Monday, August 17, 2009

Cool Things in North Portland: Columbian Cemetery

It's not a very peaceful spot.The entire plot is beneath the I-5 interstate overpass that flies the monstrous steel, glass and rubber torrent of traffic from Kenton to the edge of the great river and back.

Even if the freeway didn't lour over it the neighborhood, what there is of it, is insalubrious; a cheerless waste of mid-century industrial erections characterized principally by a complete lack of anything resembling elegance, grace or dignity. The Slough, which meanders along the north edge of the Columbian Cemetery, is infilled wetland as foetid sump, known throughout the greater Portland basin for its toxicity, sediment laced with heavy metals and trash-choked bywaters.

But for all of this, there is a certain mournful peace about the old burying ground.
The plot as just a part of a donation land claim filed by one "Captain" Lewis Love, pioneer, farmer, logger and eventual timber baron and merchant. A New Yorker who crossed the continent in 1849 with his wife of 13 years (who we know from his mouth only as "Mrs. Love" - the captain's autobiography mentions only that the worthy's maiden name was Griffith. I see from the cemetery register that he is buried next to an Alice R, who is probably the doughty missus.) and, presumably, children to hack out a homestead on the lowlands of the Columbia South Shore.

Homesteading the swampy flats south of the Columbia wasn't a game for weaklings. Here's the captain telling his granddaughter Harriet about the rich bounty of the Columbia Valley:

"In the spring I moved in a little log house joining my farm on Columbia Slough and soon after we all took the Mountain or Camp Fever, and also ran out of provisions, yet we had good friends. The year before we moved there, there was a good crop of potatoes raised on the place, and that year there was a few volunteer potatoes came up. Our friends, the wood rats, would dig them up and bring them in a pile them up in the log cabin and we would steal them from the rats and make our soup of them. This was our living for some time. We had no doctor only from the Hudson Bay Co. and he charged $50.00 per trip besides his ferriage which brought his bill to $52.00. Between him and the wood rats we weathered it through."

Tough? You could say so.

Some time during the family's stay on the flats north of what would be Kenton they buried one or more of their own there. Neighbors and friends were probably interred along with them, and eventually the site became a public burial place in 1857.

Today roughly whatever remains of about 5,000 souls are entombed there. The grass is rank and the trees are rough because there is little money to pay for the mowing or trimming of them. Many of the older headstones are illegible, some have fallen, and most have the sort of lonely, dejected look of an object no longer cared for by the living.But the old Long burying ground is, in its way, a part of the living North Portland, part of the soil which my own children spring, Cadmus-like, and, as such, has its own sort of sad, orphaned dignity.


jim said...

I have/had a favorite cemetary in Eufala, Ala similar to the one that you discuss. I can no longer visit since they have subdivided and made the area private.
We have several nice old cem's in Quincy and Tallahassee.
Nice post.

Lisa said...

This is in line with some recent thoughts on mortality which I will address soon. Small but obvious thoughts, maybe, but worthy of comment.

Saw a comment today in the Post quoting a doctor who must tell patients they are terminal. He basically asked, how do you tell someone he is dying? Made me think: Aren't we all? Life is terminal.

What, then?

FDChief said...

Lisa: My old drill sergeant used to bark at us "What's the MOST fucked-up thing about life?" and we were trained to howl back "NO ONE GETS OUT ALIVE!"

I don't think the issue is death; we're born owing a death, it's just as much a part of life as birth. The problem is that we have developed this almost irrational fear of death and dying, made it this horrific headstone at the end of life. We've lost our sense of proportion about it, and so it looms insanely large between the everyday reality of life and the "what then?" of whatever the hell happens - if anything - afterwards.

I think that many of us would enjoy life more if we stopped fooling around about death and after life and just resolved to live every day to the fullest extent we can.

Lisa said...


Precisely. Saw a Christian booklet today entitled, "What's Life's Most Important Question?" Y'know what it was? "What will you be doing five minutes after you're dead?" implication: Will it be heaven, or will it be hell (!)

Fie minutes after I am dead, I shall still be dead. What matters is now, and now and now, to tweak King Lear.

FDChief said...

Lisa: "Now, and now, and now."

Well said.

It's like the ridiculous argumentation about religious doctrine. If the entire farrago is true all we'll have to do is want and ten seconds after our last heartbeat, we'll know. And in the meantime all that disputation over saints and angels, abortions and marriages was utterly wasted.

We spend so much time worrying, fighting and generally fiddling around with trivialities when we could be daydreaming, making love, playing with children, writing sonnets.

Damn but we're stupid, sometimes...

Lisa said...

Yes, wasting time in disputation hurts my heart. There is so much good and kind to do, and we shall so often fall short anyway. But at least try for something grand?

I have no tolerance for pettiness.