LEWIS AND CLARK: Our Maya Lin Weekend

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When the Lewis and Clark Expedition crossed the continent in the years 1804 to 1806, they initiated a new adventure for the young American country that would knit together the coasts and Great Plains and Rocky Mountains, giving the nation a vast new identity.  Migration and settlement and displacement and wars and environmental changes on a vast scale were soon to follow.  Two centuries have now passed, and there has been a quiet reassessment of the changes that have occurred during that time.  The bicentennial of Lewis and Clark’s big adventure has now come and gone, leaving a series of new “big box” interpretive centers in Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Montana as remnants of the historical celebration that cross-country travellers can visit.  My understanding is that the Lewis and Clark tourism boom never occurred on the scale that planners hoped, so these expensive centers have not been particularly successful.

Along the west end of the Columbia River, a smaller project took hold among Native American tribes and civic groups of the region.  They had the insight in 2000 to enlist Maya Lin, a great American artist and architect, to reimagine a thoughtful celebration of Lewis and Clark’s visit to what would become Oregon and Washington. 2008_or_1592 Maya Lin is best known for her design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C.; she created the concept for that emotionally resonant granite wall when she was a 21-year-old Yale undergraduate.  Since then she has designed a variety of memorials and parks. Maya Lin is also a creative artist.  I saw a wonderful installation and exhibit of her work at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle, in which she abstractly created maps using old books and wires and 2x4s.  You can see graphics of this exhibit at this link: Systematic Landscapes.  It was at this exhibit that I first saw her plans for The Confluence Project, and was determined to see the finished installations when I could.

In November 2008 my wife Karen and I took a Maya Lin–themed weekend trip to see the first three completed sites of the Confluence Project.  These are small and quiet installations,with nothing on the scale of the Vietnam Memorial.  But they are effective at making you think about the changes to the landscape that have occurred since Lewis and Clark made their monumental journey.

First, we visited the Sandy River Delta, where Maya Lin’s concept of a bird blind has nearly been completed.  We walked a 1.2 mile trail on U.S. Forest Service land to a site near the confluence of the Columbia and Sandy Rivers, where the blind has been built in a riverfront forest.  2008_or_1614Most of the people on the trail were out simply walking their dogs (which got me to thinking that most Americans would get no exercise at all if they didn’t have dogs!).  A gentle ramp leads up to the small cantilevered blind, where we looked out through Black Locust slats to the forest beyond. This is nominally a bird blind, but in reality it is a memorial to the wildlife that Lewis and Clark wrote about in their journals, along with the date they first observed each species and the modern name for that creature.  For example, on August 20, 1805, they observed a Moonax.  What is a Moonax?  I had no idea, but it turned out that the Moonax is now known as a Yellow-bellied Marmot. The Black Locust wood used in construction of the blind is an alien to the region planted by early settlers, but it is wonderfully weather-resistant and is sustainable, so it was a good choice for construction. My only wish was that we were visiting in spring and we could observe colorful warblers in the trees beyond the blind.

Late in the day, we drove to our second Maya Lin location.  The Vancouver Land Bridge is in Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, located in Vancouver, Washington and run by the National Park Service. The bridge is a pedestrian bridge over Washington Highway 14,

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connecting the historic fort with the Columbia River. This site has a long history: it was a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post, a campsite for Lewis and Clark, and an army fort for approximately a century. The bridge, designed by Seattle architect Johnpaul Jones, curves gracefully over the highway, and has several kiosks that interpret the history and native peoples of this confluence of the Columbia River and the Klickitat Trail. 2008_wa_1652I especially liked the artwork along the bridge. At the Columbia River end of the structure, there is a Welcome Gate designed by Native American artist Lillian Pitt. The gate consists of two crossed wooden canoe paddles, each featuring a stylized cast glass face of a woman from the Chinook Tribe. It is simply an elegant piece! There are also some wonderful metal interpretations of petroglyphs from the Columbia River corridor.  Maya Lin served as a consultant for this project.

It was getting dark, so we left Fort Vancouver and headed west along the Columbia, finally reaching our third destination, Cape Disappointment State Park, in the evening.  We set up camp in a campground filled with about 120 Rvs and travel trailers on this November night; in fact, virtually every campsite was full and we had the only tent.  Through the tent walls we listened to the crashing surf of the Pacific Ocean; the advantage of a tent is that we are more closely linked to the natural world than if we were in a hard-sided vehicle. The downside is that bears might eat us!

Cape Disappointment was named by an English seagoing captain, John Meares, who somehow couldn’t find the mouth of the Columbia River and was disappointed by his failure.

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It is miles wide here–how could he possibly have missed it?  When Lewis and Clark came to Cape Disappointment, Indians told them of ship captains who had wooden legs and eye patches. They sound just like the pirates in books of my youth!

The next morning we explored the state park, visiting several Maya Lin–designed sites.  First, we took a boardwalk to Waikiki Beach, a beautiful beach with a morning 2008_wa_1357mist hanging over the Pacific Ocean seascape and salt spray fragrance in the air.  The boardwalk itself is inscribed with places and dates from Lewis and Clark’s journals, and it represents the place where the Corps of Discovery reached its Pacific destination.  Next, we walked along a pathway studded with fragments of oyster shells to a cedar grove.  Here there are five driftwood logs sunk into the ground, each inlaid with a wide metal strip.  The logs surround an old cedar stump.  It is a place for contemplation of the forest and of the repeated refrain along the path from the Chinook Tribe praise song “Teach us, and show us the way.”  2008_wa_1344Finally, we visited a trail and boat ramp along Baker Bay, where there is an immense column of basalt that has been sculpted into a fish-cleaning station.  This Maya Lin–designed feature goes beyond its obvious functionality; inscribed on its surface is a Chinook origin legend that celebrates their interdependence with Columbia River salmon.  We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to Cape Disappointment, but wish that Washington State Parks would provide better signs to these Confluence Project features.  I talked to one woman who said she had wandered around for a whole day and couldn’t find the trail (which, by the way, she was standing on when I pointed out its location to her).  Of course, she could have asked at the park office.

Our mission to see and learn from the Maya Lin sites was successful; we enjoyed all three sites and are eager to see the remaining four as they are completed in coming years. For more information about the outstanding Confluence Project go to the website for the Confluence Project.

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April 7, 2008 Impressions of the Mississippi Delta

The Mississippi delta is a legendary part of America. The dark nights of lynchings and burning crosses; the gothic complexity of Faulkner’s stories; the tragic legacy of plantations and slavery; the sweet smell of wisteria on a spring evening …

This is part of a weblog documenting my travels and photography.  I am primarily a nature photographer, and you can see more of my work at http://www.leerentz.com

The Mississippi delta is a legendary part of America.  The dark nights of lynchings and burning crosses; the gothic complexity of Faulkner’s stories; the tragic legacy of plantations and slavery; the sweet smell of wisteria on a spring evening; the hazy morning sun rising over vast fields of cotton; beaten down shacks that house the poor descendants of slaves; the riverbanks where cottonmouths and fire ants threaten; the lazy brown Yazoo and Tallahatchie rivers that rage like a mean drunk when flooding; the birthplace of the blues and vital to jazz and rock-and-roll; where mockingbirds jam in endless vocal experimentation all night long; and the civil rights movement had some raw beginnings.  All these are glimpses of the delta that is part of our national mythology.

On my way to the delta (specifically the flat and low-lying agricultural region of northwest Mississippi), I was listening to the car radio and heard the old line:  “It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty delta da-a-a-ay.  I was out choppin’ cotton and my brother was bailin’ ha-a-a-ay.”  On my departure from the delta, I heard another old line:  “The Mississippi delta was shining like a national guitar.”  The former song, Bobbie Gentry’s Ode to Billie Joe, explores the mysterious suicide of a young man who jumped from the Tallahatchie Bridge.  The latter song, Paul Simon’s Graceland, is a spiritual road trip pilgrimage to the home of Elvis.  The serendipity of hearing these songs on the radio was not lost on me, and both were running through my head for days.  Great songs that I grew up with (which gives you an indication of my age!).  About the same time as Ode to Billie Joe was playing on my transistor radio in the late ’60s, I was listening to Bob Dylan’s great album, Highway 61 Revisited, on the record player.  I didn’t understand until years later that US Highway 61 leads right through the Mississippi delta. 

In the delta I was struck by the sense of decay in small towns.  There were town squares where virtually every storefront was empty and people were just hanging out, as if waiting for something else to happen.  The liveliest places in many of these towns were the convenience stores.  Curious about the economy, I read a report in a Washington Post article http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/06/19/AR2007061902193.html?referrer=email which explained that basically the white farmers in the delta are well-off and receive huge government subsidies for growing cotton and increasingly, corn (to fuel the heavily subsidized and environmentally devastating ethanol economy–but I’ll leave that story for another time). In contrast, the descendants of slaves and sharecroppers endure lives of poor education, poor health, few opportunities, and high crime.  There are those who loudly proclaim that the poor of the delta should “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps,” but such proclaimers have usually lived lives of relative privilege.  The desperate poor often don’t even have the boots … and the delta can be a trap.

The delta was significant in igniting the modern civil rights movement.  In 1955 a 14-year-old black boy named Emmett Till, visiting from Chicago, apparently whistled at a white woman while visiting Bryant’s Store in Money, Mississippi.  The shaken woman told her husband and in the deep night Emmett Till was kidnapped, tortured, murdered, and dumped in the Tallahatchie River.  Later the accused were quickly acquitted by an all-white jury.  The story brought outrage across the country and was a tragic start to the march for racial equality over the decades.  The whole story can be read here:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emmett_Till.

I camp when I’m out photographing like this, and out in the delta there aren’t many places to camp.  I headed for a state park on the Mississippi River; actually, to paraphrase Don McLean’s song American Pie, “I drove my Chevy to the levee but the levy was”–wet!  When I drove over the top of the levee and looked down to the park, the road was flooded and the entrance building was half-submerged.  So I changed my plans and headed for another state park up on Choctaw Ridge, crossing the Tallahatchie Bridge on the way.  Of course, “seems like nothin’ ever comes to no good up on Choctaw Ridge”–to quote Bobbie Gentry again–but at least I found a beautiful ridgetop campsite.  Spring leaves were just emerging on the oak trees around camp, so I photographed several leaves at this early stage in their unfolding.  An armadillo snuffed around camp sometime in the night.

Click on the photographs below to see a larger version with captions.