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In Praise of Mount Auburn’s Social Gathering of Trees

By Stephen Kendrick

Trees at Mount Auburn Cemetery
Trees at Mount Auburn Cemetery. Photo credit: Perpetua Charles

Founded in 1831, Mount Auburn Cemetery is one of the Boston area’s most famous attractions. This urban wildlife habitat and nationally recognized hotspot for migratory birds continues to connect visitors with nature and serves as a model for sustainable landscape practices and conservation. Author and Unitarian minister Stephen Kendrick takes us on a tour of the cemetery in his book The Lively Place: Mount Auburn, America’s First Garden Cemetery, and Its Revolutionary and Literary Residents, which was released earlier this month. In this selection from the book, Kendrick writes about how he learned—thanks to novelist John Fowles—to appreciate the cemetery’s trees as social creatures putting together a complex environment.


While the staff of Mount Auburn was kindly attempting to orient me and make me comfortable, I had so massively far to go. I was starting from innocent, if not ignorant, eyes for all flora. Since I am a bookish person, nothing has surprised or enlightened me more than encountering the novelist John Fowles’s eponymous essay in his book The Tree (with photographer Frank Horvat’s haunting photos) and discovering how it has affected the way I see and experience Mount Auburn. To trail behind Barnett or Collins or Walker on the grounds is to quickly know all you don’t know—not just Latin names, but any name, any label. My eyes blur, my ignorance inwardly shored up by a self-righteous defense that I happen to see the whole, the gestalt of the ground, and that I’m not the kind of person to get lost in the particulars.

The more I learn to love Mount Auburn, the more I realize how shaky and forlorn that reassurance is, but Fowles helps me justify it to some limited extent. He writes how the early Victorian mania for classification and rigor was not an unalloyed positive. He focuses first on the way in which human beings, in a scientific mode or not, tend to center on the individual, the singular, the one tree. He prefers to focus on “the complex internal landscapes they form when left to themselves,” and “the canopy and exterior wall of leaves, and beyond the individual.”

In other words, we like to look at a tree, but trees are in fact not singular beings. They are copses, forests, terrains: “We feel, or think we feel, nearest to a tree’s ‘essence’ (or that of its species) when it chances to stand like us, in isolation. . . . Far more than ourselves they are social creatures, and no more natural as isolated specimens than man is as a marooned sailor or hermit.” In turn, trees in “social” gathering form a complex environment with birds, animals, insects, and the smallest of organisms—the “whole experience of the wood.”

Second, wrote Fowles, to name and label a plant is to think we understand it and have solidly placed it in the scope of the natural world, but perhaps all we have done is focus so sharply that we cease to see at all. Fowles thinks back to his youthful enthusiasms as an amateur naturalist and wonders if all he was doing was treating nature “as some sort of intellectual puzzle, or game, in which being able to name names and explain behaviorisms—to identify and to understand machinery—constituted all the pleasures and the prizes.”

Yet it is hard, in truth, to justify the sense that swimming in ignorance is an elevated way to go; that Barnett’s evident love and intimate knowledge is some kind of scientific distancing and intellectual game. Thoreau knew the name of everything he viewed and touched, and you can’t read him out of the Transcendentalist fold—in fact, he demonstrates that keen apprehension and appreciation is the way to sense the divinity in all things. It is in the particular that the whole may be revealed.

I am a very amateur painter, and I suspect my blobby green trees would look transformed, perhaps transfigured, if I in fact knew the structure of the very leaves I was painting, the way nature instructs branches to lift off the trunk, the way roots grasp and claw the ground. Yes, I have to learn to see not one, but the many—though one particular tree might be my access point to the whole. And if I learn that the Japanese Stewartia is known for its ornate palette of thin brown striping in crazed vertical quilt patterns, which Barnett pointed out to me as a great bark among barks, then I am actually seeing it sharpen out of my previous blur.

Whether I know the names of the trees or not, Fowles helps me see why Mount Auburn is a haunted, holy site. For decades, I had assumed that the monuments themselves created this sense in me. Now that I have prowled the grounds in all seasons, I am at the beginning of a new apprehension—that yes, it may be the gestalt, the totality of the landscape that is affecting me, but also, and late in the game, I was simply not understanding the effect of the massive stands of trees gathered here. I was experiencing something powerful—an evocation of divinity—but not fully understanding what I was in fact responding to.

Trees are driven by more than sap—they are engines of massive power and towering, mysterious life that far outlasts our limited spans. Fowles writes,

Even the smallest woods have their secrets and secret places, their unmarked precincts, and I am certain all sacred buildings, from the greatest cathedral to the smallest chapel, and in all religions, derive from the natural aura of certain woodland or forest settings. In them we stand among older, larger and infinitely other beings, remoter from us than the most bizarre other non-human forms of life, blind, immobile, speechless.

In other words, I had thought the signs of mortality were what gave resonance to the landscape at Mount Auburn. It turns out, I may have had it all backwards: perhaps the woodlands framed the graves with this religious aura, and learning these trees—the way they stand among one another, the way they rise up, live, and die—is a path to an experience of the holy I never expected, desperately needed, and yet had somehow always had access to, as we all do.


About the Author

Stephen Kendrick is senior minister at the First Church in Boston, Unitarian Universalist. He is the author or coauthor of Holy Clues: The Gospel According to Sherlock Holmes, Sarah’s Long Walk: The Free Blacks of Boston and How Their Struggle for Equality Changed America, Douglass and Lincoln, and the novel Night Watch. Follow him Twitter at @RevSKendrick.