This is a piece I wrote which was first published on The Piker Press in 2005. I thought it would be nice to share it with my blog readers on this Memorial Day weekend. All photos in this post are clickable to enjoy a larger view.
Situated in the high desert of Northern California, in the shade of Mt. Shasta, there lies a sculpture garden dedicated to all veterans. The USDA Forest Service offered this land for the creation of a memorial. Bronze artist Dennis Smith served his country as a Marine and brings to life a personal and intimate portrayal of our history. His philosophy of art (“…to uplift, edify and educate”) is apparent throughout the garden and labyrinth.
On a perfect late spring day, my husband Kip and I drive away from Redding, north on highway 5. We exit in Central Weed and head north on highway 97 toward the stark beauty of the high desert. To our southeast, Mt. Shasta rises into a clear blue sky, her snow covered peaks shining in the sun. We find the Living Memorial Sculpture Garden one mile north of County Road A-12, in the heart of Siskiyou County and are greeted at the entrance by The Peaceful Warrior sculpture. With one bronzed arm raised to the towering pines, the figure appears triumphant. As our car enters the parking area, my eyes are drawn to the Hot LZ Memorial Wall, which on this day (only a week after Memorial Day), it is covered with the red, white and blue of small American flags and the rich colors of dozens of bouquets of wildflowers. Names of veterans, living and dead, are etched in the wall’s granite surface. Glinting in the sun atop the wall are two bronzed sculptures of helicopters. Mt. Shasta’s snow covered slopes soar behind them and I can imagine the helicopters, blades whirring, lifting into the Spring sky.
We drive away from the parking area and down a dusty road where junipers and pines blow in a gentle breeze. Purple Penstemons, Northern Buckwheat and Hawks Beard are just a few of the dozens of species of wildflower which cover the ground. Dennis Smith’s sculptures catch the sun’s rays, throwing light toward the rocky outcroppings on the northern end of the park.
Kip and I climb out of the car. The breeze blows away the heat of the sun and wild thyme and sage flavors the air. We walk out to the POW-MIA sculpture. A soldier lies in a cage, ankles bound, hands curled limply at his side. People have placed wreaths, bracelets, flags and notes in front of him. An American flag, sun bleached and tattered, flutters. My throat tightens and tears blur my vision. The silence here is broken only by the occasional rumble of a truck making its way along highway 97; and the sweet trill of a single bird.
Kip and I take our time wandering among the sculptures. We wait for awhile at the site of The Flute Player, symbolic of peace and tranquility. It is said when the wind blows just right, the sound of a flute comes forth. But not today.
We walk out to The Nurses memorial. An injured soldier rests on a stretcher carried by two men; a nurse, hand outstretched as if giving a blessing, leans over him. Someone has tucked a tiny bouquet of blood red Desert Paintbrush inside the injured man’s hand. I imagine the thump-thump of a helicopter’s rotors, the thud of distant bombs, and the soothing voice of a nurse in the chaos. I imagine a soldier in pain who looks into the eyes of another and is comforted.
Kip and I move on. We feel the despair at the Korean War Veteran Monument; and hope as we gaze at the outstretched arms of the central figure in The Why Group.
The minutes tick by. I am filled with a peace that is hard to define. This site is dedicated to war veterans and one might think the violence of war would find a place among the monuments. But Dennis Smith, who believes that “through art we have the means to peacefully consider violence,” has created a remembrance that fills the observer with reverence and tranquility. On this day, Kip and I are alone among the bronze and dwarfed by a mountain. We stumble upon other tributes left where once only wildflowers grew. “To Papa,” says one; “To my brother,” says another. Crude bunches of flowers, small flags, piles of rock nest in the desert grasses, almost hidden; and their presence touches us, makes us feel this place is special.
When finally we climb back into our car, our words have been silenced. I roll down my window, allow the wind to blow past my face. Dust sifts and billows beneath the car’s tires. We leave the parking lot and turn south onto highway 97 toward home. I glance back once more to see the Peaceful Warrior standing guard.