Monday, April 27, 2009

Hollywood Forever Redux

A little over a year ago, April 9, 2008 to be exact, I ran a column—regulars will remember it well, I'm sure—listing movies I'd seen the previous year that contained at least one cemetery scene. It was so easy, I did it again: kept another list.

Who said dying wasn't chic?

The List

Brave One
Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
The Real Dirt on Farmer John
Harold and Maude
Gates of Heaven
Down by Law
I'm Not There
Charlie Wilson's War
The Prestige
The Kite Runner
Things We Lost in the Fire
Under the Sand
When the Levees Broke
Simple Life of Noah Dearborn
I am David
Goodnight, Mr. Tom
Lemony Snicket's a Series of Unfortunate Events
Wag the Dog
Taxi to the Dark Side
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
King Corn
Ocean's Twelve
The Reader
Kinky Boot Factory

Go now to a cinema and ponder.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

One a Year
Long-Liners: Fishing by Hand

Ilwaco (WA) Cemetery

Old Man Petersen slouched in the booth and stared across the blacktop at the plant bearing his name: Petersen’s Seafood. He didn’t take his cap off, but there wasn’t much to cover, anyway. His face was dark and furrowed from years of standing up to hard weather. His hands curled around a cup of coffee.

“Lost one a year for every year of my life, on average,” he said. That would be more than seventy fishermen; almost all men. He laid it out as a fact, like last year’s catch. “Every year someone doesn’t come back.”

Toledo Cemetery (Toledo, OR)

“More coffee?”

Now a-days we get updates from Shortman on who’s died in the past year, but now it’s from cirrhosis or cancer or heart attack or suicide, not from a slide into Davy Jones’ locker. A couple years ago when Roger Fisherman (as distinguished from Roger Treeplanter) took himself out of the race they blew his remains off into the South Slough with a canon. Third person they’ve done that way. Around here Hunter Thompson would just be one more guy. One who didn’t fish.

Back then, there were still fish. Back then, the harbors were stiff with boats and the docks lined with processing plants. Corporations and sea farming and overfishing had not yet crashed the business and it was still dominated by little guys. One owner to a boat; one boat to an owner. An extra hand or two and you’re off to catch the wizard. It was a romantic, if deadly business. A man’s boat could mean the world to him; just ask his wife. It may have her name on the side, but the boat was in his heart.

Peaceful Hill Cemetery (Naselle, WA)

They are the classic fishing boats that these engravings illustrate. These are the kinds of boats I went out, ever so briefly, on. These are long-liners. Those tall poles sticking up from the side of the boats are just what they look like: oversized fishing poles that trail behind them hundreds of yards worth of fishing line set with hundred of hooks spaced evenly apart. The fisherman’s job is attaching bait to each and every hook and, God willing, removing fish from the same. And gutting the fish and throwing them down the hold and packing them in ice. In a storm. In a raging sea. With water walls sweeping the decks.

“Don’t fall overboard,” the skipper advises.

Roger that.

Eureka Cemetery (Newport, OR)

The poles also might have flopper-stoppers attached to them, which are steel plates secured to the poles by steel guy-wires. The plates race along side the boat a few feet below the surface, with their flat side parallel with it. The difficulty of pulling the plates out of the water broadside to are what make them effective in slowing down the rolling of the boat, hence the name. Should one of the flopper-stoppers actually escape from the water, God forbid, duck, because it’s going to come crashing through the cabin wall on the opposite side of the boat in a split-second.

Five of the six engravings shown here are of classic boats, all except the boat from Peaceful Hill (which looks more like a gill-netter) with the reflection in the water, which I threw in because of the unusual nature of the illustration.

Ocean View Cemetery (Warrenton, OR)

One engraving includes the Astoria Bridge, which crosses the Columbia from Oregon to Washington at that point. One can’t get much more place-specific than that on a tombstone.

The most dramatic of the engravings is that of the Northern Prince breaking the waves, poles lowered, the bow hidden behind the crest. It’s the only engraving that hints at what it feels like out there when “the minutes they turn into hours.”

The last Blogging a Dead Horse covered bowpicking gill-netters from the Columbia River. Long-liners ply the open ocean. One look at this collection and there’s no doubt: we’re not in Kansas, anymore.

Peaceful Hill Cemetery (Naselle, WA)

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Butterfly Sunset
Bowpickin' Gill-Netters on the Columbia

Greenwood Cemetery

It’s axiomatic to say that occupation is intimately tied to place. While telecommunications have theoretically liberated many fields from their locations, still, to be a fisherman, one needs water.

Boat images on tombstones, of course, are not limited to working boats, and pleasure boats are harder to geographically pinpoint than commercial craft. You may need water for sport boats, but you don’t need much. Commercial fishing requires big water. While some commercial fishing does obtain in fresh water, the vast bulk of it draws from salt water. In the Oregon Territory there is one great fishery not located in the ocean, that of the Columbia River; and while they catch a variety of fish in this mighty river, the bulk of the catch is salmon of one form or another; and the most efficient way to fish salmon in the river is via gill nets. Gill nets, as the name suggests, catch fish by entangling their gills in a net. Nets are designed of specific dimensions to catch only a certain size fish, while letting the rest escape, and at that they’re fairly effective.

Prairie Cemetery

(A word here on spelling: A boat that employs a gill net — or a gill-net, as the case may be — is known as a gill netter, a gill-netter, or a gillnetter. There seems to be no standard, even within a given publication.)

Gill-netting is an ancient technique probably predating our diaspora from Africa. It’s probably not coincidence that all hominin finds were originally laid down in moist conditions, with the only notable exception being a double set of footprints found in a then-fresh volcanic deposit. And it’s probably not coincidence that the diaspora appears to have been made via the shore of the Indian Ocean at such a speed and over such large aquatic distances that boats are a much better explanation than whole families swimming or being blown along on log jams. There’s probably a reason that invasions of new territory happened along river channels and not savannas or woodlands. There’s a reason why it’s now being considered that shell tools may have predated stone ones. There is a reason why people are known as the “beach monkey.” For that matter, we still all live at the beach, with our running water, and all.

Prairie Cemetery

In any event, The knot was undoubtedly one of the first serious human inventions/understandings that allowed us to explode as a species, as not only did it allow us to make clothes and fashion weapons so that we could finally extend our range off the confines of the beach, but it led, probably quite quickly, to making nets of all kinds; and it wouldn’t have taken too much fishing with nets to find out which size mesh worked best for which fish. Unfortunately, any materials used in making any but the most recent nets have long since vanished, so it’s currently impossible to date the origins of gill-netting, but suffice it to say it goes back a long, long way.

It’s most likely that gill nets were first employed along streams and estuaries without the assistance of boats, where they are still used by both commercial and indigenous fishermen. The advent of suitable craft allowed the fisherfolk to extend their trade into bigger and bigger waters, including the Columbia.

Ocean View Cemetery

The early post-invasion gill-netters on the Columbia were a colorful lot. Rowed to the fishing grounds and either powered or stabilized by sails, pictures of them show what looks like a flotilla of butterflies floating on the river surface. The current crop of motorized netters isn’t nearly as picturesque, but the more common style of Columbia River gill-netter, the bowpicker, is still a distinctive enough vessel and one that shows up on headstones much more often than the generally larger sternpicker.

The names describe how the net is pulled aboard the boat; and seeing as one has to be dragging a net towards them while reeling it in, it behooves the boat to be moving away from the net during the operation, which mean a bowpicker reels in the net while puttering backwards. Putting the net up front also lends the boat a distinctive appearance by moving the wheelhouse to the back rather than its more usual forward position.

Ocean View Cemetery

The Columbia gill-netters are generally small boats operated by one or two persons. At this point in time they are essentially an overlooked throwback, a once enormous industry now marginalized and whose greatest service to society is no longer the production of food but the retention of folkways. The headstone carvings shown here represent — can we say it? — a dying breed. They’re part of what makes life on the Columbia different from life on, say, the Mississippi (after all these years I can still remember how to spell that word). Similar boats, of course, are found over the entire world, but not uniformly distributed. Here they’re a beloved nuance of the Oregon Territory mostly restricted to the Columbia.

Prairie Cemetery

I may have missed a boat or two from my collection, and my collection holds photos of by no means all the boat carvings on headstones in the Territory, but the eight here are certainly a good selection of what’s available. They all emanate from cemeteries close to the river. And just by looking at them, I’d venture that six (I actually have one more that couldn't be downloaded) of the eight were fashioned by the same artist. Only the stained-glass representation in Cathlamet and the boat riding on a stylized sea of pointy waves from Ocean View look as if they’re done by other people. The remaining six look suspiciously alike. And, without being too harsh an art critic, the remaining six are intimidatingly simplistic in their execution. Notably so in an industry that generally does very fine work. It’s as if a folk artist snuck in for this tiny niche.

Stewart Creek Cemetery

What’s particularly nice, though, about this artist’s series of engravings is that, considered as a whole, they illustrate some of the high points of the job. Two of them show nets in the water; one of which shows the direction the boat is moving vis-à-vis the net, while the other shows a person working the net. Another shows a stabilizing sail unfurled, and another has two people sitting in the stern.

I might point out that the boat riding the stylized waves displays Washington State registration numbers, although the cemetery is in Oregon. It and the stained-glass memorial (the only depiction of the boats from a frontal view) reflect the generally higher industry standards of design; nonetheless, this artist’s contribution to the local headstone scene is significant and worth keeping ones eye out for. And I should note that this industry concentrates in the lower reaches of the Columbia, just before it enters the Pacific. The netters have never reached as far inland as Portland.

Ocean View Cemetery

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