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)