July 2004


Since I said last weekend that I’d be taking Saturdays off from blogging, this is not a blog-post. Instead, it is an image of a mountain ash (Sorbus americana) covered in tiny orange fruit. Earlier this week I emailed the latest of my “Pedestrian Thoughts” essays, and it mentioned a mountain ash that stands outside our bedroom window. This isn’t that same mountain ash–this is one growing in front of a social services office on Railroad Street here in Keene–but it gives you an idea of what mountain ashes look like. If you’re on my “Pedestrian Thoughts” email list, you should have received the latest essay on Thursday. If you aren’t on my mailing list, you can read the essay here, and you can sign-up to receive future email essays here.

And while I’m spending the day not blogging, you can check out my three new submissions to the Mirror Project, all taken during my recent Boston getaway. See? When you send and submit stuff to various and sundry corners of cyberspace, you don’t need to post new material: a blog-post that is not a blog-post will serve just fine.

Today’s Photo Friday theme is Sunset. I’ve been wanting to post these first two pictures–snapped along the bikepath that stretches from the heart of downtown Keene behind various abandoned and still-active factories–ever since I took them on July 19th. Today seemed as good a day as any to post these photos since they were, indeed, taken while the sun was setting even though you can’t see the the actual sunset in either image.

It’s been raining and overcast a lot here in New Hampshire lately; these first two pictures are from a day when it was wet and miserable for most of the day. In the afternoon of July 19th, though, there was a spot of clear skies right as the sun was setting, so the dog and I grabbed the opportunity and took our requisite daily stroll. And here, looking toward the east as the sun was setting behind me, are several images of the pink fog that descended on downtown Keene on the afternoon of July 19th. I can’t say I recall ever seeing pink fog before. It’s not uncommon for sunsets to tint the sky or clouds with pink, orange, and countless shades in between, but I can’t ever remember walking through a landscape shrouded in circus-style cotton candy.

This view of sunset in Keene certainly isn’t the one, I’d presume, that the local Chamber of Commerce would endorse. The officially sanctioned place to view the sun setting over the town of Keene would be Beech Hill, which offers a west-facing vista of our humble town nestled in hills. But although I’ve hiked to the top of Beech Hill, I’ve never viewed the sunset there, nor have I (yet) photographed that famed west-facing vista. Somehow, I like the perverseness of posting a sunset photo that doesn’t show the setting sun but does show the backside of town with its muddy parking lots and orange construction webbing. If you’re going to love a place, you have to love her in all her incarnations. Yes, she looks lovely in a filmy pink negligee…but can you love her when her pink-suffused form is topped by hair in rollers and a face done up in a mud mask?

Although I didn’t make the connection until I started choosing pictures for today’s post, I think I had these images of pink fog in mind when I stepped into the upstairs gallery overlooking Ann Hamilton’s corpus installation at Mass MoCA. One of the breathtaking aspects of this particular exhibit is the light: every one of the several hundred window panes in this renovated mill space, its first floor gallery the length of a football field, has been covered in pink film. The result is a white-painted room that is suffused with fleshly color, like the very body (corpus) that Ann Hamilton’s title invokes. Although the mill building in which this installation is housed had been abandoned as commercially “dead,” the art space it now contains is now palpably alive. The spirit of this place, in a word, has received a new incarnation, a word that happily contains another word, carnation, referring to a vibrant pink tint once used in painting to represent the tones of living flesh.

Although I didn’t make the connection between Hamilton’s installation and the interior of a cathedral when I first entered the main paper-strewn gallery, the Museum literature does, explaining that “The combination of the light filtering through the windows, the implied aisle in the long nave-like gallery, and the voices speaking together suggests the intense, almost otherworldly experience of being in a great cathedral.” Because I don’t, as I admitted yesterday, know much about contemporary art, I didn’t “get” the connection between Hamilton’s exhibit and the notion of sacred space until I entered the gallery overlooking the main exhibit space. In this quiet loft, rows of enormous white-painted beams were lined up like pews on the polished wood floor, the pink-tinted light streaming as if through stained glass. Overlooking the people playing in the gallery below, it really did feel like you’d entered a nondenomination sacred space like the one I found at the end of a purple hallway back in April.

The wonderful thing about pink-fogged sunsets, pink-tinted installation pieces, and other carnation incarnations is the, yes, incarnational aspect of it all. Into this world, God’s pink fog descends and billows, blanketing and suffusing even the backside of town: word becomes flesh as countless people known and unknown romp and mingle amidst falling, pink-tinted pages. The church, Christian theologians would remind us, isn’t a building: it’s a body of believers, the corpus of Christ. And so on the backside of town in Keene, NH and in a renovated mill building in North Adams, MA, I seem to have found religion. Sunsets, like grace, are where you find them, and sometimes in the least suspected places.

Mass MoCA, North Adams, MA

Yesterday Chris and I drove down to North Adams, MA to meet Chris’s brother, sister-in-law, and niece at Mass MoCA, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. Chris and I had been to Mass MoCA several months ago, but we hadn’t been back for the latest round of exhibits…nor had we ever been there with an inquisitive four-year-old. (Yes, that’s our darling niece traipsing after Daddy in the above photo: a rare occasion when I was able to photograph the photographer.)

Mass MoCA, North Adams, MA

I’m not going to pretend to know much about contemporary art: I’m not one of those folks who glides through galleries haughtily pontificating on the “meaning” of various pieces. I tend to browse museums like, well, an inquisitive four-year-old, walking right up to things I like, circling around things I don’t quite “get,” and basically letting a sense of wonder, not an obligatory urge to “understand,” guide my wandering feet. Once at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, for example, I happened upon John Singleton Copley’s life-size painting of Watson and the Shark. At the time, the bench that is normally stationed in front of this huge painting had been moved, so I did what seemed natural: I plopped down on the floor in front of the painting so I could comfortably spent some time admiring it. Given the raised eyebrows of Museum guards and other visitors alike, however, it’s apparently not proper to sit on polished Museum floors…at least if you’re a grown up. For during a later visit I walked by the same painting only to see a Museum docent talking to a group of elementary-aged children, all of whom were sitting cross-legged on the floor, drawing their own copies of the painting with crayons. How come only youngsters get to have all the fun?

Mass MoCA, North Adams, MA

Although I didn’t see anyone sitting on the floor with crayons yesterday, I do love the way that Mass MoCA brings out the “inner child” in nearly all its visitors. Because the Museum is housed in a renovated old mill, it hosts many large installation pieces: exhibits that you literally have to walk through. The highlight of yesterday’s visit, for example, was Ann Hamilton’s corpus, a multi-gallery installation piece housed in Mass MoCA’s football field-sized Building 5 Gallery. Whereas the previous exhibit had featured a block-long installation of houses, each of which offered “window-peekers” a creepy diorama with accompanying piped-in sounds, the centerpiece of corpus was that huge football field-sized gallery lit by pink-shrouded windows, sonically backdropped by a series of loudspeakers that raised and lowered themselves in unison, and showered by countless sheets of paper, special machines having been installed in the rafters to release a random cascade of single leaves.

Mass MoCA, North Adams, MA

On the one hand, the sane response to a roomful of wastepaper (according to Museum literature, over a million sheets of onionskin will fall from ceiling to floor over the course of the exhibit) is “How is that art?!?” (In fact, Chris’s initial response upon seeing a room covered in wastepaper was, “Hey! This looks like my old college dorm room!”) Although it’s true that any teenager, for instance, could quite skillfully replicate the messy chaos of corpus, what I enjoyed about this exhibit wasn’t the “art” itself but everyone’s reactions to that art. Instead of standing around trying to “understand” what message Ann Hamilton was trying to communicate, folks responded the same way they’d respond to falling leaves: they shuffled their feet, ran and tried to catch falling sheets, and grabbed armfuls of paper and tossed them in the air. One woman–a grown woman, mind you–even buried herself in a pile of papers while grinning ecstatically for her photo-snapping husband: “Look at me!” While actual youngsters ran around the room chasing one another and gathering up fistfuls of paper, their parents didn’t shush or chasten. Instead, everyone got into the spirit of an autumnal stroll, enjoying the pink-tinted light, wondering what in the heck those synchronized speakers were saying, and otherwise just enjoying the scenery.

Mass MoCA, North Adams, MA

What fascinates me about installation pieces, even esoteric ones, is the way they tend to morph into performance art, their open spaces begging viewers to walk in and become part of the exhibit. A room of castoff paper is pretty boring, but a room of wandering adults and children strolling and running and playing with nary a guard in sight is pretty interesting. If nothing else, it’s fun to see how even grown ups like to play if they have the excuse of “art” to cover their actions. And it’s interesting to see, again, that people’s true nature will be revealed by a particularly provocative piece, for both photographers and photographers of photographers can never resist a prime shot.

Little red schoolhouse, Jaffrey, NH

The above picture shows the inside of the little red schoolhouse in Jaffrey, NH, which Kathleen and I visited during our recent trip to Willa Cather’s grave. Built in 1798 and used as a one-room schoolhouse until 1886, the little red schoolhouse is open during the summer for weekend tours. Since Kathleen and I visited historic Jaffrey on a weekday afternoon, however, we couldn’t go inside the tiny building: instead, our interior peeks were limited to what we could see while standing on some cinderblocks someone had stacked under one of the schoolhouse windows, our photos snapped through the reflective, glare-attracting glass. (In fact, in the lower righthand corner of the above photo, you can see a patch of grass reflected under my outstretched, photo-snapping arm, and in the lower lefthand corner, you can see the reflection of the buttons of the dress I was wearing: an accidental bit of reflective self-portraiture.)

Little red schoolhouse, Jaffrey, NH

Growing up in Columbus, Ohio, where I was bussed and bustled to a series of overcrowded, understaffed public schools, I can’t imagine what it would have been like to be a student, much less a teacher, in a one-room schoolhouse. Although every educator knows that small classes allow for better, more individualized interaction between teacher and student, the thought of teaching mixed age groups and grade levels in a single room is daunting. Considering our modern epidemic of Attention Deficit Disorder, how did students in tiny schoolhouses find the quiet they needed to concentrate? Surely a one-room schoolhouse often looked (and sounded) like a three-ring circus with some students reading while others copied exercises and others recited lessons learned by rote. Did older students help younger ones with their lessons? Did smart schoolmarms enlist the help of goody-two-shoes to watch over (and rat upon) the trouble-makers, or did old-fashioned teachers really have eyes in the back of their heads?

Teaching a classroom of college freshmen is daunting enough: depending on where my students went to high school, they may or may not be properly prepared for college-level work. And when I teach intermediate writing and literature classes, the range of preparation varies just as widely: there might be a green second-semester freshman sitting next to a seasoned final-semester senior. Knowing what each student needs is challenging; being able to deliver it is even more difficult.

Little red schoolhouse, Jaffrey, NH

In the fall, I’ll be teaching for the first time in a “wired” classroom: students in my Expository Writing class at Keene State College will meet in a new, high-tech classroom where everyone will have a network-connected workstation for in-class writing, online research, and various collaborative computer-based activities. After teaching face-to-face classes for over a decade and online classes for two or three years, now I’m facing a new challenge: how best to incorporate technology in the classroom so it’s actually helpful rather than merely distractive. Comparing my mind’s eye image of a wired classroom with these images of an unplugged one evokes interesting comparisons: how will I manage to teach at least two of the 3 r’s (reading and ‘riting) while juggling the distractions of a thoroughly modern, technological three-ring cyber-circus? In retrospect and with a touch of nostalgia, I wonder if the good old days had a focus and a groundedness that these new-fangled times lack. If nothing else, a good ol’ hickory stick sometimes comes in handy, no matter what century schoolmarm you are.

Meeting House, Jaffrey, NH

Today’s photos are from last week’s jaunt to Jaffrey, NH, where Kathleen and I visited the historic Meeting House and Old Burying Ground. As you’ll see below from the picture of the historic marker on the side of the Jaffrey Meeting House (an enlarged detail of which you can view by clicking on that photo), the building was erected in 1775 on the day of the Battle of Bunker Hill. Although Kathleen and I couldn’t tour the inside of the Meeting House in Jaffrey, and although most of our window-peeking was blocked by closed blinds and remarkably high windows, I did manage to get one shot of the inside of the Meeting House by holding my camera over my head, resting it against the glass window, and trying to shade any glare with both cupped hands. (This same technique is how I captured yesterday’s image of the inside of the Seventh-day Adventist church in Washington, NH: another historic building I’ve never actually entered.)

Meeting House, Jaffrey, NH

But, this entry isn’t about the historic Meeting House in Jaffrey, NH; it’s about catbirds, of which I unfortunately don’t have any images.

As I sit here on my bed typing these words on my laptop (picture Carrie Bradshaw writing her “Sex in the City” column, except I look nothing like Sarah Jessica Parker), there is a catbird calling from the dead mountain ash outside our bedroom window. This or another resident catbird–its mate?– has been calling from this corner of our yard for weeks now. As I’ve been rereading my handwritten journal entries in search of salvageable bits for my latest Pedestrian Thoughts essay, I find myself reading day after day about this same catbird, or its mate: always one catbird calling, not singing, with its wheezy, emphatic, meow-like cry.

Usually birdcalls bring me back to the present moment, which I suppose is why they figure so frequently in my writing. As my thoughts wander from this present moment into the future or the past, or as my mind’s eye roams from this sunlit bedroom in Keene to the surrounding hills, across the continent, and to imagined lands beyond, birdcalls bring me back. Terser and more emphatic than songs, calls are how birds communicate amongst themselves, the avian equivalent of “Hey! I’m walking here!” Whereas bird songs generally focus on the biological imperative of breeding–male birds sing to attract a mate and fend off rivals–bird calls are the mundane chitchat that continues even after the honeymoon is over.

Meeting House, Jaffrey, NH

But catbird calls are different: catbird calls always take me elsewhere. Catbirds are mimics related to mockingbirds and brown thrashers: although their call sounds like a cat’s meow, their song is a rollicking chant of poorly executed bird imitations. You can tell a mockingbird’s song because it really does sound like a blue jay, then a killdeer, then a robin are singing all from the same perch: mockingbirds typically repeat each imitated song three times before moving on to the next random selection on the avian jukebox. Brown thrashers are slightly less proficient than mockingbirds when it comes to imitating other birds: their renditions are less convincing and are generally repeated twice, not three times. And then there are catbirds…

Catbirds do imitate other birds, but they do so poorly. They usually sing each birdsong only once, rapidly moving from one mangled tune to another, and they interrupt said medley with that indicative nasal cat-call of theirs: meow! So whereas a mockingbird sounds like an operatic diva and a brown thrasher sounds like a sincere but only moderately gifted choir soloist, a catbird sounds like a cat who has swallowed the canary, and maybe a goldfinch, and maybe a chickadee, and maybe a bunting. You can hear each devoured bird singing, individually and slightly worse for wear, in amongst the meows of a smarmily satisfied feline. It’s not the most appealing mental image, perhaps, but it’s a memorable one. Once you’ve heard a catbird sing, you’ll probably not soon forget the bird or its name.

Meeting House, Jaffrey, NH

But to return to my initial point, catbird calls are different from other birds’ calls because catbirds always take me elsewhere. Whenever I hear the sound of a catbird calling, I hear in my mind’s ear the sound of a catbird singing. And whenever I hear the song of a catbird, I inexplicably think of a guy (I’ll call him B) who used to be, like me, a PhD candidate at Northeastern University in Boston. B’s office was next door to mine way back when I had an office on the fourth floor of Nightingale Hall. B (like my officemate P and me) was an adjunct instructor at Northeastern, so we all kept incredibly busy teaching a full courseload while juggling the demands of our PhD research. And B (unlike my officemate P and me) was juggling the added demands of fatherhood: although I didn’t know B well enough to know much about his homelife, I knew he was married and had two young sons.

As people in neighboring offices will do, B and I chatted around the metaphorical water cooler there in Nightingale Hall: how was your weekend? How many papers do you have to grade? How’s that PhD research coming? Although I casually chatted with B nearly everyday for the four or five years that I taught at Northeastern, I don’t remember the topic of his scholarly research, I don’t think I ever learned his wife’s name, and I couldn’t tell you what hometown he was from. But I remember he had two young sons, boys I never met and who didn’t, as far as my limited realm of acquaintanceship was concerned, even have names, “How are those boys of yours doing” being an adequate question to fuel the talk around the metaphorical water cooler.

Meeting House, Jaffrey, NH

One semester several years into my stint of teaching at Northeastern, B took a semester off. He was having marital problems, I remember, so he petitioned the Graduate Studies Committee for an official leave of absence from his studies: he needed to spend time with his family, I remember him explaining. All of us–B, my officemate P, and I–were incredibly busy, so I don’t remember getting many details about B’s difficulties: he was, again, a casual acquaintance, a co-worker with whom I merely chatted. But when B came back from that leave of absence and announced that he and his nameless wife were divorcing, I remember the entire tone and tenor of his conversations changed, his nameless boys becoming the focus of a solid determination, “I need to spend time with my sons” a new mantra.

It was then, I remember, that B started coming to me with bird questions. “I understand you’re a birdwatcher,” B approached me one day. “There are these huge birds that nest along the highway near Boxboro…I see them everyday when I drive to campus.” Ah, yes, the heron rookery near the junction of Route 2 and 495: those would be great blue herons you’d see there. B nodded, checked a field guide, and nodded even more emphatically. “Yeah, that’s them…I want to take my boys to see them!” And every Monday morning after that, B would regale me with lists of birds he and his sons had seen that weekend: herons and bluebirds and pheasants. “I figured birdwatching is something we all could do together,” he explained. “I figured it was something good and wholesome we could do, just we three.”

Meeting House, Jaffrey, NH

I don’t remember all the birds that B saw with his sons, but I do remember the catbird. One Monday morning, it must have been during the Spring term, B raced into my office. “We saw a catbird, our first catbird!” I remember he was ebullient at the discovery: not only a new bird, but a new bird found together, him and his boys, a bird they’d both found and identified. “I’d always heard, you know, about the catbird seat…but now I know what they look like, and that sound!” I nodded, smiling: “Yeah, nothing sounds quite like a catbird. So those boys of yours, did they get excited, too?”

And here’s what I’ve remembered, all these years…the reason why whenever I hear a catbird call, I imagine the song of a catbird and then think of B and those nameless boys of his.

“Yeah, we heard it singing,” B explained, “and we compared what it sounded like with what the field guide said it was supposed to sound like.” And at this point, I remember B’s face brimming with pride. “You know, my younger boy turned to me and said, ‘Dad, that bird doesn’t sound anything like what the book says. You know what that bird sounds like? He sounds like R2D2!”

Meeting House, Jaffrey, NH

You know, B’s boy was right! Although I’d never associated a catbird’s song with the short, squat, brightly chirruping robot of Star Wars fame (a robot, by the way, that my Gram Mitchell, when she took me to see Star Wars after having already seen it with her Senior Citizens’ Center friends, called “Butterball”), a singing catbird sounds remarkably like R2D2, its “song” consisting of a punctuated chatter of chirps, squeals, and cheerfully burping slurs. And so every single time that I hear a catbird sing, and almost every single time I hear a catbird call, I think of B and those boys of his. “Wonder how B is doing,” I’ll think, having lost touch with him when he dropped out of the PhD program, like so many others I encountered along the way, to tend to life’s other duties. “I wonder how his sons are, if they’re doing well, if they still get excited about herons and bluebirds.”

And sometimes when our resident catbird takes up his usual chant for a particularly long time, I’ll allow myself a particularly detailed fantasy: to the sound of mews and squeals, I’ll let my mind’s eye wander to somewhere in Massachusetts, somewhere roughly around Boxboro, where I can almost imagine I see walking two boys, now adolescent or even teenaged, for it had to be some seven years ago when they were boys of about six and eight. And in this imagined rhapsody, I see those boys stop in their tracks, silenced by a calling catbird, as the younger looks up to the elder and says, “Remember the summer Mom and Dad split up, and how Dad used to show us birds?” If the catbird’s call is loud enough to drown out the sounds of residential Keene, and if I shut my eyes to the reality of this sunlit bedroom, I can see the elder boy nod to the younger, “Yeah, you said that bird sounded like R2D2.” And if the present moment doesn’t intrude, I can almost imagine the smirk of derision, so often shared amongst brothers, as the elder jostles the younger out of his moment of contemplation: yeah, those were the days, but here is now. And so whenever I hear a catbird calling, I stop and remember acquaintances from days gone by: does B remember the catbird’s name, and do his boys? For them does the cry of a catbird bring back memories either solemn or sweet, or can they even hear it?

Historical marker, Washington, NH

I don’t know much about the Seventh-day Adventist Church, but I’ve been to the site in Washington, NH of their first church. From what I gather, the original Seventh-Day Adventists were a group of believers who kept Saturday (the seventh day) as a day of rest and who believed that Christ’s second coming was imminent. The group of believers who gathered in Washington, NH in April, 1842 consisted of a group of Sabbath-keepers and a Methodist minister who held the “Advent hope” that Christ would return in 1843, a year that later Seventh-day Adventists euphemistically term the Great Disappointment. Today, Seventh-day Adventists are known for their clean-living and low-cholesterol, often vegetarian diet: Dr. John Kellogg, in fact, was a Seventh-day Adventist, so that bowl of breakfast cereal might save both your body and your soul.

Seventh-day Adventist Church, Washington, NH

Regardless of what Seventh-day Adventists actually believe, I have to admire a group of believers who have persevered in their “Advent hope” despite Great Disappointment after Great Disappointment. Although the Seventh-day Adventists have, I presume, stopped trying to pinpoint the precise date of the Second Coming, it can’t be easy living amongst people who act as if The Boss is never returning from vacation and who insist on burning their proverbial candles at every conceivable end. In theory at least, I like the notion of taking one day a week to rest: given America’s prevailing Protestant work ethic, Sabbath-keeping is entirely countercultural, a practical way of demonstrating one’s faith that some things other than work Matter. And the notion of keeping an Advent hope is also, in theory, completely appealing: who wouldn’t want to live their life with the hope that God hasn’t completely abandoned the world to mundane evil, that there is a happy ending coming someday, and even someday soon?

Seventh-day Adventist Church, Washington, NH

Whenever I’ve visited (on weekdays) the Seventh-day Adventist church in Washington, NH, I’ve marvelled that it is still standing and still active. What use does the modern world have for a quiet church tucked along a quiet country road? Ours is a world of movers and shakers, not a world of quietly hopeful Sabbath-takers. There is, technically speaking, neither a time nor a place for Advent hope nor for Sabbath-keeping in our fast-paced, technological world: who needs Miracles when we have Medicine, or Rest when we have Red Bull? Behind the Seventh-day Adventist church in Washington, NH lies a shady, easy-to-overlook Sabbath trail that wends through quiet, forgotten woods. The purpose of this trail, studded as it is with stones bearing Bible verses, each with an accompanying bench to allow for private meditation, is to trace the history of the Sabbath from creation to modern times. In my experience, though, the trail is simply a marvelous place to go birding, those benches allowing ample opportunity to listen to black-throated blue warblers, red-breasted nuthatches, and downy woodpeckers in relative comfort.

Buddhists aren’t generally Sabbath-takers: the mundane schedule of monks and monastics goes on seven days a week. This being said, though, I wasn’t born Buddhist; to the contrary, I seem to have a bit of Sabbath-keeping in my blood, my Italian maiden name (DiSabato) meaning “of Saturday” or “of the Sabbath.” So although I have no plans to convert to Seventh-day Adventism or anything else, I think I might take a page from my Washington neighbors’ playbook: why not take one day a week to rest and re-fill, a conscious day to do nothing? From the inception of this blog, I’ve tried, unofficially, to write everyday with an occasional unplanned day off; now I’m wondering, though, if taking an official, planned Sabbath from blog-keeping is a productive practice, a structured way of re-filling the well. Taking a cue, then, from both my maiden name and the Seventh-day Sabbath-keepers, I took yesterday, Saturday, off from blogging, and I think I’ll try that awhile to see how it fits.

Willa Cather's grave, Jaffrey, NH

Yesterday Kathleen and I visited the grave of Willa Cather in the Old Burying Ground in Jaffrey, NH, right down the road from Keene. Although Kathleen had visited this particular graveyard before, she didn’t know that Willa Cather was buried there; as for me, I’d never even been to the so-called historic district of Jaffrey, only having breezed through the outskirts of town on my way to or from other destinations. I was surprised, initially, to learn that Willa Cather, one of my favorite 20th century novelists, was buried right here in southern New Hamsphire since her two most famous novels, O Pioneers and My Antonia, are set in the flatlands of Nebraska. But Cather often summered in Jaffrey, during which time she rented rooms at the Shattuck Inn and wrote in a tent pitched in a meadow with a vista of Mount Monadnock.

Cather’s grave is remarkable in several ways. Large and impressive, it includes a quote from My Antonia: “that is happiness: to be dissolved into something complete and great.” (For an enlarged version of Cather’s headstone, click here.) Situated at the corner of the Old Burying Ground, Cather’s tombstone actually faces away from its neighbors: as you approach the grave, you walk up upon its backside, not its face. In a word, Cather looks as if she’d been sent to sit with her nose in the corner, her final resting place in the remotest nook of the cemetery, facing outward. Is this a subtle statement about Cather’s outsider status in the town of Jaffrey: although buried among natives, she never truly became one?

Old Burying Ground, Jaffrey, NH

I’m a long-time fan of old cemeteries: in my mind, there’s something oddly peaceful about wandering the final resting place of so many long-deceased souls. In a world of perpetual change and uncertainty, death is one thing that never changes and is incessantly certain. Although life expectancies, mortuary technologies, and gravestone fashions have changed over the years, the simple fact of mortality’s final end hasn’t altered a whit. Granted, in today’s modern medicalized world, it may be uncommon for a single family to bury in succession two children, both named John, at the tender ages of 3 weeks and 6 years, the grief of a parent losing a child at any age surely hasn’t changed. (For an enlarged version of this double headstone, click here.)

Old Burying Ground, Jaffrey, NH

From a purely practical perspective, cemeteries are a waste of resources. Often occupying prime plots of otherwise usable land, they are dotted with stones whose owners can’t properly appreciate them. But rightly considered, cemeteries and stones aren’t plotted and wrought for the benefit of their deceased inhabitants: virtually any place is a peaceful resting place when you’re dead. Instead, cemeteries are set down as both a comfort and reminder to the living: here’s where your loved ones have gone, and here’s where you too shall go. Thus the grim portent on a carved marker serves as a literal sermon in stone: above a winged angel balancing an hourglass on his head spans the exhortation “My glass is run & so must yours.” (For an enlarged detail from this stone, click here.) From this stonecutter’s perspective, the purpose of grief is to nudge mourners to consider the state of their own souls, not that of the dearly departed. Once you find yourself six feet under, it’s too late to repent and believe; contemplating someone else’s grave, though, you still have time to put your own spiritual house in order.

Old Burying Ground, Jaffrey, NH

Jaffrey’s Old Burying Ground, like many old cemeteries, offers such a reminder of mortality, a memento mori, not merely via the manmade markers but through the natural landscape that surrounds those stones. Lying in the shadow of a meeting house built in 1775, the Old Burying Ground is bounded by stone walls and towering trees; even so, the passage of time is still perpetually apparent. Sprinkled amongst the tombstones are the stumps of massive trees felled to time, their trunks sawed clean but their roots intact. “Gone but not forgotten” these graying stubs seem to say; graves that were laid in the shade in days gone past are now subject to sun and storm. (For an enlarged version of this image, click here.) When grieving families selected to emblazon their loved ones’ graves with fingers pointing upward, they intended this as a spiritual lesson: our hopes lie above, in heaven. Today, though, these weathered digits point to leafy crowns that no longer spread across the New Hampshire sky: although longer-lived than humans, even trees pass the way of all flesh.

Next Page »