BY THE TIME I ARRIVE, just past 8 a.m., the parking lot is full and there are more than 100 bird-watchers combing the grounds trying to sneak a peek before work. Binoculars in tow, I pass under towering Norway maples, centuries-old cypress trees and the resplendent purple-leaf beech tree, branches jutting wide in every direction. I stroll down the hillside and arrive on the shores of Consecration Dell, a vernal pond straight out of a Victorian garden. Then I hear the first of many warbler songs and peer over the gravesites to see the exquisite Northern Parula and its scruffy yellow chin nestled in a shrub.
Yes, gravesites — as in cemetery.
Yet Mount Auburn Cemetery is no ordinary cemetery with row after row of headstones. It was created in 1831 on the outskirts of Boston, in Cambridge, as America’s first rural or garden cemetery, a precursor to parks in urban areas. At that time, in the first half of the 19th century, Boston was a congested, polluted city. If you’ve ever followed the red line on the Freedom Trail, you’ve ventured to two cemeteries: Copp’s Hill, founded in 1659 and the old Granary, founded in 1660 and whose cramped gravestones contain the names of Revolutionary War heroes such as Paul Revere and Samuel Adams.
The city was yearning for a new aesthetic, a cemetery landscaped with rolling hills, ponds, flowering shrubs and a mix of trees that provide shade not only for those in mourning, but also for the entire public to enjoy their picnic lunch. It became a smashing success that would lay the groundwork for Frederick Law Olmsted to create Central Park in New York City and the string of Emerald Necklace parks in Boston a half-century later. When a 16-year-old girl named Emily Dickinson first ventured to Mount Auburn, she wrote: “It seems as if nature had formed this spot with a distinct idea in view of it being a resting-place for her children, where, wearied and disappointed, they might stretch themselves beneath the spreading cypress and close their eyes ‘calmly as to a night’s repose or flowers at set of sun.’ ”
Today, more than 200,000 visitors enter the gates of Mount Auburn annually. Sure, they might come to visit the final resting place of a relative or to stop and say “thank you” to a long list of luminaries in American arts and letters, such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Winslow Homer and Buckminster Fuller; yet others, like me, simply follow in the footsteps of Roger Tory Peterson, the renowned ornithologist who once led bird walking tours here.
“For birds that traveled most of the night, the place represents a significant green footprint in an asphalt jungle,” says Wayne Petersen, the director of the Important Bird Areas (IBA) program for the Massachusetts Audubon Society.
So during the spring, I wander the trails to view the vibrant warblers at the height of the spring migration. In summer, I bring out-of-town guests to Mount Auburn. Resistant at first, thinking this is some sort of macabre prank, they’re quickly seduced by the scenery, understanding why local artists sketch Auburn Lake and its many lily pads, as close as Boston gets to Monet’s Giverny.
This month, with Halloween right around the corner — a time when people head to cemeteries to see things that go bump in the night — I take my family to Mount Auburn to fi nd the last vestiges of blazing foliage produced by the many sugar maples. One of the best views of autumn’s splendor, as well as of the city of Boston, is from atop Washington Tower, a fairy-tale version of a medieval tower that’s perched on a short knoll. Climb the 95 steps to the top and you’ll get a panoramic view of the city, with glimpses of the Charles River, Zakim Bridge and the Prudential Center.
It ’s no surprise that the current president of Mount Auburn, Dave Barnett, first arrived here 17 years ago as a horticulturist. Step foot onto the 174-acre site and you’re shaded by the tall, historic forest that features far more than the usual northern hardwood mix of maple, oak and birch trees. Go down a path and you’ll spot an umbrella pine, with its long, feathery needles; or head to Halcyon Lake to gaze at one of Barnett’s favorites, a tulip tree that starts to blossom in June.
“The trees are such spectacular specimens and the landscape so rich, with its rolling paths, that most people who visit quickly forget this is a graveyard,” Barnett says.