Wednesday, January 8, 2014

A New Year - A New Abandoned Cemetery

The only thing more titillating than photographing in an overgrown abandoned graveyard is the inkling that you’re not supposed to be there. I was certain to keep an eye out for people keeping an eye out for people like me. The vines hanging from the trees this day after Christmas gave no quarter as to the holiday just passed. No decorations, no wreaths. The place seems totally off limits even to the families of those interred.

As I drove out to the old graveyard, I was fairly sure I could get over the six-foot fence at a point where it bordered another property. I certainly did not want to attract attention by climbing over the front fence, even though tractor-trailer boxes were parked along the road, offering partial cover. Besides, I didn’t necessarily want to leave my car on the road in this part of town.

So I drove through the light snow squall to the back of the adjacent property until I found a section of the fence that seemed scalable (in both directions, which was key). The radio said the turnpike was closed due to the current blizzard, a multi-vehicle accident the unfortunate result. The snow was not headed my way. While snow would have perhaps accentuated the old landscape of this cemetery, I certainly did not want to leave tracks. I also didn’t necessarily want to get paged for work while trying to be quiet in there. I imagined myself having to talk on my cell phone to help resolve some work issue while standing waist-deep in thorn bushes. Luckily, my pager only went off once during my escapade, and it was before I hopped the fence. I made sure to snap all my communications devices into their little holsters, as the last place you want to lose a pager or cell phone is in an abandoned cemetery (believe me, I’ve done it).

I parked my car near the back of the property. Pocketing my smaller cameras and throwing my larger camera case around my shoulder, I approached the fence. There was not a living soul around. I found an area of the wire fence where hundred-year-old vines covered both sides. They looked strong enough to hold my two hundred pounds. I threw my work gloves on to protect against the barbed wire at top. Climbing up, I swung my leg over the top as the barbed wire ripped my jeans and skin at the knee (you’re always a bit more conscious of bleeding when you’re taking a blood-thinning low-maintenance daily aspirin dose). Perhaps the other leg I’ll lift higher. Hanging my camera strap on a nearby tree limb, I scaled the vines down the other side.

The brownscape ahead of me was a vista of clumped dead weeds covering headstones and piles of rubble. Barely passable in winter, this mess was an obstacle course of vines and other dense foliage in spring and summer. It was like navigating through a field of giant balls of steel wool. Here were the outlying graves, the folks who could not afford to be buried in the elite center of this old Victorian graveyard, who could not afford an obelisk or an angel. Insidious Japanese knotweed is the guardian of their plots.

I thrashed through the dried mile-a-minute foliage and dead poison ivy until I reached a road, of sorts. I could see large monuments through the trees, as well as another, better-kept cemetery off in the distance. It was cold. The brambles and tangled rose bushes beckoned a forked greeting. It was all very dissonant yet reassuring at the same time. Like stepping into a different, albeit friendly, dimension - the fabled Elysian Fields where the favored photographer can enjoy perfect happiness, visiting the home of the dead who were judged worthy.

Abandoned cemeteries do this for me. Stepping through the crackling brush reminded me of walking through the woods hunting with my Dad when I was a kid. Just as cold but at least I didn’t have to worry about my noise scaring the deer. Walking on dried leaves and dead branches sounds like you're walking through a bowl of corn flakes. That’s odd, a giant granite baseball…this fellow must have been famous in his day.

The sky was mostly cloudy, with occasional sun peeks, prompting me to jump between 400 and 100 ISO a number of times. This is digital, so the change is simple. I do my serious work with film, but I didn’t really want to lug the heavy stuff through this dense overgrowth. It also takes time to change film rolls and I did not want to be encumbered with that. I wanted to travel light and quick. It was spooky in there, with not so much as a bird or squirrel about, just cold reckless winter. Which is why I was quite startled to glance up and see what appeared to be a human form ahead of me!

I really didn’t need the Lady of the Weeds (in the photo above)  to bring appropriate gravity to the situation, but there she was, facing me like a gunslinger. Strange how the dead vines and ivy still cling to the bases of monuments, the faces of angels, the bodies of other mourning figures. The winter has not killed off the red and yellow berries – they add a splash of color to the muted hues of winter, of death. The mausoleums look small amidst the huge overgrown trees and other foliage – they seem anything but grandiose.

The granite pyramid with its obscure marble statues stands reticent facing the street, its meaning obscured by years, by trees, by the tangle of current events. I find cover under a large evergreen, to zoom in to the pyramid while keeping out of view of the cars driving down the road. I'm wondering if anyone really cares. Well, at least I care. The weeds are matted down here, like maybe they might have been cut back before winter. In fact, one area seems like it was somewhat cleared, with tombstones uprighted, small trees cut back, flags placed near some small military headstones.

After an hour of this, I’m thinking I should head out – don’t want to press my luck. I find a closer spot to scale the fence – in fact I can see my car on the other side, through the trees and vine-entangled barbed wire. I really don’t feel like trudging through the weeds and brambles to get down to the easier-access area. I can do this. I slip my smaller cameras into safe pockets and get ready to climb the fence.

After hanging my largest camera up high on a rusty metal post, I am relieved to find that the old vines have shrouded the barbed wire, making it safe for my legs to go over. You would think that a six-foot man would not have much trouble getting over a six-foot fence - but you would be wrong. I’m no gymnast, I think to myself, as I scale the vines– ow – cramp in my leg! Kind of bizarre that I'm doing this, being on the wrong side of fifty. Crush-proof and flight-ready, I am not. But, in the name of art, I throw my bulk over the fence, grab my camera, and drop down to the ground.  I think I ruptured a spinal disk.

The only thing more ridiculous than my graceless exit out of that graveyard was my exit out of the SAME graveyard two days later! More on that next week.

Please click here to read part two of this story:
Elysian Fields – The Second Coming