“Only hope to make empty that which exists.
Be careful not to make real that which does not exist.”
-Shōbōgenzō, Case 16
I went back to the Nespelem Cemetery Monday, this time without a camera. The last time I came through was ten years ago, after a visit to the Okanogan Family Faire (aka ‘barter faire’) in Tonasket. Having grown up knowing the story of Chief Joseph and having just read Lucullus McWhorter’s ‘Yellow Wolf’ I felt compelled to visit and pay my respects in the act of pursuing my avocation of cemetery/memorial photographer.
When I arrived at Joseph’s grave back then I was regretful. Other visitors had thought to bring an offering, some of which were so appropriate and intentioned their inclusion bespoke the wisdom of the giver. A ranger from the Naches Ranger District had left a collar badge from their uniform. Others had left polished stones, coins, braids of sweet grass, toy horses, and small red cloth bundles. On Yellow Wolf’s grave –the resting place of a supernaturally powerful warrior– someone had left an open pen knife, the stainless blade alive with potential even among green and tarnished coins. I had nothing to offer, and ultimately continued on my way leaving only words in the wind. When I got back to Seattle my wife and I separated for good.
I carried my failure with me. Having visited their resting places did not absolve me of my admiration of these men. I marked the debt in my mental ledger.
My brother, stepfather, and I undertook a trip to the Grand Coulee Dam as a sort of homage to Woody Guthrie, to culminate in the last viewing of the laser light show of the season. Grand Coulee Dam is just 14 miles from the Nespelem Cemetery where Joseph and so pitifully few of his heroic original band lie in repose. I’d get to get some bugs on my car, hang with my boys, grub on fine small-town vittles, and satisfy my debt if I could talk my companions into it. Rather than risk this addition to our itinerary being seen as one of my habitual photographic wanderings through country graveyards I fairly insisted on it, and was rewarded with enthusiastic support.
The cemetery hadn’t gotten up and wandered off in the ten years since my footprints marked this land. North side of Nespelem on high ground. In so small a town at times streets could be mistaken for driveways. You have to know where you are going and be at least marginally brave.
Joseph’s memorial stone is unmistakable if only from the well-worn path of visitors leading respectfully around the corner of a row of unmarked graves and on to the collection of offerings at its foot. The people had continued to leave bright stones, coins, horse figurines, and trinkets for him but this time I saw where one had placed a hand mirror face-down over where his head presumably lies. Another had left two long horsehair braids; someone else a silver concho bracelet.
I felt a little pressure to walk with my companions. The conversations I needed to have were short, however. Tearing the filter off of a strong tobacco cigarette I wedged it between a gleaming river stone and the weathered white marble of his marker, with words in the wind marking the fulfillment and renewal of a debt of respect. For Yellow Wolf too, so the smell of fresh tobacco would blow in the wind with him.
Among the photos from my last visit certain friends and relatives of those whose memorials were included left questions or comments on those photos; some not insignificantly resentful. Going so regularly in places full of private pain…so full of the dichotomy of spirit and mortality…one learns not only to walk carefully but to transform oneself into a recognizable agent of respect: to walk in a state of unintentioned mindfulness. It is not the bones you risk offending but the broken hearts of living human beings and the spirits, whose persistence around and among us you have by being a ledger-keeper and tobacco-offerer long ago accepted. When you speak aloud the names mutely inscribed before you you do not do so lightly. You do so with gratitude, with admiration, with commiseration, with respect. If you are a photographer you have come to take, so to satisfy your conscience you transform the taking into an act of reverence.
I hated that, despite the priestly care I take to travel lightly and kindly in such places, I was unable to assuage the pain of these friends and relatives: pain I had inadvertently caused. At the time I was far away from that hillside in Nespelem so all I had to offer them was words in the wind: cold comfort indeed delivered digitally and without context. This too I marked in my mental ledger as a debt: either to be repaid if possible or to further spur my conscience to right action going forward.
It was with this in mind that I went to say the names of Elroy James Shavehead, a natural athlete with a big smile and heart; Thomas L. Waters, known to loved ones as “Babycakes”, from a far-flung and long-loving family; the coyote doctor Pow-U-Ton-Ow-Wit, and to signify my respect and peaceful intentions with a tobacco offering nestled among the other remembrances left for them. If past is prologue someone somewhere on down the line will search the internet for mention of these men and find this post. If as before that person is a loved one I hope they will understand that when informed of it I accepted and carried my obligation to these men and their families as if they were my own kin. I returned to make it clear to any and all that my mind was clean: that my coming and going were that of the silent mourner whose passing is known but to God.
Plucked from fields
Full of croaking frogs:
Float them in your wine
And enjoy every minute!
-Ryōkan Taigu, 18th c. Japan
For thirty years the wise Ananda ministered to the Buddha’s personal needs;
but, because he was too fond of acquiring knowledge, the Buddha admonished him,
saying: ‘If you pursue knowledge for a thousand days that will avail you less than one day’s proper study of the Way.
If you do not study it, you will be unable to digest even a single drop of water!’
-Master Huangbo Xiyun (Hsi Yun), 9th c. China
“The universal mind is no mind and is completely detached from form. Only study how to avoid seeking for or clinging to anything. If nothing is sought, the mind will remain in its unborn state. If nothing is clung to, the mind will not go through the process of destruction. That which is neither born nor destroyed is the Buddha.”
-Master Huangbo Xiyun (Hsi Yun), 9th c. China
…and all I can say is ‘it’s about time’.
Permits to climb Everest will only be given to those who can prove they have already scaled mountains that are higher than 6,500 metres, officials said. Disabled, old and very young people also face bans.
“We cannot let everyone go on Everest and die. If they are not physically and mentally fit it will be like a legal suicide,” he said.
“The disabled or visually impaired people usually need someone to carry them, which is not an adventure. Only those who can go on their own will be given permission.”
While I’m not a fan of sweeping bans based on items like age or disability, it’s important to remember that for Nepalese and Tibetans Mt. Everest is known as Sagarmāthā and Chomolungma: ‘forehead of the sky’ and ‘Goddess Mother of Mountains’ respectively. To conceptualize a place with preexisting spiritual connotations as a public convenience is fraught with peril on the face of it. No one is ‘entitled’ to go there, and those foreigners who do are first and always guests. Some of those who make a business of carting well-heeled adventure travelers to Everest’s summit will surely be found at the forefront of support for this measure, but others will inevitably chafe not so much at the bite in their bottom line but the idea that in Nepal there are again places money can’t go.