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A Country without Memory

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Maryhill and Celilo
Ewing Young & Champoeg
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© 2011 John Lesage


        Maryhill and Celilo Falls


Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
And I am Marie of Romania.

Dorothy Parker


I don't often cross paths with royalty. I've done so conceptually by way of Dorothy Parker – and at Maryhill, where railroad baron and entrepreneur Samuel Hill perched an Italian Renaissance mansion and a full-sized replica of Stonehenge above the basalt cliffs of the Columbia Gorge. A few rows of Lombardy poplar provide just a superficial resemblance to Italy, as well as a windbreak. And it's rather more desiccated than Wiltshire, that part of England featuring the original Stonehenge. A Neolithic monument and a born-again classical estate in the desert of the American west – out-of-place doesn't begin to describe it. What the Sam Hill was he thinking?
        What Hill did there is one thing, but why he chose the site is spectacularly obvious. The Gorge is now a huge funnel of activity – a procession of barges moving up and down river, railroads on both sides, I-84... It's a kinetic, noisy place. However, Maryhill overlooks slack water impounded behind The Dalles Dam about 15 miles west. When Hill first came here, he viewed a live river, with current quickening toward Celilo Falls, just out of sight downstream. It's noisy now, but nothing to match the former thunder of those falls. It's still a busy place, but for thousands of years, Celilo was the cultural center of the native Northwest. With evening and a little awareness, one can feel a “dark Encroachment” of an “old catastrophe,” to borrow from the poem Sunday Morning by Wallace Stevens.

************************************

My dad told me as a kid that Hill built the mansion to lure a royal love interest into his life. Marie became the Romanian queen, but she was also the granddaughter of Queen Victoria, and grew up as Princess Marie of Edinburgh on a country estate not far from Canterbury. As more wealthy than most European royalty, Hill might have been attractive to her. However, Marie came out west for a look, and decided that Maryhill, during the early decades of the 20th century, was too isolated for her refined social tastes. She returned to Europe.
            At least, that was the story. We were wrong.
            The story is believable, and rather compelling: an accomplished American seeks acceptance among the rulers of Europe. He's rebuffed due to the rough edges of the country, and perhaps of his own personality. Unlike Athena, most stories, though hopefully embodying wisdom, don't burst forth, fully armed, from the forehead of Zeus. They might begin, evolve and mature in a more circuitous fashion. They might begin as total fabrication – as purposeful deceit – or spring accidentally from some collection of facts. This story had some factual basis.
            For one thing, Sam and Marie actually were friends. I don't know about Hill's personality, but besides her royal blood, her personality might very well have been an attractive feature. She once spoke of her dislike of an evangelical she met: “He spoke of God as if He were the oldest title . . .” in the book of aristocracy. And Marie considered confession to be “spiritual nudism.” However, with a deep interest in the Bahá'í faith, she was not spiritually indifferent. Spiritual concerns might have been a shared interest. Unique among railroad executives, Hill was a Quaker.
            As
for the connection with Dorothy Parker, it's obviously ironic that she compares herself to royalty. But the comparison becomes more interesting as we unearth similarities. Dorothy Parker was of course in no position of power, but was a well-known literary figure in the 20th century. Her a career stretched from New York to Hollywood, and from the 1920's through the 1960's. She was an accomplished poet, screen writer, and critic – and extremely unhappy in her personal life. This manifested itself in alcoholism and several suicide attempts. But in her greatest achievement, she transformed her misery into enduring wit.
            The irony
of the poem thickens in realizing that Marie also knew unhappiness in her love life. Those at the apex of power don't automatically have the sympathy of commoners. However, national imperatives to produce an heir trump personal happiness every time. And the role of women in royalty might be considered a form of indentured service – often pampered, materially well-endowed service. Marie was forced to marry at 17 to someone many years her senior. She subsequently bore six or more children, as many outside the marriage as within it.
            Marie
did indeed visit Maryhill, but not to check it out as a place to live, or investigate amorous possibilities. If she had, she might have noticed that it was named for Hill's wife Mary. His wealth might have overridden any related concerns, well enough for royalty anyway, but understanding Mary Hill is one key to understanding the story.
            Hill moved to Seattle about 1902, while transitioning his career from railroading
into utilities. His wife and two children followed him there, but returned to Minneapolis after six months. As a gold-rush town, Seattle must have been pretty raw to compare unfavorably with winters in the upper Midwest. Perhaps they were still dragging logs through the mud to Yesler's mill at the bottom of the original skid road. Perhaps the main force for progressive change was still the “Seamstress Union,” that is, a group of prosperous, well-connected ladies of the night. In any case, it was all too much for Mary. She packed it up, and headed home.
            As for Marie, she didn't come to Maryhill for love, but for friendship. She was here in 1926 to dedicate the Maryhill mansion in its unfinished state
as a museum, a dozen years after Hill began construction. It has served splendidly as such – much better than as a residence exemplifying the Quaker ideal of simplicity.
            In the meantime, Sam Hill had also built his Stonehenge – as a war memorial. On visiting the original, he heard that ritual human sacrifice took place on an altar stone inside the henge. Many Englishmen resist this theory, though concentrations of iron in the surrounding soil prove that sacrifice occurred there – human or animal. Anyway, in the midst of the First World War, Hill commented that modern war is also human sacrifice. He built his henge to make the point in concrete.

************************************

Since my dad is no longer, I must take full responsibility for the story of Marie. I was wrong. Actually, I'm often wrong. Though it's not a permanent condition, it happens often enough that I need to work with it. Perhaps I should try to be wrong about the right things, or in a more focused manner. If one is unwilling to be wrong, one might never be right. My intent is to be provisionally wrong, as the best state of mind.
            However, in gazing from Maryhill down river toward The Dalles and Mount Hood, I become aware of the larger story.
An interest in people brought me here, but the place itself is more poignant. I was right about one thing – we were wrong, in a larger sense. It's strange to see in a new country such artifacts of European antiquity – a mock-up of a four-thousand-year-old monument – the Renaissance in the sagebrush. But there's actually nothing new about this country. The villages of Celilo and Wishram represented the oldest continuously inhabited sites on the continent. Four thousand years is nothing. People had lived there for some 15 thousand years.
            And
the reason was salmon, 15 to 20 million of them jumping the falls every year. The Chinook tribe had become the custodians of the place, but it wasn't theirs alone. They understood that some things were more important than ownership and control. The Chinook people placed greater value on trade, and made their home in a sense international. As a result, Celilo was the mercantile and spiritual center of what became the American Northwest. People came from hundreds of miles away to trade, and to spear or dip out fish. And the Chinook language became the lingua franca of the region. 
            Scattered
from Northern California to Alaska, place names preserve this legacy – Ollalie, Sahalie and IllaheeLemolo, Cultus and Kaleetan. The names are preserved, but most people don't understand what they mean. The meaning is like the unextracted DNA of bugs preserved in amber. To explain the meaning of those names, most people don't see the blue berries in Ollalie, the Sahalie chiefs, or the land itself in Illahee; they don't appreciate the wild quality of Lemolo, nor the uselessness of anything named Cultus; they don't know that a sharp peak called Kaleetan was named for its resemblance to an arrowhead.
            The
river is now slack water, but a distant dull roar once emanated along a 12-mile stretch of rapids and cataracts. Celilo Falls was the biggest drop of water, which the Chinook people called Wyam, the "echo of falling water.”  Up close, the basalt substrate around the falls once reverberated in a seasonal cycle. 
            Now the falls are gone – most of the salmon are gone. The Cascade Mountains were named for such cascading stretches of river. In his novel Sometimes a Great Notion, Ken Kesey wrote of an “hysterical crashing of waters.” This suitably characterizes Cascadia. But when the flood gates of The Dalles Dam closed in 1957, six hours sufficed to silence Wyam.
            We
were wrong. We can now barge grain from Lewiston to Kelso. We're adept at counting kilowatts. But as Timothy Egan noted in The Good Rain, without salmon, we've lost the very soul of the Northwest. Knowing this, and again echoing Stevens, one has little “to dissipate, The holy hush of ancient sacrifice.” Hill built his henge to remember The Great War, but it's become monumental oblivion, overlooking a place of greater loss.