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Thursday, June 12, 2008

A Path Worth Taking

About a month ago, there appeared on a roadside near me, several dozen of those tall brown paper bags made for disposing of yard waste. They were located at the bottom of a steep hill on the side of an otherwise very busy road that is both thoroughfare and entrance to a number of subdivisions. I didn’t think much of the bags – except that there were an awful lot of them even given that it was Spring cleanup time. But then after bag pickup day, I noticed a wood chip path leading up the hill and into the trees. And a week or two after that, a simple, lovely sage green sign appeared at the bottom of the hill proclaiming…a cemetery.

Being a particularly nosy curious sort, I of course had to venture over there with my camera. After all, if you discovered that there was a cemetery just a few blocks from your house, and up a short steep path into the woods, wouldn’t you want to check it out? Especially if, as the quiet sign explained clearly, it was “Long-Lost Cemetery. Established 1826.”

I arrived just as a pickup truck was parking on the shoulder of the road, a pickup that contained the parents of the high school boy who had chosen this as his Eagle Scout project. Somehow, I know not how, he had learned of this long-abandoned cemetery, the first burying ground our town ever had, and had determined to clean up the overgrown hillside and reestablish some sense of respectful marking for the souls interred there. He got over 100 volunteers to help him clear dozens of scrub trees, weeds, dead underbrush, stumps, and even some construction trash; he got a local branch of a big box store to donate trucks and wood chips to create the lovely pathways they constructed. He and his team not only cleared away decades of debris; they created a veritable sanctuary.

In. One. Day.

There are very few of the original tombstones left here now. Some, apparently, were taken by teenage vandals; some have disappeared to erosion and time. Most of the remains of those once interred here were moved to the still-functioning large local cemetery in 1956. Of the 49 people originally buried here between 1826 and 1886, it is unknown to me how many actually remain. It is certainly obvious that the tombstones no longer rest in their original spots – as this nonsensical arrangement of headstone supports makes clear.

But out of respect for the spot and the dead who may remain, the boy who dreamed up this project was careful not to have moved any of the stones, which all lie, or lean, or stand precisely where they were found. He was also sensitive, as the footer for this stone shows, to the value of the plants that were here…retaining all the gorgeous lily of the valley that clusters in fragrant protection around the crumbling markers. In fact, the plants that you see stretching in enormous swaths around the paths and under the trees in the photo above are all lily of the valley. And throughout the grounds, I spotted astilbe, and vinca, and iris, and other reminders that once, this was a tended place.

He installed a bench for sitting and contemplating, and had I not been a little self-conscious about seeming to gawk in front of his parents, I would have sat there myself for a good long while. It is the sort of place that invites solitude and quiet thought.

There are a few partial stones still readable, and after taking pictures of the lovely spot, I came home and started doing some research to see what else I could learn. There are, in fact, multiple sources of a “complete” list of all the people once buried here, with all the known details of their causes of death, as well as the inscriptions on their tombstones. There are inconsistencies in some of the entries, from one source to the next, such that one cannot tell the ages of some of those buried -- 3 years or 10? 1 year or 11? There is one toddler whose father is listed but whose birthdate is recorded in two places with a difference of 60-odd years.

Even with these discrepancies, it is possible to see some family trees begin to emerge from these lists online, just as it is possible to trace, even at the distance of 180 years, the lines of grief that etched inscriptions such as this into the gravestone of little Hiram Jerome Tibbits, aged nine.

In fact, it was the discovery of this cemetery, and my desire to learn more about it, that led me to the interesting story of how my town officially got its name (and dodged the moniker Poduk for good). I learned that the early settlers in the area, needing a burial place, had chosen this spot – not far from the Tibbits’s barn, as an ideal location. And indeed, given the prospect that standing on this hill would no doubt have provided to the surrounding land before the current crop of relatively young trees covered it, I can imagine that this was indeed an ideal, if windswept, vista on which to say goodbye to a loved one.

This spot no longer looks like a cemetery per se, although the Scout has done an admirable job in creating a memorial here. It is not a spot for doing rubbings of fascinating old stones or scanning tidy rows of quaintly carved headstones for amusing or anachronistic quotations. Instead, it is a place to wander the few short paths and think about the first brave souls who came west (yes, Michigan was not even a State when people were first buried here) to make a new life. I like imagining the stories they could tell of a time when it was still possible to walk to the town center from where I stood. Now a 50-mile-per-hour road makes that impossible. As do so many other things about our current culture.

I admire immensely the thoughtful treatment of the spot by a group of high school kids. It is so easy, I think, to write off any young generation for its wild irreverence, its resistance to convention or authority for mere resistance’s sake. And yet, here is a boy with enough of a sense of history, enough of a perspective outside himself, to choose to restore a proper level of respect to a spot long forgotten but once sacred to the lives of those who came before us. I salute the power of his gesture, a quiet one undertaken with no fanfare, no press coverage, no “Grand Opening.” I imagine the pioneer families who first homesteaded here, resilient with what would become known as a midwestern diligence and modesty, would do the same.


Don Mills Diva said...

What a wonderful place. I feel calmer and more serene just reading about it.

Love the new design BTW.

lattemommy said...

That's such an admirable Scout project. Have you considered writing an article on the project (much like you just did here) and submitting it to your local paper? His act deserves some public recognition. (Not that being featured on your blog isn't enough, my dear.)

Aimeepalooza said...

I'm impressed by this Eagle Scout. What a good boy! I hope my boys grow to be that type of teen.
And what a nice peaceful spot. I'd probably read on that bench often.

LceeL said...

Sometimes, just sometimes, they do a little something to restore your faith in those who are to follow us.

Tara R. said...

What a fabulous project. He did a beautiful job. Your photos are gorgeous.

Chesapeake Bay Woman said...

What a great kid and a great story.

I truly love old graves and often roam local cemeteries just looking at the names and the dates and wondering who they were and what sort of life they led.

Sandy C. said...

What an amazing act of kindness and respect. I certainly hope others will follow in their footsteps.

csicsiv said...

I saw the cemetery sign recently and wondered if I had just never noticed it after 5 years of driving down that busy road. Thanks for researching- I'd like to know more, actually. I think it's fascinating. Great project for a scout, too.

McMommy said...

I love this story! Something very peaceful about your writing...probably inspired by the restored cemetary/memorial garden!

Jozet at Halushki said...

What an outstanding service project. And your tribute is also stunningly beautiful. I hope that the Scout somehow finds this and reads how his efforts have touched others. And from generations of forgotten, come forth the lives of people now remembered - if not in their entirety, then at least in their humanity.

ConverseMomma said...

I'm always in awe at the passion of the generation under me. I feel blessed to work with them each day. That project was truly wonderful. Hope he gets the props he deserves.

MommyTime said...

Latte, what a good idea. I think I will contact the paper.

DMD and McMommy, isn't it funny? I felt so peaceful writing it too.

Csicsiv, if you find out more, let me know. I'll send you the links to what I've got so far.

Jozet, thank you for your sentiment and this beautiful line: And from generations of forgotten, come forth the lives of people now remembered - if not in their entirety, then at least in their humanity.

auds at barking mad said...

Such an impressive undertaking.

I agree with lattemommy - you should definitely submit this to your local paper. It was so beautifully written.

Here in New England, we have so many long forgotten cemetaries that just beg for someone's gentle touch, time, and remembrance. Especially those from the Revolutionary War era.

My daughter and I, grave-rubbing aficionados, hesitate to even touch any of the older headstones and markers lest crumble beneath our fingertips. Neglect has given way to decay and more often than not, the engraving on the stone is hardly legible.

Meg and some of her friends have been looking for a summer project before they head off to college in the fall (sniffle sniffle) and I think I'm going to have her read this post and see if it's something she might be interested in undertaking.

Thanks for posting this...it's something I'll come back to often.

MommyTime said...

Auds, that would be wonderful if this Scout's project could inspire others. What a great idea! I'm so glad you enjoyed this. Have a lovely weekend.

foolery said...

I agree with lattemommy -- the best way to honor that young man's selflessness and service (as well as the generous donations of time and resources made by your community) is to tell everyone about it. No one could do so as eloquently as you. :)


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