NO GHOSTS BUT A GOOD GARDEN: MT. AUBURN CEMETERY & THEIR ASA GRAY GARDEN
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This post and podcast link has been delayed several days by the wild land #CAMPFIRE, which broke out this past Thursday in my region, and which has grown to 125,000 acres with more than 6500 homes lost. My neighborhood was in evacuation by 9 pm Thursday evening. My heart goes out to everyone impacted - so many lost lives, homes, work places. Fires of this scale are devastating to households, communities, and ecosystems. Please know that as the fire settles and the full impact is known, Cultivating Place will be working diligently on efforts to help in the rebuilding of gardens and landscapes moving forward. A profound gratitude to the fire fighters and other public servants working to save people, animals, and places. Our hearts go out to the other areas of California experiencing wild fires south of us, as well.
Things here are in something of a state of suspended animation, and it feels a little odd to be posting the podcast, and yet - it is also a reminder of how life moves forward even in times of upheaval, there is both comfort and hope in doing our work as we are each able.
Please stay safe.
This week after All Hallows Eve, the Celtic Samhain, Day of the Dead, All Saints’ day, and All Souls’ Day, I thought we should visit a cemetery garden. Ghosts or not – visiting a garden space dedicated to ancestors seems appropriate this time of year as we move into the darker time, and the restful dormancy of winter.
Little known fact about me, I love cemeteries as gardenspaces, and the way in which flowers and plants are interwoven into the way we as humans say goodbye to, hold onto and honor our dead. Burial sites of differing cultures around the world are also noted horticultural destinations.
So, we head to Boston’s Mount Auburn Cemetery, an historic cemetery where horticulture and a deep horticultural legacy was integrated into its mission from its founding, and has continued into the present. The cemetery is the final resting place for many notable people, the famed botanist Asa Gray among them. Mount Auburn is in the process of restoring the area of the grounds known as Asa Gray Garden dedicated to Asa Gray’s botanical legacy. Here to share more about Mt Auburn in general and this garden and project specifically are Dave Barnett President and CEO of Mt. Auburn and Ricardo Austrich, Landscape Architect and Senior Associate at Halvorson Design Partnership in Boston. Mount Auburn is first and foremost a cemetery, but it is also a National Historic Landmark, a botanical garden, an outdoor museum of art and architecture, and an important habitat for urban wildlife.
Dave and Ricardo join us today from the PRX’s Podcast Garage in Boston, Massachusetts.
"Incorporated into the mission and vision of Mt. Auburn is that 'preservation and enhancement the landscape will come first in all future decisions regarding cemetery management,' - a commitment made by the board of trustees. The objectives include to try to remain a cemetery but always make sure we’re conscious of preserving and enhancing the importance, significance, and character of the landscape."
Dave Barnett, Horticulturist
President & CEO, Mt. Auburn Cemetery
Asa Gray is among the most famous American botanists, particularly known for his work recording and categorizing North American Flora in the 1800s. Named in the 1940s for the botanist, the Asa Gray Garden constitutes the entrance space just inside the front gates of the historic landscape cemetery. Throughout the renovated garden space, the design team has worked creatively and diligently to create a welcoming and reflective garden space including many specific trees, shrubs and flowering perennials illustrating Asa Gray's career focus on documenting and studying the similarities between woody plant specimens in Asia and their apparent relative trees and shrubs in North America – a phenomenon known as disjunct pairs. Magnolia, Davidia, and Hammamelis specimens native to Asia and to the U.S. are featured in Asa Gray Garden.
Mt. Auburn Cemetery founded in 1831 by the Massachusetts Horticultural Society in Boston, Massachusetts. As in the 1830s when Mt. Auburn set the standard for rural and naturalistic cemeteries in the country, the cemetery staff are once again leading the way for others by focusing on this urban oasis environment as an important place of mourning and celebrating our dead, but also creating and caring for life – as a welcoming green space for human, wildlife and plant diversity.
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GHOSTS AND SPIRITS AND ANCESTORS –
So what about you – how do you feel about cemeteries – graveyards – burial sites? Love them? A little hesitant about them? It might depend on where you grew up or have lived in your life as to where you fall on this spectrum. While I grew up in a very rural foothill part of Colorado, I also grew up visiting family in Boston, New York, and South Carolina annually. We were the only part of my mother or father’s extended family who moved West. When we visited the east, historic cemeteries and graveyards were part of the landscape – full of interesting plants and horrifying history. But perhaps it was because of how my family embraced these spaces as beautiful, peaceful to visit and walk through, AND as part of everyday life, I did too. When I attended high school in a small town outside of Boston, there was a beautiful old cemetery across the road from the girls’ house I lived in and we walk through the cemetery coming or going – it felt full of spirit – not scary, just spirited….and the plants were lush and interesting and cared for – a little different at each headstone or plot, giving a sense of personality much like gardens do. There is a whole wonderful history of heritage plants – especially roses – being rediscovered in old cemeteries across the country – from Boston to New York to Denver to Sacramento - and brought back into the trade. Which seems like a beautiful cycle of restoration and reincarnation on some level. One of the many lessons of any garden for us gardeners…
I hope you find time to check out the photos of Mt Auburn and the restored The Art Architecture and landscape of the Asa Gray Garden there. It is a walk through time – a lesson in humanity, the way our life, death, life cycle is.
Towards the end of this conversation with Dave Barnett and Ricardo Austrich – a garden history lesson in itself – Ricardo describes the design goals of the Asa Gray Garden there at Mt. Auburn cemetery as “drawing you through and in, collecting you, and then releasing you to the greater landscape…”
There’s something really moving about this description to me – it’s how I think about the importance of our gardens in general, right? Back in my #QuantumGardening, #MetaGardening, and #Semioticsofgardening modes. Once upon a time we were not quite so disconnected from the nature of the seasons, the weather, the plants and the soil – and the normal, healthy aspects of both life and death in our day-to-day lives. That’s connection/reconnection is among the many gifts our gardens and natural spaces bring us: the everyday intimacy of life and death as part of life.
Just as Ricardo describes the functions of Asa Gray Garden to the rest of Mt. Auburn, so is my garden to my life in the bigger world: my garden draws me in and collects me through the seasons playing out prismatically in color; through the shifting quality of the light within one day, across many days; in the architecture of my daily space framed by trees and shrubs, which robe themselves in spring and then disrobe again come the autumn of their cycle. My garden and wider landscape draws me in, and if I am paying attention to the ways and lessons of the plants and the places, they really do release me – refreshed and expanded back into the larger landscape and world - a better person
In this season of drawing in, let your garden, your natural areas and green spaces and plant companions collect you – hold you and prepare you for your work in the wider world.
Asa Gray saw and studied the relationship of plants separated by continents – he grasped hints of their earlier evolutionary stories. Those stories, and his story, like friendly ghosts, come down to us in our plants – listen closely to them…we have so much to learn, they have so much to teach us.
My garden and its plants hold so many stories from my life - I am guessing this is true for you, too I’d love to hear your stories - of the history held in the plants, and ancestral spirits who reside there. I talk about some of mine in this month’s November's A View From Here Newsletter: A Season of Ghosts - of Gardens and Gardeners Past – check it out and SUBSCRIBE at CultivatingPlace.com. It’s a direct way for me to communicate with you more often and I hope to hear back from you too!
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