Thursday, April 2, 2009

Down to the Sea in Crypts

Oysterville Cemetery

The mountains push down to the sea in Oregon. Beaches interspersed with rocky headlands muscle their way out of dense rain forests shagging their backs. Coves with no access are owned by sea lions whose roars can be heard miles inland. Time is measured by the long, slow moaning of a surf come from the center of an ocean that is anything but pacific. These mountains are low and hairy, twisted and broken. Logging road disappear into them forever, and too often the story is told of people who mistakenly drive into them in the winter never to drive out again.

Behind this range lies another range, the Cascades, taller still, whose peaks push above the tree line and hide glaciers in their crannies, but they are sparsely inhabited and given to logging and recreation. The loggers rake the Coast Range, too, but here the hidden valleys as often hide farms and ranches as well as gypo log outfits. There are tourists here, too, but other than fishermen in the rivers, most tourists turn their backs to the land and concentrate on the sea and the shore. There is one highway (101) tying the coastal hamlets together and most everything happens within a few miles of it on either side. The interior belongs to the locals.

As in most of America, the prevailing winds run west to east, and the clouds bulging over the Coast Range have to start dumping the loads they’ve gathered while drifting thousands of miles over the ocean. Rainfall in parts of the range can reach well into the triple digits, and rampant growth makes walking through the forest an impossibility. Cars, trucks, and whole houses can disappear within a few short years if left unattended, eaten up by vines. The closer one gets to the sea, the less distinct the boundary becomes between it and the land, and people who live too long by the brine slowly take on shades of sea life themselves.

Cemeteries are not exempt from the forces of Mother Nature. She doesn’t care if you’re dead; she’ll mow right over you, anyway. A cemetery on the Oregon Coast is as subject to being engulfed by blackberry vines and salal as any abandoned fisherman’s shack, and surely a large part of a sexton’s job here is holding the forest at bay. Which means that, if you’re looking here for cemeteries with a strong sense of place, you might have to look quickly before that place overwhelms that cemetery. That cemeteries do survive here for decades is testimony to perseverance.

Taft Cemetery

As noted here before, cemeteries, like golf courses and front lawns, tend to emulate certain characteristics of the English countryside, a legacy of the “rural” cemetery movement of the nineteenth century. A cemetery with a sense of place, on the other hand, blends in with its surroundings and makes of them a virtue. Which of necessity makes running a cemetery in a rain forest a bit of a compromise. One can’t simply let the forest go, or it will soon swamp everything. The trick is to maintain the sense of where you are without disappearing completely.

I’ve found three cemeteries which do that job particularly well (excepting that one of them is in Washington, but that state boasts the same clime as Oregon). They aren’t the only good cemeteries on the coast, and none of them is bigger than a nine-iron shot, and one is a bit tricky to find; but each is a little gem.

Technical Insert:

Precise location and driving directions (as well as more photos) to these cemeteries, as to all cemeteries in this blog, can be found at my Dead Man Talking Flickr site. Following the links will get you there.

Oysterville Cemetery

Of the three, Oysterville is the hardest to get to, simply because it’s further away from anywhere than the other two, but the rewards of driving up the length of the Long Beach Peninsula are many and amply repay the effort. If nothing else, it’s worth it to come up here to pay respects to the memory of the great wordsmith, Willard Espy, the town’s foremost erstwhile celebrity. If you don’t know who he was, more’s the pity to you. Espy’s memory is preserved in the Espy Foundation of Oysterville, “dedicated to advancing and encouraging the literary and visual arts.”

The Long Beach Peninsula is itself an anomaly of the coast. A good fifteen miles long, but no more than a couple wide, it’s essentially a big sand bar separating Willapa Bay from the Pacific; and the tallest hills on the spit are the hulking piles of oyster shells. What’s not given over to oyster shells or condominiums is consigned to cranberry bogs. Never has a place been so waiting for the master “oyster with cranberry sauce” recipe. (If it’s of any significance, I had the best scone of my life from a small wayside cafe halfway up the Long Beach Spit.)

There’s not really a there in Oysterville and the drive to the cemetery is just past the country store, announced by a sign with cutesy faux-old timey lettering. But let me reemphasize here the overwhelming desire of everything around here to grow rampant, so that any space not totally impenetrable has been made so by dint of human activity, and should that effort cease, the thicket would come rushing back in to fill the vacuum; hence open space here, and the space of the cemetery in particular, has the distinct feel of being surrounded by an enormous hedge through which the very light fails to fall. On the other hand, the liberated space has a sheltering feel, a place of peace on the teeth of the gale.

A gale had ripped the entire Washington and Oregon coast the winter before I made my sojourn to Oysterville, and whole swaths of forest had been leveled. In places it looked like the aftermath at Verdun. The damage was not uniform. Some place suffered only moderate destruction while other places were entirely obliterated. Fortunately, the cemetery was spared the worst of the ravages. What damage it did suffer was confined mainly to the edges.

What can’t be missed upon driving past the entrance columns is the large, wooden headboard over a grave outlined with gray rock and scattered with shells for Chief Nahcati (1826-1864). The board has to be 2’ x 5’ or better, and God only knows how long its been here. Surely not since 1864. The significance of the Chief to the place is unexplained, but someone is keeping his memory prominent.

Oysterville Cemetery

Past the Chief’s grave the cemetery winds between bushes and trees, so that only parts of it are visible at any one time, and turning new corners opens new delights, not the least of which is the stone for William Bonner Bailey (1937-1992). Looking somewhat like a massive gray potato rising out of a gentle rise covered with low native perennials, it’s carved with his name and the words:

the fish are rising
the children are laughing with joy
Bon’s free and at peace

In its way it is the perfect marker in a perfect cemetery that lives in the lungs of the sea. A land ruled by moss and wind.

It’s a long drive up the spit and the tsunami evacuation route signs offer no confidence. Still there’s no place like it in the Oregon Territory and the cemetery is not to be missed.

And it would make Willard so happy.

Taft Cemetery

Taft is the antithesis of Oysterville. If Oysterville is hidden and secluded, hunkering down against the constant might of the Pacific, Taft is resolutely bold, thrusting its chest at the brunt of the ocean, from a cliff high above the surf. Storm be damned! If Oysterville is cloistered, Taft is exposed. No room for sissies or dilettantes here; only those with the vision to see forever. I don’t know what the rest of the world is like, but there’s nothing like the Taft Cemetery anywhere between Coos Bay, OR, and Raymond, WA. There are other cemeteries with ocean vistas — Fern Ridge above Seal Rock, OR, comes to mind — but but none with the commanding view of Taft. Despite being right above a resort, one would never know it, the awesome nature of the view is too distracting.

Taft Cemetery

Taft expresses sense of place, not by becoming one with it, but by lording over it. This is the ocean lover’s cemetery and, even given its small size, has inspired a number of interesting markers, many of them homemade, the most impressive being that for Colleen Fletcher (1965-1992). Colleen was a sergeant in the US Air Force in Vietnam and her face adorns a large concrete pedestal topped with a statue of the Virgin Mary as if she’s maintaining a vigil over our shores, protecting us once again. We’ll never have to worry about a sneak attack from Hawaii because Colleen is on the job.

Carson Cemetery, the last of the coastal properties we’re looking at, is a whole other kettle of fish. It’s hard to believe anyone could actually be buried there. And it’s the hardest to find. Driving directions are to take Yachats River Rd. east out of Yachats. After 4.8 miles (according to my odometer) Carson Rd. enters from the north (left). Take that. The cemetery is up the first drive to the right (east) off Carson Rd. I don’t recall if there’s a sign at the road or not, but I think not. For pin-point accuracy, I recommend you visit my Flickr site, select a single photo to look at, and then following the map link.

But I’m going to cheat here. I wrote fairly extensive notes for the cemetery in 2005 and I can’t imagine too much has changed since then. And anyway, the Morgans deserve a little publicity. So, with no further ado:

Carson Cemetery


Hwy. 101 is an ocean-side carney ride almost without let up from California to the Washington border. Any time of the year the traffic can be maddening, but in summer it’s insane. Tacky gift shops, smoked salmon shacks, and seaside resorts mixed with auto glass places, outlet shopping malls, and used boat centers line the highway for miles on end, broken here and there by jutting headlands. Four thousand cafes serving bad clam chowder. It’s awesome.

Whereas a turn inland down almost any road will find one in an oft sparsely settled valley dripping with moss and drained by fast running streams. A few cows in the stream bottoms constitute a farm. People here drive pickups and wear mud boots. They live unseen by the conveyor belt of people lurching past the mouth of their valley. People not even aware the valley is there. Not aware that people live in the hills behind the mist.

The Yachats River Rd. reaches into one such valley. Some valleys, like those of the Alsea or the Umpqua, have roads that continue further, opening up to the interior; but the blacktop up the Yachats disappears into the maze of forest roads which web the Coast Range. There’s not much call for anyone besides residents and log-truck drivers to wend their way along this minor river. Yachats, named for a now-extinct Indian tribe and perfectly charming in its intimate location, will always draw its share of visitors; but the river road behind it will continue to be a local pathway only, save for two lesser, if quintessential attractions. One is a covered bridge crossing the Yachats about six or seven miles from town. Turn left at the T and the bridge is another mile or two upriver. By this point, the road is down to a one-lane dirt road, so drive carefully.

The other attraction, reached before the covered bridge, is the Carson Cemetery. As mentioned, it’s off Carson Creek Rd.; but Carson Creek Rd. is used by hardly anyone—even less than the Yachats River Rd.—so the chance of one accidentally running across the cemetery are practically nil. There is a sign for Carson Creek Rd., which runs north off Yachats River Rd., but I missed it on the ride up and didn’t see it till coming back down the road, after stopping for directions at a bed-and-breakfast run by Sam and Baerbel Morgan. Once you’re on Carson Creek Rd., the cemetery is the first drive to the right.

Asking at the bed-and-breakfast was the key. I was given directions by a pleasant and obviously knowledgeable lady with a slight accent, who I took to be Baerbel Morgan. At the entrance to the cemetery a sign explains that contributions to its upkeep can be sent in the cemetery’s name to the Yachats Lions Club (Box 66, Yachats, OR 97498—feel free), and that the caretaker is one Sam Morgan. Ah ha! the plot thickens.

It thickens further when one notices that a new and unusual stone marks the grave of one Sam Morgan (1938-1999). I would imagine it’s Baerbel, now, who does the maintenance. At least someone is keeping the brush at bay and providing the plastic flowers in this what looks for all the world like a Hobbits’ graveyard. It climbs a steep hillside through an uncleared forest and it doesn’t look like there’s room enough for whole bodies at most grave sites. At least not whole human bodies. While the underbrush has been replaced by rhodys and boxwoods, the forest floor is still a a tangle of roots that surely gives any gravedigger fits. The majority of the graves have either handmade markers, funeral home tags, or none at all. The cement, hand-lettered stone for James Ingram is typical. He was “born 1821 Tenn.” and “died 188[?]/ near here.” S. Traves has his name—no dates, no nothing else—held up by a curved length of rebar. Zanta Clarno’s (1888-1950) “A Saintly Lady” on metal plating set in black stone is an exception.

One feels that, were it not for the Morgans, this cemetery could well have been lost by now. Instead they’ve maintained a cemetery unique in our experience: one being built into the existing forest rather than having it cleared first. There’s a picnic bench and a couple of plastic chairs off to one side, and one has no doubt that social occasions obtain here from time to time. A white, quasi-bird house containing a glass-covered copy of Longfellow’s “God’s Acre” centers on a sunny spot in this magical cemetery:

Carson Cemetery


I like that ancient Saxon phrase, which calls
The burial-ground God's-Acre! It is just;
It consecrates each grave within its walls,
And breathes a benison o'er the sleeping dust.

God's-Acre! Yes, that blessed name imparts
Comfort to those, who in the grave have sown
The seed that they had garnered in their hearts,
Their bread of life, alas! no more their own.

Into its furrows shall we all be cast,
In the sure faith, that we shall rise again
At the great harvest, when the archangel's blast
Shall winnow, like a fan, the chaff and grain.

Then shall the good stand in immortal bloom,
In the fair gardens of that second birth;
And each bright blossom mingle its perfume
With that of flowers, which never bloomed on earth.

With thy rude ploughshare, Death, turn up the sod,
And spread the furrow for the seed we sow;
This is the field and Acre of our God,
This is the place where human harvests grow!

Pull up one of the lawn chairs and sit here in the evening. Make no sound and slow your breathing to a sigh. Wrap a blanket around your shoulders and wait for the little ones to come out. I’m sure they will. It’s that kind of place.

Carson Cemetery


Reference Services said...

The photo of the Taft cemetery is amazing!

Unknown said...

Thanks. It's an amazing location.