Seven years ago a group of Native American tribes and local civic leaders approached Maya Lin, designer of the superb Vietnam War memorial in Washington, DC, to participate in a project commemorating the bicentennial of Lewis and Clark's journey with the Corps of Discovery in 1804-6. The idea was to rethink what the commemoration of the bicentennial could be.
Out of this collaboration came the Confluence Project, a series of seven art installations along the Columbia River designed to evoke the history of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and the tremendous changes it brought to the Pacific Northwest: not just political or historic, but also natural ones.
Now, many of the seven sites are taking shape, each where the Columbia river meets another key body of water: the Pacific ocean, the Willamette River, the Sandy River, the Snake River, and so on.
By its very definition, the Confluence Project is site specific and meant to exist at key geographical spots. But looking at the map of sites, as an Oregonian I can't help but feel a little bit jealous. The state of Washington has snatched up almost all of the nearest sites. Sure, Oregon has the monument out in Troutdale marking where the Sandy River meets the
Willamette Columbia (pictured). But the monument marking the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia Rivers? That's in Ridgefield Washington, 10 miles away from where the actual rivers meet - in Portland.
Another site, one of the only ones not associated with another water source meeting the Columbia, marks where the river meets the Klickitat Trail at Fort Vancouver. There will be a new land bridge connecting Fort Vancouver with the riverfront, a nice public works project for the city to enjoy. And the monument marking the confluence of the Columbia with the Pacific? It's not in Astoria, where a revitalized city and economy would have been very excited by the monument, and where you can literally look out and see the river meet the ocean, but in Ilwaco, Washington at Cape Disappointment. Indeed.
As I write this, I realize it's petty of me to be keeping score about whether Washington or Oregon gets more of Maya Lin's Confluence works. When the Corps of Discovery actually traversed this land, of course, these artificial state boundaries didn't exist. And of course the terrain and geography and history should be the determining factor in where these sites go. The last thing I'd want to do is politicize the site selection process.
At the same time, though, the Ridgefield site bothers me. The project was originally set to be at Frenchman's Bar, another Vancouver Park. But it was moved to Ridgefield in order to be paired with an environmental research center at Washington State University's satellite campus there. So what was more important here, development or history?
This move, in my mind, opens the door for Confluence sites to be selected by means other than history and geography. So using that logic, we have license to ask why in the world the Willamette/Columbia Confluence site isn't somewhere in Portland. After all, if Ridgefield is ten miles away from the actual confluence, why not move a few miles down the Willamette and put Maya Lin's work in a prominent urban site along the river, such as Waterfront Park?
No offense to Washingtonians, but if you ask most people which American city sits at the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia rivers, they wouldn't respond with "The Couve", let alone Ridgefield. Now, for reasons I don't think are good enough, Clark County on the Washington side of the Columbia gets two monuments overseen by Maya Lin, the most acclaimed monument designer of our time, while Portland, the vastly bigger and more relevant urban big brother, gets more or less zero. To me, that's like naming the Lewis & Clark expedition the 'Lewis & Jones' expedition after Lewis and a subordinate of Clark's.
Then again, having expressed my petty Confluence envy, I am very glad that at least some of these Lin monuments will be within a day's drive. Maybe I'll even stop at that enormous factory outlet mall in Troutdale after communing with nature and history in Lin's bird-blind installation by the Sandy River.