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Thursday, January 11, 2007

Reservoir of Memory

Say a chimpanzee knuckle walks into a cathedral.
Does it stand in awe before the ornate alter or are its predominating thoughts more like, “I don’t see any bananas - Where can I find some bananas?”

Much is being discovered about how similar the genetic code is for chimps and humans, yet the dissimilarities seem fairly significant. So far as I know, chimps don’t build churches, worship before icons, or go on crusades, at least not for purposes of evangelism. The question that goes begging is whether or not chimps neglect their religious duties because of superior intelligence or not.

Frans De Waal has assembled a remarkable book called My Family Album: Thirty Years of Primate Photography. The photographs document the social behavior of monkeys and apes and effectively argue that the difference between a man and a chimp is a small matter of degree on a broad continuum.

Obviously not a chimp.


Chimps use tools, communicate in rich social environments, and recognize themselves in mirrors. That means the only really unique thing that differentiates us from other apes and the rest of the animal kingdom is our propensity to use (or care about) calendars, appointment books and journals. These skills, coupled with our freakishly large heads allow us to remember the past, to plan ahead, but also to imagine the difference between the way things are and the way things ought to be. Evidently, once we begin monitoring the way things work, it isn’t long before we come up with ideas like justice and begin looking for ways to lobby the universe for favor – to influence how our lives unfold.

The reason I mention all this is because I was trying to figure out what it is about people that compels them to make shrines. I accidentally found a shrine on Saturday as I walked around the perimeter of Reservoir One, high on the south side of Mt. Tabor. The shrine-maker utilized a small concrete fountain built into a small arched alcove in the retaining wall at the end of the reservoir opposite the gatehouse.


Some ancient civilizations, like Egyptians, went to extremes to construct timeless memorials, and if you happen to be an Egyptian walking around in Egypt, you can pass by ruins and artifacts that stretch thousands of years into the past.

Here on the west end of our continent, Oregonians must make do with architecture that is considerably less historical. Reservoir One was made by ancient Oregonians when Portland was a town of about 3000 people. The reservoirs on Mt. Tabor and in Washington Park made today’s Portland possible.

Symbolically, a life-giving fountain is a pretty great location for a shrine. Of course, I can really only assume that what I found was a shrine. The ample use of fir tree boughs and an illustration of a Christmas tree hinted that the ‘shrine’ might be decorations linked to the holiday season. The variety of objects and their purposeful arrangement suggested meaning to me though it was hard to determine if the references were pagan or Christian. I couldn’t be sure of the meaning of many of the artifacts. I wanted to pick some of them up and study them more carefully. I wondered if there was a note written somewhere on the paper. I wondered if the quarter would reveal additional clues if I could see what state it represented. I wondered who made the shrine and if the author meant to leave an optimistic message about life, or one of those sad memorials like those crosses you see alongside the highway. But mostly, I felt like I was invading a private space, like approaching an altar in a strange church. So I kept a respectful distance and thought about these things.


Incidentally, try as I might, I couldn't find any bananas.


For in-depth information about the reservoirs at Mt. Tabor, visit the Mt. Tabor Neighborhood Association web pages. Here's a link that will take you to some very detailed PDF files.
http://www.mttaborpdx.org/history_reservoirs.html

To find out more about ape and human evolution, consider visiting Living Links, Yerkes National Primate Research Center Web pages (Frans De Waal is the director).
http://www.emory.edu/LIVING_LINKS/

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