The shape of Tacoma

By Morf Morford

Tacoma Daily Index

History defines every city, but Tacoma’s history and geography (and a few eccentric individuals) have made Tacoma a city literally like no other.

Many cities are some coherent shape – maybe an approximate circle or even a clearly defined square.

Not Tacoma. I have heard Tacoma’s footprint described as a prehistoric claw, an enraged sea monster or an alien.

They all seem to fit.

And if you think about it, our landscape, our odd shape defined by steep hills and water and our views – in all kinds of directions – whether it be mountains to the east and west of us or water (and islands) to the north  (and east or west, depending where you are) – it kind of makes sense that so many of us seem so unsettled.

Other parts of the country, like California and Colorado, have higher mountains – but ours start pretty much at sea level.

Mt. Rainier looms over us like a sometimes menacing, hovering presence as full of wonder as it of danger.

I used to work with a guy who had moved here from Kansas. I would catch him staring out our office window at Mt Rainier. He used to say, “It’s so real, it looks fake”.

I’d have to agree. Even though I grew up looking at it, I still catch myself being transfixed by it.

With just the right mix of geologic movements, that gorgeous mountain could be the death of all of us.

But that only adds to the mystery and immensity.

The native name for the mountain was pronounced something like “Tachoma” which meant something close to “the mountain that is God”.

That seems like a fitting name; it is surely a source of life and death to all of us who live in its shadow. It feeds our rivers and ecosystems, and one day, perhaps tomorrow or possibly millennia from now, it will do what it has done before, and cover every surface for hundreds of miles with mud, ice or lava.

But we in the Puget Sound basin live with that uncertainty, that beautiful and fragile mortality. No one lives forever, but we know that better than most.

Our enemies are not those of other races or religions or even ideologies – our most threatening enemies are the mountains and the forces below us.

We all know that we are expecting ‘the big one’ – the earthquake that will shake our cities into dust and chaos. Most of us have encountered several good-sized earthquakes. We can’t really imagine an earthquake that would really threaten us – even though we know it is likely, long over-due and has happened before.

Each one of us is literally betting our lives that it won’t happen in our lifetimes.

It’s an odd bet. But we all seem to have a thriving ambivalent fatalism that allows us to go on as if we were somehow immune to looming disaster.

As much as the rain might get us down, we take some comfort in the absence of tornadoes and hurricanes. And every one of us knows that our disaster, when it happens, will dwarf any other Mid-west storm or any other natural fury.

Odd shapes, crazy weather, immense and dangerous terrain, stunning accidental views, surging tides and unpredictable forces deep in the earth, they all make us who we are.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

2009 NAIP Imagery and LiDAR OBIA-based Canopy Cover for Tacoma, WA                 courtesy: University of Washington

2009 NAIP Imagery and LiDAR OBIA-based Canopy Cover for Tacoma, WA
courtesy: University of Washington