and a bottle or two of wine, and whiskey when I attend a Greek funeral—but I was (almost) surprised at the pervasive hedonism. Almost, because I live here, in the city of a thousand micro-brews.

Portland’s characteristic weirdness, it seemed to me at that moment, might very well be attributed to its very alcoholic culture. We’re not a climatically cold region, which is why many northern locations have alcohol problems—booze keeps you warm—and yet we seem to drink our volume in beer about every fortnight. This one function on a micro level, per person, seems to produce on a macro level, per city, a human eco-system in which sobriety is considered retarded, and anything wild, wicked, and weird is to be praised, promoted, and propagated. Take the alcohol away, and what would Portland look like? Yes, cities always have alcohol problems, but so do small towns and farming communities, in proportion to their size. In the case of the small towns and farms, they have church, and country music, as remedies.

This is not a complaint, exactly, just a surmise. The differences of human eco-systems between adjacent states like Oregon and Washington are probably also caused by tiny differences in the attitudes their residents have. Washington, for example, seems more ‘law and order’ and ‘Christian’ than Oregon. You are very likely to see cars with ‘Fish’ emblems or decals of a cross and a kneeling person on vehicles with Washington plates. The ‘Keep Portland Weird’ bumper sticker will identify the Portlandian, if a ‘Darwin fish’ or other blasphemous emblem is absent. Oregon seems much more laid back than Washington. Maybe it’s the climate too, I don’t know. I just wonder at how small matters can transform whole populations for good or (I can’t say ‘evil,’ since my town bans the use of this word) weirdness, and what a difference they make.

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