Gardens and Cemeteries
by Julie Carpenter
I’m supposed to be blogging about autumn gardens, or creepy gardens, in honor of the month of October, but I’m having a hard time because instead I’m thinking about cemeteries. Which is weird, I know. But bear with me for a minute. Some of the most beautiful and moving gardens I’ve been in have been…cemeteries.
When we went to Paris, one of my favorite excursions was to Père Lachaise Cemetery, and it felt very much like an odd sort of garden, the dead planted like the trees with the moss growing on their stone house and roots tangling around them, finally and truly becoming part of nature. There was a light rain; crows were cawing above us in the trees. It was the perfect autumn garden, as sleepy and comforting and sorrowful as the smell of the leaf mold on moss as the trees drop their foliage. Old cemeteries where ivy and moss crawl up the mausoleums and tombstones, eating the sharp edges of memory, those with trees and shrubs, seem perfectly right to me for fall. They have the serenity of a garden, coupled with the restfulness of boundary, an end in sight.
I think maybe this fascination with cemeteries began when I was in elementary school. Our sixth-grade class took a trip to the cemetery across the road. I can’t remember why. Maybe there was a local of historical note buried there. It was a small place, wedged into a corner where two roads met. All I remember was the mournful quiet and all the stories etched into the tombstones. Every stone had a secret life under it. Every secret was a story. One in particular stuck with me. It was the grave of a six-year old girl named Evelyn. I thought about her so much that I wrote my first story, a ghost story, about her. While I don’t recall the details of the story, I remember that it featured the overpowering smell of honeysuckle. I don’t really remember if we took that field trip in the fall, but my memory places the trip in October. It’s possible that my recollections have tangled themselves up with my preferences. But I remember the place as slightly unkempt, long tufts of grass in front of the stones, little showers of dying leaves from the trees at the edge of the little plot.
While the cemetery was quite small, it was the first time the earth had a feeling of depth under my feet. I got the feeling that all of those buried there were holding me up. Perhaps those people weren’t my ancestors, though I’d be surprised if I wasn’t related to at least half of them. Their stories, the stories of the dead, the joys, the sins, the mistakes, led to my story somehow. And that’s an odd feeling, knowing that people long gone are responsible for making you who you are and that you will someday do the same from the same position. The stories from underground all tangled themselves up with mine, like vines growing from the graves. It was an experience that made me respectful of cemeteries. Maybe that was the teacher’s point all along.
It's possible that I’m thinking of cemeteries, autumn and gardens together because of my current back garden. It’s not a cemetery – as far as I know. But it has a similar small, serene, and bounded quality and a feeling of depth. Every garden I’ve had, has had its own autumn spirit. At the farm, there was a view from the porch down into our little valley. When I walked outside to feed the chickens and felt the chill air and picked the last of the squash, I thought of hayrides and bonfires. I remembered putting on my thick green sweater, my favorite when I was a little girl and going to Halloween parties and football games. Autumn there felt crisp and clean, like a Beatrix Potter book. Fall felt bigger than myself, an experience shared with the cows across the field and the neighbors next door.
But my new garden isn’t about sweeping vistas of autumn color. Here autumn is the smell of leaves decaying on wet moss, windswept showers of pine needles and acorns falling into well of my back yard through steep walls of tall trees and laurel hedges. This garden feels like a secret. From the back it’s nearly impossible to see who is coming or going in the house or down the street. When it rains there’s a deep ditch behind the laurel hedge that makes a rushing sound along with the wind in the surrounding trees. The little patch of garden sheltered between the wall of trees and the house calm and somnambulant, even in a storm. There’s a sunken brick patio next to the house so that the garden, as a whole, reads as a series of steps going further down and deeper in. At the bottom is the secret itself, with centuries of secrets hidden underneath it.
More than any garden I’ve ever lived with, this garden feels like it’s going to sleep in Autumn. I’ve pulled up most of my zinnias, but there’s still a small stand of them, left to make seeds for next year. And here too there are crows cawing, somehow I notice them more in Autumn. A few stalks have dead leaves and seed pods, those that remain alive are a pale ghostly green with a few wraithlike, translucent purple flowers clinging to them. My Thumbelina zinnias have produced a sudden flurry of tiny button sized flowers on nearly dead stems, knowing that it’s their last chance. The flowering peaches are slowly stripping themselves of their foliage to expose dark branches full of wartlike knobs. It feels as though I should close a door and tiptoe out, as though it’s a graveyard for the plants. And I wonder if plants can sense the stories of their ancestors behind them. There are certainly centuries worth of their ancestors holding them up, feeding them.
Anyway, this is all a far cry from what I wanted to write about but here it is: my somewhat rambling post about the autumn garden, which turned instead into a walk through a cemetery. Maybe it’s because Morty’s home again. Go out and enjoy the sweet sorrow of Autumn readers, and perhaps take a stroll through a cemetery or a quiet garden where stories are buried in the earth waiting for someone to remember them.
Julie Carpenter is the creator of the Sacred Chickens website. She is
dedicated to telling stories and making sure that indie writers and publishers have a way to be heard. She uses narrative, her own and others’, to help interpret the world. She has a Master of Professional Writing from the University of Memphis, with an emphasis in Composition Theory. She wants to bend reality one story at a time. Julie’s work has appeared in Fiction on the Web and will be included The New Guard. She is currently working on a novel.