“It smells just like compost,” said Rasenick, executive director of Remember Land, the nonprofit that owns the property. “Pretty wild, huh?”
About an hour earlier on that day in late October, Rasenick boarded a utility terrain vehicle, turned the key and started the loud engine. He began a drive along a path through Remember Land’s hills and valleys and forests and plains.
The vehicle rolled to a stop in the crunching gravel. Up ahead, the patch passed over a small corrugated-pipe culvert, which funneled a winding tributary of Rock Creek. Rasenick said that the culvert is keeping salmon from traveling upstream to spawn.
The culvert and the area around the creek is part of a new 15-year restoration project from Remember Land. Work that began last month, with Clark Public Utilities providing workers for the first phase: removing blackberry bushes.
“Because there’s so much blackberry, the alder trees can’t root and grow up,” Rasenick said. “If we don’t do something, there’s simply no diversity at all, and critically, no canopy at all to shade streams to keep them healthy and cool enough for salmon.”
Sometime around February, workers and potentially a group of volunteers will begin using the NOR for planting trees.
“We understand the NOR as supporting us in creating a shortcut in some of that forest succession. A lot of these forests have been clear-cut over and over again over the last century and a half. All the soil is depleted.”
Rasenick kicked up the engine and drove the vehicle up the curving gravel road, piercing deeper into Remember Land.
Rasenick grew up near Chicago and came to Portland in 1996 to study biology and religion at Reed College. He said he was curious about the most mysterious wonders of life.
“I wanted to know how the world works culturally and also what makes the world work physically,” he said.
It sparked Rasenick’s interest in the cultural impact of composting commingled human remains as opposed to burying a person in the ground in one spot “where we pretend we can extend homeownership in perpetuity,” he said.
“That’s fundamentally what owing a cemetery plot is all about,” he said. “This myth of homeownership means something that I can pretend I’ll take it forever. It’s absolutely that same drive that our life can have meaning and there’s some sense that we can be settled by this experience. That this place is mine forever.”
Remember Land has had a small number of bereaved loved ones visit the land, but Rasenick is still working on creating a meaningful experience for them. Visitors occasionally come to the site on a monthly basis, but that will likely change as Rasenick creates a never-before-felt experience of seeing an ecosystem that one’s loves ones help restore with their NOR.
“It’s great for us because clients can literally return to the earth and be useful in death,” said Anna Swenson, outreach manager at Recompose.
Gardeners, hikers and environmentalists are among the people who chose to donate their remains to Remember Land.
The 700-acre nonprofit is funded through multiple grants, including the Clark Conservation District, Clark Public Utilities, CPU, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Farm Services Agency; the latter two are divisions of United States Department of Agriculture.
Along the way to the final stop of Rasenick’s trek into Remember Land, he explained how the 700 acres have been repeatedly logged and degraded.
All of this site was clear-cut multiple times over the last 170 years, with the most recent harvests happening about 30 years ago, he said. A development company had purchased the property and planned to build homes on it before Remember Land acquired it.
The land was first populated by Indigenous people, primarily from the Cowlitz Tribe. Rasenick said he’s been building a relationship with the Cowlitz to involve them in the project.
Sometime before 1900, the land fell into ownership of the Cresap family, a group of early Clark County pioneers. The family used it primarily as a timber resource for many years.
“This is the last largest parcel of the original land,” Rasenick said. “Some of the upland areas are maturing nicely. Certainly, there’s no old growth remaining. Some of the meadows are relatively healthy.”
Remember Land collaborated with Forterra as its fiscal sponsor for three years in August 2018 to buy the property. Earlier this year, it was transferred to Remember Land.
Soil scientist Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, a Washington State University professor, collaborated with Recompose for the pilot study of NOR. She suggested that five years of NOR be spread per acre per year; that’s about 500 people’s remains per year. She also has a graduate student who’s studying Remember Land.
“There’s a strong history of using compost and similar organic amendment for rehabilitating forests and other lands,” she said. “The product from NOR is effectively compost. It’s expected to bring similar benefits. It’s not only physical and biological material. There’s the remembrance of the person or people that come with the NOR product.”
Carpenter-Boggs said she hopes the conservation work’s importance is strengthened by using NOR.
“It layers on a greater respect for the place and the appreciation for the beauty and quiet somewhere between a cemetery and wildlife.”
While no one else on the planet is using human commingled compost in such a way, Rasenick said it’s a heavy responsibility that will evolve over time.
“There’s a sense of the weight of the responsibility that I certainly feel,” he said. “It’s my hope we’re not the only ones for long.”
After Rasenick stopped the vehicle and approached the pile of NOR, picking up the soft, brown matter and gently replacing it, he pointed out where some elk and deer had trekked over the pile. Their footprints dotted the dark soil, bringing the bodies’ remains one step closer to nature.
“Isn’t that wild?” he repeated.