Thoreau Back

I spend twenty minutes wandering around a paved path that loops up over several short grassy hills trying to find “Author’s Ridge,” the plateau where Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau are buried. There is big nineteenth-century nerd energy here in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord Massachusetts.

Designed in 1855, the landscape architects chose the “garden design” approach, a popular new trend in cemeteries at the time. When I read about this, I pictured a group of white, male landscape architects sipping brandy and smoking cigars in a tavern talking about the “next hot thing” in the cemetery game:  

Water, boys! Its all about the ornamental ponds and the like. Makes people feel less sad about their dearly departed Abigail whilst standing on a footbridge, feeding the ducks and the like. If only the Internet existed, we could tweet the crap out of this stuff and the like.  

What this actually means is that Sleepy Hollow unfolds as a rambling, meandering space. Gently sloping rises give way to gravestones set in among thick strands of trees and lush, flowering shrubs. The layout invites strolling, exploring, visiting, and generally spending time in a place where time is glacial on the surface and irrelevant underneath. It’s easy to lose yourself—literally.

I double back to where I started and stand in front of a site map that is unhelpful, mostly because I can’t read maps unless they are of the children’s placemat menu variety. On my right I hear two women approaching down from another hilltop path. I hear one of them say something about “the Winona Ryder version” and I know they are talking about one of the film adaptations of Alcott’s Little Women. Out of the corner of my eye I see one woman make the universal “just over that way” arm gesture. A lucky break! I give them a decent lead and start to quite conspicuously tail them. I am struck with the certainty that I would have easily died in the first five minutes of any war regardless of domestic or foreign soil.

As I come closer to the bottom of the ridge, I note a modest outcropping where one might even park a car and a large, freshly painted sign reading “Author’s Ridge” with a bold arrow pointing up a steep incline. Helpful now that I’ve arrived. Sure.

The two women have long outpaced me and are already drifting from site to site when I get to the top. The ridge sits toward the back of the cemetery. A line of trees forms a natural barrier along the back slope and further beyond that sits a huge expanse of what appears to be wetland and woods. If you’re going to submit to the belief of an eternal, physical resting place, you might as well splurge a bit on the drapes.

I feel a little dopey being up here, a little touristy on home turf. But these are my people. Language lovers, word warriors, creative weirdos—they used their gifts and skills to, as Georgia O’keefe said, make their “unknown known.” And the world was changed forever because of it. No pressure. A highlight reel of these American literary all-stars:

Louisa May Alcott wrote WOMEN’S FICTION (all those emotions, gross); her enduring work was the eventual classic Little Women. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote several novels, including The Slut Shaming Handbook, known by its more popular title, The Scarlet Letter. Ralph Waldo Emerson was a writer and philosopher considered the father of transcendentalism (we don’t know who the mother was because PATRIARCHY). This was a set of philosophical ideas about the inherent purity of man and nature. His essays, speeches, and lectures took on big ideas about things such as self-reliance, individualism, and the relationship between nature and spirituality (that last one made the Catholic clergy very grumpy; they were absolutely not having this nonsense about Jesus being a tree. Hard pass). Henry David Thoreau was a gentle, somewhat introverted naturalist who wrote about the environment and pressing issues of the day such as abolition and the importance of civil disobedience. Most consider Thoreau’s master work his book, Walden. In it, he chronicled that time he lived in a one-room dwelling, which he built himself, on the shores of Walden Pond (about a mile outside of his hometown of Concord) while not Instagramming it.

The writers are clustered together with their families. Spouses, children, siblings. The Emerson family plot feels like a VIP lounge. Cordoned off with chains, the site contained several generations of Emersons. In the middle, front and center, sits Ralph Waldo’s headstone. Strike that: head boulder. He rests beneath a large, tall slab of jagged granite. It rises up over everything like a harvest moon. It’s quite beautiful. In the light, the white granite assumes a purplish hue. It’s all rugged and misshapen and if you squint and fantasize just a little bit, you can almost see the gouges left by the picks of the quarrymen who excavated the hunk for old R.W. (Side note: That’s what I would have called him back in the day: “Nice starched collar, R.W. Turn your head in that thing much?” This would have been considered a very sick nineteenth-century burn, I assure you). Big man on campus, Emerson. Message received.

I lingered a little in front of Alcott’s grave, which consists of a small rectangular stone, not much longer than an envelope, just wide enough to contain her name. That day there was a bouquet of dried flowers left to one side. Someone had also stuck pencils around her stone to form a border. It reminded me of a kind of summoning circle, a protective enchantment around the writer whose words endure, whose works continue to fuel the dreams of others. The pencils were new. Unblemished yellow and smart pink hats, stilts for walking across the centuries.

I breezed past Hawthorne (sorry Nate) and came to a stop in front of the person I was really here for: Thoreau. I am team Henry David. A high school English teacher taught on the transcendentalists and it wasn’t too long after that I read Walden in its entirety. In later years I picked through his other writings—essays and books—along with his journals. Thoreau’s genuine and unapologetic love, curiosity, and reverence for the natural world in its entirety from the ice crystals forming on the pond in October to the birds nesting in the trees around his property is inspiring. He exercises this extreme care and attention to whatever it is he’s immersed in—land surveying, plant collection, a canoe paddle up the Concord River—that feels increasingly rare in our twenty-first century sound bite-skim-centric-plagued lives and also like the antidote.

Thoreau does not want to disappear into the hills and live in a hut (no Wifi? We are not barbarians, Henry David!). Rather, it’s how he found his way to things that he truly cared about and then proceeded to forge a life committed to honoring those interests with authenticity and integrity that makes me fan girl for Thoreau. That takes more bravery and grit than hanging out in a cabin in the woods.  

Thoreau’s grave is toward the back of his family plot. His marker is marble, about the size of a lunchbox, engraved with his name. A simple headstone for a man who was anything but. There were no offerings at Thoreau’s grave that day. It’s a common practice to leave a stone or rock on someone’s gravesite as a sign of respect and remembrance. Others believe that a stone placed on someone’s grave keeps their soul tethered to this plane. I believe we can’t have too much Thoreau in the world. I hunted around in the dirt nearby and found a small flat stone, worn into a slight oval shape, perfect for skimming over sparkling waters on a summer day. I placed it gently on the top of Thoreau’s grave and set off back on the path leading me down from the ridge.

Grateful Dead

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In Boston, the dead are everywhere. They are immortalized as statues in the middle of courtyards and public walkways; they show up on plaques tacked onto the outside of historic buildings and screwed onto the backs of park benches. They lie in the ground across nineteen different cemeteries spread out across the commonwealth. The city has grown up around many of these burial grounds, putting down pubs, shops, and schools next to final resting places. Suburban cemeteries are typically tucked into the back and corner pockets of a town, making them destination places for the living as much as for the dead. Boston’s city plots invite traffic, which I find comforting. In death and in life, no one wants to be the lonely girl at the party.

There are nineteen cemeteries in the Boston area dating back to the early-1600s. I take New England’s status as the crotchety, centenarian grandmother of the country for granted. As the first part of the country Puritans cheerfully regifted back to themselves from Native Americans, New England has been around the block. I remember years ago going out to northern California to visit a friend who lived in a small town celebrating their seventy-fifth anniversary. We have trees older than your town, I told her.

Our graveyards are part history lesson and part tourist destination. The Granary Burial Grounds is one of the city’s oldest and most star-studded cemeteries. It’s a deceptively small courtyard plot a short walk from the Park Street T stop that spills onto the Boston Common. The Granary is now nestled among modern buildings; across the street sits the Suffolk University Law School. I’m sure the irony of studying such a punishing profession as law across the way from a cemetery is not lost on certain students.

The Granary holds 5,000 inhabitants with about 2,300 headstones. It’s Boston’s first overcrowded neighborhood and it’s most star-studded. Those resting in peace include Samuel “Let’s Get Revolutionized and Drink Beer” Adams; John “I’m Not Compensating For Anything With My Giant Signature” Hancock; and Paul “Get Your Asses Out of Bed The British Are Coming” Revere. A 25-foot obelisk squats at the center of the cemetery marking the gravesite of Benjamin Franklin’s parents. Though Franklin was born in Boston, he spent most of his formative years in Philadelphia, preferring burial in the City of Brotherly Love over the City of Dirty Water and Violent Sports Fans.

Walking through the Granary feels more like wandering through a museum. Tourists filter into the cemetery year round. Volunteers stand outside of the wrought iron entrance, handing out maps that direct visitors to the most famous plots. Kids run ahead of their parents, bored—what kind of park is this with no swings and a bunch of rocks? People take photographs of the stones or selfies with the markers, meandering along the narrow walkways that extend like capillaries between the graves. It’s a never ending open house—no one lingers for longer than it takes to find a couple of historical headstones or make a requisite “that’s pretty old joke: “1709? No Internet back then!” They check the site off their list and scroll on their phones to find the quickest route to Faneuil Hall or the aquarium.

The first time I visited a cemetery was on fifth grade field trip. Some classes get to go to zoos or visit the state capitol, we went to roam around a local burying ground. I think this is what’s called education on a budget. Our teacher, Mrs. Sinnibaldi, whom everyone referred to as Mrs. Sin, was a lot like Robin Williams’ John Keating character from Dead Poets Society— minus the desk standing. Mrs. Sin nurtured individuality and creative thinking; she was the kind of teacher who handily folded life-lessons into our work in the classroom without any of us being none the wiser of her kind, but firm, guidance helping us to become young people who weren’t flaming embarrassments to society. After reciting the pledge of allegiance each morning, Mrs. Sin would ask us to sit and observe a minute of silence. Sixty seconds just for you, she’d say cheerfully. Chat with Jesus, take a short doze, or sweat out a lie about not having your social studies homework done—it was all the same to Mrs. Sin, stealthily teaching us the power of the pause.

There was no formal art class or program at our elementary school. Mrs. Sin took it upon herself to create her own arts curriculum. Every few weeks, she’d take an hour out of some Thursday to do something arts-related with the class. I’m not talking about glue a bunch of pipe cleaners together to make a mobile or paint a wooden cigar box. Mrs. Sin’s art projects were the kind of high-level situations you’d find on Pinterest. One involved giving us all empty wine bottles that she had collected (why do you have so many wine bottles lying around, Mrs. Sin, I thought one morning during our daily morning of silence). Ripping up little pieces of masking tape, we plastered the pieces all over the bottle at odd and overlapping angles. We painted the bottles—blue, red, purple, green—to make them look like “cracked” pottery vases. She had us get cheap calligraphy pen sets and taught us how to do calligraphy lettering. And in the spring, she brought us to the cemetery to do headstone rubbings.

To make the rubbing, all you had to do was press a large piece of paper tightly against the stone and bear down with a dark colored crayon to fill in the entire paper. The designs and writing magically appeared to give you a rendering of the stone’s artwork. Armed with our supplies and a terrifying lecture about respecting the grounds and the sanctity of the space that concluded with something to the effect of being personally hand-delivered to our parents at home or place of work should any of us get out of line, we were let loose into the sprawling cemetery. Simple. In fact, probably the least technically complicated art project we ever did in Mrs. Sin’s class. Except it was complicated, this business about taking the markers of dead folk and turning them into colorful wall art.

Giggling away our nervousness by making stupid jokes about Halloween and every horror flick we’d ever seen, my friends and I strolled up and down the rows of headstones. True to New England form, many dated back to the 1800s. Some were weathered so smooth that they contained no etchings at all, leaving the deceased in total obscurity forever. Mrs. Sin had told us to look for whatever struck our eye in terms of the stone’s artwork. There was no wrong choice, she explained. Capture whatever inspires you.

I was not inspired. I was scared. I didn’t want to stand on someone’s grave let alone touch their headstone, which when faced with doing just that, I felt it was a violation of some sort, like the unwanted embrace from a boss or pervy uncle. Did they know this was part of the deal when they picked out their plot? Did they think that instead of flowers or flags on their graves, one day they’d have elementary school kids pressed up against their final resting place with paper and crayons, making a fun, artsy day of it in the cemetery? We spend a lot of time spit-balling about what happens after we die, but that’s only part of it. Our death culture makes it easy for us to keep sticking around with our cemetery plots, memorials, sacred or favorite spaces graced with our ashes and, now, social media sites. It’s worth considering how to handle the departed adjacent.

I finally stopped in front of a pair of headstones for a husband and wife who lived and died in the early-1920s. The wife’s marker contained a simple, elegant pair of angel wings that spanned the top of the headstone followed by her name, Charlotte O’Brien, and birth and death dates. Sorry, I murmured, kneeling down in front of the stone, tacking my paper against its rough, cold face. I scribbled furiously and as quickly as I could. The rendering was weak. The lines of the wings faded in and out. The “2” in the woman’s birth year looked more like a “7.” A small rip appeared near the bottom of the paper where I had pressed too tightly against a divot in the stone. Thanks, I said as I got up and brushed the damp earth from my jeans, jogging to catch up with everyone else already heading back to the bus.