I bought The Dill Pickle Club’s 10-volume set of comics on the history of Oregon earlier this spring. Short, little books, that I finished reading with the idea of visiting the sites mentioned in each volume. The fifth volume on Chinatown was easy because I walk through that neighborhood every day. The eighth volume was on the Vanport flood and my first visit there was by accident when I went to buy my first soccer ball. Volume one, devoted to the Lone Fir Cemetery, however, has been elusive for no reason other than I don’t turn left.
That’s not quite accurate. I turn left, but from where I live in Portland it’s very easy to travel north, west and east on foot, bike or bus. To head south feels like a lot more work.
When I head out of my building, south is left.
Few buses go north to south. To walk south, I have to head blocks and blocks east or west to reach a bridge crossing the freeway. By bike, there’s a stretch where the road feels just too narrow for everyone who wants to use it.
The Lone Fir Cemetery is straight south of me.
Despite being on my list of things to do for months, I just needed an excuse to visit the cemetery, and that excuse was Hamlet. The Portland Actors Ensemble is staging Hamlet in the Lone Fir Cemetery into July (and Twelfth Night will be staged in different parks through Labor Day) – and it’s FREE. The Portland Actors Ensemble has been performing Shakespeare in the parks since 1970.
I committed myself to attending a performance of Hamlet.
So I headed south.
Now, I feel kind of stupid. The Lone Fir Cemetery is only two miles (south) from where I live. I could easily walk. I walk that distance all the time. I decided, however, to bike because it would be faster. I mapped out a route to avoid those four blocks that are just too narrow for my taste, and I discovered a perfect route with few cars for all destinations south of me.
The play began at 7 pm, but I arrived early to explore the cemetery. The Lone Fir Cemetery is the oldest of Portland’s pioneer cemeteries with one of the city founders, Asa Lovejoy, buried there. (Lovejoy lost a coin toss to name the city. He had wanted Boston, his hometown, but lost the toss to Francis Pettygrove who picked Portland, his hometown back East.) More than 25,000 people have been buried in the 30-acre cemetery.
The cemetery was named for a lone fir on the property, originally a farm. Before arriving at the cemetery, I hadn’t researched where the lone fir might be, thinking a lone fir would be obvious to spot.
Well, the Lone Fir Cemetery is one of the few cemeteries that permit trees to be planted in honor of the deceased.
I found the lone fir surrounded by other trees not far from the Stephens’ plot, the owners of the farm before it became a cemetery.
I don’t find cemeteries to be spooky, but then I don’t often find myself in one at night. As the play began, the cemetery was quite beautiful in full light.
Although I’m not afraid of cemeteries, squirrels freak me out. Polonius had just said, “Neither a borrower nor lender be,” when squirrels began chasing each other a few trees behind me. I tried to ignore them as they moved closer and Horatio said of Hamlet, “He waxes desperate with imagination.”
Closer they came.
Chasing through the branches above my head.
Hamlet, alone after the ghost of his father exits, said, “O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!”
Closer they came.
On the trunk of the tree next to me.
Bursting from behind the tree were Marcellus and Horatio, running to the stage.
Why? Why did it have to be staged that way?
Did I scream? I don’t think so. Did I jump? Based on a chuckle nearby, I believe so. Perhaps it was the squirrels themselves because I didn’t hear from them again.
I wouldn’t say I have a short attention span, because I prefer to say I have a royal ear. If a movie goes over 90 minutes, I check out. Unlike opera, which I’ve always liked, I had to grow to like Shakespeare. Perhaps I needed to see his plays staged, rather than plodding through them as reading assignments. Or perhaps I just needed time. Hamlet is one of Shakespeare’s longer plays, but if you were ever like me, see it performed outdoors. It’s more casual and it’s free.
To sit in darkness and a cemetery at that, Hamlet’s words were even more vivid, “Then trip him that his heels may kick at heaven, and that his soul may be as damn’d and black as hell, whereto it goes.”
I rode my bike home through the dark, deserted streets with Horatio’s words running through my head, “Good night sweet prince.”
It’s important to remember the whole quote to understand the feeling of being chased that I couldn’t shake as I sped from the cemetery, wanting very much to remain amongst the living. Horatio was surrounded by Hamlet, the queen and Laertes, all dead. To the dead Hamlet, he said,
Now cracks a noble heart. Good night sweet prince:
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!