Mount Auburn Cemetery, called “Sweet Auburn” in the early 19th century, was founded in 1831 as the nation’s first garden cemetery. This style of less formal burial grounds was a distinct break from the colonial-era church graveyard and began the public parks and garden movement that led to many urban parks, including Frederick Law Olmstead’s Central Park in the 1850’s. This 174 acre oasis of beautiful rolling hills, pathways, and ponds sits on the border of Watertown and Cambridge, just northwest of Boston. Along with being an active cemetery it also is a favorite destination for birders, walkers, gardeners, and admirers of nature’s beauty.
My first visit to Mount Auburn was with my parents in the late 1950’s, to the gravesite of my grandfather and his parents. My grandmother was buried there a few years later. Now as a birder I return to the cemetery every fall as part of yearly Boston trips to visit family. Migrating birds also pay a twice yearly visit to these grounds. From a thousand feet the tired and depleted migrating bird sees this green oasis and clear ponds within the urban concrete desert as an ideal stopover place. For the non-migrators it makes an ideal year-round home.
After 32 years of living on the rural Eastern Shore of Maryland, Boston admittedly overwhelms a bit. My discomfiture was heightened as I, in my birding garb and draped with camera, telephoto lens, and binoculars, boarded the city bus crammed with commuters and college students headed to Cambridge and MIT, all plugged into their pods, pads and phones and showing that blank municipal stare. Across the Charles River, through Central Square, change buses at Harvard Square, down Mount Auburn Street, past the hospital on the left, the cemetery is the next stop. I’m the only one who got off. A visitor can find a useful map just inside main gate, and rest rooms near Story Chapel on the left. You will need the map as the grounds are covered with a myriad of trails, paths, and roads covering the entire site. There are dark, cool, glens, and rolling hills with overlooks. I have been lost among the monuments more than once, but if you keep walking you’ll eventually get out. You can climb Washington tower at the top of Mount Auburn for commanding views to the south. Birding in a cemetery is a unique experience. The monuments are a constant reminder that there is so much to see and do, and so little time.
My trips to the cemetery have always been in late autumn and I have seen 32 species there, including 2 life birds; a Hooded Merganser and White-winged Crossbill. If you visit during the spring and fall migrations you can expect to see more. The Crossbill was part of the irruption of 2012. Crossbills rely on a conifer seed source and when that source fails the bird looks outside its normal range for sustenance. This was the case in 2012. Other highlights include the resident Red-tailed Hawk, Red and White-breasted Nuthatches, and Golden-crowned Kinglet. You’ll find strategically located benches at the ponds giving great opportunities for seated birding and a chance to take in the gorgeous vistas.
This year’s trip to Mount Auburn had special meaning for me. It was my first visit since the September funeral and internment of my parents, conducted by my Reverend sister and attended by our extended family and friends. But I stood alone now at the gravesite. No flowers, but I did have a small American flag. It was Veterans Day and Dad was a proud veteran of WWII. No tears. Just two lives, well lived, finally home again in Cambridge and Sweet Auburn.