Saturday, June 27, 2009

Tokens of Dying Love (Part Four)

This is the last of four installments entitled "Tokens of Dying Love"--a reflection on the death of Captain Charles W. Billings, Co. C, 20th Maine Volunteers, at Gettysburg in July, 1863. Part Three, on Billings' death at the Fifth Corps Hospital, may be found here.

At last receiving word that her husband had been wounded, Ellen hastily made preparations for the long journey to Gettysburg. Daughters Isadore, then thirteen, and Lizzie, three, were sent to live with family while she was away. The trip itself took a minimum of four days [1]. Accompanied by Billing's brother John, Ellen travelled in the cramped, hot quarters of the railway cars, her mood swinging between hope and dread in the face of the unknown.

Arriving exhausted in the early evening of July 15th, having had little sleep, she waited at the boarding house while John rode out to the Christian Commission camp at the Fifth Corps hospital. The stench of the battlefield was still thick in the humid air. The town's residents had long since closed their windows despite the summer heat, in a vain attempt to shut out the sickeningly sweet odor of decomposition and decay.

Late at night, John returned with a clergyman dressed in black. The Rev. Parvin spoke words of the Captain's death earlier that morning and sought to console Ellen. The chaplain conveyed Billing's last message and delivered the mementos that the Captain had left with him. She spent another sleepless night. The next day, they went to the embalmer's and made arrangements for the Captain's body to be sent home. They returned to Clinton and, alongside his daughter Alice, Charles was buried in the cemetery by the Sebasticook River.

Having no letters that were exchanged between Charles and Ellen, we can only imagine their content and tone. In his letter to his father of May 31, Billings wrote that he depended on him to write news "on matters of interest" about home, as Ellen was "not much of a hand to write news outside of the family." That she was concerned primarily about domestic matters is not surprising, given the hard work of caring for her two daughters and keeping a home. She had little time, whether she was so inclined or not, to see much beyond the immediate tasks of the everyday. Perhaps Charles' letters to her were softer in tone than those to his father, given less to flights of patriotic rhetoric and matters of business back home. His closing words to his father on May 31 suggest an affectionate man: "Share love with the family."

During the course of the Civil War, hundreds of families travelled to the front in search of loved ones. Presumably, some of those were women and, as was the custom of the day, they were properly accompanied by men. And yet we can't help but admire the courage, devotion, and sheer physical stamina that Ellen evidenced in traveling so far from home. We may imagine it likely that, in her thirty-one years, she had never left the state prior to July, 1863.

In his talk to the meeting of the Christian Commission in February, 1864, about his ministrations to Captain Billings at the Fifth Corps Hospital, the Rev. Parvin painted a classic picture of the Good Death colored, as it was, by the Victorian and Protestant piety of the time. That Billings was at least a conventionally religious man, there can be no doubt. Duty to one's God and to one's country were cornerstones of mid-nineteenth masculine identity, the two often conflated and seen as one: "I have tried to serve him in the army, and he will not forsake me now." We may safely assume that he took comfort from the prayers of the chaplain. 

As he lay dying, Billing's acknowledged a consciousness of his fate and his willingness to accept it: "I have no fears." He showed signs of belief in God and in the promise of salvation: "My hope is in the Lord Jesus Christ." And, by way of a message conveyed to the chaplain, he uttered those "life-defining" last words to Ellen. Furthermore, he left his knapsack, sword, and other mementos behind to sustain a link, even in death, with his beloved wife.

Amid horrendous conditions and in the face of  Billings' slow, painful death, Parvin sought to construct a narrative of a Good Death that would make meaning out of unbearable suffering. In so doing, he exalted the sacrifice made by Billings and did his part in redeeming the otherwise meaningless slaughter of the battlefield. Although he may have omitted some of the hard circumstances of the Captain's death, we cannot fault the chaplain for seeking to strengthen the "home-link" by throwing out a life-line between the unutterably horrific world of battle and the familiar and known world at home. Late on the night of the 15th, as a means of offering her hope and reassurance, he no doubt conveyed the substance of that narrative to Ellen.

In December, a mere five months after her father's death in Gettysburg, three-year old Lizzie died. Ellen's grief was compounded. Late in July, she had applied for a soldier's pension from the US government. Due to there being no official record of her marriage to Charles on file in the town office at Clinton, it was not until almost a year later, in June, 1864--and after the justice of the peace who officiated at the ceremony in 1849 was located in Baltimore, Maryland--that she was finally awarded a pension of $20 dollars a month. Presumably, her pension was retroactive to the date of Charles' death the previous July. Billing's father, Abijah, coping with an unwieldy bureaucracy, had worked tirelessly for months as an advocate for his daughter-in-law in securing the needed documentation.

On September 25, 1883, a group of Clinton Civil War veterans voted to name a new post of the Grand Army of the Republic in Billing's honor. Years later, on May 18, 1912, through the efforts of the Billings Women's Relief Corps who raised a "mile of pennies," a Civil War monument was erected and suitably dedicated. At that time, Ellen was the sole surviving member of the Billings family, her daughter Isadore having died in 1887.

Ellen Hunter Billings died on April 6, 1924 in Lancaster, New Hampshire at age ninety. She remained a widow, having not married again after her husband's death. Her body was brought home to Maine and buried alongside that of her husband Charles and their daughters Alice and Lizzie in Riverview Cemetery. A government form records that her last pension payment of $30 was received on April 4. She was dropped from the roll on May 8th.

[1] Information on train schedules and routes, Augusta, ME to Gettysburg, PA, provided by the National Railway Historical Society.

(I am indebted to Mr. Buddy Frost, President of the Clinton Historical Society, for sending me transcripts of the two Billings letters. He also generously provided vital family records of the Billings family. Pension information came from the Billings pension file at the National Archives in Washington, DC.)  da5wx8p7zf

Photo Credit: David S. Heald. The Billings Plot, Riverview Cemetery, Clinton, Maine. The graves of Charles, Ellen, Alice, and Lizzie respectively, are to the right of the obelisk. The obelisk records the dates of Billings wounding and death at Gettysburg, as well as Ellen's death.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Tokens of Dying Love (Part Three)

This is the third of four installments entitled "Tokens of Dying Love"--a reflection on the death Of Captain Charles W. Billings, Co. C, 20th Maine Regiment, at Gettysburg, PA, in July 1863. Part Two, on Billings' life prior to the Battle of Gettysburg, may be found here.

Billings was brought to the field hospital of the Fifth Corps on the farm of Michael Fiscel, a mile and a half southeast of Little Round Top. Along with the "worst cases" in the corps, among whom were his own men, he was treated on the floor of an old barn. Historian Glen LaFantasie graphically describes the scene in the days immediately following the battle:

The hospital was bedlam and slaughterhouse combined. Piles of amputated limbs could be seen everywhere, attracting flies and giving off a sickening odor. Only some of the wounded could be comfortably accommodated on hay beds in the buildings and in several tents; many of the suffering men lay in long lines under the hot sun with no protection over them at all. The moans of the wounded blocked out most of the other sounds around the Fiscel farm, except for the occasional screams of men who could not bear their pain any longer. Rain storms that came after the battle put the men in more agony, turning the hay into damp straw and drenching the wounded soldiers to the skin. East of the barn, in a field overlooking a stream, the men who died from their wounds were buried in shallow graves that gave off an eerie phosphorescent glow at night. [1]

Lying in the hay, his femur shattered above the knee by a minie ball, Billings looked on as around him his men died of their wounds. The sight so affected him that he became deranged--a "raving maniac"-- requiring several attendants to subdue him. He was brought to a room by himself, away from the other mangled and dying men, and in time he rallied. One of the corps' surgeons went in to assess his condition. Departing from Billings, the surgeon spoke to a chaplain from the Christian Commission, the Rev. Robert J. Parvin, telling him that Billings would not live. If the Captain had had a primary amputation--within forty-eight hours--he might have had a chance of surviving.

Parvin went in sit with Billings and held his hand. The Captain asked the chaplain what the surgeon had said.

"He thinks it hardly possible that you will live," Parvin replied.

"My wife, Chaplain, have you heard from her since your message yesterday?"

Parvin said that he had not, that the telegraph lines were in heavy usage by the government.

"We hope she will be here," he replied.

"Does the surgeon say that I cannot live long, Chaplain?"

"Yes; but you are a Christian man, Captain Billings?"

"Yes, Chaplain, I have no hope is in the Lord Jesus Christ. I have tried to serve him in the army, and he will not forsake me now. I would like to see my wife..." he continued, as his thoughts turned to Ellen.

'Well, Captain, if you have anything to say, will you give the message to me?"

So he gave Parvin his knapsack and sword and the message he wished to be conveyed if she came. 

"Now, don't stay longer with me. Go and minister to the boys, and run in here as you can to read a few words of Scripture to me, and kneel down and pray with me."

Billings then asked: "Could you have my body embalmed and sent home? I lost my money on the field."

"Certainly, Captain" Parvin replied, " Give no further thought about that."

The Chaplain later wrote: "Not another time did he refer to it, but he passed away a dying Christian, triumphing over all the horrors of war, over all the sad circumstances surrounding him."

Billings died at eleven o'clock on the morning of July 15th. Later that afternoon, his body was delivered to the embalmers. At ten o'clock that night, as Parvin sat in his tent writing letters, he heard a knock at his door. A civilian gentleman walked in.

"Is Captain Billings, of the 20th Maine, here? I am his brother. I have his wife with me. I have buoyed her up this long way with the hope that we would find the Captain in good condition. Where is he?"

"You have not brought the Captain's wife out here with you tonight?" Parvin replied.

"No, I left her in town for tonight."

"It is well; the body of your brother was sent to the embalmers at five o'clock this afternoon!"

Billings' brother was overcome with grief. "I cannot tell her! I cannot trust myself to tell her, or even see her again, tonight! I have brought her all the way to Gettysburg, and now you must, you must tell her all!"

Parvin concluded: "And so our duty was to see his wife, and to deliver to her the messages; and the tokens of dying love of her husband, and speak to her words of comfort in the name of the Lord! His body was carried on to the State of Maine, to repose with those of his kindred there."

(to be continued...)

[1] Glen LaFantasie, Gettysburg Requiem: The Life and Lost Causes of Confederate Colonel William C. Oates (Oxford University Press, USA, 2006)
[2] The Rev. Robert J. Parvin, from remarks given at a meeting of the Christian Commission,: Washington, D.C; February, 1864; Frank Moore, Anecdotes, Poetry, and Incidents of the War: North and South. 1860-1865  da5wx8p7zf

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Tokens of Dying Love (Part Two)

This is the second of four installments entitled "Tokens of Dying Love"--a reflection on the death of  Captain Charles W. Billings, Co C, 20th Maine Volunteers, at Gettysburg, PA in July 1863. Part One, on the Battle for Vincent's Spur on Little Round Top, may be found here.

Charles W. Billings was thirty-seven years old when he was promoted to Captain of Co. C, 20th Regiment Maine Volunteers. Prior to his official mustering in on September 1, 1862, Billings resided in the agricultural and manufacturing community of Clinton, Kennebec County, Maine, some thirty-two miles northeast of the state capital at Augusta. 

By the standards of the day, Billings was reasonably well educated, having attended a private academy in the neighboring community of Benton. Listed on the Descriptive Rolls of the regiment as a "lumberman," he also owned a half-share in a carding and fulling mill. He was active in his community, having once served as town clerk, as well as on the school committee. At the time of Lincoln's call for 300,000 more troops in July, 1862, he was a town selectman.

Billings and Ellen Hunter were married by a justice of the peace on August 18, 1849, just after her sixteenth birthday. He was twenty-four. Their first daughter, Isadore, was born six months later, in February, 1850. A second daughter, Alice, was born in September, 1856 and died four years later, in November, 1860. Their last child, Lizzie, was born in April, 1860.

In May, 1863, the 20th Maine sat out the battle of Chancellorsville, having received a vaccine for smallpox that caused an outbreak of the disease among the rank and file. Those healthy enough to report for duty were called upon to guard the telegraph line that ran from headquarters at Falmouth, VA to the United States Ford on the Rappahannock River.

On May 19th, from his regiment's camp near Falmouth, Billings sat down to "write a few lines" to his father back home in Maine. Referring coolly to the Union defeat at Chancellorsville, he wrote: "Our last engagement was not so fortunate for our arms as we would have wished or as we expected."He was concerned about the diminishment of the army, especially through the expiration of two-year enlistments. Remarking that "the rebels have every available man in their ranks," he launched into an earnest patriotic call to arms:

Now let the north send out his reserves, there are enough to spare, let them come. Who would not jump to serve his country now that everything is promising. It must and will be done. The cause of God & humanity demand it. We must either conquer or be conquered, no other alternative is presented. Shall we subdue the Rebels and secure liberty to our country? Or shall we give up this contest, and let the sword of despotism & ignorance sweep over our fair country? Obliterating at once our national existence, and all our fond and long cherished hopes of seeing our beloved country continue to advance in all that is good and great? What but an emphatic & determined "no never" should be our every answer? Would to God all our people could see it in its true light. Would that those politicians who for their own selfish advance in power are ready to sacrifice our country, might be brought to shame & the punishment they so richly deserve.

Later in May, the regiment moved camp from Falmouth to guard the United States Ford some fifteen miles upriver.  On Sunday, My 31st, Billings again wrote his father, encouraging him to write "once a week" as "Ellen is not much of a hand to write news outside the family."Across the Rappahannock, the enemy could be seen "marching and countermarching," perhaps meant as a ruse to shield Lee's preparations for his army's imminent move north. Billings wrote disapprovingly of "our boys" wading out and meeting Confederate pickets mid-stream, even swimming across the ford to talk with the enemy. In a milder tone, he concluded the letter: "Well Father it is almost time to close the mail so I must draw this to a close so that you will get it one day earlier, we have had preaching today, a good sermon. I have a prayer meeting to night. Share love with the family. Your affectionate son, Charles W. Billings."

Fourteen days later, the 20th Maine Regiment, with the 3rd Brigade, departed from the fords. Joining the rest of the Fifth Corps of the Army of the Potomac, they commenced two weeks hard marching northward, under a burning hot June sun. Lee's army was on a roughly parallel course, just on the other side of the Blue Ridge Mountains. They would meet at the crossroads town of Gettysburg, a day's march over the Maryland border into Pennsylvania. Billings, and the other men of his regiment, would be tested in battle on a hill known as Little Round Top.

to be continued...

(20th Maine Regimental Flag)

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Tokens of Dying Love (Part One)

This is the first of four installments entitled "Tokens of Dying Love"--a reflection on the death of Captain Charles W. Billings, Co. C., 20th Maine Volunteers, at Gettysburg in July, 1863.

From their position above, they could see through the battle smoke of the attacking line the indistinct shapes of gray-clad men moving en masse through the wooded valley to the left. Alerted to the movement, the left wing of the regiment shifted to the left and rear to meet the onslaught, moving into position among the rocks and trees. They had now formed a horseshoe-shaped line around the crest of the spur on this rocky ledge in the Pennsylvania woods.

The two hundred and fifty Alabamians scrambled up the slope, straight into the muzzles of more than a hundred rifles. The volley tore into the ranks of the appalled rebels, who were brought up short and hastily sought cover. When the southerners at last returned fire, the Maine men were grateful that they were on a height, shielded among the  boulders and trees.

In places, the contending forces were less than seventy feet apart.  The men dumped out the contents of their cartridge boxes and stuck their ramrods in the ground, signaling that they did not intend to be driven back. Soon after the line had settled in among the rocks, the company's Captain was hit by a bullet just above the knee. Relinquishing his command to his Lieutenant, he was carried to the aid station in the rear. The roar of musketry gradually receded and the clouds of burnt powder dispersed as he was brought down the back-side of the hill to where his comrades--battered and bloodied--were being tended to. 

The regimental surgeon applied a tourniquet to stop the bleeding and covered the wound with a bandage. To ease the pain, powdered morphine was sprinkled into the wound. He was given a drink of water and perhaps, to soothe his soul, a swallow of whiskey. It was now late in the afternoon. By early that evening, he had been taken by ambulance behind the lines to the old barn that served as a hospital.

to be continued...

(Battle Flag, Twentieth Maine Regiment, Retired after the Battle of Gettysburg; Maine State Museum; Augusta, Maine. I am indebted to Thomas A. Desjardin's Stand Firm Ye Boys From Maine: The 20th Maine and the Gettysburg Campaign for details about this segment of the battle on Little Round Top; July 2, 1863)

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Gettysburg's Unknown Soldier

A comment on a recent posting over at Distant Temple Bell resulted in a whole new line of inquiry, some reconnections with old acquaintances, and the making of a new friend.  It's a small world, made even smaller by these happy serendipitous encounters on the internet. Wonderful stuff.

The comment was in response to my post about Memorial Day, specifically General Orders #11, issued from the Headquarters of the Grand Army of the Republic, marking May 30th as the official observance of the day--"for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet church-yard in the land." 

The commentator pointed me in the direction of a series of posts by Errol Morris, an Academy Award winning film director, on his New York Times blog. "Whose Father Was He?" is a five-part inquiry into a photograph of three children found on the body of a Union soldier, Amos Humiston, who died on the first day of the Battle Of Gettysburg.

As I noted in my earlier post "A Harvest of Death," the new technology of photography brought home the mayhem and violence of the battlefield. But more often the opposite occurred. After a battle, images from home were sometimes found alongside corpses. On the field at Gettysburg, the body of a Yankee soldier was found with an ambrotype of three children "tightly clasped in his hands." 

By happenstance, the ambrotype came into the possession of a tavern keeper who, in turn, passed it on to a Philadelphia physician whose wagon had broken down on his way to tend the wounded on the Gettysburg battlefield. The physician published a description of the photograph and the identity of the soldier was established. Morris goes on to retell the tale, a tale of lost and found, of light and dark, of altruism and greed.

Morris' narrative itself relies on the meticulous research of Mark Dunkelman in his book Gettysburg's Unknown Soldier: The Life, Death, and Celebrity of Amos Humiston. Morris interviews Dunkelman, who narrates a compelling story of happy serendipity as he uncovers more and more about the life of the soldier who died far from home and the legacy of a photograph that became the inheritance of a nation.

Denied the presence of kin at the hour of death, soldiers like Humiston removed photographs from haversacks or cartridge boxes and spent their last moments gazing upon images of loved ones.

In his interview with Morris, Mark Dunkelman mentions having had dinner with two clergy colleagues of mine, one of whom was pivotal in providing an invaluable lead that led to further contacts with Humiston family members. Having read "Whose Father Was He?," I contacted Mark to put in a plug for My Morbid Obsession and to inquire further about my colleagues. I found Mark to be gracious and engaging. I heartily commend his books, and his website on the 154th New York, "The Hardtack Regiment."

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Good Death

Central to understanding death in mid-nineteenth century America was the concept of the Good Death, as it had long been at the core of Christian practice. In This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, Drew Gilpin Faust writes:

Dying was an art, and the tradition of ars moriendi had been provided rules of conduct for the moribound and their attendants since at least the fifteenth century; how to give up ones soul "gladlye and wilfully."; how to meet the devil's temptations of unbelief, despair, impatience, and worldly attachment; how to pattern one's dying on that of Christ; how to pray. Texts on the art of dying proliferated with the spread of vernacular printing, culminating in 1651 in London with Jeremy Taylor's The Rule and Exercise of Holy Dying. His revision of the originally Catholic ars moriendi proved not just a literary achievement but an intellectual triumph that firmly established the genre within Protestantism.

During the Civil War, Americans North and South, and across religious and denominational lines, agreed upon death's transcendent importance. Even Jews and Christians were more alike than different in regard to their views of death, particularly of the afterlife. Faust asserts that the "shared crisis of battle yielded a common effort to make the notion of a Good Death available to all."

Unlike other life transitions--birth, marriage, various accidents, sickness--death's significance arose from its absolute and unique permanence.  A Presbyterian tract distributed to Confederate soldiers warned: "Death fixes our state. Here [on Earth] everything is changing and unsettled. Beyond the grave our condition is unchangeable. What you are when you die, the same will reappear in the great day of eternity. The features of character with which you leave the world will be seen in you when you rise from the dead."

The hors moriendi, the hour of death, was thus considered critical for one's eternal state and was to be "carefully prepared for by any sinner who sought to be worthy of salvation." Faust writes: "The sudden and all but unnoticed deaths of unidentified diseased and wounded men denied these consolations. Civil War battlefields and hospitals could have provided the material for an exemplary test on how not to die."

Several elements were considered critical in a Good Death. First, death's appropriate setting was domestic and familial. Death occurred at home and the dying loved one was surrounded by family. Hospitals housed the indigent, not respectable citizens. Faust notes that up until the first decade of the 20th century, fewer than 15% died away from home. Ideally, as well as customarily, death occurred at home among family members gathered at the bedside. This was not only in order to offer the dying one comfort but to witness the death and assess the state of the soul. Hearing the loved one's last utterance was critical to this assessment. "Kin would use their observations of the deathbed to evaluate the family's chances for a reunion in heaven. A life was a narrative that could only be incomplete without this final chapter, without the life-defining last words."

Second, in a Good Death, the dying person would be conscious of her or her fate and would demonstrate a willingness to accept it. Furthermore, the dying would show signs of belief in God and in the promise of salvation. Finally, they would utter those aforementioned life-defining last words, leaving loved ones on earth with some "lingering" lesson about the nature of eternal life. These last words formed an intimate, enduring bond between the living and the dead. For the families of those soldiers who died away from home, to be deprived of those last lessons complicated grief immeasurably.

On the battlefield and in camp, in the absence of family members, a soldier's comrades, as well as nurses, doctors, and chaplains, provided the soldier with as many components of a Good Death as possible.  Chaplains North and South saw instruction in the traditions of the ars moriendi as a solemn obligation to the soldiers in their spiritual charge, "a duty Catholic Father William Corby described as 'the sad consolation of helping die well.'"

It would be interesting to compare and contrast the mid-nineteenth century notion of the Good Death with the twenty-first century notion of "dying well," as set forth by Ira Byock, M.D and others. Please look forward to further posts on this subject here and take a moment to look in at Distant Temple Bell where I will be continuing the discussion.

(H.P Simmons "The Dying Soldier" New York: Thomas Kelly 1870. Engraving by A. Turrell)

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A Harvest of Death

My header photograph is a cropped version of one of a series taken by Timothy O'Sullivan on the Gettysburg battlefield on July 5th, 1863. Beginning in the early afternoon of Independence Day, the day after the battle at last came to an end, a steady rain drenched the fields. A long wagon train-- a "vast procession of misery"-- some seventeen miles long and carrying 8,00 Confederate wounded, made its exodus from that crossroads town in Pennsylvania. In their wake came the photographers--Alexander Gardner, Timothy O'Sullivan, and James F. Gibson--and for the next several days they composed their images of the dead.

Gettysburg was not the first American battlefield to be covered by cameramen. In October of 1862 a series of photographs were exhibited in a New York gallery owned by Mathew Brady. "The Dead of Antietam" was a unprecedented success.  The photographs had an uncanny ability to "bring home" the war. As a result of confronting these images of bodies left on the field of battle, northern citizens could finally get a glimpse of what so many of them had been reading about: the horrors of warfare. A New York Times reporter wrote: If Brady "has not brought bodies and laid them in our dooryards and along the streets, he has done something very like it."

In his accompanying commentary to O'Sullivan's photograph in Gardner's Photographic Sketchbook of the War, Gardner writes:

Slowly, over the misty fields of Gettysburg--as all reluctant to expose their ghastly horrors to the light--came the sunless morn, after the retreat by Lee's broken army. Through the shadowy vapors, it was, indeed, a "harvest of death" that was presented; hundreds and thousands of torn Union and rebel soldiers--although many of the former were already interred--strewed the now quiet fighting ground, soaked by the rain, which for two days had drenched the country with its fitful showers.

In This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, Drew Gilpin Faust has said that the "work of death" was the most fundamental and demanding undertaking of the American Civil War. "Americans North and South would be compelled to confront--and resist--the war's assault on their conceptions of how life should end, an assault that challenged their most fundamental assumptions about life's value and meaning. As they faced horrors that forced them to question their ability to cope, their commitment to the war, even their faith in a righteous God, soldiers and civilians alike struggled to retain their most cherished beliefs, to make them work in the dramatically altered world that war had introduced."

Drew suggests that this struggle for meaning in the face of the mass slaughter of modern warfare that the Civil War instigated is an ongoing process: "We still struggle to understand how to preserve our humanity and our selves within such a world. We still seek to use our deaths to create meaning where we are not sure any exists."

To a great extent, this blog is intended to be an ongoing investigation of that struggle for understanding and meaning.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Green Oasis

I hope many of you were able to listen to Jacki Lyden's story about Brooklyn's "Green Oasis"--the Cemetery of the Evergreens-on All Things Considered yesterday afternoon. A non-sectarian cemetery, it was incorporated in 1849, not long after New York's Rural Cemetery Act. Built on the principle of the rural cemetery (Mt. Auburn in Cambridge, MA being  another outstanding example of this genre), it's primary landscaper was Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-1852) who called it a "green oasis for refreshment of the city's body and soul." 560,00 people are buried on 225 acres, among them several hundred Civil War veterans, all but one from the Union.

On the program, Lyden interviews Donato Daddario, a former gravedigger, now historian of the cemetery. Daddario takes Lyden on a tour of the cemetery, discussing its more interesting inhabitants, among them Jonathan Reed who, for eleven years, lived in his wife's tomb. Furnished with a woodstove, a clock, urns filled with flowers, a painting on the wall and the family's pet parrot (alive and then stuffed), the tomb became Reed's home away from home. Arriving early every morning, he would greet his beloved wife and gaze on her face through the casket's glass plate. It is alleged that seven Buddhist monks came from Burma to visit the Reeds, as rumor had it that Jonathan had great insight into death and the afterlife.

Author John Rousmaniere's book Green Oasis in Brooklyn: The Evergreens Cemetery 1849-2008, with images by garden photographer extraordinaire Ken Druse, has recently been published.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

One World At a Time

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and to see if I could learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give true account of it in my next excursion. (Walden)

If I were to imagine a patron saint or presiding spirit of this blog, it would be Henry David Thoreau. Fully embracing life, he did not fear death. As Robert D. Richardson, Jr. has noted in Henry Thoreau: A Life of the Mind, Thoreau had been unable to cope emotionally with the sudden death of his brother John in 1842. Days later, Emerson's five-year-old son Waldo died, further plunging Thoreau into a sea of unexpressed grief. But when Thoreau himself knew that he had only months to live, he fully accepted his own approaching death. The autumn leaves "teach us how to die," he wrote.

Richardson writes: "Away from home, the Civil War deepened. A new general named Grant was emerging in the Western Campaign. On April 6 and 7 one of the bloodiest battles of the war was fought at Pittsburgh landing near Shiloh church. On May 1 New Orleans fell to the Union...Thoreau's last days were spent at home, in peace, surrounded by family and friends. His bed was brought downstairs. No longer able to write, he dictated to [his sister] Sophia. By early April his voice had been only a faint whisper for many weeks. But his mind, wit, and spirits held."

Days before his death, Thoreau's Aunt Louisa came by the house. When Louisa asked him if he had made his peace with God, he replied: " I did not know that we had ever quarrelled, Aunt." His friend, the former minister and abolitionist Parker Pillsbury, visited and inquired about what near-death visions Thoreau might be having. "You seem so near the brink of the dark river, that I almost wonder how the opposite shore may appear to you." Suggestive of how wide-awake he had lived, Thoreau responded "One world at a time."

Richardson concludes: "Henry Thoreau died at nine in the morning on May 6, 1862. Outdoors, where he could no longer see them, the earliest apple trees began to leaf and show green, just as they do every year on this day."

He was forty-four years old.

(Photo from Google Image)