- Cruising through the Necropolis
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As a tenth grade biology student in suburban Cincinnati, Ohio, I was required to assemble a leaf collection. Aside from the catalpa, gingko, oak, maple and maybe buckeye, I can’t recall any of the other specimens that I ironed between two sheets of wax paper, identified by kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus and species, then handed over in an awkward three-ring binder with embarrassing sloppiness and bare-minimum ambition to our teacher, Mr. Matthews. I squirm today to think of how my dunderheaded, adolescent indifference then was an insult to whatever Adam first named the hickory and the larch, the locust, the hornbeam and the leatherwood, and to all those later poets who tuned the language of the flora even further, with names like frosty [End Page 37] lacebark elm, Warren’s red possumhaw, mountain silverbell, common rose mallow, weeping purple European beech, prairiefire crabapple and sparkleberry winter holly.
No, I don’t remember much of my half-assed collection of leaves, but I remember with an uncanny and haunting clarity the sweet, almost vanilla smell of dry grass in early September, our city’s protracted heat and the mellow, golden haze of those few afternoons when we went out, field manuals in hand, to gather our leaf samples in Cincinnati’s sprawling, seven-hundred-acre Spring Grove Cemetery. And I recall being mesmerized, as I still am in adulthood, by that eerie, relaxing and beautiful silence, interrupted only by the high and grinding whine of late cicadas.
Spring Grove’s designer, Adolph Strauch, was to cemeteries what Frederick Law Olmstead was to urban parks. Strauch’s vision of a so-called rural burial ground, in an age when rampant cholera epidemics plagued Cincinnati, was one in which the grandeur and gorgeousness of the natural world, in symphony with architecture and sculpture, would provide an “appropriate depository for the dead.” It’s the second-largest cemetery in the United States, and indeed, it was always intended to be a botanist’s wonderland. As early as five years after the first interment in September of 1845, it boasted 4,300 plant varieties. In high spring, in blooming season, there is enough Wordsworthian tranquillity and lushness to make even mortality seem a gentle prospect. Birds lose themselves in a delirium of song as the dearly departed repose in a Shangri-la of bowers; shady groves; rolling, grassy slopes; and ornamental lakes.
At the beginning of our sophomore year, because we were still too young to drive, we were carted out and dropped off at Spring Grove’s brooding stone-and-iron gates and turned loose on that commonwealth of the dead to hunt for a sugar maple and an Osage orange tree, a sumac and a ponderosa pine. Mostly, we spent our time cutting up among the mighty impressive list of notables buried in our midst—the likes of industrial titans William Proctor and James Gamble, forty-one Civil War generals (including Joseph P. Hooker), abolitionist and Underground Railroad mastermind Levi Coffin and Salmon P. Chase, the one time secretary of the Treasury, then Chief Justice of the U. S. Supreme Court, whose formidable glare still graces the $10,000 bill.
This was September of 1980. In January, we watched the Bengals lose to the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl. I remember that. In February, the United States defeated the Soviet Union to advance to the gold-medal round in Olympic hockey in Lake Placid, New York. I remember that, too. [End Page 38] The rest of the year pretty much floated over my head like a chain of drifting nimbus clouds. Looking back, however, it was a busy time, filled with events that would have rendered the future, middle-aged version of myself—or rather, the adult I have become—pensive, doubtful and riddled with disappointment. A U.S. and European grain embargo against Russia and our country’s first $1.5 billion bailing out Chrysler. Operation Eagle Claw, the mission to rescue the fifty-two hostages held in Iran by student militants, ended in...