A Passing Dragon

Ouroboros is an ancient alchemical symbol showing a serpent or dragon eating its own tail — the visual representation of something constantly recreating itself. Uroboros  (alternate spelling) is also the name of a legendary glass maker in Portland, Oregon. In the art glass world, ties to the medieval art of alchemy are entirely appropriate. The recipes for creating certain colors, textures, patterns, and combinations are labored over and jealously guarded. Which is why when Uroboros announced it was going out of business earlier this year, many glass artists fell into deep mourning.

So did I. My grandfather and great-grandfather both worked for Tiffany Studios in New York during its heyday, so I grew up around windows and lamps made with luscious colored glass. Uroboros glass replicated the luminous materials produced by Tiffany between 1892 and 1928 — a nearly impossible task. If they stopped production, it would be a terrible loss to glass artists around the world.

Fortunately, like its name sake, Uroboros is being reborn as part of Oceanside Glasstile, another artsy West Coast company with a broad product line and economic viability. Artists are praying they will keep the magic alive but only time will tell.

What will die is Uroboros’ magical home in Portland. Built before the widespread use of artificial light, walls of windows flood the interior of the former railcar plant with natural light. The place feels like an enchanted combination of industrial smoking dragon and sparkling crystal palace. It has the patina of nearly a half century of use by creative minds. Will this ever happen in Portland again? Gentrification lurks just around the corner. If the building survives, it will probably become a trendy brew pub.

So if you appreciate authentic artistic spaces, and the crafts that create them, make a pilgrimage to Uroboros before this beloved dragon finishes swallowing its own tail.

Uroboros hopes to stay open at least until the end of April, 2017, but check here for updates: https://www.facebook.com/uroborosglass

Aloha Owyhee!

Most folks don’t realize Oregon was originally settled by Hawaiians. For decades following Lewis and Clark’s trip down the Columbia River, Hawaiians made up most of the non-Native workforce in the Pacific Northwest fur trade. They built the first forts and villages along the Columbia River, and journeyed thousands of miles inland as part of  exploratory surveys. They left their mark in unlikely places, like the high arid rangelands of Eastern Oregon. The Owyhee River is named after three Hawaiians who disappeared there in the winter of 1819-1820. (“Owyhee” was a common spelling of “Hawai’i” back then.)

European, American, and Asian trading ships regularly sailed into port on the Hawaiian islands in the early 1800s. Many Hawaiians took the opportunity to explore the far reaches of the Pacific by signing on with companies competing for the North American fur trade. These islanders possessed all the maritime skills needed for survival in the Pacific: navigation, boat building, fishing, and swimming. Swimming might seem like an essential skill for any sailor, but in the early 1800s most Europeans and Americans didn’t know how to swim. As a precaution, at least one Hawaiian was assigned to every boat, ready to rescue any person or cargo that went overboard.

If a Hawaiian wanted to go to sea, they requested permission from their ruling monarch. The Aliʻi generally set limits on the length of employment and specified the compensation. And he expected his subjects to return to the islands. Many survivors did return with fabulous stories they retold for the rest of their lives. Others came back to visit but were anchored to the mainland by marriages with native people or, occasionally, European and American settlers. Many Indian families in Oregon Territory still have Hawaiian names.

This congenial mixing of Pacific Rim people encountered resistance when American settlers arriving overland from the East began to outnumber the people who were already here. Among this influx of Easterners was Samuel Thurston. He was described by one biographer as  “young, brilliant, handsome, splendidly educated, with an indomitable will, and almost insanely ambitious.” One of Thurston’s self-appointed goals was to exclude African Americans and Hawaiians from Oregon Territory. As the territory’s Congressional delegate in 1850,  he won passage of a land grant act that legally closed the door on anyone who wasn’t white or a half-white/Native American mix. Thurston described Hawaiians as “a race of men as black as your negroes of the South, and a race, too, that we do not desire to settle in Oregon.” After Thurston and his ilk had their way, Hawaiians could not own land, become citizens, vote, purchase liquor or testify against “whites” in court. The territory at that time included the future states of Oregon, Washington, Idaho and parts of Montana and Wyoming. Some of Oregon’s racists laws remained on the books for more than a hundred years.

Many Hawaiian families in the Oregon Territory moved to Canada where they were welcomed as full-fledged citizens; some hid out with their native families on Indian reservations protected by the tribes’ sovereign status. But some stayed right where they were, as revealed by newspapers published on the islands. An article from Ka Lau Oliva, December, 1874, told of a Hawaiian woman who gathered Hawaiian language newspapers and books and sent them through a friend to Hawaiians living in Oregon. To express their gratitude, the Oregonians sent her a barrel of kāmano (salmon), “along with our warm aloha.”

And what would people on the islands do with a barrel of salted salmon? Make the popular luau dish, lomi-lomi salmon, of course! You see, everything just naturally flows together and no one can kill Oregon’s aloha spirit.


Photo: Sisters Luau, Sisters, Oregon, 2015, Jerry Baldock photographer.

Instant Relatives

My mom used to love to rummage through old photographs in antique stores. Sometimes she’d bring home vintage portraits, stick them in equally vintage frames and hang them on our walls. She called them our “instant relatives.” It was kind of a joke, but as a kid I remember wondering if this meant we didn’t have enough real relatives.

Now that I’m grown, I have to admit that I’ve also taken to rummaging through old photographs in antique stores. What is the attraction? Perhaps I harbor hope that I’ll find pictures of my actual relatives mixed in with all the strangers. Or maybe I feel a vague responsibility to cherish these apparently forgotten forebears — even if they aren’t mine. Then again, perhaps it’s an acknowledgement that we’re all part of the human family, so I’m related to every person I come across. But lately, I suspect my primary motive is a compulsion to guess the stories behind the faded images. (This must be a fiction writer’s curse!)

Take these photographs, for instance. I found them glued together in an antique store in Redmond, Oregon. It was the week before the holidays — a time when families often hope to be together — and yet, here was a family that had obviously been apart. It seemed a little sad. What was their story?

Was the father away working? Based on his glad rags, maybe he toured with a barbershop quartet? How long had it been since he saw these children? Were they even his?

The children aren’t smiling and look uncomfortable in their “Sunday Best” — her hair bows are humungous; his tie is tiny and crooked. They aren’t in their natural element. And why is the boy in crisp focus and the girl a blur? Did she stubbornly refuse to stand still?

And the woman, she seems to have arrived in the picture at the last moment, squeezing in between the two children at a slant, her hair a little wind-blown, her open smile slightly informal for the situation. Is she their mother? Perhaps she’s a house-keeper/nanny who’d like to become their step-mother? Could these conjoined photographs be implying family connections that don’t yet exist — or acknowledging biological connections that have never been formally conjoined?

As you can see, one found image can be rife with possibilities. And the curious thing is, these seeming strangers may well be relatives whose story my family has forgotten. That being the case, this holiday season, I wish them and their descendants, warm wishes and a blessed New Year.

I looked into their faces one last time, returned the picture to a basket of sepia-toned photographs and exited the antique shop, pushing the creaking door against the winter wind.

The Whole Picture

A few weeks ago, this scene caught my eye as I drove along Upper Klamath Lake. The mountain’s reflection and the line of trees in the evening light conveyed a Zen-like simplicity that made me want to pull over and rummage for my camera. I thought I might stop by the side of the road, snap the shutter, and drive on but that’s not how it happened. It got complicated.

When I noticed the picture, I couldn’t find a place to pull over, so I turned onto the first road heading toward the lake. I rattled across a set of railroad tracks, descended a short hill, passed through a scattering of old houses and bounced down a rutted track to a chain-link fence that corralled towering stacks of 55-gallon drums. On foot, I found a trail that led to the shoreline. I could see my picture, but an industrial-looking metal dock jutted into the foreground. Slogging back to the car, I noticed I could see the image through the chain-link fence, so I cradled my lens in the diamond-shaped opening and made another exposure past the scattered debris.

When I got home, I loaded the images into the computer and started cropping out clutter, trying to recreate the dreamy atmosphere I remembered. I eliminated the human-made foreground until what remained came close to my original idea — but I had a nagging feeling there was more.

Eventually it dawned on me how the creative process often exposes us to the messy context of natural beauty. If there had been a place to pull over along the highway, I would have made the pristine picture that I first saw and continued driving. Instead, I was forced off the high road into the heavily altered environment of the Klamath Basin. As I bumbled my way around houses, muddy ditches, gates, fences, trucks, docks, and fuel tanks, I bemoaned the hodgepodge of my species. But working on the photographs from that outing, I began to appreciate the interaction of the human and natural scene. If I could be less obsessed with capturing my vision of an untarnished natural world, I’d be more willing to take in the whole picture. After all, humans have lived and worked along the shores of Upper Klamath Lake for thousands of years. Why pretend otherwise?

So I ended up with two very different photographic versions of my experience. The first is of Upper Klamath Lake — beyond time. The second is a snapshot from our time, framed by feral junk and the rumble of a passing freight.

Shoe Trees

The High Desert makes great shoe tree habitat. There must be thousands of dead or dying trees along lonely stretches of highway just waiting to be adorned with castoff shoes. As a kid, I delighted in every shoe tree we passed. These spontaneous shrines helped relieve the boredom of long road trips in the back of the family station wagon. I’d point and yell as we sped by, trying to impress upon my parents the significance of the site.

But what was the significance? Looking back as an adult I wonder. Certainly, they have the element of surprise. They’re kinetic sculpture. They’re natural and not-natural. They enable shoes to levitate! But as a kid, I think I also saw them as a sign of flamboyant rebellion. Teenagers could actually throw their shoes away. My mom would never let me do that. When I outgrew a pair of shoes, I had to hand them down to a smaller kid. I couldn’t liberate my shoes to swing in a tree along some lonesome highway.

So when I became a teenager did I ever throw a pair of shoes up in a shoe tree? No. Why was that? Was it because by then I didn’t wear sneakers, the predominant species populating shoe trees? Or was it something deeper and more mysterious?

This needs to be remedied. There’s a cottonwood near Mitchell, Oregon, that has room for a few more shoes. Next time I go that way, I’m flinging an old pair skyward.

Horse Power

I’ll admit, I’m a bit of a Luddite. I’m intrigued by the idea that working horses still have a job — despite the industrial and digital revolutions. Last weekend I went to the Small Farmer’s Journal 35th Annual Horsedrawn Auction & Swap. If a horse can pull it, chances are it will be on the auction block in Madras, Oregon. This year there were stage coaches, buckboards, surreys, freight wagons, sheep wagons, covered wagons, chuck wagons, gypsy carts, sulky carts, forecarts, sleighs, Amish buggies, wagonettes, chariots, a full-size hearse and that’s not the half of it. You could also find all the harness parts to go with whatever rig grabbed your fancy.

As I wandered around ogling the offerings, an antique black surrey caught my eye. Its red velvet seats showed wear and the red fringe rimming the roof had faded to pale pink. Generous wraps of electrical tape reinforced the rods supporting the top. To my eye, the old girl looked ready for a makeover or a museum.

Just then, a passel of Amish or Mennonite kids (hard for me to tell which) surrounded me like a flock of chickadees. Their plain dress set them apart. Two of them, a boy and a girl, climbed up in the buggy and tried it out. They wiggled around, operated whatever was operable, peered at various parts, then climbed out and headed to the next vehicle. I expected some adult to yell at them to get off the equipment, but no one did. Then I realized that these kids probably ride around in buggies all the time. Most of the Amish and some of the Mennonite religious communities have chosen to forego owning and operating automobiles. These kids didn’t think of that old surrey as a fragile artifact. It was just another second-hand horsedrawn vehicle to be put to good use.

I saw the sprawling wagon yard with new eyes. This was no Antiques Roadshow. There were lots of people here buying equipment who planned on using the stuff. Mixed in with the vintage rolling stock were brand new vehicles and harness, much of it made by the “Plain People.”

Being a provincial Westerner, I’m not too familiar with the Amish and “Horse and Buggy” Mennonite communities, so I did some research when I got home. I was surprised to discover that according to the U.S. Cooperative Extension Service, Amish farms are one of the fastest growing segments of the U.S. farm community. (Their population more than doubles every twenty years.) More Amish farms means more horse-powered agriculture, logging, and transportation. Add to them the old timers, traditional loggers, historical reenactment devotees, bioregional back-to-the-landers, sustainable neo-Hippies, super-green organic farmers, and other born-again teamsters and what do you know? Horse power — as in “powered by actual horses” — seems to be making a comeback in America.

Maybe I’m not an atavistic Luddite after all? Or, if I am, I’m in good company.

(Suspect you might be a born-again atavistic Luddite yourself? Subscribe to the Small Farmer’s Journal and find out.)