04 Dec

Maya Lin tells the story of the Columbia — including the hardest part

The fragile arc, looking like a finger’s width of balsa wood and a millimeter of white paint, curled around the painted lines on the landscape model. The narrow path was designed to bear a crushing historical weight.

To an overflow crowd at the last Portland City Club meeting of November, Maya Lin unveiled her latest vision for the Confluence Project, the multi-site installation chronicling the story of the Columbia River and marking the Lewis and Clark bicentennial. Extending from Chief Timothy Park, on an island near the Washington-Idaho border where the Snake and Clearwater rivers run together, to Cape Disappointment, where Lewis and Clark first saw the Pacific, the Confluence Project is Lin’s most expansive effort, and a statement about what’s been lost and what remains after 200 years.

The entire project, explained Lin, who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., as a Yale undergraduate, is about “telling the story of the river.”

Her appearance marked another advance in the project’s fund-raising with the announcement of a $1 million gift from the Schnitzer family. Lin also displayed a new model of the final site, Celilo, showing the thin white arc reaching out from the Oregon shoreline into the river. It evokes the tribal fishing platforms that extended over the Columbia toward Celilo Falls, for centuries a regional center of fishing and trading activity, until the falls were drowned under the reservoir created by the building of The Dalles Dam in 1957.

Observers said it took eight hours for the water to cover the falls, the fishing platforms and a nearby settlement. For the Columbia tribes, getting over the event has taken much longer.

After multiple requests, and an appeal from her fellow Yalie Gary Locke, then governor of Washington, Lin took on the Confluence Project when founder Jane Jacobsen brought a delegation of tribal elders to Lin’s studio in Manhattan. Even afterward, as the various installations were being located and designed, the tribes said the Celilo site was still too painful to touch. It wasn’t until years into the effort that the tribes agreed to locate the final site there, a completion now scheduled for 2016.

If the tribes had continued to say that the place was too painful, Lin said after her talk, “That would have been the story” – Celilo’s piece of the story of the river.

Instead, the narrow walkway over the river will recount the place’s background geologically, mythically, historically and in the words of Lewis and Clark. The installation will also let visitors hear the roar of the falls, which reportedly had the sixth largest waterflow of any waterfall in the world.

Celilo will mark the completion of the Confluence Project, joining the amphitheatre at Chief Timothy Park, the walkway to the ocean at Cape Disappointment, an earth-covered land bridge to the river at Vancouver, a bird blind at the Sandy River Delta and seven story circles at Sacajawea State Park in Pasco. The plan originally called for a seventh location, but Lin explained that the seventh site will now be a virtual one binding it all together – a web site, a book and a curriculum.

At all sites, Lin said, the project was invited in by local tribes, and the installation was designed for the landscape. She recalled telling Antone Minthorn of the Umatilla tribes, chairman of the Confluence board, that every time Confluence did a blessing at Chief Timothy Park, an eagle flew overhead – and Minthorn answered, “Of course.”

On slats at the Sandy bird blind are the names of 134 species encountered and described by Lewis and Clark – some visible today, some endangered, some extinct. The statement speaks particularly to another long-term effort by Lin, an interactive web site called “What is Missing,” surveying environmental and species changes throughout the planet.

To the City Club, she talked of how the Atlantic cod, which could grow to man-size a few hundred years, has now been fished down to much smaller proportions. Lin showed a slide of a tiered sculpture she has created, with each tier showing a shrinkage of the Arctic ice cap.

“What is Missing” and the Confluence Project, Lin explained, are constantly “talking to each other.” The Columbia, with its depleted populations of salmon and sturgeon, would have a lot to say.

But, she insists, the story is not over.

“Nature is resilient,” Lin said quietly but firmly. “If we give it a chance, it can and does come back.

“What does art do? Art can imagine a different future.”

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 12/3/14.

NOTE