Orchard oriole

Last night Leslee and I went for a walk at Mount Auburn Cemetery, just as we did almost exactly one year ago. Mount Auburn is a pedestrian paradise, with wide, meandering roads and little traffic: a perfect place to take in the fresh air.

Sunning turtles

In the spring, Mount Auburn is in full bloom, with birds buzzing or whistling from the trees, turtles sunning themselves on the banks of quiet ponds, and chipmunks darting through shaded undergrowth. Last night, Leslee and I saw an orchard oriole we would have walked past if a couple hadn’t been standing on the path, aiming their phone at a bird singing almost invisibly from a willow tree. “The app says orchard oriole,” they explained, and the bird called to mind a Baltimore oriole Leslee and I had seen at Mount Auburn in May, 2017.

May apple

Apparently Leslee and I meet at Mount Auburn for a placid walk almost every May, after I’m done teaching but need a break from grading. Every year, it’s a welcome respite to take a leisurely stroll among flowers…and this year, after another semester of pandemic teaching, it’s a relief to visit the cemetery as a survivor, not an occupant. In this age of airborne illness, walking in the fresh air feels healthy, healing, and restorative. I’m looking forward to doing more of it.

Plein air

CLICK HERE to view more photos from yesterday’s walk at Mount Auburn Cemetery. Enjoy!

Spring peony

I submitted the last of my Spring semester grades on Monday but have spent the rest of the week in various faculty meetings and workshops: a flurry of academic obligations before everyone’s thoughts turn to summer. Every year, I feel like spring secretly slips into summer while I have my nose buried in a pile of student papers: one minute, the trees are bare; the next, they’ve leafed into green.

Preening red-tailed hawk.

I think of peonies as summer flowers: the one in our backyard waits until June to bloom. But the peonies at Mount Auburn Cemetery are already blooming while the late-leafing oaks ease into green. For the past few weeks, our backyard trees have been alive with warbler songs, a morning medley that goes twitter, buzz, and sneeze. At Mount Auburn this afternoon, a half dozen tom turkeys puffed and strutted for a lone female, and a placid red-tailed hawk preened in a tree, politely ignoring the inquisitive human below.

Halcyon Lake

I didn’t take any pictures at Mount Auburn Cemetery yesterday, when Seon Joon and I walked there. But I’d taken pictures when A (not her real initial) and I walked at Mount Auburn this time last year, and I’d taken pictures when Leslee and I walked at Mount Auburn the year before that. I’m in the habit, it seems, of meeting friends for cemetery strolls in July, when it’s hot and the shade beckons.

Woman and child

I’m not alone in this regard. Yesterday at Mount Auburn, Seon Joon and I saw a steady stream of visitors exploring the cemetery on foot and in slow-coasting cars, and as we enjoyed conversation and a brisk breeze atop Washington Tower, we were joined by a quiet queue of other visitors enjoying panoramic views of Cambridge, Watertown, and a hazy Boston skyline.

I’ve written before about my history at Mount Auburn, a place I started visiting when I lived at the Cambridge Zen Center in the mid-1990s. That means I’ve been going to Mount Auburn to walk, birdwatch, sketch, and simply unwind for nearly twenty years. Seon Joon had never been to Mount Auburn, so now that she’s moved to Cambridge, I felt an odd obligation to introduce her to one of my favorite places. I know from experience that if you’re going to weather the urban intensity of Central and Harvard Squares, you need to know where to find quiet pockets of green serenity.

Beloved daughter Maria

Mount Auburn, like any cemetery, is intended as a final resting place for the dearly departed…but for nearly twenty years, it’s served me as an interim resting place, a green oasis where I’ve returned, repeatedly. Seon Joon used the image of a compass point to describe Mount Auburn: here is a known place in a sea of unfamiliar places, somewhere to plant a figurative map-pin as she navigates a new city. I like to think of Mount Auburn as being a kind of secular Mecca: a compass-point that wields a magnetic pull, the faces of its faithful turning and re-turning to this spot that beckons like a green beacon.

Fountain and Story Chapel

This past week has been blistering hot in New England, with a string of 90-degree days. Although I don’t mind walking in rain, snow, or freezing cold, hot and humid days sap both my energy and resolve. Although my spirit longs to be walking, my body craves coolness, so I tend to lie low during heat waves, spending too much time inside, all but imprisoned in the two rooms where we have window air conditioners: a self-imposed exile.

Beloved daughter Maria

On Wednesday evening, however, I ventured out in search of shade, meeting a friend at Mount Auburn Cemetery for a sketch-stroll. Sketching is a slow, sedentary activity that works well on hot days, at least once you’ve found a shady spot with a breeze. In a woodsy cemetery like Mount Auburn, there are plenty of trees and quiet, secluded nooks where you can sit and serenely sweat. With no hurry to be much of anywhere, you can walk slowly, staring at stones and eschewing sunny spots. With nothing but a pencil, sketchbook, and random snippets of quiet conversation to entertain you, you can slow and sooth your heat-addled senses.

Celtic cross

After sitting for about an hour with our sketchbooks, my friend and I headed back to the cemetery gate, walking slowly. I had left a bottle of water in my car, but I knew it would be hot by the time we got there, so when one of Mount Auburn’s security guards drove by in his truck and offered ice-cold bottles of spring water—leftover refreshments from an early evening tree walk—I was happy to accept. At the still-hot end of a sweltering day, the only thing more refreshing than sitting a spell in the shade is gulping down a bottle of ice-cold goodness.

Click here for a photo-set from Wednesday’s cemetery stroll, including snapshots of the three sketches I made. Enjoy!

Daffodils and tombstones

Last night A (not her real initial) and I met at Mount Auburn Cemetery to take a quick walk before heading to the Deluxe Town Diner in Watertown for pancakes and conversation: something we’ve done more than a few times in the past. Last night’s cemetery stroll and diner date was more than just another chance to chat over comfort food: it was an intentional act of purification. Ever since Watertown, Massachusetts made the national news a week ago for being the site of the Boston bombing manhunt, I’ve been wanting to reclaim a sleepy little city that’s just one town over from mine: a normally quiet suburb that most folks outside of Boston probably never heard of until the Tsarnaev brothers made it infamous.


Yesterday marked one week since the day-long lockdown that turned the greater Boston area into a ghost town. Lockdown Friday started with emails and recorded phone messages from the mayor telling us to stay indoors, and it ended with us watching televised coverage of people cheering in the streets after the remaining bombing suspect had been captured. In between, J and I did indeed stay inside, remaining glued to CNN and local televised news reports as we waited for some sense of closure to end a truly terrible week.

Setting sun

Lockdown Friday was a gorgeous spring day, which made staying inside that much more difficult; what made the day surreal was watching television coverage of places that are both nearby and familiar. Although I typically describe Mount Auburn Cemetery as being in Cambridge since that’s where the main entrance is, most of the cemetery actually lies in Watertown. To get to Mount Auburn from Cambridge, you take a Watertown bus from Harvard Square; to get to Mount Auburn from Newton, you drive down Watertown Avenue. During last week’s manhunt, local and federal law enforcement used the parking lot at the Watertown Mall as a staging area, and as I watched each televised press conference, I remembered the various times I’d parked there to buy socks, underwear, or other “essentials” at the Watertown Target.

Diner mural - April 26 / Day 116

J probably can tell you exactly how many times I said “Look, that’s the diner!” as CNN showed one of their reporters standing on Mount Auburn Street, reporting on every gunshot or dog bark she heard. (Jon Stewart on The Daily Show rightly skewered this same reporter for remarking that the streets of Watertown were eerily quiet, as if someone had dropped a bomb somewhere.) J didn’t need to be told again and again and again that the shiny silver building visible in the background was “the” diner where A and I go for pancakes after our cemetery strolls: he could clearly see that for himself. But I kept pointing it out because I couldn’t quite believe a quiet little neighborhood just one town over from ours was suddenly the site of Breaking News.

Little lamb

Last night A and I went walking at Mount Auburn Cemetery followed by dinner at the Deluxe Town Diner as a way of reclaiming Watertown: now that Suspect One is dead and Suspect Two has been captured, it’s time for Watertown to go back to being a sleepy little suburb about six miles outside of Boston. For the most part, Watertown seems to be returning to normal: last night, Mount Auburn was as lovely as always, and the diner was bustling with Friday night customers. The only indications that Watertown hasn’t completely returned to normal were the “Boston Strong” and “Boston We are One” slogans on MBTA bus marquees and a curious rush-hour traffic jam I experienced near the intersection of Watertown and Galen Streets. From my vantage point near the end of a long queue of cars, I could see flashing lights as several police vehicles escorted something large and white out of Watertown. Only later did I figure out I’d probably witnessed police moving the infamous boat that Suspect Number Two was captured in.

Potato pancakes, spinach and cheese omelette, johnny cakes

Apart from traffic delays caused by evidence removal, it felt good to return to the familiar calm of Mount Auburn Cemetery, and it felt even better to enjoy comfort food at a diner that was bustling with Friday night customers. Like other businesses in the greater Boston area, the Deluxe Town Diner lost a day’s worth of business on Lockdown Friday, so A and I made a point to leave our waitress an extra-generous tip: a small token of appreciation for a sleepy little suburb that I’m guessing is eager to return to relative obscurity.

Click here for more photos from last night’s purification trip to Mount Auburn Cemetery and the Deluxe Town Diner. Enjoy!

Our angel boy

It’s becoming something of a tradition that J and I take a walk at Mount Auburn Cemetery on Christmas Day. Last year, we saw a very tame wild turkey hunkered on a decorated grave, and this year, in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook school shootings, I couldn’t help but notice the sad stones marking the graves of lost children.

Lost children

Many of the stones at Mount Auburn Cemetery are old; consecrated in 1831, the cemetery is America’s first garden cemetery, with its graves situated in a lushly landscaped park-like setting. But among the old stones are newer ones that loved ones faithfully adorn with flowers, wreaths, candles, and other decorations to brighten an otherwise lonely resting spot.

Nativity scene and candle

Perhaps because of memorials like these, I don’t find cemeteries to be depressing, just bittersweet: a reminder of mortality that makes me more (not less) grateful to be alive. The one thing we all share, after all, is mortality, and taking a quiet walk on an otherwise festive day is a great way to keep things in perspective.

Our little angel

Some folks are lucky to reach an advanced age before they die, and others exit this world far too soon. Is the richness of your life measured by length or by depth, by the number of your days or by the way you spend those days?

Praying angel

Click here for more pictures from this year’s Christmas Day walk at Mount Auburn Cemetery.

Victorian grief

The other day, I saw a link to photos of the storm damage at Mount Auburn Cemetery: apparently they lost approximately fifteen trees in last week’s hurricane, one of which was an oak tree older than the cemetery itself. It seemed particularly sad to see photos of toppled trees looming over tombstones, a garden of remembrance turned into a scene of natural devastation. In the larger scheme, fifteen toppled trees at a cemetery don’t matter much: Hurricane Sandy caused widespread suffering, injury, and the loss of both life and property, and there was no human harm at Mount Auburn since all the folks there are already dead. But a landscape like Mount Auburn is designed to create the illusion of immortality—perpetual care—so any damage or devastation that ruins that effect is particularly sad. What place is there for loss and change in a landscape intentionally crafted to create a pastoral image of eternity?

Richard Duca sculpture

I’ve been visiting Mount Auburn for over fifteen years, since I lived in Cambridge in the mid-1990s. When I first started going to Mount Auburn, I saw it as primarily a birding destination, riding the bus or my bike to the cemetery from Central Square, where I lived at the Cambridge Zen Center. On spring mornings when I didn’t have classes to teach, I’d go on early morning walks led by members of the Brookline Bird Club, walking at the front of the group in order to eavesdrop on whatever birds the quiet leaders were listening to, all the chips and twitters of migrating warblers sounding the same to my lead ears. As 9:00 a.m. approached, the group gradually waned as members left to find their cars and head off to work, but I’d stay until the end, finally heading back to the bus or my bike so I could ride into Harvard Square for breakfast.

Sleeping angel

I’d always go to the Greenhouse Café, where I’d sit by myself a tiny, crowded table: all the space they could afford for a party of one. The more sociable members of the BBC lingered at the back of the group and presumably went off to have breakfast together, but either busing or biking to the Greenhouse Café by myself was simply part of my preferred birding ritual. While I sat by myself waiting for my breakfast—fried egg and cheese on a toasted bagel with a side of the Greenhouse Café’s thin-sliced home fries—I’d write up that morning’s field notes: the birds I’d seen, the birds I’d heard, and any other noteworthy insights I’d gleaned by walking at the head rather than the tail of the group, like how to tell oaks from maples from a distance in the spring (oaks leaf later).

Winding path

I no longer have those field notebooks, I’ve forgotten most of the lore I learned on those walks, and the Greenhouse Café has since closed. In the larger scheme of things, these losses are insubstantial, as most our heartaches are. But through all the intervening years, Mount Auburn has remained the same: the place where I took the bus or biked from Central Square is the same as the place where I now journey by car from Newton. In all the intervening years, Mount Auburn Cemetery has preserved the illusion of permanence: the same weathered stones, the same spring bird walks, the same faithful throng of birdwatchers breaking naturally into clusters of concentration, with the quiet birders whose ears are perpetually attuned to chirps and twitters at the head of the group, and the chatty conversationalists in the rear. Whether or not I have the time now to join them, those spring walks at Mount Auburn continue without me, and I take comfort in that fact.

Winslow Homer's grave

I don’t have any family or friends who “live” at Mount Auburn, but this past spring I went on a walk with Claire Walker Leslie, whose parents are buried there. Mount Auburn figures prominently in Claire’s nature journals and published books: there’s no better place in Cambridge to go birding, admire trees, or spend an afternoon quietly sketching. Mount Auburn is a garden of remembrance for me because I’ve spent so much time there: my memories of the cemetery center around what I’ve done, not whom I’ve visited. But for those who have family or friends interred at Mount Auburn, the cemetery’s pull is bittersweet: a place of tranquil beauty that is also a landscape of loss.

Mourning his master

When I took that walk with Claire Walker Leslie, I hung back from the group at one point to stop at the stone I’ve claimed as Reggie’s grave. I had no desire to share why this particular stone—the grave of a stranger—wields a particular pull: any communing I do there is no different from the quiet remembrance I observe when doing the morning dishes and contemplating an empty dog pen. Cemeteries are special, I think, because they (like memorials) are a place where it’s appropriate to observe one’s private grief in public, so the shared landscape we walk with others is personalized according to our own proclivities. Although you and I might stroll the same cemetery together, our emotional understanding of that landscape is necessarily unique.

Mary Baker Eddy monument

It’s important to have spaces set aside for the private business of grief and remembrance, just as it’s important to have spaces dedicated to prayer and worship. Although you and I might enter the same house of worship, our spiritual experience of that sanctuary might be distinctly different. Both cemeteries and houses of worship are wide enough, I think, to tolerate such radical diversity: both cemeteries and houses of worship are large enough to hold our collective hopes and heartbreaks. It saddens me to know the landscape at Mount Auburn Cemetery will be different the next time I go there, marred by stumps and limb-scars, but it heartens me to think the place itself will endure. Storms may rage and trees may fall, but remembrance lives on.

I took these photos last year, during a Christmas Day stroll at Mount Auburn Cemetery, which I’d blogged here.

Angel among others

I don’t know what it is that draws my attention to stories like this, but I find them almost irresistible. A few months ago while sitting in a local pizza parlor waiting for Friday night take-out, I found my attention lured to the TV screen by the promise of breaking news: a cyclist had been killed by a hit-and-run driver in nearby Wellesley.


I suppose you could call it morbid curiosity: the same urge that impels us to turn and stare as we pass a roadside wreck, or to peer under our brows, secretly, at a person with an odd injury or deformity. It could be that we derive perverse delight in the hardship of others, but I don’t think that’s it entirely, or even mostly. Isn’t our curiosity merely masked horror and even shared compassion, a sense of awed amazement that something that could have easily happened to us has happened instead to another?

There but for the grace of God go I.” As I sat in that pizza parlor several months ago, a man sat with his two sons at the next table. “Cyclist killed in Wellesley,” the man repeated, drawn as irresistibly to the story as I was. The man at the next table appeared to be in his 40s—my age—and his sons were leggy adolescents: old enough to have bikes of their own, and old enough to be allowed to ride them alone. Wellesley is right next door to Newton, so it’s merely a matter of chance that a reckless driver was there rather than here. On any given Friday afternoon, what’s to protect you or me, the man at the next table, or any of our kids from being the next to fall?


Stories of random violence—death in the afternoon—never fail to grab my attention. They’re like a loud, shrill alarm reminding us of our eventual mortality: the one thing we all, universally, share. The television coverage showed a mangled bicycle on the side of an otherwise innocuous-looking suburban street, a castoff bike helmet and a small pool of blood giving silent testimony. What happened here, and to whom? The cyclist himself had been taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead, leaving only his mangled bicycle behind. Looking at the bicycle, I could see no clues as to the cyclist’s gender, age, interests, or occupation: simply a bicycle whose frame was twisted into a heap of nearly unrecognizable wreckage. Who was this man? Where was he going, and who would be missing him?

Maybe some people can see such coverage and move on, flipping to another channel or surfing to another story. For me, however, such stories pique my imagination. Who was this man? Was he cycling for exercise, racking up miles toward a personal fitness goal, or was he traveling somewhere? Was he biking home from work on a pleasant Friday afternoon, looking forward to a leisurely weekend? Was he out running errands? Was his bike basket (if he had one) filled with library books, groceries, or a gift he was delivering to a friend? What was he wearing, and did he have any idea when he dressed in the morning that he was choosing his last outfit: the clothes a loved one would later identify him in?

Reflecting pool

How arrogant we are, and how gullible, to believe our lives are guaranteed. You, right now: where are you going, and what are you doing? What would you think—how would you respond—if this turned out to be your last day on earth: would you want to die typing at a keyboard, tapping on your phone, or fiddling with the buttons in your car, turning the volume up or down, adjusting the soundtrack of your own demise?

As mortal beings, we don’t typically get to choose how and when we die. Some of us die slowly, the victim of long, debilitating illness, but others of us get taken without warning: one afternoon, lured by nice weather, we decide to go cycling, and we never come home, victim of a so-called untimely death. If you knew that today was your last day on earth, what would you choose to do? Would you dare venture from your house, or would you hunker down, terrorized by the gods of chance and unpredictability?

Angels in relief

I once remember hearing a story—an urban legend, perhaps—about a busy highway bridge that collapsed during a dark, moonless night. Several drivers drove off the bridge to their deaths, never knowing (as the saying goes) what hit them. One driver, however, saw the collapsed bridge, pulled over, and stood in the middle of the road, waving down approaching cars with a flashlight to warn them of the danger. One approaching car, however, refused to stop, the driver blaring his horn and swearing through an open window at the man on the bridge, too arrogant to inquire why he was trying to flag him down.

To what level of hell are you assigned if you curse the good Samaritan who tried to save you, an angry, aggressive gesture being your last act on earth?

This one shows the way

Be ready; be prepared. We tell cyclists—we tell our children—we tell ourselves—to take precautions. Wear a helmet; apply reflective tape; install mirrors, reflectors, and lights on your bicycle. Look both ways before you cross the street, drive (or cycle) defensively, and watch out for opening car doors as you zip down a curbside bike lane.

Be careful, we tell cyclists, our children, and ourselves, but this dead cyclist was careful. He was wearing a helmet, the news report made a point of noting, but that helmet did no good. Judging from the level of damage done to his bike, there was no kind of protective gear the cyclist could have worn that would have protected him from being run down and mangled by a truck that never stopped, the remaining wreckage no longer looking like a bicycle.

An old rugged cross

Be careful—be ready—be prepared. This is what we tell cyclists, our children, and ourselves, as if being careful, ready, and prepared were adequate. What we don’t say when we venture out on the roads, whether on foot, by bike, or in our cars, is “Be prepared to die,” but perhaps that’s the only honest, realistic thing we can say. “Wear your helmet, be careful, look both ways…and know that none of this might be enough to help you.” Before you set out, say your goodbyes and get your affairs in order, because you never know when today’s bicycle ride might be your last.

We don’t say this because it’s hopelessly depressing, worse than morbid curiosity. We can understand rubbernecking someone else’s traffic accident; we can’t countenance, however, an accurate assessment of our own everyday risk. If we acknowledged how dangerous and haphazard our lives really are—if we acknowledged the complete lack of statistical surety we have when it comes to our own longevity—we’d never leave the house. The only way we can act boldly—the only way we can act at all—is through ignorance, arrogance, and blithe disregard. Ignorance is not only bliss, it is our only option, given the alternative.

Artist with sphinx

Go ahead and tell yourself that this cyclist did something to merit his fate: go ahead and tell yourself that something similar won’t and even can’t happen to you. Go ahead and tell yourself that you are blessed, or that your guardian angel is protecting you; go ahead and touch a rabbit’s foot, cross yourself, or toss salt over one shoulder, right into the devil’s eye. Tell yourself any story you’d like, or turn up your iPod, drowning out the sound of death’s car approaching and even accelerating behind you, a predator stalking its prey. The moral here isn’t that you are more deserving to live than another who has died; the moral here is that you, for the time being, have been luckier, and we never know how long our luck will hold.

Some of us dare to claim that we understand the will of God. When something good happens, we declare ourselves blessed; when something bad happens, we say that God has a plan or that God is testing us. Aren’t these the same things Job’s comforters said? When a train derails and all the passengers except a single infant are killed, we thank God for saving that infant. Does that mean we should credit God for the pile of dead bodies as well, it being God’s plan to kill many but spare one?

Dove, dome, and hourglass

I don’t pretend to know God’s plan, and that seems to be the ultimate lesson of Job. Where were we when God laid the foundations of the universe? Where were we before God himself was? Job shakes his fist at the heavens and asks God why, why, why, and God responds with the ultimate non sequitur: because I am. Who are you, God asks Job, to understand my ways? It’s a question with no satisfactory response other than trembling awe and terror.

It’s easy to grow complacent by assuming that tomorrow will follow today. But what guarantee do we have of our next minute, much less the next? Job dared ask God to explain his ways, and Job was fortunate that God didn’t smite him in response: for all the travails he endured, Job was still a lucky, nervy man, for God ultimately showed him mercy. Seeing how the people around you drop and die, why do you think you will be spared? Do you consider your life to be more precious, or your contributions more indispensable? Countless generations before you have flowered, ripened, and then fallen, and the graveyard is full (as the saying goes) of indispensable men. Why do you think you and your generation will be spared?

I took the photos illustrating today’s post on an early evening walk at Mount Auburn Cemetery in July, long before the leaves started to turn. The bicycle accident that inspired this post happened on August 24th; the victim was identified as 41-year-old Alexander Motsenigos. The case is still under investigation.

Frog face

I wasn’t able to find any frogs at Hammond Pond on Tuesday, but I did see several at Mount Auburn Cemetery last night, when Leslee and I met up for an impromptu after-work walk.

Head to head

The best way to find frogs, I’ve found, is not to look for them. The various frogs I’ve found over the years don’t typically look like frogs: they’re either floating with only their heads above water, thereby hiding their frog-shaped form, or they’re covered with algae or duckweed, thereby masking their froggy coloring.

When you’re looking for frogs alongside a pond, you can look for movement…but then you’ll see only a splash that announces where a frog used to be. If you try to find frogs by looking for movement, you won’t find any frozen, well-camouflaged fellows watching you with one or both eyes poised right above water level: you won’t find, in other words, the frogs who have found you.

The trick to finding resting frogs is to forget how frogs are shaped, how frogs are colored, or how frogs move. Instead, when you’re looking for frogs, the eyes have it: their eyes, not yours. When you’re looking for frogs in or alongside a pond, what you’re looking for is any small glint or glimmer that isn’t water, isn’t shore, and isn’t either vegetable or mineral. Many of those unidentified glints and glimmers are frog-eyes, and they’re watching you, waiting to see whether you stop then step closer or walk by, unaware.


A few weeks ago, I took an afternoon walk at Mount Auburn Cemetery. It was a mild Sunday afternoon–clear and cloudless, but cool enough for a jacket in the shade–and the Perkins dog was resting in deep shadow, spotlit by a single ray of late afternoon sunlight.

Afternoon shadows

That cool and clear afternoon feels like eternity ago now that the dog-days of summer have arrived. Temperatures this weekend are supposed to reach the 90s, and earlier today, I heard the first dog-day cicadas of the summer calling from neighboring trees. It seems this weekend, even the stone dogs will be panting in the shade.

This is my contribution to today’s Photo Friday theme, Dog. Click here for more photos from that cool afternoon walk at Mount Auburn Cemetery several weeks ago. Enjoy!