IN A LOCAL MOOD

The Pacific Northwest is known for rainy, moody weather – but peel back a few layers and you’ll find that it’s more nuanced than that. It’s not all rain and clouds, in fact, the weather varies widely from season to season and from place to place. Summers are dry, sunny, and cool in contrast to autumn, winter, and spring when gray skies predominate. Seattle is often drizzly but fragrant lavender farms color the landscape to the north, where mountains prevent the clouds from releasing moisture. Out on the Olympic Peninsula, an extraordinary rainfall total of 140 inches/year (355 cm) supports temperate rainforests. Whether it’s dry like the Mediterranean, soaking wet, or somewhere in between, it’s still the Pacific Northwest.

1. Water, sky, rock, fir trees create a typical Pacific Northwest quartet.

Does the idea of a place marked by abundant rain conjure up dramatic downpours? Oddly enough, that picture is wrong. The Pacific Northwest doesn’t experience many sudden, violent turns in weather. Tornadoes and hurricanes are infrequent to non-existent. Lightning storms, dangerous heat waves, and deep freezes aren’t likely to crop up in the local forecast. Changes here tend to come gradually like the slow turn of a dial when you’re looking for a radio station. Weeks often go by with temperatures hovering within a small range. Granted, the region’s winter windstorms can toss trees around like matchsticks but most weather transitions are relatively quiet. Even the heavy rains brought by atmospheric rivers from far out in the Pacific may take days to release all their moisture. Seattle, the city with a reputation for rain, has an annual precipitation of only 37 inches (94 cm) compared to over 49 inches in parts of New York City and Houston.

2. PNW-style rain.

Long-time residents might disagree with my observations but a decade of living in the Pacific Northwest after a lifetime spent in the Northeast gives me a certain perspective. Visitors who’ve heard “It always rains in Seattle” are surprised to find almost no umbrellas on the streets. Why? Because the rain usually eases in almost imperceptibly, then fades in and out all day. People wear shorts and sandals all year, just adding a hoodie in winter. The locals are hardy! And there are sunbreaks. I hadn’t heard of sunbreaks until I moved here. They splash the landscape with cheer during winter months and interrupt the long, wet springs with welcome warmth. We have sunbreaks because outside of the summer, the skies are cloudy most of the time. Summer is what everyone waits for but it takes its time; Seattleites don’t expect to see consistently blue skies and warm temperatures until after July Fourth. Most of June is cool and gray, which is why we have “June Gloom.” That may sound dreary but the steady, gray tones and cool temperatures can get under your skin in a good way. Or you could move to Nevada.

3. Shrouds of Lace lichen (Ramalina menziesii) screen the view into the forest.

It’s not only the weather that sets the stage for Pacific Northwest moods. The prevalence of tall, dense, Douglas fir trees in the landscape plays a major role. Looming conifers may inject year-round green into the landscape (hence Seattle’s nickname, “Emerald City”) but they also reduce the amount of available light. Thick evergreen forests impart a mysterious, even foreboding quality to the landscape. Topography plays a role, too: the hilly, mountainous terrain limits views. Wide-open vistas are relegated to mountaintops or places with open water. Nothing seems clear and straightforward in this enigmatic region.

Last but hardly least, water is a crucial element in the Pacific Northwest. The region I’m talking about, loosely speaking everything west of the Cascade Range, north of California, and south of Alaska is profoundly affected by the presence of water. Because expanses of salt water have a moderating effect on temperatures, snowstorms are short-lived and heat waves are nothing compared to what the east coast experiences. Temperatures around Puget Sound seem to want to go back to where they were. Paradoxically, salt water evens out temperature extremes but it is the embodiment of change. Landmasses are steady presences; water is all about movement. From coastal waters to Puget Sound, to inland lakes and streams, the presence of water adds mutability to the landscape. With constantly changing colors and textures, bodies of water influence and define the moods of the Pacific Northwest.

4. On the coast, sea stacks, surf, and fitful skies.

Maybe I’ve been thinking about Pacific Northwest moods because we’ve just entered the rainy season. Days are shorter, skies are cloudy again and temperatures have cooled. This season seems to reflect the essence of the Pacific Northwest, though I know many locals would say it’s the beautifully clear, cool summers that make the region special. I think fall weather suits this landscape. Trees brood darkly, water seeps around every corner, and there’s a damp chill in the air. I think these photos convey that feeling.

5.
6. Dry grasses persisting through fall soften the landscape. (This photo uses slight intentional camera movement).

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8. Cormorants gather on an old pier off Q’elech’ilhch Park on Fidalgo Island.

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9. Bullwhip kelp afloat in the Salish Sea.
10. Snowberries (Symphoricarpos albus) gleam in a dark recess of the forest edge.
11. Seeding next year’s fields of wildflowers.
12. In the mountains rivers run wild after fall rains.
13. Douglas fir trees cast shadows over lakes.
14. Ninety miles from the ocean, the waves at this saltwater beach don’t normally pack much of a punch but their incessant rhythm soothes the soul.

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Was it all a dream –

I mean those old bygone days –

were they what they seemed?

All night long I lie awake

listening to autumn rain.

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Ryokan

From Almost Paradise, translated by Sam Hamill. Shambhala Publications, 2005.

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48 comments

  1. Back in the 1990s, I turned down a job offer in the Pacific Northwest and instead moved to MN. I think I would have liked the area better in Oregon than in MN, but I don’t regret my decision, You live in one of the most beautiful areas of the country, Picking a favorite in this group is difficult but the mood in #12 is just so beautiful. Nice work.

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  2. Once again you’ve captured the amazing essence of this region that I’ve grown to love and cherish… it’s always such a pleasure to be done with summer (ours, I think are far drier than yours up there in the nether regions! 😏 and not at all my favorite season.) Wishing we had a bit more of that June Gloom you speak of!
    #2…. if I MUST pick a favorite… it says it all (or so it seems). That delicious little drop of moisture….
    but, as usual, it’s truly difficult to pick or choose a favorite…
    I had never heard of ‘sunbreaks’, but what a perfect term for our days of sun interspersed with the occasional wild storms (what I find exhilarating, invigorating this time of year after the long and boring days of summer!)
    Perhaps 12 & 14 might nudge #2 from first place… but you present a really difficult choice.
    Thank you for that….. πŸ™ πŸ’ž

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    • Your area is in some ways more like northern California than like northern Oregon and beyond. No June Gloom, I didn’t realize that! By June the gray does get tedious but the parade of dry, sunny days gets more tiresome. Especially this year, when it took so long to end. But we’re back to normal. It’s nice to hear that #14 speaks to you since your own ocean landscapes are so outstanding. Thanks, Gunta!

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  3. most splendid.

    nature has created the most fascinating kelp line drawing hovering in midair against a sea-sky backdrop. she is quite clever that way.

    β–ͺβ—Ύβ—Όβ—Ύβ–ͺβ–«β—½β—»β—½β–«β–ͺβ—Ύβ—Όβ—Ύβ–ͺβ–«β—½β—»β—½β–«β–ͺβ—Ύβ—Όβ—Ύβ–ͺ
    β–«β—½β—»β—½β–«β–ͺβ—Ύβ—Όβ—Ύβ–ͺβ–«β—½β—»β—½β–«β–ͺβ—Ύβ—Όβ—Ύβ–ͺβ–«β—½β—»β—½β–«

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  4. Absolutely stunning pictures! Great post about the weather on the Western side of the Cascades. I would agree with you. First time I visited Seattle (in 2005), was in July, and to me, it was downright cold! We walked from where the monorail put us off down to Pike Place Market and had to duck into a store and buy me a hoodie because I was about to freeze! I kept saying β€œJuly is supposed to be HOT!” LOL

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    • And thank you for the comment! Just to prove me wrong, we’re in the middle of a dramatic weather event here, with loads of rain, possible flooding, and up to 50-mph wind gusts predicted. πŸ™‚

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  5. I’m starting to feel a bit familiar with your local surroundings. Great! and a bit weird to feel ‘at home’ at place that I’ve never been. Thanks! πŸ™‚ Time for the Dutch jury to come to a verdict: Nr11 I love those colors and I like the way the darker group comes in from the right.. as if two tribes are meeting. Nr12 with it’s wild, cold, dark mood; well composed with those trees on each side and the river rushing towards the light. Nr5 has a lot of feeling a bit sad and a bit warm. Great set, Lynn. Greetings for both!

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    • It’s not weird, it’s just Harrie being sensitive. πŸ˜‰ That’s good to hear. It’s also good to hear your appreciation for the simple “weeds-in-the-field” photo. All your comments are greatly appreciated….greetings back to you from both of us!

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  6. My spirits perked up at the word sunbreak, because I really am a Sunshine Susie. Grey days do press down on me. But for saying that your beautiful moody skies and rolling water does speak to me. I follow a lady called Gunta in Oregon and her seascapes are magical, though frequently grey. It’s no secret why I live where I do, but I can still hanker after less blue places.

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  7. Beautifully described and photographed. I think I’d pick out #4 and #12 as favourites πŸ˜ƒ Given the reputation of the area for wet weather we were surprised to spend four days on the Olympic Peninsula without seeing any rain (mid July)!

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    • In mid-July, there’s unlikely to be much rain even on the peninsula. Great for the beaches, not so much for feeling the atmosphere of the rainforests. The first time we came out here, from NYC, everyone warned us about the rain. It was mid-October and we got lucky – no rain, beautiful, comfortable weather. So we moved here. The following winter and spring, I’ll admit I began to get depressed but I’m a convert now. We just have to combat the gray fatigue during those winter months. Thanks for your thoughts, Sarah, and have a great weekend.

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  8. This post really helped to understand the personality of Autumn in your region of many forests. And I agree that the photos reflect the spirit of the place and the time of year very well!
    I was fascinated by the simplicity of photo #2. Beautiful!
    And I was also curious about the caption: what does PNW-style rain mean? It is certainly something very simple and linear in English…..πŸ™„

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    • Our seasons and weather are so different from where you live but that’s partly what makes visiting Portugal with you so enjoyable.
      PNW = Pacific Northwest, sorry! It’s the shorthand that people around here use a lot. Thanks for your comment and have a great weekend, Dulce!

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  9. What an interesting and graceful essay. And adding your (always) absorbing photos recasts it into a sort of tone poem, and in a very approachable manner, a succinct appreciation of your region.
    Really like the way you paired the rusting steel and the kelp in #7. And the slight tendrils with two droplets suspended in time in #2. And #12 is just a knockout, magical.

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    • Music to my ears, Robert, thank you very much. You describe what I’m trying to achieve so I must not have been too far off the mark. Thanks for noticing the rust and kelp – that was cool, right? I love finding those small synchronicities. Thank you again – have a good weekend!

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  10. I think you’ve pretty much hit the nail on the head in terms of the PNW, although it’s probably a bit hotter in Portland due to being further south and not having the moderating effects of Puget Sound on our doorstep. I’d have to agree with the forming consensus; #12 expresses beautifully in one image what you were describing in many words. #1 and #4 makes me think of Deception Pass, and the rest could be any number of places in the NW.

    How do you pronounce “Q’elech’ilhch”, anyway?

    Liked by 1 person

    • The park name is a recent renaming in honor of local tribes and I have no idea how it’s pronounced. I was wondering, too. #1 is Deception Pass – Lighthouse Point – but #4 is out on the Washington coast. Thanks so much for your comment. It’s hard to describe the PNW feeling and even harder to make it fit for such a wide area. But the gist is there. πŸ™‚

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  11. Such a gorgeous collection of images, Lynn. It is that PNW atmosphere that you describe so well that enhances the soft details and colors that tug at the heart in these photos. The first two are particularly perfect and compelling – I love that color of rich teal that you have captured. And the lace lichen – like the lace collar of an old fashioned dress hung on a branch to dry.

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    • There’s a lot of blue-green around here, between the water and a bluish tinge to some of the foliage. It’s good to hear you zeroed in on that color family. It’s always good to hear about your reactions as someone who’s sensitive to every nuance in nature. Thanks so much, Lynn, enjoy the rest of your weekend!

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  12. I think this post embodies both what I love and what I struggle with living here. Being an Aussie, even after over 30 yrs in Canada I still yearn for long hot summers and still struggle with Juneuary. At the same time I love the beauty to the landscape and endless the green. We don’t call it the Wet Coast for nothing. My favourite images in this post are 1 and 10 – such beautiful clarity.
    It’s snowing! ❄️
    Alison

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    • Snowing, seriously? Well, I was just out exploring the beach after the storm and there was a bit of hail so I guess I can believe it. Thanks for mentioning Juneary – I forgot that one! Your longing for a good, long, hot summer does make sense. I long for certain weather-related things, like what trees do on the east coast in autumn or the way gardens look there in spring and the beauty of the first snowfalls. But we do get that here, as you know only too well. πŸ˜‰ Thanks for your thoughts!

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    • Your observation interests me because I think a lot about the difference between photography that is descriptive and photography that conveys a mood or is more emotional. From what you say, it seems that maybe it’s not either/or. πŸ™‚ Thank you very much!

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  13. You live in a beautiful area and as you consistently prove, there is beauty in all kinds of weather. Our weather is quite the opposite. We rarely have a full day of rain and drizzle. The sun often comes out too quickly after a snow, melting the beauty away before the roads are clear. I really like the simplicity and color of #2. The backlit leaf in #5 is another great observation. #7 is a nice diptych … two different subjects that are surprisingly similar in look. I always enjoy seeing your local scenes!

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    • It does sound like the opposite kind of weather pattern. I know you get some gorgeously clear days and that can feel wonderful. Thanks for mentioning the diptych – I love finding connections like that. It’s good to hear from you – I hope you’re enjoying the weekend.

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  14. Hi Lynn, I thoroughly enjoyed your love letter to the PNW and your photos underline how special this part of the country is. I am guilty of thinking that it’s pouring rain a lot of the time- you’ve straightened me out on that! I love your landscapes – the crashing wave and the foggy coastline and trees especially. The duo with the close-up of the kelp and boat hull is clever and the studies – the snowberries, kelp and backlit autumn leaf are gems and a testimony to your keen eye. πŸ™‚

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    • Ha ha, I’m glad I straightened you out, but only days after publishing this, we had a big storm. Lots of rain, though not a lot of pouring rain, and lots of wind. Very dramatic. Thanks for noting the kelp and hull duo. πŸ˜‰ And thanks in general for your attention, always appreciated.

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  15. As always your post is filled with wonderment disguised as excellent photographs. Great collection, Lynn. Although your love of the Pacific Northwest is obvious, I have the feeling that you could post similar almost no matter where you were living. You find beauty wherever you look.

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  16. You picture a landscape that is friendly to life, in general and specifical to humans. No extremes, completely balanced. Pacific in the very meaning of the word.
    I enjoy your philosophizing about the constant and at the same time changeable and shaping water, which you document in words and pictures.Β  #12 has it all, and while it’s a bit somber in character, the sun could break through the clouds at any moment.Β  In this way, despite the deep calm, the picture has a considerable dynamic, which I like very much.

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    • It’s so funny that shortly after I posted this, we had a big windstorm. The windy photos and crashing waves in my current post are from that day. It was a slap in the face regarding my attempt at putting the atmosphere of this place into words. πŸ˜‰ #12 was made years ago, well inland, in the mountains. That place is more accessible from where we lived back then and we haven’t been there since. It’s that changeableness that you mention that makes life interesting, isn’t it? Thanks for your thoughts!

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