Traveling Through Old New York
By Brian Kluepfel
You walk one block east from the 25th Avenue R train station, across 4th Avenue and past the chop shops and discontinued flower shop that once was a spectacular Victorian styled green house, you enter Green-Wood Cemetery (don’t forget the hyphen), which was New York City’s largest open space—give or take a few buried corpses—until Prospect Park and Central Park came along in the mid-19th century.
Above our heads soar and tumble some keening laughing gulls, and chimney swifts dart and dash to and from their nests. But the avian stars of the cemetery are there to greet you, quite honestly, at the entrance, as you see the bright green monk parakeets and their many nests tucked into the massive red stone wall 100 yards up from the entrance path. Netting protects some of the religious sculptures set into the wall—god forbid the Virgin Mother or Lazarus get any parrot poop on them—but it turns out, according to our guide, that parrot poop is far less damaging than pigeon poop, and certainly less so than the acid rain which has wrecked havoc on many of the cemetery’s limestone monuments over the decades.
A red saddlebag dragonfly floats lazily overhead. Nature is consistently dependent on itself—probably a parrot will eat one of these dragonflies a bit after we’ve seen it. The bells start ringing madly at 10:35, and we know not why—quite a few military personnel in their navy whites are about, and we’re constantly reminded of the cemetery’s importance as the high-point (literally) of the revolutionaries’ defense against the British in 1777, and the many civil war soldiers who are interred here along with Henry Beecher, whose staunch abolitionism gave the Union cause for a fight.
The high-pitched flight call of cedar waxwings rings in our ears as a pair, and then a few more, pass overhead. This terminal moraine, or big pile of glacial left-over dirt, is all of Long Island, and sites like Park Slope, Crown Heights derive their place-names from their location on the moraine.
Granite holds up; limestone does not. A rule of thumb if you want someone to remember you, or at least be able to read your tombstone, in 100 years. Never mind “see that my grave is kept clean;” more like, see that my grave is made of granite, mama.
The new aesthetic of the 1830’s and 1840’s actually had people going ‘back to the country’ for the first time, and after generations of hacking down every tree in their path, now Americans were flocking to open space like Green-Wood, hearkening the appearance of the bigger New York City parks that were not cemeteries. Green-Wood and Niagara Falls were the most-visited tourist attractions in the USA at that time.
Elisa Howe, the inventor of the sewing machine, is buried here. So is the Schemerhorn who was the BIA chief responsible for the Trail of Tears-the forcible relocation of the Seminole from Florida to Oklahoma which resulted in thousands of deaths. Heavy death hangs over parts of this large green patch of earth, where we stroll under a path shaded by the Linden trees planted in great foresight decades ago.
A mockingbird calls out for an eastern pee wee accomplice—but his various imitations of other birds do not draw out his comrade, as the mockingbird remains a one-bird show atop Mr. Clawson’s headstone. A brown-headed cowbird transcends the space between two copses of trees, his song and black head our clues to his fleeting identity. Among the graves of notable musicians like Leonard Bernstein and Louis Moreau Gottschalk, the songs of birds are the only ones we hear, eyes pealed for a matching winged creature.
On a hot day we see yellow tiger swallowtail butterflies dot the air. One passes as we rest at Strawberry Lane near a honey locust, just before our last stop at the lily pond.
There we are greeted by the symbol of the National Audubon Society, a white egret who ignores our society’s history while busily scouring the air and water for lunch. He is successful on two accounts, spearing a dragon fly out of the air and flopping into the water to nab a goldfish. He cares less for the fact that the Audubon Society stopped the hunting of his kind in 1908, than the fact that he’s filled his stomach for a while. The pond, dotted with lily pads, ringed by flowers, populated by turtles and green frogs, is a nice place to end our journey, but just as we thought it over, our cohorts spot a Baltimore oriole cavorting near the fences which separate us from the urbanity of 5th Avenue. Soon we are back where we started among the tour buses and trolleys which traffic the somewhat-busy pathways to the deceased, satisfied we have seen much of what Green-wood has to offer, yet curious to come back another day to see what surprises it may yet hold in store. I buy a book from the cart-vendor—where have all the bookstores gone, the way of the Carolina parakeet?—and have some reading material for the R train. My birding cohort from Australia shares her cucumber sandwich as we cross back into the big island of Manhattan, and finally part ways like migrating birds as one by one we exit different stations. I emerge into the sharp light of 7th Avenue in the shadow of Carnegie Hall, the day’s peregrination from northern counties nearly complete.