Monday, May 12, 2014

What to do in Portland: Evergreen Cemetery

I really love a good cemetery. 
The quiet winding paths, the chirping birds, the tangible, gritty lives buried right below your feet. 
So when John suggested a trip to Evergreen Cemetery I grabbed my camera and followed along. 

The grounds are gorgeous and lush and the headstones are lovingly swaddled in shrubbery and we enjoyed a long walk until we came upon a gravestone that read Gelineau. Christopher, whose side of the tombstone held his dog tags, died on April 20th, 2004. A year and a few days later Lavinia, his wife was buried next to him. 

We sat before their gravestone, peeking into the glass box that held clues to their lives and possibly their deaths and speculated. A clay sailboat, wedding pictures, a heart shaped crystal.
 He must have died in the war. But what happened to her? 

I googled his name and found his story: a bomb in Iraq, as we had suspected. The story went on to talk about how Lavinia had played the guitar and sung their favorite song at his funeral.
John and I sat and tried to imagine having the strength to play music at our spouse's funeral.
How could such a strong woman have committed suicide a year later?

We delved deeper into google as the sun warmed our backs and we stretched out in front of Chris and Lavinia.
"Oh wow…."
That's all I could say when I found the story
A year after her husband's burial, her estranged father had come for a visit and had strangled Lavinia before hanging himself. 

We sat stunned, staring up into the sky. 

Cemetery's can be sombre. I suspect for most people they are. The thought of death is uncomfortable. Repressed. But I can't help but feel like there is something about walking among the dead that can give strength and gratitude to the living and in that moment John and I could think of nothing but the good fortune we had been afforded. 

So many other headstones hint to untold stories. 
What happened to Lucy H Shefley and who is Mother?

But if the mystery doesn't lure you in the fresh air surely should. Headstone after headstone was coated in luxurious carpets of orange lichen - what my budding naturalist brain suspects is possibly the elegant sunburst lichen, or more correctly - Xanthoria elegans.

John pointed out the lichen in praise of Portland's superior air quality - and while he isn't wrong that lichen grow attached to pure air destinations, that's only true for some lichen. 
Xanthoria elegans, if that is what this is, is actually so resistant to pollution and severe conditions that it has been tested and vetted as a survivor of outer space simulations. 

But really it's just beautiful to see such a pop of color on cold stone.

Friends of Evergreen Cemetery is a group that has dedicated their time to preserving the beautiful grounds of the cemetery and they have an active calendar of history tours and garden walks for the public. The city of Portland itself has a really impressive cache of urban trails on their website and they have a suggested walking tour of Evergreen Cemetery complete with hours, bus routes and possible activities for each hike. 

If there is any tombstone you cannot miss it's Edmund J. "Taz". I may be a sucker for old dilapidated, half worn headstones but this headstone is just amazing.

Evergreen Cemetery
372 Stevens Avenue 
Ground Hours: 7am - 4:30pm
Office Hours: 7 am - 3:30 pm 

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Things to do in Portland, Maine: Gilsland Farm Audubon Center

Traveling alone is not only liberating in a cripplingly social way, its also sometimes just necessary for me. Who else wants to get up on their "vacation" to hang out with strangers and watch birds? 

Wherever I travel now I'm sure to scout out nature centers and arboretums and I was lucky enough to land upon Gilsland Farm - Portland's Audubon Center and they just happened to be having a birding walk that Thursday morning of my trip. 

As I pulled into the parking lot I spied a tiny gathering of birdies, bundled and swathed against the wind, hugging their binoculars tight. They looked up curiously as I stepped out of the car. 
"Is she lost?" I could feel them thinking. 

I don't know if it's a lack of patience that seems to naturally push youth from the scene. Or perhaps the intimidation of trained eyes and ears that soar to identifications quicker than one's fingers can type out a Google. Or is it just a lost art, like so many others, that has slipped from the forefront as technology took center stage, usurping sticks and stones, in the lives of youth?
Whatever the case, you can't help but feel a little out of your element when you show up to your first birding walk. All the bells and whistles of a bingo game don't even begin to compare to how disorientingly seductive this art they call birding can be to the uninitiated. 

I sidled up to the tiny group and acted nonchalant as I waited for the magic to unfold. 
They noticed.

"Oh just visiting. I go somewhere new every month and this month it's Portland," I explained, smiling weakly back at the surprised stare I received. "No I don't have any binoculars, this is kinda my first time doing this." I stomped my feet for warmth and again cursed my decision to come to Portland over the welcomingly warm arms of the lower laying lands down the coast. 

"Well we've actually got a nice little group out today, this is great," came a voice from behind us. I turned to see another fledgling join the group, his plumage still youthful and vibrant against the peppered whites and grays of the rest of the group. 

"Our fearless leader," one of the gray's quipped, "last week it was just the two of use out here and it was colder than today. Let's see how long we all last today."

Fearless leader? He can't be any older than I am! How did he happen to master this retiree ridden past-time before acquiring achey joints and a walking stick?

Doug led us through the woods and out to the first blind where he panned the scope out over the water.
Mergansers, Buffleheads, Goldeneyes, Double Crested Cormorants - despite the frosted temperatures the count started to climb and more bizarre, outlandish names were called out and the scope swung and trained quickly under Doug's direction.

As with anything, the first time is always a bit harry, a bit awkward. As I looked through the scope I asked questions to help establish some parcel of association for my brain to form a memory around.
"So the mergansers are the ones with the bad hair day?"I asked.
The woman next to me laughed, "I hadn't thought of it that way but yes," she replied. 

"So you're here all alone?" she asked as we followed Doug and the scope to the next spot. 
I imagine she inaccurately but endearingly perceived me as a duckling on my first adventure away from home pond.  We walked and chatted about the benefits of ample free time and hobbies that require that life. 

"Oh look out there in the grass. A Flicker. Didn't expect to see him today!"
The speckled dot flit and fluttered away from the scope before I could see him. 
Patience and acceptance are truly honed virtues in this trade. 
My feeble attempts to photograph a bird through the scope resulted in an artful bum shot. 

Eventually we wound completely around the grounds and back to our cars and my first taste of professional list making and ear bending was at a close. 

Bittersweet - Celastrus orbiculatus 

Judy, my walking companion

Check out the Center and walk the beautiful grounds if you ever make it to the Portland area. 
Doug and his followers walk to trails every Thursday morning from 7 to 9am.

20 Gilsland Farm Road, Falmouth, ME