Jane Jacobsen

The death of Confluence Project founding director Jane Jacobsen reminds us of the positive difference one person can make in our region.

Although relatively few in Pacific County will recognize her name, Jane Jacobsen was an extraordinarily effective advocate for remembering a central pillar of our identity. This is the complex historical interplay between Native and White people — the cataclysmic/creative storm sparked by the arrival of Lewis and Clark.

Jacobsen’s quiet death at home in Vancouver on May 22 was marked by tributes in Clark County. As recounted in The Columbian newspaper, her public contributions included being a founding executive director and member of the board of directors of the Confluence Project; a Clark College trustee; president of the Friends of Fort Vancouver; founding member and advisory council member of Columbia Land Trust; and a member of the Columbia River Gorge Commission.

It’s for Confluence that Jacobsen is honored here. She was that organization’s powerful, imaginative and unstoppable engine, raising an initial $33 million to create an interlocking set of sites along the Columbia. These remind us of our responsibility to embody the positive intentions of the Lewis and Clark story. Confluence is about the meeting of minds in a spirit of curiosity, openness and cooperation — as opposed to conquest and relentless exploitation.

Famed architect Maya Lin’s crucial role in Confluence was the happy result of an idea separately hatched by Jacobsen and peninsula leaders, and picked up by one of our best governors, Gary Locke. Carolyn Glenn, one of these local leaders, last week remembered the genesis of the concept:

“David Campiche and I were able to get seats for Gov. Locke’s discussion about business in rural counties held at the Ilwaco Heritage Museum. We managed to get a few minutes with him afterward and suggested Maya Lin would be the perfect person to help celebrate our area’s history. His next stop that evening was in Vancouver where Jane Jacobsen and others also had Maya in mind. The very next day, Nabiel Shawa [then Long Beach city administrator] heard from the governor that he agreed with our concept and was reaching out to Maya Lin. Thanks to Lin, Locke and Jacobsen, our small peninsula is home to a design installation of international importance. Jane was a great leader and a delight to work with. She is loved by the Friends of Lewis and Clark.”

Confluence probably first originated in about 1999 as just a firefly in Jacobsen’s mind. By August 2005, Jacobsen was able to reflect that all the groups involved in planning for the 2004-06 Lewis and Clark Bicentennial “shared a vision — to create works of art that would motivate people to reflect upon the cultural and environmental legacies of the ... expedition. Each group independently named Maya Lin as the artist who could best interpret this complex story, commemorate its memory and inspire future action.” Lin is best known for her design of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.

‘How stunningly beautiful’

It’s easy for we who live here to sometimes forget just how privileged we are to inhabit such a place. Lin was captivated: “How stunningly beautiful it is out here,” Lin said during an early visit.

Now approaching 20 years old, her design at Cape Disappointment State Park has matured to the point that it can be appreciated as a living and largely pragmatic part of one of Washington state’s most popular outdoor destinations. It’s a safe assumption that hardly anybody recognizes local Confluence installations as anything fancy, and that’s how it was intended and should be. Subtly stretching across the isthmus between Wahkiki Beach and the ancient anchorage shoreline in Baker Bay, it’s a popular place for strolling, picnicking and quietly watching eagles cavorting on the river islands.

As it has turned out, it’s precious for what it is, not because a celebrity designed it.

“This is a very special, quiet and sacred place that has been inhabited for thousands of years,” Jacobsen observed in November 2005, as the project was nearing completion. Chinook elder Cliff Snider noted at the time, “We’ve been here for 10,000 years, maybe 13,000 or 14,000 years.” Meeting with Lin at her New York City studio during preliminary design talks “was quite a thrill for me. We talked about dams, fish, the environment. I’ll never forget it.”

Initially regarded as a key project element, a 12-ton basalt fish-cleaning station near the still-functional boat launch has faded in importance. The big gray rock was ill-suited to its purpose, and was derided by fishermen from the beginning. A deep crack means the two tons closest to the river are likely to fall off the next time the earth shakes. Its eroded surface makes reading an inspiring inscription nearly impossible. Unfortunately, for too many locals, it became the defining story of the Confluence Project. This is too bad, since the rest of it works so well.

Take time to park in the large lot adjacent to the boat ramp, get out and walk around, and you’ll see what Lin intended: “how important the Columbia River estuary is, how it’s changed. Before, this was a turnaround, it was all for the car. People were prevented from seeing what they came here for. When they see it now, they know they can use it and get back to an immediate connection with the area and its ecology. The three pieces are connected by a path from fresh water to salt water, connecting the ecology of the place.”

Look beyond this East Coast designer-speak and Lin makes an entirely wise and valid observation. For all its tragedies and annoyances, this year-plus of pandemic has provided endless chances to get out and relish our state parks and wildlife refuges. For the modest cost of a Discover Pass, residents can drive to and park at Cape D as often as we like. It’s popular with visitors for good reasons, offering premium seats to the sometimes raging and always entertaining Columbia River bar, the tranquil river bank, the never-ending drama of wildlife, and places of endless contemplation.

Get out there and experience it, and give a thought to Jane Jacobsen, whose imagination helped make it even better.

Missed opportunities

Before leaving this subject, it’s worth making a couple remarks about the National Park Service. On the positive side and as we’ve noted before, it’s commendable that it delegates its dominant land ownership at Cape D to Washington State Parks. With occasional quibbles, the state does a great job out there. (One quibble at the moment is the lack of gorse and scotch broom control. They are out of control along Jetty Road. Waiting for coastal erosion to drown it all?)

On the other hand, NPS pretty much neglects the main site it does take management authority over, the Station Camp-Middle Village Unit at McGowan.

This time of Black Lives Matter activism would, for example, be ideal for programs at Station Camp about Capt. William Clark’s slave, York. Not only did he play a key part in the expedition’s success, but Clark’s failure to free him for many years afterward is a prime example of why our nation still has so much to overcome when it comes to racism. Why feature live interpretive programs about York at Station Camp? For one thing, almost anything would be better than nothing. As it stands, NPS barely does basic maintenance at a site it seemingly doesn’t appreciate. But for another, it was at Station Camp where York and the Indian woman Sacajawea were included in an informal ballot that decided where the explorers would spend the winter. In 1805, this pre-dated Emancipation by nearly 60 years and women’s suffrage by 115 years, setting the stage for the inclusive society we still aspire to be.

In his journals, Clark mentions York’s care for those who fell ill and his uplifting sense of humor during their difficult journey. York attracted the attention of many Native American tribes who had never seen a Black man. Their interest in him aided diplomacy between tribal leaders and the captains. “York is coming from an inferior place in society,” James Holmberg, a Lewis and Clark scholar, wrote. “Now, he’s being treated as an equal ... and even being superior to [the other Expedition members] in the eyes of the Native Americans.”

Clark left lasting memorials to York, naming islands and a creek after him. We can do more, learning from York’s life and integrating these lessons into modern racial relations.

Though definitely not up to Maya Lin design standards, Station Camp-Middle Village could be so much better than it is. The editor, for one, misses the old roadside turnout with the chainsaw carving of the explorers, a shady picnic table and a good climbing tree for adventurous kids.

Matt Winters, Chinook Observer editor since 1991, lives with his wife in Ilwaco and visits Cape D several times a week.

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