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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

In my last post, I mentioned that standing at ornithologist William Brewster's grave was a full-circle moment.

But that's Mt. Auburn Cemetery--full of such full circles. Like this one. How odd. A snake, eating its own tail.

And look! another one. What the heck? Back to the bricks to find out.

It's an ancient Greek symbol called an Ouroboros (from oura meaning "tail" and boros meaning "eating", thus "he who eats the tail". I was pleased that just looking at it and guessing, Hodge and I figured out what it must mean--that death is not an end but a renewal, a rebirth. Cyclicality, rebirth, re-invention. There are, of course, much more convoluted, Jungian meanings to the symbol, but we'll just leave it at that.
 A nice emblem for a mausoleum or headstone. And another thing to look for as we walk Halcyon Way. 

A feeble attempt to find out something about Lars Peter Larsen came to naught. Heck of a piece of rose quartz, though. It felt cool and soapy, utterly delightful that they left it in its uncut form, just this giant jewel dropped out of the sky with a plaque bolted to it.

And here is Charles Sumner, for whom Boston's Sumner Tunnel is named. Hodge says that 
she learned from reading David McCullough's Americans In Paris  that while studying philosophy at the Sorbonne, Sumner worked right alongside students from Africa, and had a gigantic epiphany that there could be no denying the intellectual equality of Africans, so cruelly enslaved and oppressed in his own country. He became an abolitionist and when he died, both whites and African Americans lined Boston's streets five deep to view his funeral cortege.

Hodge further advises that a congressman from South Carolina clocked Charles Sumner in the Senate chambers with a cane in 1856, a blow from which he never fully recovered. Here's to mouthy abolitionists. 

So many good, good people. So humbling, to stand above them.

All that, and Japanese Stewartia, too. Glorious bark, at its best in winter. 

 This one, planted in 1939 (!) to honor Ann Silverman Sheingold, Wife-Mother-Mentor-Friend. We'll leave it at that. Oh, all right. She was a therapist and clinical social worker, born in 1930, who passed away in 1995. Teacher and lecturer, too. A lovely tree in her memory. Stewartia pseudocamellia.

  I'm just trying to figure out how the tree could have gotten planted to honor her when she was nine. Maybe you can buy the right to put a plaque on an especially awesome tree that happens to be growing at Mt. Auburn, to honor a loved one after the fact. I'd pick a bendy old Japanese maple, that's what I'd pick. Put me under one o' them. 

On second thought, after a bit of shuffling around, I found this photo taken near Asheville NC of Phoebe with a Stewartia in full bloom. Good Grief!! I didn't even know what I was shooting at the time. Thought it was a real camellia. Nope. Stewartia. By gum. What a tree. Now I know what I want for my birthday...

Hmm. Still...maybe I'll have someone plant out one of my old bonsais in the orchard when I shoot through. I've been tending them for 30 years...just put them to bed for the winter...what tree could be nearer to my heart?

I know just the guy to do it. He should be digging a little better by then.

Life--when well-lived, it's full of ouroboros. Your challenge: Use my new favorite word in a sentence today.

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?

Great Horned Owls of Mt. Auburn

Thursday, November 24, 2011


New York has its famous red-tailed hawks Pale Male and, until recently, Lola.
Cambridge, Mass has a celebrity raptor pair, too. Last winter, a pair of great horned owls took up residence in a spiny locust (?) tree near The Dell in Mt. Auburn Cemetery.

The nest was so tiny, flimsy and low to the ground that anyone walking by could clearly see the two owlets trying to grow up there. 

Photographers would stand directly beneath the nest, causing the owls a bit of anxiety. Finally, cemetery management put yellow crime scene tape up around the nest tree, something they'd been reluctant to do for fear of alerting even more people to the owls' presence.

A cellphone photo of a post-breeding bird by Kris H. Macomber, who was not one of the personal territory violators. This owl just happened to be sitting very low and very close last week.

Here is the nest tree; the nest is a small aggregation of sticks on the first horizontal limb to the right. For an owl, that's a very low nest.

To make a long story short, despite having to learn to perch at a tender age thanks to their lousy little nest, both owlets fledged successfully and have delighted scores of visitors, including me.

On our first mid-November visit, one was sitting, somewhat obscured, near the Dell.

On our second visit, Kris' eagle eye spotted one on the far side of the Dell. It's the upright blip on the lowest branch on the right side of the bare oak, right above the notch at 12:00 in the golden weeping beech tree.

Pretty cool, huh?

Another view, and this time you can see the owl right above the notch in the dark green yews. That's a big bird, to be visible at that distance.

Of course, we walked closer, and found him looking stoic.

He needed to be a cool customer, because a young Cooper's hawk had discovered him and decided to spend his morning pinwheeling around and cakking at the poor owl.

The Dell. Of all the spots in Mt. Auburn, The Dell is probably most representative of how the forest must have looked before it all went to ornamental rhododendrons and viburnums and Chinese tallow trees and Japanese maples. Little wonder the owls chose it.

 Not far from the Dell, a faithful dog sleeps, hoping to meet his person in Heaven. Yes, I stroked his cold head.

And Oliver Wendell Holmes (the poet and father of the super-famous judge) rests with his wife.

And beneath the owls' favorite tree, a watercolorist rests. Hodge brought him mussels from the Maine coast. She's thoughtful that way. Somebody else brought the periwinkle and the fir cone. It's a thing, like the roses on Poe's grave. 

I knelt and soaked it all in, hoping some painterly genius might osmose through my palms.

Today, I am thankful for Mt. Auburn Cemetery, for giant trees and beautiful gravestones in the leaf-lit dells, for willing owls, dear friends and for my wonderful family. Peace to you on Thanksgiving.

Fresh Pond in the Sun

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


Fresh Pond had been so good to us on Thursday, Hodge and I decided to go again on Monday. It was a rip-roaringly beautiful day for November 14. We saw a very late red-eyed vireo spooking about in the shrubs. I don't think I've ever seen a vireo in November before. He didn't get the hint in the Halloween snowstorm, we gathered.

The vines and shrubs were full of food for birds. Look at this bittersweet banquet draped all along a fallen tree.

 A closer look:

and through the magic of digital cropping, a closer look yet, confirming my original suspicion that this plant was altogether too vigorous and fruit-laden to be our native American bittersweet, Celastrus scandens.

 American bittersweet bears fruit capsules that are orange over red fruits. And it bears fruit only at the ends of its twigs.

Oriental bittersweet (C. orbiculatus)  has yellow fruit capsules over red fruits, and it bears fruit in the leaf axils, all along the long stems. Bah. But still excellent bird food, as the giggling robins, warbling song sparrows and wheezing waxwings attested.

Because we were sort of power-walking, I did not bring my telephoto lens. I had only my point-and-shoot Canon G-11 with me. And I turned the air blue trying to photograph some resting canvasbacks that had blown in overnight to join the ruddy ducks, American coots and ring-necked ducks already ensconced at Fresh Pond. 

This (an avian subject behind a screen of twigs) is where manual focus override is such a blessing. And lacking it is a bird photographer's curse. Here is my beautiful study of winter twigs with blurry hen canvasbacks behind. The G-ll was convinced I was doing an arty shot of the near twigs and absolutely refused to refocus on the ducks. !@$#$@#$%$#%!!!

This is as close as I could get to an in-focus canvasback photo, even though they were close enough to hit with an acorn. !#@$#%$#%#!!

You'll just have to imagine the drakes' ruby eyes, winking open and closed as they drowsily listened to my profane lullaby. I know, it's not worth getting that mad. But I do anyway. I am used to cameras that do my bidding, not defy me with their own little autofocus ideas.

I had far better luck with one of the resident Fresh Pond redtails who was obligingly perched in the open, in full sun. Ahhhh.

Hodge said that she sees redtails pretty much every day in every possible setting in Cambridge (something that certainly was not the case when we were both there in the 70's and 80's). And she says she is always thankful to see them, and always stops to admire them, and never stops loving them. And I watch her doing just that. I feel the same way about redtails. Always worth a third glance and a crane of the neck and a happy sigh, this big beefy beautiful buteo, just waiting for rats and rabbits.

Hello darling! and thank you for being here, for just being you.

Juliet Kepes, Artist

Sunday, November 20, 2011

"Juliet's Shadow Caged" by Gyorgy Kepes (1939)

Next to Spectacle Pond at Mt. Auburn Cemetery, there is a pair of modern headstones that I have come to love.

They're separate but equal, Kris likes to say. Together, but distinct. So lovely.

One is stone and one is cedar. Stone is Juliet, cedar is Gyorgy.

Beneath that modest wood post lies what's left of Hungarian born Gyorgy Kepes (1906-2001) founder of the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT. A prime mover in the Bauhaus movement in Germany, photographer, artist, designer and writer  Gyorgy went on to teach visual design at MIT starting in 1946. He's credited with "erasing the lines between fine art and science." 

A coucal, perhaps, etched on Juliet's stone.

Being a bird artist, I was instantly intrigued by Juliet's stone, and set about finding out more about her. British-born Juliet Appleby (1919-1999) met Gyorgy in London when she was 17 and already working as an artist and illustrator. Gyorgy spotted her on the street, told her he had decided he was going to marry her and asked her out. By the next year, she had joined him in Chicago, where Gyorgy followed his colleague Laszlo Moholy-Nagy to head a curriculum in Light and Color at Moholy's "New Bauhaus" art school in Chicago. Juliet went on to study there while Gyorgy taught. From there, they moved to Cambridge.

Juliet began writing and illustrating children's books, starting with Five Little Monkeys in 1952. Her gorgeous work is reminiscent of Eric Carle's (The Very Hungry Caterpillar). Her subject matter was mostly natural history, and she drew a heck of a nice stylized bird. I first noticed the resemblance of her work to Leonard Baskin's. She received a citation from the Society of Illustrators for Frogs Merry in 1961, and three of her other works, including Beasts from a Brush (1955) were nominated for The New York Times' Ten Best Children's Books of the Year.

But enough of my yakkin'. I can only assume that the birds gracing Juliet's beautiful headstone were among her favorite drawings. 

To me, they have the quality of cave drawings--utterly simple but knowing and nonetheless full of information and movement.

An especially sweet reductionist ring-necked pheasant heads up her stone.

I'm moved by beautiful things, by thoughtful monuments, and delving into the lives of one couple interred here at Mt. Auburn helps me realize that this is a vast city of singular people; that beneath every stone is a person and a story, likely to be a gripping one.

My father-in-law's grave in our orchard as yet has nothing on it but young, deer-bitten coneflowers, and a lovely iron bench for sitting and reflecting. Maybe that's enough, right there. And maybe it isn't. If I could put anything there I'd put a stone piano, because jazz was his voice. We'll see.  I think about it a lot, especially when I walk Mt. Auburn's citadel of the beloved and well- remembered.

Weeping angel.

Callas, and a forever arrangement of stone, complete with basket (whaa?) What a weird thing to have to sculpt. It's like finding a bouquet of carnations from Oopsa Daisy in your perennial garden.

Another of Hodge's finds: Cymbal maker Puzant Zildjian! Wow!

And another Armenian, this one with a decidedly bizarre monument. I hear Hodge singing "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands."

The Dawn Redwood

Thursday, November 17, 2011

photo by Kris H. Macomber

As I walk Mount Auburn Cemetery, there are things everywhere that grab me. Trees, vistas, stones, tombs, birds, shrubs...I love almost all of it. (There are a few bad stones here and there, hence the qualifier). Here, I'm photographing a dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides).  This incredible tree is literally a living fossil; it is the sole living representative of its genus (three are known only from fossils). 

Though the species was thought long extinct by 1944, a small stand of trees was discovered growing at a shrine in Sichuan Province, and all Metasequoias now alive are propagules of that one population. A sobering thought, but also kind of a beautiful one. I was told as an undergrad at Harvard that the first dawn redwoods were brought from China by a 1948 expedition launched by Harvard's Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts.  And that these two here at Mt. Auburn Cemetery were the very first to be planted anywhere outside that shrine in China. The plaques on their mighty trunks say they were planted in 1951, only seven years after the "living fossil's" rediscovery. 

Knowing that makes my awe at their beauty all the deeper.

An evergreen with the perfect audacity to color into flame, then drop every needle in one swell foop. 

They light up Spectacle Pond with celestial fire.

Hodge says that the window of beauty is very narrow; that when they drop their needles that's it, and it's very sudden. How blessed we are to be here when they're in full flame! and how blessed to have the sun peek out just as I am seeing them with brand new eyes.

I move to their bases to appreciate their weathered trunks and glowing needles. A neighbor of mine down the street in Richmond, Virginia made the mistake of planting one quite close to his house. It grew fast and dominated his yard, looking something like a feathered telephone pole, towering impossibly over his dwarf crabapples and his cowering split-level house. It reminded me of this lovely verse by Jane Hirshfield, titled simply "Tree."


It is foolish
to let a young redwood
grow next to a house.

Even in this
one lifetime,
you will have to choose.

That great calm being,
this clutter of soup pots and books—

Already the first branch-tips brush at the window.
Softly, calmly, immensity taps at your life.

Jane Hirshfield

Long may they grow and light this pond with their ancient fire.

Since the species' rediscovery, several natural populations have been found in Hubei's Lichuan County in China. The largest numbers around 5,400 trees. Yay and sigh.

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