Memorials in Nature

by Mark Auslander

cairn1First, a brief description of the memorial sites on Manastash's Memorial Point. The trail itself is named for a popular local wrestling coach, Mr. Ray Westberg, who died at age 47 in 1997. He is memorialized through a professionally carved headstone of the sort that might be found in a cemetery. (My understanding is that no human remains are in fact buried on this ridge site, which is not a legal cemetery, but that cremated ashes are at times scattered by the bereaved in this area, with or without official state permission.) The Westberg stone features an inscribed drawing of a hiker in a mountainous landscape dotted with pines, with the words, "Think of me and smile/Remember the Love/The Laughter the Good times." In the upper right inset is a poem evidently by Mr. Westberg, "Our souls are bruised."   (Having just made the arduous hike, I was initially puzzled by how such a heavy stone had been carried up the trail, but moments later I realized that the point is accessible by motor vehicles by a dirt road on the other side of the ridge.)

PeruchiniMemorialI did not see any other headstones in this cluster, but at least two other memorials include metal elements that appear to have been professionally fashioned.  One of these is a  rather elaborate memorial to Mr. Robert Peruchini, a climber from Ellensburg who was killed in 2004 near Vantage while rapelling down a rockface. My understanding from newspaper reports is that Mr. Peruchini frequently hiked up this ridge trail.  The memorial is centered on a metal cross that includes two figures of human rock climbers, one of them rapelling from a rope. The assemblage also includes a wooden crossed with the name of the deceased and a framed photograph of a climber, presumably the deceased man, on mountain snowscape, all emerging out of a small cairn or stone pile. I also saw a small flag and several flowers placed among the stones.

Morrison MemorialA nearby smaller memorial, dedicated to Ms. Janet "Jan" Morrison, consists of a painted wooden cross featuring her name, and a dozen or so painted stones, on which have been painted heartfelt phrases, such as "Thank you for your unconditional love," "My Mom fought like a girl," and "The Freedom to Grieve."  A heart shape has been painted on several stones.

Cairn 1The largest human-made site on this ridge area is a sizable cairn from which a large wooden stave (onto which a thermometer has been attached) protrudes. The cairn and pole are visible by climbers for much of the ascent.  My impression is multiple persons may be memorialized through this cairn, which seems to consist of several hundreds rocks. Some of the rocks were painted in various colors, and included words, such as "community," and "thanks."  At least one stone is painted with the name of a deceased person. As of this writing I am not sure if this cairn initially had memorial functions, or if it, like many other stone piles atop mountain summits, was constructed by a trails association as a trail marker.

A letter to the editor in a local newspaper indicates that several hundred yards west of the cairn, along the ridgeline, are three ponderosa pines planted by family and friends of a graduate of Central Washington University (where I teach), following his tragic death in an accident.

I believe that there other memorial sites along the ridge, and park rangers and interpretive staff have told me that similar memorials are often found in park sites throughout the Northwest region.

Why the impulse to memorialize the deceased in natural sites, outside of formally constituted cemeteries or memorial parks?  To be sure, the practice of mountaintop cairns is an ancient one, especially prominent in the Celtic or Gaelic-speaking world (from which the word "cairn" is derived) ; in many cases these stone piles marked actual burial sites.  In some human cultures, such as in Japan, practices of burying the dead in elevated sites reflect the sensibility that mountains mediate between the earth and sky and are thus appropriate domains of the dead and ancestors.  In the modern American cass, however, these nature-based memorials are not specifically burial sites, but are rather locales where the bereaved seek to remember and contemplate their loved ones, often in a location that held particular significance to the deceased in life.

The modern affinity between memorialization and the contemplation of nature has a complex social and cultural history, partially anchored in urbanization and the industrial revolution.  The early 19th century saw the emergence of carefully sculpted greenspace cemeteries (such as Cambridge's Mt. Auburn Cemetery), featuring rolling hills and pools which were intertwined with emerging early Victorian visions of Heaven. The Romantic sensibility of that Nature offered glimpses of the Sublime and the Eternal infuses many such sites, including memorial benches dedicated to the beloved dead in parklands or next to bodies of water.  The magnificent vistas visible from atop Manastash ridge, looking over the valley towards the snow-capped Stuart and Cascade mountain ranges in this respect seem especially fitting settings for modern acts of memorialization.  The vast and beautiful distances seen from the summit provide us with intimations of the Eternal and the Sublime as seem especially appropriate as we reflect upon those who are no longer with us. 

As psychoanalysts Sigmund Freud and Melanie Klein long ago observed, the most difficult task faced by mourners is the gradual processes of detaching themselves from the object of primary loss, of moving from the initial overwhelming anguish of grief to more settled forms of enduring sorrow and remembrance. Perhaps mountaintop settings, because they are so far physically removed from the conventional environs of everyday life, are especially appropriate staging grounds for these necessary processes of slow detachment.  Klein observes that the bereaved must engage in forms of what she terms "reality testing," reaching out repeatedly to the lost loved one, even as they slowly let go of the immediate burning wounds of loss. (My wife the anthropologist Ellen Schattschneider has extensively written on comparable practices of 'reality testing" in modern Japanese memorial practices, including doll based spirit marriages to comfort the souls of the dead.)  The simple act of piling up stones, of using our hands to gather together natural elements in a simple culturally meaningful formation, seems to be a profound act of both touching, and letting go of, those whom we have lost.  Are mountaintop memorials, to which the living may repeatedly return but which are conceptually and geographically removed from the residence of the living, especially apt locations of "reality testing" in Klein's terms? Do we come to such sites--on the frontier of the Domain of the Dead (suspended between the zones of 'nature' and 'culture')--both to enter into proximity with the sorely missed deceased, and, simultaneously, to bid the Dead farewell? 

Equally moving are the informal dimensions of some of these natural memorial sites, which share some qualities with the roadside spontaneous memorials that tragically dot the nation's highways.  Something about sites of "nature," beyond the conventional confines of "culture," seems to call forth improvisatory and creative impulses in honoring the Dead (in ways that would not be considered appropriate, significantly, in most cemeteries.)  In the realm of nature, beyond the normal frontier of our regular lives, as we contemplate the greatest mysteries of life and death, we at times seem to be drawn back to the initial wellsprings of our creative spirit, to basic, physical acts of making and remaking.

These are very preliminary thoughts on the enigmatic affinities between zones of nature and memorial-making in modern culture. I would welcome thoughts and suggestions from readers on this difficult and very moving set of topics.

This photo essay was originally posted on Mark Auslander's blog at: Cultural