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Up

I’ve been curious why, when people here on the coast say they are travelling to Portland, that they are going “up to Portland.”

Because I am over-educated and under-employed, I’ve had a lot of time to think about this curious figure of speech. On a map, Portland is very clearly southeast of Clatsop County. Like it or not, speakers of English speak of north as up, and south down. So why not say “down to Portland”? Also, when approaching Portland from over the coastal range, you are descending a long slope. This too draws on a different but related notion of down.

Having read way far more Mircea Eliade than was strictly good for me, I couldn’t help but recall Eliade’s observation that many ancient societies regarded their holiests sites as being closer to heaven than profane places, even when they were not situated on literal peaks. The temple mount in Jerusalem, Mt Zion, Baghdad, etc etc. Eden was in the east, which is why for the bulk of history, east was up, and maps were often drawn with the east at the top. We still pay homage to this old custom when we speak of orienting ourselves, and orientation. Orient = east.

So, do residents of Clatsop County look upon Portland as their cultural capital? (After all, even today, Britons regularly speak of going up to London, even though almost the entire country is north of London.)

No. (Or, if they do, that’s not why they say up.) The answer is much simpler, and the geography of my home region kept me from seeing it. 

People on the coast say up because, living at the mouth of the Columbia, Portland is upriver from them. The Columbia is the only American river worth mentioning that empties into the Pacific (indeed, it is one of only a handful of rivers in the world that empties into the Pacific). The shipping trade that passes in and out keeps this town alive. I knew how important the Columbia is to this region, and it’s not surprising that the major geographical and political features of a region will affect how people speak of their local environments… So why didn’t I think of that?

Well, I grew up on the Mississippi. Downriver is south – down. Upriver is north – up. And my hometown of Minneapolis turned its back on the river that birthed it years ago: the city’s skyline now looks out over the lakes, away from the river.

Also, a continent, seen simplistically, is a domed rock that slopes down to the sea. But this would not have been a useful metaphor for someone like me, living so far from any ocean.

The place that made us, even if we no longer live there, even if it no longer exists, will continue to shape our worldview, and influence which metaphors we live by, as we struggle every day to understand our surroundings.

If we grow up in a region where all rivers flow south, then we may come to think of that local feature as a universal law, and we will be blind to very real rivers that do not conform to this “law.” A benign mistake, surely. But if we equate up with good and up with north, we will necessarily and unconsciously equate good with north. This is why syllogisms can sometimes be more trouble than they’re worth.

And it reminds us always to ask ourselves why we think what we think, and in what ways our models of the world both bring order to and distort our apprehension of the very world we hope to understand.