Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Lord Is My Cowboy

There is, arguably, no American image (Uncle Sam notwithstanding) more iconic than that of the cowboy. Along with the equality myth, the myth of the West has done as much to shape our self-image as any other vision. Clint Eastwood and John Wayne, for good or ill, have shaped the world’s image of American as much or more than anybody. And jeans, don’t forget, say “cowboy” anywhere in the world, and are proud of it. You can’t unconsciously wear a Stetson in Maine, much less in Kuala Lumpur, without drawing snickers (as in, “all hat and no horse”); but you can wear Levis in Lithuania without drawing a glance. Everybody can wear a pair of jeans and feel a tad more “with it,” not to mention comfortable.

I’ve previously put together a gallery of tombstones with a Western motif. This time I’ve focused on the singular image of the cowboy. I suspect one might find a cowboy image engraved on a tombstone anywhere in the United States, but the legitimacy of the image doesn’t manifest itself until the Great Plains and the West. Out here the cowboy still exists and still looks pretty much like he (usually a he) always did, excepting that you’re as apt to find him on an ATV or a pickup as on a horse. Without flogging a dead horse (gee, that phrase sounds familiar) too much, it has to be pointed out that these monuments are all recent. We’ve had cowboys here for 150 years, but you’d never know it by gravestone markers; as far as they’re concerned, cowboys just arrived.

With only a cursory glance, you’ll notice a number of trends and/or common themes/motifs. Most noticeable is the large number of handmade monuments. Several of Oregon’s most distinctive grave markers have a cowboy theme. If one is going to go to all the trouble of cutting out a marker from sheet-metal, it is reasoned, it might as well say something.

Inevitably, any tombstone image conveys more information than simply the person’s visage, if only information about hair styles and a cultural reluctance to display more; but cowboy images offer the viewer an entire world of extraneous data.

For ease of identification, fortunately, the cowboy is universally recognized by his hat and his horse. There is an entire accompaniment of clothing, gear, and tack which go along with the hat and horse image, but those are the two elements that are iconic and are almost always present.

The image of the cowboy is often paired with an image of his work-place, the vast Western landscape. To the extent that all people are molded by their surroundings, the dramatic landforms of the West are constantly part of its peoples’ self images. It’s why for so many of us we had no choice but to follow the allure and climb aboard the Oregon Trail. The reproduction of the landscape on tombstones is faithful enough to local conditions that one can often get a good idea of location from the simple sketches available.

Working details of a cowboy’s life are often found among the etchings, including the kind of stock being tended. I have one etching of a horse leading a pack train, and several of bucking broncs. One image I throw in with the cowboy images is of a homemade cutout of a galloping rider beneath crossed Winchesters. We know they’re Winchesters, because that’s what’s written beneath the rider. (That rider, I’ll confess, is most likely a Pony Express rider, but the image is indistinguishable from that of the cowboy.) Dogs are often depicted, as well, showing not only their companionship but are included among the working images. I’m not aware of dogs being a part of the Plains/Texas tradition, but they’re integral to stock management in the Oregon Territory.

The cowboy is often accompanied by a cowgirl, most assuredly his wife. I also have in my collection a photo-ceramic of one saucy/defiant cowgirl, sans cowboy but avec hat. A lot of women do work cattle these days, but they tend to dress with less panache than the men or than the images imply; more like contemporary Indian women, synthetic quilted jackets from REI. Everyone looking a little like the Michelin Man.

You’ll note one photo-ceramic of an Indian cowboy. I’ve probably gotten into as much trouble in Oregon over what to call cowboys as I have over anything else. The first was around a communal dinner table in French Glen where it was explained to me by a ranch hand that they were “buckaroos in these here parts,” thank you, not cowboys. Later I had an equally impassioned Native-American explain to me that her people were Indian cowboys, by God, not common buckaroos. Ignorance, they will tell you, is no excuse.

Religion isn’t strongly represented in combination with cowboys, although it does crop up sporadically; one of my favorites being of a cowboy riding herd on a mixed bunch of cows and calves, and carries the epitaph, “The Lord is my shepherd.” There’s a certain irony in a cowboy surrendering himself to a sheep-herder. I’m not sure I’d want to put that on my tombstone.

Some of the most poignant and touching markers are ones with no human image at all. How can you not love the Cowboy Pastor, knowing that he’s “Loved By God & Family”? Or how can you not be moved by the single spur imbedded in cement or the ubiquitous coil of rope. Many an old cowboy boot has found its final resting place in a graveyard, as well.

For poignancy, though, it’s hard to top the simple concrete marker in quintessential Camp Polk Cemetery, one with plastic lettering pressed into cement and an outlined sketch of a hat. No name, just the declaration: “Cowboy/ 19 yrs/Horse Kicked.”

It happened just like that. Snap!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Random Shots: Lone Fir

While waiting for someone to burst through the door exclaiming, “Hey, we gotta publish this stuff,”—meaning, of course, my 15,000 cemetery photos—and having run out of near-by cemeteries to add to my list, I’ve begun inventorying the art and epitaphs on the monuments at Lone Fir Cemetery, Portland’s premier pioneer graveyard. To no ones surprise, it’s going to take a while; there’s a lot of good stuff in Lone Fir. It’s one thing to slowly read all the markers, it’s a whole other matter to locate them on the plot map, much less write them up, enter them in the database, match the photos to location & text, etc.

In the process of shooting this new series of marker-specific pictures, the hidden photographer within me can’t resist the occasional “mood” shot, just because it’s there. Here are three from yesterday, August 19.

The praying hands and the address book were found objects as I read down the rows, but I was drawn to the Miller Beer can by the actions of another visitor as I went on my rounds. I don’t know that I’ve ever been to Lone Fir when I wasn’t accompanied by a few, if not a bunch, of people, and cars routinely drive down its alleyways; but everything’s always pretty low-key. The most constant activity are the Russian ladies hand-watering their gardens, so it was noticeable when a vintage blue pickup piled high with plastic garbage bags came roaring down the main drag of the cemetery, did a T-turn at the end of the roadway and roared back to park on the edge of the grass. The driver got out leaving someone in the passenger seat and went over to an open spot under the trees. I could see he has something in his hand and he was doing a lot of talking, to whom I had no idea. He bent over and brushed clean whatever he was looking at. He didn’t take too much time; in a bit he headed back to his truck and roared off.

Needless-to-say, as soon as he was gone, I headed that way and took the shot you see here. No, it hadn’t been raining; that’s beer on Mr. McCleoud’s marker. Although, considering it’s Miller, it brings to mind Monty Python’s observation that American beer is like making love in a canoe: it’s fucking close to water.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Visions of Lone Fir

Kay and I were among the last people to secure plots in Lone Fir Cemetery. If we’ve discombobulated our lives, at least we got death right.

Thanks to an intersection of forces and interests, Lone Fir is returning to what cemeteries were supposed to be about in the first place: edification and entertainment. When cemeteries were first proposed in the early 19th century, the idea was that glorious monuments in a park-like setting would induce people to high-minded civic behavior. And for a time, cemeteries did just that: they enticed people out of the cities to stroll through the trees and monuments to, if not always civic leaders, at least rich people. They were known as “garden cemeteries” or “rural cemeteries,” on account of their being plotted far into the countryside (long since engulfed by urban growth everywhere). They were so popular that towns like Portland and Eugene built streetcar lines specifically for them. They were so popular, in fact, that towns eventually began building cemeteries without any bodies in them, at all. They called them “parks.”

What an idea! And as the park movement spread, people forgot that they were supposed to go out to the cemetery for a good time. Indeed, in early New England, cemeteries were often the only place in town big enough to hold all the living people, forget about the dead ones. Cemeteries tried to recoup by making their new cemeteries look like the new parks: big expanses of flat lawn, only they didn’t encourage picnicking or frisbee. They succeeded in making them look like parks, but they killed off the reason for visiting them: what’s to see?

In the meantime, many traditional, now urban cemeteries languished from neglect and vandalism. Lone Fir was lucky: it didn’t languish. It held on as neighborhoods grew around it and the city pushed miles beyond. The lone fir was joined by a veritable arboretum, which now sports its own guide. It was lucky in that it held enough quirks and oddities, beginning with the almost life-size relief carvings of the founding couple, to keep up a continual flow of traffic. True, the war memorial lost its statue, half the heritage roses in the rose garden had disappeared, the mausoleums were crumbling, but still it hung on in the hearts of Portlanders. Maybe it languished a little.

It was the hearts of Portland, though, that spurred the revival. Lone Fir is back and it’s better than ever, thanks to the citizens of this town who have an inordinate love of the burg going beyond all reason. They admit that there are other nice cities in the world, ones dripping with sophistication—Paris, say—but, ah, they sigh, they aren’t Portland. Which, no matter how you look at it, is true. I can guarantee you, Paris is not Portland. Nor the other way around. But the first force to resurrect Lone Fir was the general citizenry of the community. Portlanders simply like the place and are willing to put their wallets where their hearts are.

One way that manifested itself was by the formation of an advocacy group, the Friends of Lone Fir, which has taken a vigorous lead in preserving and promoting the civic space. They are the people who have put on the shows, lead the tours, and personally gotten out there and spruced up the place. Without their active and watchful eye, perhaps none of this might have been accomplished. What’s truly amazing is that they aren’t a group of octogenarians keeping watch over their future home; they’re young people (okay, okay, there are some elder statespeople there) who have already caught the Lone Fir fever. There are seriously delirious people in that group. Portland is blessed by being a magnet, not only for young people, but a magnet for a particular class of young people: the I-can-do-that creative kind. Not only have they crept into the Friends of Lone Fir, but they’ve tapped community creativity to, among other things, produce a CD of songs written specifically for the cemetery by a bevy of local musicians (not to mention a comic book). And we have seriously delirious local musicians here, as well, as you might imagine. Lone Fir was lucky in being born in what was to become at the turn of the 21st century the locus of Portland’s youth infestation, the Eastside.

A Lone Fir quirk that particularly delights Eastside denizens and which has provided a impetus for the cemetery’s reemergence is the popularity of an historical vignette, concerning one Dr. Hawthorne, who is buried there, along with many of his patients. It’s helpful to know that Hawthorne Ave., not too far from Lone Fir, was the epicenter for the gentrification of the entire Eastside and which has now engulfed the entire city. This was where the hip, young kids moved to after the Alphabet Blocks got priced out from underneath them. Hawthorne was, and still emotionally is, their street.

But that’s just the half of it. The other half is that Hawthorne Ave. used to be named Asylum Ave. after an insane asylum at its eastern terminus. The good doctor was the head of that asylum and his patients were buried in unmarked graves along with him. It’s just the sort of story that young goths would like. How could they not love Lone Fir?

Not all the unknowns were asylum inmates, though. They were joined by transfers from earlier, more centrally located cemeteries and by scores of Chinese. The local Chinese community has provided the second big push to renovate the cemetery, even though most of the Chinese remains have long since been returned to China, at their behest. What China didn’t behest were the bones of the women and children; they weren’t important and could be left bereft in foreign soil. It is the modern, local Chinese community (in the form of the Chinese Benevolent Association), whose sensibilities have grown with the times, that has pushed for greater recognition of the Chinese contribution to our culture and to Lone Fir, and wants to honor those women and children who are still here. And is, perhaps, a touch sad that the men aren’t here still, too.

For a long time the denizens of Block 14, where the Chinese and asylum patients are buried, was under the footprint of a three-story office building housing the agency, Metro, which oversees the local pioneer cemeteries, as well as a host of other responsibilities of, arguably, greater importance. Fortunately, the spawning of Friends of Lone Fir and the awakening interest of the local Chinese community coincided with a need for Metro to find more space and vacate the building. Once they were out and the building gone, planning could begin in earnest for a memorial at Block 14 for those once-forgotten communities. We’re in the middle of that process right now.

Part of the process was to have Block 14 blessed by the priests of a local Buddhist temple, which occurred on a recent July Sunday, along with the dedication of three “heritage trees,” and the showing of two documentary films, one of them about the Chinese workers and their families. That plus a little music. Wouldn’t be Portland without a little music.

It was a beautiful late afternoon. The temperature was kissing 90, but it was cool under the tall timber (the lone fir still stand, if no longer alone). I’d guess there were better than two-hundred people there at its busiest and it was comforting to see them wandering among the gravestones and laying their blankets out on a gentle slope down to a temporary stage in the Firemen’s section. It felt like home.

I had to get up early the next day, so I skipped out before the twilight showing of the films. As I was leaving, people were still trickling into the cemetery. Coming to the last crossroad before the exit, I happened to glance at a stone in one corner. It was from 1918, so I’d walked past it uncounted times. Delicately carved in a rustic tradition of rough-hewed stone, peeling signage, and ivy leaves, it’s small and unobtrusive. Not a stone that commands attention. One would hardly notice that it carries an epitaph, which isn’t carved into the face of the stone, as is common, but into the face of the pedestal upon which the small stone stands. Furthermore, the epitaph is hard to read without paying close attention and probably just says, “Too well loved to be forgotten,” anyway. The sort of stone you can pass by forever without really seeing it.

Nonetheless, once I noticed there was an epitaph, I was compelled to decipher it. Mind you, I’m having cataract surgery next month and everything is somewhat of a blur right now, so simple things like reading weathered epitaphs have become a bit of a chore. I had to crouch down and get close, which in itself is a chore, for a good look. The deceased was young Jess Nudsen (which Kay points out was probably “Knudsen”) who died in 1918 at the age of nineteen. I’ll probably never know how Jess died, which is just as well, knowing might remove some of the mystery; and part of the deep attraction of cemeteries is the wide sense of wonder one is so often left with upon viewing a particularly poignant marker. As it is, I was left with one of the most haunting epitaphs in my entire collection:

Some where, some time,
We’ll understand.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Cemetery Dog Barks

Drewsey Cemetery

Ah, the speed at which things come and go.

My wife brought home from a trip a guide book to Colorado cemeteries published by the august house, Caxton Press of Caldwell, Idaho. Before I got a chance to thoroughly study the book or write down its particulars (like the author’s name or the title of the book), she shipped it back to the friend from whom she’d borrowed it. But that’s not essential to what I have to say.

Some years back when I first had visions of writing a guide to the cemeteries of Oregon, Caxton was the first publisher to which I turned. I got a brief letter back from them saying, thanks, but I didn’t have any stories about who was buried in the cemeteries; that’s what they wanted.

Juntura Pioneer Cemetery 1888

The book Kay brought home bore that out. Their guide to Colorado cemeteries was in reality a collection of stories about some of the people buried in some of Colorado’s cemeteries. Other cemeteries were lumped together in lists, sans addresses. There were driving instructions to the highlighted cemeteries and usually a short description before plunging into the stories. They certainly accomplished what they set out to do, if their letter to me was any indication. They got their collection of stories. But it’s as if someone set out to write a guide to the famous buildings of New York and ended up talking about the tenants. It’s a fine collection of little vignettes, but it tells one hardly anything about the cemeteries. A guide to them it definitely is not.

And it was practically without photos. Which, I suppose makes sense, if you’re really interested in local biographies, but is less than helpful in a purported guide to particular landscapes. I can accept that a publisher isn’t interested in cemetery guides, but it’s more disturbing when they sell a product whose contents don’t jibe with its title. Simply because one has arranged a batch of local histories by cemetery location, does not make the stories a guide to those cemeteries. I don’t think Caxton Press is being disingenuous by falsely titling their book; I sincerely think they don’t understand the difference.

It’s a slippery point. Not many people appreciate the difference between the cemetery and who’s buried in it. One is not the other. History is no substitute for place.

The point gets blurred, though to a lesser extent, in the pages of the AGS Quarterly, “The Bulletin of the Association For Gravestone Studies,” and their annual journal Markers, as well. As their name implies, they concentrate on the stones themselves, though they’re not above dipping into the local history vat. They, too, rarely give much consideration to the cemeteries themselves and overweight their entries with discussion of stone design, history, etc. The geography and societal place of cemeteries is seldom broached.

Except here, of course, where we plod along building up the database so one day someone can come along and say, “Holy Cow! Where did this mountain come from?”

From the cow.
Riverside Cemetery (Payette, ID)

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Hurt by Time

Fort Harney was a U.S. Army fort operated in Central Oregon for a few years in the late 19th century to protect the invading Americans from reprisals by the former inhabitants. If you look it up on the Internet, you’ll invariably find the sentence: “Today, nothing remains of Fort Harney except a small cemetery.” The cemetery does exist, but aside from the name, there’s nothing left of the original residents. If anyone rests here from the days of the fort, they’ve long since been lost to the high desert winds.

The people who lived here prior to the invasion were the Paiutes. Waging a campaign against them was akin to waging war on the beggars of Aumsville. The inhabitants of this vast basin and range country were as poor as their surroundings and they never stood a chance against the well equipped U.S. Army They are a tribe that may well have materially benefitted by the arrival of the Americans; although, granted, that’s no excuse. The place is still pretty much uninhabited. Nearby Burns, the largest community in the southeast quadrant, has slightly over 2500 people (and that’s after losing 13% of its inhabitants since 2000). Southeastern Oregon still technically qualifies as “the frontier,” as so few people live there; it never filled up like the rest of the West did.

All that being said and despite the fact that the fort disappeared well over a hundred years ago, the cemetery, small and minimally tended as it is, still attracts new interments. Not often, mind you, but now and again. In that it’s not unlike hundreds of other pioneer cemeteries in the Territory. Being an ex-Army fort cemetery, of course, gives it a certain cachet, but not enough, apparently, to draw many visitors. What makes it not just unusual but unique are a pair of new, above ground, granite sarcophagi side by each on matching granite slabs. These were not cheap!

The one was primarily unadorned with only a name, Catherine Rogers, inscribed on the top and her dates on the side. The other, though, had writing on the top and three sides. The top gave her name, “Claire Isabel McGill Luce/ Born Andrews, Ore., Oct. 19, 1923/ Died Fishers Island, N.Y., June 22, 1971”; and on one side it said, “Wife of Henry Luce III/ Mother of Kenneth D. O‘Sullivan/ William M. Hurt and James H. Hurt”; while one end held the epitaph “The truth shall/ make you free.” Fair enough. The other side held a somewhat longer epitaph: “Don’t coddle me into the grave. I’m/ going to march into it. I’m a man,/ after all.”

Without getting into why Ms McGill/Luce should refer to herself as a “man,” anyone with a little knowledge can see some intriguing questions pop up. Forget William Hurt for a moment and concentrate on Ms Luce. Indeed, Henry Luce ran the Time magazine empire and, indeed, he married a woman named Claire. But, and this is a big BUT, there was something wrong here. For one thing, I thought her name was spelled “Clare,” and that her middle name was “Booth,” right? Clare Booth Luce; she was famous, was ambassador to Italy, ate LSD early. So, where did these other names come from, “Claire Isabel McGill”?

And how does William Hurt fit into all of this? William Hurt, the actor?

I had to wait until I got home to ferret around on the Net and I found myself shaking my head for a couple days. Clearly I was missing some crucial elements.

Turns out I was right but uninformed; I didn’t know the half of it. Turns out the Henry Luce I was thinking of, the one who founded Time and married Clare Booth, was Henry II. Being as unimaginative as his dad when it came to naming kids, he named his boy Henry III, and it was this Henry, chip off the old block, who went on to also steer Time and marry a Claire—almost, eh? This Claire, though, had a few—ahem—relationships prior to Henry, one of which produced the well-known actor.

As for Andrews, Ore., it doesn’t exist. At least not any longer. The last building burned in 1996.

Now, aren’t you glad you asked?

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Big Empty

In the trade (whichever trade that is) this is known as a teaser. Coming attractions, as it were.

In any event, I just got back from a road trip through far eastern Oregon and the southwestern edge of Idaho. Some thirty cemeteries. It will take me months to up-load them, much less comment on them.

In the meantime, I give you a few road shots from same. Southeastern Oregon is still technically "the frontier" as less than three person per square mile live there. A lot less. As an Idaho friend commented, she lived next to one of the darkest parts of the continental U.S. At night, of course. You get close to feeling you can breath out there.

I like to say I'm a Road Scholar (say it fast) and go to Two-Lane University. These are shots of my classrooms.

This final shot is of the Oregon Trail. The ruts you see are several feet deep, each large enough to accommodate a wagon. There are two ruts, side-by-each. You wanted to be in one of the lead wagons.