I’ve been “on the road” lately and have had little time to post a significant blog entry (as opposed to a twitter tweet). My recent travels delivered me through airports and cityscapes that are far removed from any inspirational wild place or thing. At least that was my excuse. But on one of my recent stops in Hartford, Connecticut I decided to challenge that idea. There had to be something of natural or historical interest here in the capitol of the Nutmeg State. I headed out of my hotel and ventured toward the largest green spot I could locate on the city map – venerable old Bushnell Park. Fortunately, the desired inspirational moment arrived well before reaching the park itself.
Just a block or so away from Bushnell, my gaze was drawn to an archaic looking wrought iron fence protecting a plot of burial ground adjacent to an old church building called Center Church. Everything about the place looked old -very old. As it turned out, the current church was actually the fourth edifice of its kind on that site. The first one was constructed back in the late 1630’s and this “modern” building – the young upstart structure – was built in 1807! My thoughts on what was “old” and what was “very old” began to change.
It was the church’s gravestone studded hillock that really drew me in, however. The cemetery complex was tightly tucked within the modern town. A shimmering glass office tower walled in the north side while the constant hum of city buses defined the streetscape on the western border (actually, being an out-of-towner, I am not sure which direction was which in this case). Within the confines of the burying ground all trappings of modern society were held at bay. Here was a cluster of some of the most remarkable New England tombstones I had ever seen.
The stones spanned the centuries from the early 1600’s to the early 19th century, but most were of 18th century vintage. Not a one of them was straight, of course. Among the earliest was that of Andrew Benton who “dyed Ivly 31 Ano 1683″ (see here ). “Ivly,” by the way, means “July” (“I” is an alternative form of “J” and “v” is the stonecarver’s version of the letter “u”.) Sentiments carved into the brownstone ranged from syrupy to extremely sparse. One tiny stone bore only the name of “Katy Marfh” (again, “f” means “s”- her name was Marsh) while another waxed poetic with a rythmic reminder to the living by saying “as you are now so once was I.” I’ve included a few more photos of these stones for you to look at (see here, here, & here ). We’ll come back some time later and discuss the meanings behind the flying skulls, cherubs, and urns topping these monuments.
By the time I was done viewing these incredible stones and thinking about some of the incredible lives they represented, my concept of “old” was really starting to morph. Some of the unmarked burials in this ancient ground are of native Pequot people who can claim original occupancy of this site. They represent “old old old” traditions going back a thousand years or so. But, long before the Pequot arrived, other nameless native groups lived and died on this spot for over the course of some ten thousand years. Now I was getting to the “old old old old” category and in danger of thinking too much.
This train of thought continued to the level of the very gravestones themselves. A majority of the monuments were carved from native Brownstone quarried in nearby Middleton, Conn. This material was formed during the Triassic period about 230 million years ago at a time when North America and Africa were in the process of separation (Continental Divorce, you could say). So, the stones which long ago were in-scripted with “Here lieth the body of…” were themselves formed during the age of dinosaurs. These rocks are really really very and truly old – perhaps the “oldestest” of the things I saw on the walk. For the sake of sanity, I decided not to include the sun in this mental exercise, by the way. It trumps all in terms of age.
Speaking of the sun, I left the graveyard and hurried down to Bushnell Park in order to take in the sights before that ancient star disappeared for the night. It’s not that I feared being in an old New England cemetery full of ghostly skulls and hollow-eyed angels after dark, it’s just that well… really, I had to be getting on. There in the park, just before sunset, I stepped off the sidewalk and found myself treading over a golden carpet of Cypress & Gingko leaves (see below).
Both of these species are trees with ancient lineages. A forest floor covered with both of these leaves serves as a re-enactment of the dawn times. The Bald Cypress is a needle bearing tree (see below) which sheds its leaves like a deciduous tree come winter. It dates back to the Miocene era some 17-20 million years ago and it has remained relatively unchanged since that time. The Ginkgo (see fruit, leaves and seed here and here) has the oldest lineage of all. Leaf impressions of this species have been found in sediments dating back to the Permian. Ginkgos were already old-timers by the time the dinosaurs arrived on the scene. And, oddly enough, they actually pre-date the formation of the brownstone formations by a cool 40 million years!
While I am fully aware that the actual trees are under 100 years old, it’s their family history that counts in this mental exercise. Members of their kind will likely remain to drop leaves on our tombstones long after you and I have entered the realm of “old older oldest.”