Rituals are cairns marking the path behind us and ahead of us. Without them we lose our way.
-Robert Fulghum, From Beginning to End: The Rituals of Our Lives
Trail hikers are familiar with piles of stones used to mark the way: cairns. Rituals and ceremonies also help us know where we are in life.
The Intertwine is rich with locations for ritual and ceremony. Many a wedding has been held at Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden, Hoyt Arboretum, the World Forestry Center and Leach Botanical Garden. But I’ve also conducted ceremonies marking life milestones from cradle to grave in our region’s parks, natural areas and recreation facilities. From a godparents’ blessing to a divorce ceremony, from private grief rituals to large memorial services, The Intertwine provides settings for both solace and celebration.
A godparents’ blessing
The role of godparent is rather out of fashion these days. Some carry the title but do little to bring it to life. One set of parents in California was determined to create a meaningful bond between their four-year-old son and his godparents.
Without a religious practice like baptism, they’d gone without a formal “Welcome to your family; we are your people” ritual to welcome their son. They were coming to Portland for a big vegan convention: the four-year-old, his parents and his godparents, who lived on the other side of the country. I suggested history-rich Dawson Park, not far from the convention center. Once the guest of honor had gotten some of his ya-yas out in the fantastic preschool play area, we gathered under the historic cupola of the park’s bandstand.
The ceremony was short and sweet, just the five of them. The experience got these visitors out into a Portland neighborhood park, and gave the often empty bandstand the honorable job of holding space for something special in the midst of a bustling city day.
Ceremonies of grief & remembrance
On the day my father-in-law was cremated, my spouse and I knew we wanted to be some place comforting. We headed to the wet green womb of the Portland Audubon Sanctuary, where the man we mourned had volunteered for 17 years. On this rain-soaked week day, we had the place to ourselves, it seemed.
As we stepped down the slick trail among the old-growth conifers, descending to the rush of Balch Creek, we noticed a large enclosure. A sign told us it was the home of Aristophanes, the resident raven. In cultures throughout history, Raven has been seen as a mediator between life and death. But Aristophanes was nowhere to be seen.
We reached the creek and took shelter in a grove of giant trees, pausing to speak aloud some words of remembrance. After a while we found ourselves drawn down the path to a small pond bordered by a wooden pavilion. As we entered the open-sided structure, facing the pond, we became aware of a slender man with waist-length braids, bending to the ground just off the deck. On his heavily gloved arm was a large blue-black bird: Aristophanes. The unexpected bird, showing up in this place of ancient beauty, provided a sense of the sacred on this sorrowful morning.
Other ceremonies of remembrance are less serendipitous, more thoroughly planned. I’ve conducted large memorial celebrations of life at a range of wonderful facilities throughout The Intertwine, including Tualatin Hills Nature Center, the Jenkins Estate on Cooper Mountain, and the Redwood Shelter in Hoyt Arboretum.
Being in nature, for many, serves as a balm in times of sorrow. For those divorcing or experiencing the death of a friend or family member, it can also stimulate fresh grief, especially if they formerly enjoyed good times together in similar settings. For some, being out in nature in an intentional way helps regain a sense of being grounded during a time of transition.
I’ve worked with a number of clients on simple personal rituals at times of great change in their lives. One, turning 70 and newly divorced, chose to conduct his “ceremony of letting go and new beginnings” on a low bridge over a small stream in Forest Park with only me as a witness. Another divorce client, a young mom, gravitated toward the lush greenery of Tideman Johnson Park, also drawing on the power of the water as support for her intentions of release.
Another woman, just retired, newly back in Portland, her mother recently deceased, felt the need to bring her community together to mark these major changes. They met at Leach Botanical Garden and conducted a walking meditation. As the small group slowly, mindfully wandered through the grounds, they identified qualities in the plants and landscape that their friend could internalize as resources during this unsettled time.
Commemorating the life of the community
While many milestones are personal, some are public. I’ve worked with the Oregon Zoo on two ceremonies commemorating important events. The first harkened back to the earlier use of the West Hills site. A construction crew making voter-approved improvements at the zoo inadvertently discovered the remains of nine individuals whose lives had ended there, over 100 years ago, when the forested hills served as the Hillside Farm for the poor.
Thus began six months of diligence and care involving the state police, the state Historic Preservation Office and Commission on Historic Cemeteries, consultation with three different Tribes, and a detailed archeological study. All parties agreed that the remains should be reinterred where they had been found: protected, private, with honor.
At the end of the reinterment ceremony I officiated, I offered these words to the construction workers, zoo officials, archeologists and others who had invested so much in the process:
"Burial ceremonies are intended to mark endings and bring closure. Today we have laid to rest the remains of individuals we did not know but with whom we now share an enduring connection. You too can lay to rest your efforts on their behalf. As with any ending, the seeds are sown for new beginnings – the generations that visit the zoo in years to come will learn more about the history of this place and the people who preceded them. Thank you all for bearing witness, for paying your respects, and for fully honoring the legacy of this sacred place."
Elsewhere on zoo grounds, two historic totem poles had fallen into disrepair. The public art program of the zoo construction bond supported the restoration of two magnificent carvings: the Survival Totem Pole and the Centennial Pole.
A rededication ceremony attended by the carvers, their families and nearly 100 guests celebrated the restoration, marking a redemptive chapter in the carvings’ history and underscoring the call to stewardship embedded in the meaning of the totem poles.
It is customary in Native American celebrations to offer a giveaway, a token of gratitude to all who participate binding us together in common witness. Each participant received a bookmark depicting the two works of art along with a charge: “With your presence here today, you become keepers of these stories. We invite you to use this bookmark to share the stories with others."
What are you commemorating in The Intertwine?
Whether it’s an outdoor birthday or graduation party, the scene of your baby’s first steps or a wedding proposal, the site of a vigil or other gathering, The Intertwine is a place where the human and the natural world come together to enhance the meaning in our lives and expand our experience of community. Tell us: what are you commemorating on the Intertwine?