Mendocino Moment – 2

They are all gone into the world of light, And I alone sit lingering here; – Henry Vaughan
My father\’s grave
After the synchronous phone call from Jeff I continued my drive up to Mendocino and the beautiful coast of California that I love so much. Over the past few weeks my thoughts had turned to my father, who died too young back in the Spring of 1988 just a couple of months short of his 61stbirthday. He had been sick for quite a while, from an illness that no one could figure out. (As usual, that’s another story and I’ll probably get to it someday.) He’s buried in a very old cemetery in Healdsburg called Oak Mound, at the top of a hill, nestled within a few unostentatious sites. His own resting place is marked with a flat headstone issued by the Veterans Administration. When we laid him to rest in that place, his grave was within the shadow of a large tree. The tree has fallen since then. Such is the way of nature. But someone used a saw to carve a crude seat in the trunk of the fallen tree. Such is the way of human beings.
A crude seat, but a nice thought
I had not visited the site in many years. Of all the family members and friends I have lost in the last couple of decades, this is the only one whose remains are stored in the earth. My father was a converted Catholic, and it was my mother’s wish that he be buried in that way. I suppose that desire might have had something to do with all that Last Days of Doom nonsense, though my mom was really not much into the details of her born faith. More than likely it was my father’s wish, not my mother’s. Nonetheless there he is, and I’m glad of it, because when I need to I can travel there and sit in the sun and talk aloud and pretend he is listening to me, something he didn’t always do when he was alive.
I find cemeteries comforting in the same way that reading history consoles me. I really can’t explain why. Everything is impermanent, even cemeteries. The headstones erode and the trees fall. Yet when I am in a place like Oak Mound or Mountain View in Piedmont I feel as if there is a permanent silence that is audible. There is no sense of spiritual haunting or fear.
Chatting with my father
I mention that because most people are anxious about cemeteries. I understand that. Cemeteries remind us of our own mortality. Perhaps that’s the whole point. Human beings have been revering and remembering their dead since before recorded civilization. Archeologists use burial sites as a source of knowledge. But here in America we do everything we can to remain ignorant of not only our own passing, but the passing of others. When my wife died the company I worked for at that time gave me seven days of “bereavement leave”. Compare that with the 90 days that was offered for the birth of a child. There is no greater evidence for our purposeful yet unconscious obliviousness of mortality in a country that celebrates the myth of the self-made man than the disparity between those lengths of time.
So I had a little one sided chat with the Old Man. He’s been on my mind recently because I am about to embark on making a living professionally again, and I’m determined this time to work for myself and be my own boss. I’ve never done that before. And I have never considered myself to be an entrepreneur. As I mentioned in a previous post, my dad was a real “horse trader” for many years, a classic go-getter who always seemed to have the pedal to the metal. So as I make my transition I have been thinking about him a great deal. If the father can do it why not the son? Even a son who has already outlived his father. While sitting in the sunny warmth next to my father’s headstone I thought of that Billy Collins poem, The Dead:
The dead are always looking down on us, they say.
while we are putting on our shoes or making a sandwich,
they are looking down through the glass bottom boats of heaven
as they row themselves slowly through eternity.
They watch the tops of our heads moving below on earth,
and when we lie down in a field or on a couch,
drugged perhaps by the hum of a long afternoon,
they think we are looking back at them,
which makes them lift their oars and fall silent
and wait, like parents, for us to close our eyes.
I wasn’t ready to close my eyes yet so I made my way to the car and continued on my way to Mendocino. I had another appointment with a spirit that had passed to her own transparent tour boat, because the next day, March 15, was the anniversary of my wife’s departure, suddenly and unexpectedly gone without warning three years before.
Candace 1980 – Honeymoon at the Mendocino Hotel
Candace and I spent our honeymoon in Mendocino. It was our first trip to that part of the coast and while we returned to the Sonoma Coast many times during our marriage we never spent any significant length of time back in that town. While we were visiting in 1980 we hiked the Fern Canyon trail in Russian Gulch State Park, which is just a couple of miles north, and my plan was to repeat that walk and make some photos and see how the wet winter had treated that special trail. I wanted to do that on March 15, but after making some dawn pictures that morning, the rains came back and I decided to drive south and visit yet another cemetery. The forecast for the next day looked good for hiking so I delayed my hike and instead got back into my car and pointed my way south down Highway 1 to the Evergreen Cemetery just south of Manchester, located at the intersection of Mountain View Road.
Mendocino Hotel – Balcony – November 2015
One of the most attractive elements of the practice of photography is revisiting and reimaging a location over the years. I’ve lost count of the times I have photographed Evergreen and have done it so often that I feel as if I almost know the pioneers that are buried there. I have watched the stones erode and become more difficult to read since my first visit in 1981 or 1982, I’m no longer sure of the exact date. My friend Georgia’s parents lived in Gualala, which is about 20 miles south of Manchester, and we were occasional guests in those times. That was the period where I really began to fall in love with the Sonoma Coast. All those towns have local cemeteries, and they vary in style and location. The graves in Evergreen go way back to the mid-19th century, though it is still used today by several families that have plots there. Unlike my father’s grave, these are people unknown to me, and yet when I am there I sense their historical presence.
The McMullen stones

Just like the digs and explorations of archeologists we can walk through an old cemetery and get a sense of what times were like 150 years ago in California. The most obvious is the fact of shorter life spans and death in childbirth. The most heartbreaking of these is the McMullen plot where a total of six small gravestones marking the decease of infants form a line next to the larger monument to the parents, Samuel and Jennie. When I first visited Evergreen there were very few trees providing shade, but over the years, particularly at the McMullen site, I have observed small seedlings grow into mature trees year after year. Eventually, long after I am gone and no longer photographing they will tumble, just like the tree that was once over my dad’s grave.

Broken, later repared
And I have watched the headstones erode, break, and fall over. On return visits I have viewed the formerly collapsed stones returned to their upright elevations and the damaged stones repaired and renewed. But no one can keep the wind and rain from wearing away the names and dates of human beings who lived and loved in a very tough world, and who then closed their eyes to spend eternity rowing a glass bottom boat over a planet vibrating with tension and technology. What must they think of our insistence to ignore our own eventual passing as they float above us in the soundless spirit world?
John and Margaret Galloway
I have watched the gravestones of John and Margaret Galloway wear down over time. On this visit John’s headstone had fallen over, and Margaret’s is now very difficult to read. I wonder who they really were and how much they cared for one another. Were they always in love or was it a marriage of convenience? Were they happy? All these are unanswerable questions, and the kind of thing that has been occupying my own mind for three years now. I remember with clarity the 35 years I had with my own soulmate, and yet, just like the headstones, the memories are stretching back with tension and creating a series of longitudinal markings that make up the chapters of my own life. I have no stone to visit for my wife. Her ashes are in an urn at the top of my refrigerator, along with those of her mother and brother. When I have a glass of wine or a martini in the evening, I raise my glass and look up, but I never see the transparent bottom of the boat that they likely travel in together, hopefully with Jim, father and husband, who left many years before they did.
The Doctor\’s Angel
My last stop in Evergreen is always what I call “The Doctor’s Angel.” It’s the most elaborate marker in the site, very much in the style of some of the plots in Mountain View Cemetery. It marks the resting place of William Oliver Davis, M.D. who I assume was the local physician in the later part of the 19th and early years of the 20th century in that area. Born in 1862, died in 1911, he was only fifty when he passed away. I think that he must have been a beloved man to have such a splendid statue keeping watch over his bones. When I stand there I sometimes wonder if he was the attending physician at the births and deaths of all the McMullen children and if so how hard it must have been for him to watch the sequence of small children appear like brief lights before heading directly to the spirit world. What a lifetime that must have been; all these people who likely knew one another now at peace in a little corner of California, blessed by the wind and rain from the ocean in the winter, and the hot dry sun in the summertime.
I returned to my car and took a few deep breaths. It had rained on the way down from Mendocino and during my entire visit in Evergreen the air was sweet and clear. So was my mind. All the colors in the hills and fields were vibrant and saturated even though the dour grey sky was blocking the sun. Despite the fact that I had dawdled in two cemeteries in the space of 24 hours, there was joy in my heart. It feels good to be alive. It’s a gift. And we have to remember that every moment of every day. We have to. Yes, the times we are in now are fraught with strangeness, rage, racism and a millennial sense of doom and gloom. But are our times really that much different from those of the McMullens, Mr. and Mrs. Galloway, and the good Doctor Davis? The Buddha taught that life is filled with suffering, and that our reason for suffering is because we are attached to life in an unhealthy way. The Zen teacher Yuanwu said in a letter:
“In the present time, those who want to draw near to reality must boldly mobilize their energies and transform what is within them. You must not cling to wrong knowledge and wrong views. You must not mix poison into your food. You must be uniformly pure and true and clean and wondrously illuminated to step directly into the scenery of the fundamental ground and reach the peaceful and secure stage of great liberation.” (Translated by Thomas Cleary, from Classics of Buddhism and Zen, Volume Two, page 181; Shambhala Books)
Perhaps that’s easier to say than to do. But it must be done nonetheless. Otherwise we just waste the small amount of precious time that has been granted to us before we head off to that other world and from our own glass bottom boat observe a realm below us that we might have missed when we actually lived there. Here and now is our fundamental ground, and we make the choice to live it fully, or not live it at all.
Evergreen Cemetery in the early 1980\’s

 

Evergreen Cemetery in the early 1980\’s -Candace, David and Georgia
Evergreen Cemetery in the early 1980\’s -Candace, David and Georgia

 

2 thoughts on “Mendocino Moment – 2”

  1. Hi I happened upon your blog because I searched Oliver Davis MD 1862. I visited this cemetary a couple of years ago and I took a picture of this grave marker. I too am a photographer, and have a few beautiful images of this place and thought there was something very special about it. I enjoyed reading what you had to say. Hope you’re doing well!

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    1. Thank you. Glad you liked the piece. I’ve been photographing that location since the early 1980’s. I’ve always thought that Oliver Davis must have been an admired man because of that particular monument. Be well and stay safe.

      Richard

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