Preserving the Future

On navigating loss and collecting histories

Courtesy of Southern Oregon Historical Society

When COVID-19 arrived in Oregon, I was working as the archivist at the Southern Oregon Historical Society in Medford. The nonprofit organization owns and operates a research library and historic farm and also stores and cares for thousands of artifacts and archival materials. Following the governor’s declaration, we shut our doors in March 2020, for what I thought would be a month at most. After the initial weeks of waiting, tuning in to every state and national press conference, seeking information and a sense of control, it became clear that the virus would be a major historic event. Then in May, protesters demanding justice for slain Black Americans took to the streets in Medford. A few months later, the Almeda fire ripped through our region, leveling the towns of Phoenix and Talent. As the entire state choked on thick smoke, I struggled to determine what my role, as an archivist, should be. How could I navigate and help move beyond the collective loss we had been feeling—both diffusely and acutely?

At the start of the pandemic, I put out a call for COVID stories—any anecdotes, jokes, or thoughts about how the virus was affecting our lives. A bit later, the society’s volunteers and I began accepting physical donations—newspapers, homemade masks, social distancing signs from stores. Determining how to assemble, store, and organize items is a key archival responsibility. An archivist might choose to group items from an individual donor, or divide them up thematically, chronologically, or geographically. In the early months of 2020, I thought most of the contemporary donations I collected would be pandemic-related. As the fight for racial justice swelled, and the wildfires consumed 3,000 buildings, I realized that 2020 would be remembered for more than just the virus. 

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The Almeda Fire touched my life, but I was fortunate not to lose my house. My partner and I live in a single family home on the south end of Medford with our dog, cat, and ducks. On the day of the fire, we spent several hours trying to gauge the severity of the situation and searching in vain for information. We packed up our dog and cat and essential items. A friend helped us cut holes in the top of a Sterilite tub, wrangle the ducks into the tub, and transport them in her van to a farm in the Gold Hill area.

Three ducklings, purchased by the author in Spring 2020. The author intended to purchase chicks, but a nationwide shortage of chicks led her to take home ducklings instead. Photo via the author.

My partner and I had been planning to go to Florence the following day, purely by happenstance, so we had reservations for subsequent nights. I figured if we drove to the coast, the worst-case scenario was that we would sleep in our car until we could get to our AirBnB the next day. My parents had also booked a place to stay. It was to be an outdoor-only, socially distanced gathering, the first time I had seen them since the pandemic started. As we drove north on I-5, I saw the huge plume of dark smoke, seemingly moving toward South Medford. The official “Level 3 - GO!” evacuation notice reached me about thirty minutes after we left. I thought that would be the last time we set foot in our house. 

We spent the next several days in Florence, exhausted, mostly without reception and unable to get any updates. Occasionally I could get through to my neighbor, who hadn't evacuated. His mother and sister-in-law had come to stay with him after losing their house in Phoenix, and they had nowhere else to go. I was thrilled every time he responded with a text letting us know that the power remained out, but the house was still standing. When we finally returned home, there were chunks of burnt debris and ash in the yard. Soot had made its way inside, and everything smelled like smoke. Our canopy had ripped due to the wind, the fence was nearly toppled, and rats had taken over. The yard was covered in a layer of droppings. 

Cleaning this up was a lot of work, but I consider myself extremely lucky. In fact, I know it’s not just luck—socioeconomic factors played into the fire’s outcome too. Fire may seem undiscerning, but the homes lost were primarily in mobile home communities, where residents tend to have fewer financial resources than the residents of single-family homes. In addition, while the ethnic makeup of those who lost homes has not been determined, both Talent and Phoenix have had populations that are roughly 15% Hispanic or Latino. This percentage is on par with Medford but higher than the more affluent cities of Ashland and Jacksonville, and higher than the Hispanic and Latino populations of Jackson County as a whole.

Highway 99 in Phoenix, Oregon. Photo via the author.

The first time I drove from Medford to Ashland along Highway 99 after the fires, I felt unprepared for the psychological gut punch. How many times had I chuckled at the punny Dun-Rov-N mobile home community sign, stopped for tacos at La Tapatia and donuts at Puck’s? They were all gone. Rows and rows of homes leveled. Solitary chimneys marked piles of rubble that used to be houses. Charred washing machines hinted at the existence of a laundry room. I soaked it all in as tears began to roll down my face. Here was that feeling of loss again, the somber backdrop to the last two years. I thought of the grim milestone the country had reached a few months prior, when 100,000 Americans had died of COVID-19. I did not yet personally know anyone who had died, but the figure struck me. This sadness, anger, and dismay came again as news of Breonna Taylor’s death spread. With both the pandemic deaths and those of Black Americans, I wondered whether I had the right to be sad—and also how it was possible not to be. None of these traumas were mine. My race and socioeconomic status had shielded me from some of the personal losses faced by my neighbors and so many Americans. And yet, the collective heaviness bore down on me.

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After the fires, people started donating different kinds of artifacts and archival materials. Firsthand accounts of the terrifying hours between September 8 and 9, footage of firefighters driving through an ash-drenched apocalypse, screenshots of evacuation maps shared on social media—these became the central story. Months later, after hazmat teams had made their way through the charred remains of Talent and Phoenix, the historical society received a few burnt items from people who lost their homes: a mason jar, melted down and collapsed so that the metal lid was fused to the base; an outdoor light fixture twisted almost beyond recognition; a charred cell phone. 

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When someone brought donations to the society, they often wanted to talk about the item’s meaning in their life. Throughout my time as archivist, I found especially moving the conversations I had with a Vietnam veteran, who was donating buttons and pins from the Veterans for Peace organization. He began to cry as he recalled his support work in the early 1990s with Soviet veterans of the 1980s Afghan War. In another instance, an older woman donated a baby dress that had been in her family for nearly one hundred years. She made several trips downtown to bring me pictures of each generation of her family wearing the dress. She served as the custodian of these memories for her family and yet could not find a home for the artifact among her family members.

I have learned that when people take the time to preserve items and attempt to rehouse them, rather than throw them away, it’s because these items hold value for them. As archivists, a crucial part of our job is to listen to people. Even if only for thirty minutes, we connect with them, one human to another. In so doing, we affirm that they matter—that their existence matters. 

Sometimes archivists, and the communities they serve, connect with items’ owners posthumously. In sharing an old photo or diary with a researcher, archivists facilitate a connection between those currently living and those who came before. A major barrier for storytelling through archival materials, however, is that the more marginalized a person is in life, the fewer physical records they leave behind. This is a well-known problem in the fields of history and museum studies: underrepresentation of people of color, poorer people, non-heteronormative relationships, and any other ways of being that exist outside the dominant power structure. 

Despite the inherent bias toward privilege in the world of archiving, I was honored during my time at SOHS to be involved with recovering and retelling several stories of marginalized people. One such person was Ben Johnson, a Black pioneer who owned a blacksmith business serving miners in the Applegate Valley in the 1860s. I first became aware of Ben Johnson’s story when the Oregon Geographic Names Board contacted our society for input on a name change proposal. The proposal requested that the mountain bear his full name, replacing the name “Negro Ben Mountain,” which it had held since the 1960s. For many decades, people in Southern Oregon did not know the identity of the Ben to whom the mountain referred. But in the early 2000s, local historian and author Jan Wright discovered that the Ben of Applegate Valley was Ben Johnson, who lived and worked for decades as a blacksmith in Albany, Oregon and is buried there, along with his wife, Amanda. Since his full name was now known, the proposal argued, the mountain’s name should be updated to express his full humanity.

Today, as archivists and historians attempt to collect the stories and artifacts of the past two years, we face the same problem—the most marginalized groups are the hardest to reach through traditional means. Many people who lost their homes in the fires have moved on, needing to find work and shelter and unable to access the meager resources available for survivors. Capturing their stories, their objects, their archives, while we still can, is critical to understanding our communities and how we can improve moving forward.

I believe telling the lesser-known stories, particularly those of underrepresented groups, serves two purposes beyond information sharing. First, where two or more gather to retell the story of a fellow human, a ritual occurs, something spiritual in nature. And second, enriching people’s understanding of the past may not prevent us from repeating it, but it fosters a deeper appreciation of our fellow humans, which is where we must start. 

Comments

3 comments have been posted.

Wonderfully written article. Your grandparents would be so proud of you and the work you do. Keep up the excellent work

Catherine. Null | May 2022 | North East, Md

We are quite familiar with the writings of Kira's father, Craig Lesley, and it is evident that Kira has inherited his talent. She has skillfully interwoven her deep sense of humanity and observations of marginalized people into an interesting presentation of her archival work. We hope Kira continues to help us all appreciate the "lesser-known stories" of underrepresented groups.

John and Connie Silko | January 2022 | Davis County, Iowa

Kira, what a wonderful piece of writing and caring. I am thinking that via the digital expanse, you have invited many more than two to gather in a spirit of respect and ritual. Thank you.

Sara salvi | January 2022 | Portland

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