Saturday, December 12, 2009

Joy of Planting

Rainier Cemetery

A trio of Washington State cemeteries I recently visited on a trip to see Jimmy illustrates the principle of “random acts of beauty.” The three cemeteries—Rainier, Orting, and the Washington Soldiers Home—count among them two pioneer and one military cemetery, which range from almost military precision to largely free-for-all.

Washington Soldiers Home Cemetery

The Washington Soldiers Home Cemetery occupies the southern flanks of a small knoll, a good defensive position, that guards the neighboring valley. The graves are laid out in concentric rings surrounding an obelisk and flag pole, which occupy the summit. The nearly identical stones are only occasionally interrupted by irregulars the likes of which one finds in any graveyard. There is a dignity to the uniformity and tidy order of military cemeteries, and this is no exception. One would be honored to be buried here (and only pray for a bigger maintenance budget); knowing that, in the evening when the ghosts come out to chat, the line stretches from today to the Civil War. They may have differing accents and differing garb, but the stories will ring the same bell over and over again.

Orting Cemetery

Orting Cemetery is not far from Washington Soldiers Home—at the other end of a horseshoe bend—in either distance or sentiment. It, too, is orderly though by no means uniform; and while there are uprights here and there, I notice in the photos that all the recent stuff is flat, suggesting a modern regulation. A number of the flat markers, though they may be intermittent in age, are of the “pillow” variety, meaning that they rise above the ground surface and are a consequent impediment to mowing. A new sign at the entrance demonstrates that someone is minding the store.

Orting Cemetery

Despite the lawn stone requirement, many of the headstones display individualized carvings, that while not detracting from the dignity of the interred, refrain from excess sobriety. Warren Burris’s stone, emblazoned with, not only his, “Papa’s Boy,” photo on the surface, but also a deep carving of Warren jumping a motorcycle in the mountains, is a good example of giving dignity to an untimely death, while leaving reminders of who the deceased was beyond a name and dates. A tombstone of this sort goes beyond reminding us that someone is gone but helps us remember who they were, even if we never knew them. It celebrates the person versus mourning them.

Orting Cemetery

In the same way, the bench honoring Ken Montgomery, while rife with the symbols of death—bellowing bull elk, fallen tree, setting sun—is anything but somber and depressing. It certainly has its own joie de vivre.

Rainier Cemetery

Overall, Orting displays a mid-point between the strict regulation of Washington Soldiers Home and the liaise faire rambunctiousness of Rainier Cemetery, an unquestionably delightful graveyard. It was walking up the sun-dappled slope of this small wooded cemetery (Rainier), after recording some 680 cemeteries, that the sentence grew in my mind: a good cemetery is a joyful place.

Rainier Cemetery

It was a sharply cold day when I visited and the wind was finding any smidgin of unprotected skin, but the sky was bright with a thin layer of gauze where a cloud might have been. Even at midday the sun streamed in low on the horizon, and oblong patches of light stretched away from it. The wind was knocking down a rain of small branches and here and there lay a widow-maker. It paid to stay alert. But the slope it was on, facing west and south, helped, perhaps, by a canopy of small to large trees, gave an illusion of warmth and protection. There was no sign at the entrance telling people what they could and could not do. No one cared how long your plastic flowers brightened a gravesite.

For the most part, despite the geography and presence of sizable trees, the graves in Rainier are arranged in an orderly fashion, although the order quickly disintegrates if the situation demands it. Corners of the cemetery, half forgotten, are being swallowed by bushes and St. John’s wort; and when one gets to the “rockery” at the top of the hill, all pretense at precision is put aside. Up there is a scene worthy of Camp Polk, with someone or some bodies having hauled in uncounted pickup loads of rocks and erected a considerable complex of nooks and crannies festooned with fields of plastic flowers and storms of driftwood. There are benches and fences, crosses and a wishing well (in case the one didn’t work). Where there aren’t rocks, there are pebbles. An organic flowing together of several graves uniting them in a friendly family. One can only imagine the scene at night when the ghosts here come out to sit on the benches and trade stories.

Orting Cemetery

Of course there’s more; you’ll have to come see it yourself.

But it’s a joyful place. It’s an inviting space. It’s a place that says: sit down a spell, have a bowl, relax. It’s just the way a good cemetery should be.

Look around. Neighborhood’s OK.

Think you could stay?

Rainier Cemetery

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

A Thousand Words
Woodmen of the World: III

Alford Cemetery (Harrisburg, OR)

Hello to all my old and new friends;

I went digital in the summer of 2004. Going digital forced me to buy a new computer. When I updated my camera this year, I had to update my computer as well. This has not been a cheap avocation. I went digital when I embarked on an exploration of Oregon cemeteries.

Lone Fir Cemetery (Portland, OR)

I began with the goal of finding and recording the essence of all functioning cemeteries in the state. I was by no means a photographer. In fact, it had been a number of years since I’d had a reasonably good 35 millimeter and was strictly a vacation tourist snap-shooter. What I was hoping to accomplish from the project was a guide to said cemeteries, accompanied by a few pictures from each. Or perhaps just a single photograph for minor cemeteries. I’d had by this point a fair amount of experience writing and had, probably, an unwarranted confidence in that; but I knew I was no shakes as a photographer, so that would take second fiddle in the guide to the written word.

North Powder Cemetery

Consequently, when I went to upload my photos to Flickr, I only uploaded a few representative photos from each cemetery rather than everything I shot. But strange things happen over time. People said they liked some of my photos. People said they liked some photos that I hadn’t thought much about at all. I slowly began to realize that I shouldn’t edit out what I thought were uninteresting or repetitive photos, as other people often felt entirely differently about the same shot. Likewise I began to understand that, since there was no financial restriction on the number of photos I could post online versus publishing in a book, there was no real reason to restrict the uploaded photos to only those I thought worthy and that by doing so I was restricting the amount of information available about the cemeteries. Slowly I began to see I could do a guide online, and I could do so with all (or almost all; there is some editing) the photos I take.

Likewise and even more slowly I began paying attention to what makes a good photograph and what doesn’t. I began to cut down on cropping and tried to capture the proper composition at the camera rather than the computer.

Tacoma Cemetery

More than anything, I learned by looking at your photographs. It’s no secret that I’m the bumbling idiot of photographers, so I’ve had nowhere to go but up; but all of my contacts have great vision, and a few of you are incredibly accomplished and I’m humbled every time I look at your stuff. I know I’m in the company of masters and I only hope some will rub off on me.

And, frankly, I think it has. I know that I’m no where near the master you folks are, but I feel that at least I can play the game now. I can warm your bench any time. So to speak. Or at least I think I can. I’ve never been accused of humility.

Although I’ve cut down on cropping and look towards better initial composition, I have increase editing time. I’m not so good with settings on the camera, but I’m getting to know my way around the editing tables, and they help, too, in making a crisp copy.

IOOF Cemetery (Coburg, OR)

And to the degree to which I’m no photographer, I’m no artist. I’ve had absolutely no training in either and I’m as creative as a blind lamp post, so I don’t try for “art” in my work. My goal is not to make you think, “My, what a gorgeous photograph,” but rather “My, what a gorgeous tombstone.” I’m successful if what I show you is stunning, but that you don’t notice the photography at all.

I think I do that better now than I did before. I believe practice, while not making perfect, does improve ones game. As a result, I take and post more pictures per cemetery than I did five years ago. Better pictures, too, I hope. But I’m aware that what this means is that I have to go back to those early visitations and shoot them again. Give them their full due.

Central Point IOOF Cemetery

In the end, it was the photographs that shined through, and the writing ended up being supporting dribble. Not that I don’t feel I have something to say—you’re reading this blog, for God’s sake—but rather that the photos say so much more. And more succinctly. And the blog gives me a place to highlight particular ones.

My apologies; I dribble (I just said that).

Ah well, until it’s used up, I’ve got nothing but time.

Pioneer Cemetery (Centralia, WA)

Photo Notes:

This is the last of three displays of Woodmen of the World photos, giving a feeling for, I hope, the wide diversity of what they produced. In the scheme of things, the Woodmen didn’t last long as a tombstone dispensary, but they left an indelible mark on the cemeteries of America.

There is a Flickr group devoted to Woodmen of the World, which you might enjoy visiting.

Dum tacet clamat

Idldewild Cemetery (Hood River, OR)