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Stumbling on Brewster

Sunday, November 27, 2011


It is impossible for an observant person, a curious person, to move quickly through  Mt. Auburn Cemetery. Each visit is a new exploration, often dooming me to hours of shuffling through Web pages looking up this or that, my wondering spawned by stumbling on yet another intriguing headstone. A few of them are self-evident. I don't need to look this fellow up. I feel him in my bones with every skywash I do, feel that quivering hopefulness that I won't mess this one up as the paint runs over the paper. I was amazed to find his stone so very modest, just a ground-flush block in with the rest of his family.

But then, families being families, maybe having a watercolorist in the bunch wasn't that big a deal to them. 

Hodge brought Homer the mussel shells from Maine after her last trip. Someone else put the periwinkle and the fir cone there. She says the mower blows such offerings away but they always reappear. And I'm seeing his Prouts Neck surf exploding in my mind's eye, and knowing he likes those shells and the people who bring them.

So Hodge and I are walking along and she veers over to show me a favorite verse from the Song of Solomon on a large boulder and I gasp and realize that we're looking at the grave of a very well-known American ornithologist, William Brewster. 

 For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come (Song of Solomon 2:11, Holy Bible).

And this is why Hodge and I are such a good pair. We may light up at different significances, but we each light up in our own way, and when we're together those diverse noticings smoosh together and make Reese's peanut butter cups.

I didn't have to dig far to find Allen Emmett's brief but excellent profile in the N/D 2007 Harvard Magazine. I'm borrowing heavily from it here, thank you Mr. Emmett!!  There, I learned that Brewster's parents deemed him too frail and his eyesight too poor for him to attend Harvard (clearly, standards have changed!) He was an avid birdwatcher and record-keeper at age 10, collecting specimens with a shotgun, which was the only way one studied birds then, binoculars not having come into use. He used his excellent hearing to identify birds without having to see or shoot them, and Emmett quotes him describing the night sky "alive with may be learned by anyone having keen hearing who will take the trouble to stand for a few hours on some elevated spot and listen intently.”

Brewster birded Cambridge intently, doubtless ranging over the very spot where he'd one day be buried. His family lived on Brattle Street in Cambridge. From 1885 until his death in 1915, he was Curator of Birds at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology, an honorary master's degree under his belt. Ha. So there. He was first President of the brand new Massachusetts Audubon Society, the very organization which had brought me to this fine state to give my talks.  He founded the still-thriving Nuttall Ornithological Club at age 22 and in 1883 co-founded the American Ornithologists' Union. I've done a mighty lot of drawings and paintings for them.

Here's a detail of my newest painting, a male Brewster's warbler (hybrid between a blue-winged and a golden-winged warbler).  

It was a full-circle moment, standing agog before that stone over Mr. Brewster. 
Thanks again, Hodge. Hand me a Reese's willya?


Beautiful post, beautiful painting, Julie...

Any Detroit Tigers' fan knows the rest of that verse..."and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land." Ernie Harwell recited that verse every year on opening day, and it's a perfect description of April in Michigan.

When you said "Stumbling on Brewster," I thought you meant Murr.

Awww! No doubt a relation, although through a different one of the original pilgrim's sons. If you're a male Brewster, it's hard to get named anything but William. I found out recently that my great-grandfather C. Brewster (from the same era) was considered the first florist in America. Seems like once you dig past the religiosity the line was afflicted with, there are some pretty good instincts in there!

Great painting, Julie, masterfully spare background!

I love the idea of that bit of springtime scripture being read aloud at the start of the Tigers' season. What a lovely counterpoint to Giamati's essay on how baseball is designed to break our hearts, from the wonder that is springtime to the part where it leaves us to face fall all on our own. Lucky for me, I got an autum weekend with JZ to make up for the pathetic end that was the month of September here in the land of Red Sox Nation.

As always, dear Zick, it was a pleasure connecting the Mt. Auburn dots with you.

Probably time to get back to Chet Baker, though. I sense your readership is deeply in need of a hyper dog hit.


Posted by KHMacomber November 27, 2011 at 11:39 AM

Oh, Julie, I am so delighted for you! What an amazing find, and as you say, made the time come full circle. I love your painting of the Brewster's Warbler too!

We have little warbling vireos here (I noticed a mention in another post of the red-eyes vireos) which happen to love eating nectar from the hummingbird feeders, but they are very hard to catch with my camera! I'll keep at it!

I love the serendipity of your happening upon Wm. Brewster's headstone soon after completing a gorgeous portrait of the distinctive and beautiful little hybrid warbler named in his honor.

Great work Julie !!! nice painting !!!

Gorgeous painting! What kind of caterpillar is he eating? I'm counting down the days until your new book comes out :)
This post inspired me to again pick up Choate's "Dictionary of American Bird Names", which you recommended many posts ago...I didn't realize it had a whole biographies section in the back! However, I couldn't find Brewster in there (nor any mention of Brewster's or Lawrence's hybrids.) Were they identified after the publication of the book? Do you think the researchers who named Brewster's warblers were fans of the guy, or if maybe he had some previously-unidentified specimens in collection?

Sound like Mt. Auburn is just bursting with good company--living, dead, and winged. What an inspiring place for a ramble.

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