Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Graveyard Chronicles - Vistas of solemn beauty*

Saturday morning at 6am finds me awake, dressed and enthusiastically
scaling the fence of my favourite place in Belfast: City Cemetery. I’ve been thinking about this expedition all week, delighting in the thought that if I’m early enough I will have the cemetery all for myself. Who else could be wandering its ancient paths just after sunrise on a weekend?
I live only one minute away from the gates of the cemetery, which I can see clearly from my bedroom window. The cemetery is the main reason I was attracted to this location but I didn’t tell anyone that either back then, when I was buying the house, or now. I fell in love with its stillness, its Celtic crosses, cracked tombstones, gnarled holly bushes, cypress trees, moss covered pathways and earthy aromas soon after moving back to Belfast in the early 1990s, at a time when “the troubles” were still blighting people’s lives. Many of those who died in the violence have been buried here, resting in a silence that remains long after the sound of rioting, gunfire and explosions have faded.
Peace reigns here now and peace has always reigned here, even when desperate young men from our community tread these paths seeking refuge from their own troubles in a high tree and a taut rope. The living have come here in search of death and multitudes of dead have been borne through these gates in the company of the bereaved who no longer ask themselves what they seek. I breathe in deeply and sense nothing of their pain. In the early morning heat yesterday’s newly mown grass, drenched in dew, flavours the rising chorus of birdsong. I breathe more deeply and regret that I’m unable to identify which birds are making which notes. They could be blue tits, thrush, wren, chaffinch, sparrow, robins, starling or blackbird. But just then one voice sings more intensely and powerfully than the others and I turn to see a single blackbird resting on the tip of a Celtic cross, silhouetted against the horizon and giving a performance that releases the last of the weariness from my soul.
There are woodpigeons, swifts and rooks, and jackdaws here too, as well as magpies. In winter the population shifts when the summer visitors return south and others, fieldfare and redwing, as well as others I’m not familiar with, take their place. My knowledge of flora and fauna is scarce and my senses do not automatically tune in to the rich tapestry of sights, sounds, smells. I’m an urban dweller, my connection with the natural world is tenuous, requiring effort to establish and maintain fluidity. This morning, however, my thoughts intrude less and I wonder whether their chatter has been silenced by the blackbird’s solo performance or by the quality of the amber-ochre light touching the intricately carved stone of an angel standing tall over an ivy covered tomb.
In the space that has been freed from internal chattering I sense a yearning, nostalgia for something I’ve never had. Maybe I yearn for a time when humanity had an unbroken connection with the natural world. Sadly, many are not even aware that they have lost that connection and consequently their appreciation of nature has failed to develop. Young people, sometimes hundreds of young people, invade this cemetery at night to hold alcohol and drug-fuelled gatherings of which they have no recollection. Others, even younger, await the warm sunny days of spring and summer so they can create a bonfire from the tallest cypress trees, to carbonise, to blacken what has taken decades to give full expression to its beauty.
A squirrel sits on a path that corners a whitethorn in full bloom, munching unhurriedly on a nut or an acorn it holds deftly in its paws. Rabbits live here too, as do foxes. One December evening a couple of years ago, just after the first snowfall of the season, I wandered the paths of the cemetery taking a childish delight in being the first to tread the blanket of whiteness. The clarity of light reflected back up from the snow to the moon, which hung low in a starry sky, illuminated the graves, trees and bushes, almost as if it were midday. I recall the satisfying crunch that accompanied each step that night, how a startled bird took flight scattering a sudden shower of snow that fell with a sigh, and in the distance, the constant hum of Saturday night traffic. Then I glanced across to my left where two points of light had caught my attention. A fox paused in mid pace stared at me. I stopped. Its eyes perfectly reflected a duo of moons, ears perched and tilted forward, head and body softly shadowlike against the snow, against the tombstone and holly bush.
This morning, near that same holly bush I hear a commotion. Something is happening in the grass. I look closer now and see three birds, a magpie grasping a baby blackbird in its beak and hauling it along clumsily but determinedly. A few inches away a blackbird, the mother presumably, is flapping her wings and squawking in alarm. I can’t remain indifferent and step forward. Mama flies off; the kidnapper drops his/her victim, struts off a few paces and turns slowly to observe me. The nestling looks up, doe-eyed and silent. Its back is pink and bare of feathers, which now lie scattered through the grass. From a distance the aggressor regards the scene. “Go away” I hiss, and it struts off another few steps, a token show of submission. But it’s hopeless. Mama has gone and when I leave, the kidnapper will return to finish the job.
Wild flowers, buttercup, bluebell, daisy, clover and a host of others I cannot identify are in bloom. Bright sunshine heightens their colours against the carpet of grass. Gazing up I see that no two trees are identical in their tonality of green. Oak, sycamore, beech, cypress, chestnut, ash, elm and birch defy attempts to capture in my notebook the choreography between light and leaf. A breeze whispers through the tree and the colours move subtly with it.  
While nature invites engagement, the graves invite sombre introspection. To my right lies Annie Carson who died in 1975, at the age of 103. Nearby lies Maria Young whose life ended after only 12 days, in 1895. Whitethorn and holly lean toward a gravestone bearing words that catch my eye “Every time you pass please say a prayer for Daddy.” I wonder about the immensity of pain behind this simple line. My own mother is buried less than a mile from here, in Milltown, in the Catholic Cemetery. Segregation in life was all she knew, and it followed her to her grave. Two years after her death “the troubles” started. Now we Catholics have muscled our way into jobs, education, houses and in among the ranks of the protestant dead in City Cemetery. My aunts are buried here, on the treeless upward slopes at the back, where the graves of their co-religionists lie in row upon row of Seamuses, Ciarans, Roisins, Maries, Declans, and Patricks,
By 7.50am the first of the dog walkers appears. Three Alsatians lope across open ground, pausing to sniff frenziedly at the barks of trees; when they spin round eyeing me suspiciously I tense but their owner steps in with a leash. “They’re not good with people,” he says apologetically as he reaches for the dogs. But it’s time for me to go anyway. I’m no longer alone here. The hum of traffic has deepened, an easyjet flight roars by overhead and the subtle interplay between silence and birdsong has vanished. I’ll be back.

*Vistas of solemn beauty where I’d wander in happy in happy silence (John Keats, Sleep and Poetry)

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