Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Cox Cemetery, Salem, Oregon

Thomas Cox came to Oregon from Illinois in 1847 with his wife, Martha, and several children. Mr. Cox owned a mercantile in Illinois and he must have really had a strong case of “Go West” fever because when he could not find a buyer for his store he packed a dozen or so ox-drawn wagons with all of his unsold merchandise and set out on a perilous journey to a land he had never seen, but had heard stories of its fertility and promise. Upon arrival Thomas Cox opened the first mercantile in Salem. His wife, having survived the arduous journey west, died just two years later in 1849 and was the first to be buried in this hillside cemetery, part of the property they purchased around the time that he decided to sell the mercantile and try his hand at farming. Thomas was buried beside her in 1863 and as the years went by Thomas Cox’s children, various other relations and close friends were laid to rest in the clearing that overlooks a spectacular verdant valley that today grows some of the finest wine grapes in the world.

                                                                       Thomas Cox

I visit this cemetery at least once a season, and it is one of the first places I drag out of town guests, promising them wine-tasting after we explore. To reach the cemetery one must walk a about a half a mile uphill on a rocky path that passes through row upon row of pinot noir and chardonnay grape vines. Before grapes were planted here, the undulating terrain was covered in orchards of peaches, pears and plums.

Recently I made the trek alone up the hill on a day so cold and wet even the vineyard dog that usually accompanies visitors on the trek opted to stay on the covered front deck of the winery tasting room. That day, despite the icy and loquacious March wind, I felt like paying Thomas Cox and his family a visit.

 I love this cemetery because it is so unpretentious and humble. The grass is usually shin-high and swaying no matter what the season, and in the summer it releases prickly seeds that hitch a ride home with you on your socks and tiny grasshoppers flutter up as you pass through. Most of the headstones are very old, moss-worn and difficult to read. Some lay in crumbles. The headstones cluster in small groups with swaths of blank loamy earth in between which leads me to believe that some headstones, perhaps many made of wood, have long since dissolved away leaving some of the dead forever unsignified.

I have great respect for all of the people buried up on this hill. I am in awe of their courage and work ethic. I can only begin to imagine the toil they endured to make the six-month trip west and begin a new life for themselves and their progeny. There is a family plot in this cemetery with a marker that bears the name of four children, all of whom died before the age of six. Four children from a single set of parents, lost. Their grief must have been unbearable.

Someone must tell the stories of those buried here.

Photo of Thomas Cox courtesy of the Salem Public Library Historic Photograph Collections, Salem Public Library, Salem, Oregon. The date of the photo is unknown.

Whenever possible I will cite the resources of my information. My knowledge of the people and places mentioned in this post is from accumulated reading and studying of my community's history and conversations with local historians.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Shades of Taphophilia

                                                             Photo by Sid Graves

Only recently did I know that there is a name for people like me. We are called taphophiles because we are drawn to, find respite in and are claimed by an abiding affection for cemeteries. I don’t remember when this passion of mine took hold exactly. It built slowly over the years probably by way of a life-long love of listening to my grandmother tell stories about our ancestors while I helped her in the kitchen or garden. At the end of every anecdote I always asked, “And when did they die, grandma?” That question was followed inevitably by, “And where are they buried?” Decades later, as a graduate student at the University of Oregon I was in Knight Library trying to wrap my brain around the writings of Focault or some other equally painful French thinker. I looked up from my book and out the large window that faced south and looked directly into a pioneer cemetery. So many early Lane County settlers buried there more than a century and a half ago. What would these forgotten people do if they were told, when they walked the earth like you and I, that after their bodies returned back to dust, a large university would grow up around them? Minds would expand and take on life-changing knowledge. Thousands of young people and scholarly laborers would pass by on foot and bicycle as seasons passed. How would they react to such information? And who were these people who, literally, became the roots of this institution? Do they know their contribution now, somehow? After that, whenever I went to the library to study I inevitably could not open my texts to prep for class and instead sat staring out at this cemetery and imagining the people buried there, who they were in word and deed, who and what they loved and lost when they walked among the living. (No, at the time I never thought of moving somewhere else within the library, perhaps deep among the stacks where there were no windows. Taphophiles and philosophers don’t think of such remedies until it is too late.)

I explore cemeteries because I feel I must. They fascinate me because when I enter into one I simultaneously feel inspiration and a sense of the sublime. I know that I am in a place that defies language, nonetheless, I must try to find the words.  The times that I have resurrected someone buried deep in the ground for a hundred years through research instills in me a peculiar feeling of accomplishment. I bring them back to life just by remembering and by speaking their names. Through all this some questions persist:  Why do some of us feel so impelled to explore the burial places of those who have gone before us? What does it signify? What does it mean under the penumbric question of what it means to be human?

I’ve had people say to me that cemeteries are repellent to them, but what I think they are actually repelled by is the self-knowledge that they are drawn to these places. It makes them uncomfortable. Each cemetery I explore holds the power of the sacred and the power of mystery, a chiaroscuro of sorts. On the surface, the light shines on the headstones, sculptures and the trees standing guard. These remind us of our common fate as human beings. Beneath the surface, though, is a dark hand with its index finger quietly and gracefully beckoning us to come and be brave enough to at least approach questions to which we may never know the answers.