The Sheen of Something Broken

Writer Barry Lopez kicked off the first Think & Drink of 2015 on February 5 at the Alberta Rose Theatre in Portland. At Think & Drink, Lopez discussed reconciliation, resistance, justice, and place with Adam Davis, executive director of Oregon Humanities. The following is an excerpt from Lopez's essay, “A Dark Light in the West: Racism and Reconciliation," which appeared in the fall 2010 issue of The Georgia Review:

During the first few years I lived in Oregon, I read and heard stories of how native people had been driven off their lands, how these lands had been confiscated and parceled out to others, how some of the tribes had later been forced onto confederated reservations, and how articles in their treaties with the United States had been selectively and unilaterally annulled, effectively closing Indian people out of their traditional hunting and fishing grounds. This framework initially organized my thoughts about a history of racial prejudice in the state. Early on I had learned that southwestern Oregon was not a place where African Americans should ever travel alone (the region's largest town,Grants Pass, had been a nationally recognized Ku Klux Klan stronghold). And I had read about anti-Chinese rioting in Portland in the mid-1880s, when arsons had been committed and beatings administered by nativist xenophobes egged on by the city's mayor, Sylvester Pennoyer (soon to be elected the state's governor), and by such local publications as the Catholic Sentinel, whose editorials were written to appeal especially to working-class Irish. But for many years I remained largely unaware of what had actually been done to Chinese people in Oregon in the nineteenth century.

This lack of awareness became apparent to me in the spring of 1995 when I began researching a story near Astoria, the site of the fur-trading post John Jacob Astor had had built there in 1811 at the mouth of the Columbia River. I'd gotten to know a local ceramic artist, Richard Rowland, through Lillian Pitt, a Wasco artist from the Warm Springs reservation on the east side of the Cascade Range who regularly fired her ceramic masks and other work in a wood-burning kiln Richard had constructed at his home. A community of potters from Portland and northwestern Oregon had coalesced around this anagama-style kiln, which employed a sloped-tunnel technology developed in China about 1000 bc and later refined in Korea and Japan.

Richard's father was a white veteran of World War II, his mother a native Hawaiian. Richard was born and raised in the Coast Ranges south of Astoria, in the drainage of the Nestucca River on what was once Tillamook land, but he had spent most of his adult life near the mouth of the Columbia. In middle age he traveled to Tasmania to earn a Master of Fine Arts degree in ceramic art at the University of Tasmania at Launceston. When I asked him why he had traveled so far to get his degree, he told me that in a dream he had seen his grandmother standing up in the Hawaiian islands, one hand stretched out to him in Oregon, the other pointing to Tasmania.

Richard and I were cutting wood for his kiln one day when he said he had something he wanted me to see. We drove to a stretch of alder woods on the south side of Astoria, land that forms part of the north bank of the Youngs River. During the halcyon days of the Columbia River commercial salmon fishery, just after the turn of the nineteenth century, Chinese cannery workers built a settlement here. Given a choice, they preferred to live away from white domiciles; white people, for their part, preferred not to see the Chinese in public except at work in the canning factories or out on the tidal flats of the Youngs River, building dikes to create pasturage. Prevented from using Astoria's city dump, the Chinese set up one of their own.

The remains of the dump, now a kind of reliquary, lie in an open copse of red alder. The space between clumps of trees is overgrown with Himalayan blackberry vines and clusters of native salal and sword fern. The day I explored the site was overcast, and the flat gray light encouraged feelings of melancholy as Richard and I pushed our way through the blackberry thickets. Here and there on the forest floor weak beams of sunlight picked up the sheen of something broken or discarded. Neither of us said much, but the objects we picked up to examine (and then replaced)—part of a child's toy, one shank from a pair of pliers, cracked medicine bottles—spoke poignantly of the complex sense of loss and disruption that is part of barrio life all over the world.

Not until that day with Richard did my imprecise and unorganized sense of Oregon's Chinese history begin to come into focus. The fragile quality of a child's sense of self still adhered to the derelict toys; and who knows what palliatives had once filled the empty medicine bottles? The undistinguished trash before me triggered an acute awareness of the tenuousness of human existence.

Excerpt from "A Dark Light in the West: Racism and Reconciliation," which appeared in the fall 2010 issue of The Georgia Review. Used by permission of Barry Lopez.



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