Seasons of Life

Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery is an oasis of calm in this otherwise frenetic city. I initially visited the cemetery to photograph the golden tones of autumn 2017 and have since been continually drawn back to its serenity. Inspired by Paris’ famed Père Lachaise Cemetery, Green-Wood was founded in 1838 and quickly became a destination for both the living and the dead. The grounds are currently home to over 600,000 graves set amongst a sweeping 478 acres of rolling hills (including the highest point in Brooklyn), paths and ponds. 7,000 trees, many of them older than the cemetery itself, give shelter to birds and other wildlife. Whether walking, painting, birding or otherwise lounging in the green-spaces, the living also find solace under the boughs and along the wending pathways. 

Watching the seasons pass at Green-Wood is the realization that within death, this necropolis is a place of life. In pastel tones spring arrives, life anew emerging from the skeletal frames of magnolia and cherry trees. With summer, a euphony of birdsong carries through dense leaves and across the luscious landscape, life in all its vibrancy. Fall’s explosion of color indicates maturity and the strange contrast of beauty of aging. And, with the advance of winter snows, the nakedness and silence of the season is merely a prelude to the resumption of life anew.

Diary entry, Oct. 15, 2018: 

I climbed up Cypress Hill in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery respectfully navigating the ground underfoot. The autumn sunlight was receding and the long shadows of tombstones stretched across the landscape. On the crest of the hill, I peacefully sat and surveyed the grave-sites below. Against fall’s hues, a tombstone with the Virgin Mary caught the light and, with it, my attention. I was drawn down from my perch atop the hill, dialed in my camera’s settings and began the catharsis of composition. Time ceased as I was lost in the moment.

As I turned to make my way back up the hill I noticed an elderly woman sitting at a gravesite, the one from which I had departed moments earlier. Startled, I looked away and wandered back down the hill. “Where had she come from?” I mused to myself. “There’s no way she could have wandered by without me noticing!” Thinking that I had interrupted her peace, I ceded my outpost and made my way back down towards the Virgin Mary tombstone. 

After a number of minutes, I turned to peer back up the hill. The elderly lady, still there, looked at me invitingly. I slung my camera over my shoulder and climbed in her direction. Her smile was disarming and her demeanor cheerful. Sat atop a tombstone, I noticed she was thumbing through a string of rosary beads. She smiled again and pleasantly greeted me.

We chatted for a while. Her name was Maria, aged 80 and she came here often. “I’m always here. This is my plot.” she told me. We spoke of Green-Wood Cemetery and the tranquility she finds there. I commented that I had been coming to this hill for a number of months and found it to be a place of peace in this otherwise frenetic city. She was full of Earthly wisdom but seemed inclined toward the spiritual. Often, she weaved prayers and into our enjoyable conversation. 

Still aware of our setting amongst the tombstones, I sought not to overstay my welcome; I excused myself leaving her to resume her invocations.

Later that evening, as I recounted the story to my wife, I noticed her mouth drop and eyes widen. “You went back and checked the headstone, right?” she exclaimed. I had thought the whole occurrence odd…..but not supernatural.

Diary entry, Oct. 28, 2018: 

With camera slung over my shoulder and a stick of incense ready to mark the possible-occasion, I again made my way toward Cypress Hill. The light was beautiful and the contrast acute. Golden leaves littered the ground and a tree had exploded into a kaleidoscope of inferno reds. I was pulled in its direction, momentarily thrown off-course. I placed the incense on the ground and began to shoot the blaze before me then ambled up the hill toward the site at which I had met Maria. 

I peered upon the tombstone on which she had sat two weeks earlier. The inscription read “Mary Mason” and underneath “1839-1919.” Elated, I searched my pockets for the incense; it was not there. “Damn it!” I exclaimed as I recalled leaving it somewhere down the hill. There was absolutely no way I was going to find this tiny stick amongst autumn’s fallen leaves. I felt, however, that I must honor the moment and ambled down Cypress Hill. As opposite magnetic poles attract, I was immediately pulled toward the incense and found it laying camouflaged against twigs and leaves at the foot of the hill. With the last flame in my lighter (the gas would thereafter expire), I lit the incense and knelt before the tombstone.

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