Oakwood Cemetery lives right in the heart of Syracuse, New York and, like most things in the heart of Syracuse, is a powerful symbol of what might have been. One-hundred and sixty acres of green space in the middle of a rotting Rust Belt city, the cemetery was established in 1859, back before the Depression and the death of American industry hollowed out the city around it. As the city began to wilt, so too did the cemetery - the original ornate gates now adorn the side of a highway, while both parishes designed to serve the cemetery have long since been abandoned. Most of the dirt roads have long since gone back to seed; those few roads which were paved are now pot-holed and poorly kept.
Along one of these broken roads is a fallen oak, at least thirty-five feet tall with roots running about ten feet across. It looks as though the road kept the oak from laying its roots deep enough - the deepest are under maybe six inches of soil, at least a foot shallower than you’d expect from an oak as tall as this. Add in the soil’s poor drainage - the area where the roots were is now a deep mud pit - and the harsh Syracuse wind, and it’s not surprising the oak came down.
Its branches, once decked in vivid green, thirtysome feet up in the air, are now bare sticks on the ground, cradling graves. There’s something beautiful there.
I keep moving.
An interesting part of taking a nature walk through a graveyard is all the artificial touches people have made through the years. In the less developed areas, stands of paper birch and American beech still grow, but none of these fast-growing, early-arrival trees can be seen in the more developed open areas nearby. Instead, some of these graves feature plantings, bringing together foreign English beech and gingko biloba with more native hemlocks and oaks.
One grave in particular features two weeping willows, planted on either side of a headstone dating back to the late fifties. What originally must have been two small trees have since grown, spreading out and over the headstone they originally signposted. In the winter, all it takes to see the grave is some determination, walking through the thick, dangling branches obscuring the tombstone. In the spring, however, it must be much more of a task, trying to press through the leaves and twigs building a dense screen in front of the grave.
I like to imagine that, back around the fifties, the family came out and pruned the trees when they began to become too unruly. But then over the years, as the old guard began to join those the trees commemorated, the trees were taken back less and less until at last they were allowed to run wild. A friend of mine told me that this idea was inherently depressing, that I was choosing to believe that the deceased had been forgotten. I told them I chose to see it as the living having moved on, having recovered to a point that they no longer needed to visit the grave. I told them I chose to see it as proof that life goes on.
A nearby mauseoleum is covered in hart’s-tongue fern, declared endangered throughout the United States. The fern is small, growing out of the cracks in the mausoleum’s bricks, but it's still there. It’s still growing, as it does almost nowhere else in this country.
I like to imagine that the person inside the mausoleum would be fine with, even encourage the fern to grow. I like to imagine that they would give the fern their full seal of approval.
But then, it doesn’t really matter if they would approve.
After all, they’ve long since died, and life must go on.