Hello, outcasts and underdogs —
Last week I talked about controversial monuments in America: statues to Christopher Columbus, faces of Confederate leaders carved into massive mountains — apparent veneration of a deeply shameful past.
But not all monuments raise such dark questions about history. Some inspire contemplation in different ways, stranger ways — often brighter ways. Mark Andrews pointed me to the weird and wily corners of Atlas Obscura, and the fascinating forms that memorials can take. Let’s have a look at some of those as we head toward our final weekend of BOB.
Shirtless George Washington
So...not the first image you see when you think George Washington. He’s more likely on horseback, or crossing the Delaware, or, maybe standing next to a cherry tree...but regardless of where his is, he’s probably wearing a shirt. Sculptor Horatio Greenough instead chose this scandalous pose, which garnered more chatter than a bare ankle when it appeared at the Capitol Rotunda in 1832.
The statue was later moved outside, where it was a popular roost for pigeons, only making it a more ridiculous sight. Eventually in 1908 it was moved back inside, this time into the Smithsonian’s American History museum, with Congress’ official reasoning being it’s “semi-nude and looks pitiful out in the cold.” That’s right — if you’re cold, they’re cold. Bring your president statues inside.
Today, the statue raises questions about the unusual, sometimes funny ways in which historical figures can be portrayed. A toga-wearing bare-chested George Washington seems more like an SNL parody than a genuine monument...or maybe it’s about his raw, soldiering masculinity. Powdered wigs are hot, right?
Arlington Cemetery’s Disappearing Graves
In another corner of Washington, D.C., Arlington National Cemetery sports a sight more out of a Stephen King novel than a comedy sketch — grave markers being swallowed by roots, which Atlas Obscura calls “headstone-eating trees.”
At first glance, it could seem like sacrilege, with these gravesites being disturbed, the names on the stone (such as Civil War Corporal Chas Ippel) being obscured. But it posits an interesting question: burial ground is...ground...so what happens when, inevitably (or, better, naturally) nature takes over? How much of that can we, or should we, seek to control?
And what does it say spiritually? Is burying a body returning it to the earth, with this arboreal overgrowth then being a welcome progression? Or is the site meant to be a clean, untouched final resting place, undisturbed even by the nature that surrounds it? And regardless of either of those, what especially are the implications for the marker itself — less for the dead and more for the living? What happens if you can’t read or find the name of a deceased loved one or ancestor?
The burial tradition becomes a fascinating and twisting puzzle when these questions are considered, and they’ll continue to be considered, perhaps next when climate change submerges coastal graveyards. Death and nature — we don’t quite stand a chance against either.
(BOB is a comedy, I promise.)
Moving from America’s capital to outside its borders, here’s a personal favorite (maybe those two things are related.) Driving by Praia do Barril Beach in Portugal, one might assume the stunning rows of anchors lodged in the sand are part of an art project, a natural installation. And that very well might be the case; it’s unknown who first decided to arrange the large rusted anchors in this way, but it now functions as a memorial, not to specific people — but to a community: tuna fishing. The industry was massive in the region of Algarve, but when fish populations deteriorated in the 60s, the job went with them.
As soon as you see the site as a kind of cemetery, it’s a freshly beautiful thing. It makes sense: similar markers lined up in rows, honoring something that once was and now isn’t. But the markers aren’t graves. And the honorees weren’t living things. The site also isn’t officialized; it wasn’t planned and organized, or mapped out. The anchors were abandoned on the beach until the first anonymous artist took action. Not a typical memorial, but an amazing one.
The site is also an interesting example of the fusion between memorial, art, and nature. It functions as a form of all three, a memorial art piece smoothly integrated into the dune scape. It also raises a question of intent, and impact. Unlike a statue or mural of a specific person, or a named tombstone, one could easily appreciate the anchors’ beauty without any historical or emotional context. Does that still make it a successful memorial; who is it for? What is its spiritual, existential, and aesthetic purpose from any given perspective?
And why does it look so pretty??
We end, in BOB fashion, back in the states — and in even truer BOB fashion — at the memorial of someone whom many would consider a “Great Man.” Steve Prefontaine was a legend in the running world who died at just 24 in a car accident. At that time, he held every American running record from 2,000 to 10,000 meters, and was a beloved celebrity.
Though now somewhat of a monument, an official stone didn’t crop up by the steep and narrow street in Eugene, Oregon where “Pre” was killed until 1997, 22 years after his death.
At one point, it was just a known spot — a coordinate in physical space marked not by a slab or grave but simply by the dark thing known to have happened there at another coordinate in time.
As is the case with many points of pilgrimage (Pre’s Rock being one for runners), the site is more about being in that space than admiring any spectacle. It raises the question of what’s really at the heart of a memorial, and the nature of the legacy it celebrates. Sure, visitors leave — according to a retrospective from Competitor Running — “a poignant array of track spikes, trophies, medals, personal notes, bib numbers, friendship bracelets, singlets, race T’s and other assorted items”, but the stone, in a way, feels almost unnecessary. It’s a monument that wasn’t created by any official designation of historical significance, but rather that grew organically out of the dedication of a devoted community. The emotional and existential reverence from that fan base, at this place — Pre’s intangible legacy — becomes the greatest marker of his life, after death.
Bob wants his name on a plaque. Eventually, Pre did achieve that here…but is it nearly as impressive as his timeless impact on a grateful cult of consciousnesses?
That’s the dream…right?
It’s difficult not to focus on the controversy when riots and tragedy break out over the confrontation of morbid truths. But there’s also a lot of humor, and inspiration, and beauty, in the fierce and fantastical ways we interpret, honor, and remember the past and its people, and how those ways come to be shaped.
Thank you to Atlas Obscura for the research and photographs, and thank you the many monuments and memorials that continue to challenge and posit questions about life, death, and legacy. Bob would be very proud.