The Charm of the Near-dead; My Seduction by a Gravedigger

It?s been raining for the worst half of a week and I have cabin fever.
Columbus Day. Time for a voyage.
Okay, driving three hours is hardly a voyage.

Or is it?

I head west with three destination choices printed out with Google maps by my husband: A monastery, a mill or an arboretum.
I choose the arboretum.
But it is a long drive. After an hour, the dog wants out.
cemet bird
I know that cemeteries are revered ground.
(No, I?m not going to say they are ?hallowed ground,? it?s October. Sheesh.)
A lot of love goes on in cemeteries. A lot of emotional baggage is left behind. Landscaping is maintained assiduously and nobody is there to argue with you about anything.
Not only do graveyards make great campsites in a pinch, they tend to be very quiet, have water on tap somewhere findable and ? well, I just never feel alone in a cemetery.
It?s hard for me to pass one by, especially one with full-grown cedars and cypress in the heart of Virginia.
So today when our dog gets antsy I pull into the Ivy Hill Cemetery, a few feet from the pavement in Upperville, Virginia.
My husband notes a sign stating that no plastic flowers are allowed during the spring and summer.
This is my kind of place.
spitler graveWhile hubby, a wad of plastic bags in one hand and a leash in the other, heads out with our chocolate lab/Chessie to the future?the smooth earth to the west, I wander into the past, among the graves, looking for good names. Spitler, Gibson, McCarty and Lee abide.
A scraping sound turns me toward a small building to the north where I spot a man with a small tractor and hand-built wagon. As I wander nearer I see he is wearing a Redskins cap, a blue plaid shirt, undatable jeans and new leather workboots.
I comment on the wagon, the sturdy welds, and ask whether the hitch is made from a shovel handle. He doesn?t know, but agrees it might ha? been. This wagon has been here for 50 years. At least. The man?s eyes stay on the wagon, he won?t look at me.?But it might be the sun.

conf graveThis cemetery is the final resting place for 110 confederate soldiers, the man informs me. In the soft Virginia version of the classic southern accent, he tells me the confederate gravestones are marked by large black crosses, which my husband later points out, are eerily similar to the symbol of the second Reich in World War I, a dark symbol used again in WWII on medals of bravery.

This man with the soft southern voice, who goes by ?Jimmy,? is on a different schedule than those of us who live an hour east in the suburbs of Washington D.C.
I watch as he slowly scrapes a shovel and a rake together.
Jimmy thinks for awhile then reports that the cemetery dates to the 1840s or ?50s. With curiously beautiful eyes he seems to be hiding from me, he squints at his shovel as he cleans yellow mud from it with the tines of his rake. Or is he cleaning his rake with the shovel? Both seem to be afflicted with a yellowness, a yellowness that has stained Jimmy?s hands as well.
I ask Jimmy more questions, questions about the trees. He forgets about hiding his eyes and looks straight at me, telling me how hurricane Sandy ripped out eight full-grown trees last year. I see now that one of his eyes is not obedient, his right one, and it wanders away. I look into the left. It is blue and clear with dark lashes and sees straight through me. I am guessing he is a Scotsman originally.
The wood is all stacked up back there– he points north.
?It must have been a lot of work, cleaning up eight trees,? I comment.
It had rained five or six inches, just like last week, he tells me. Ripped them roots right outta the ground.
I wince at what might have come with those roots in this not-too-roomy graveyard.
Speaking of storms leads to Jimmy?s recollection of the snow of 2010, the worst since 1966, he says. He describes how a Greyhound bus got stuck right there in town when they closed highway 50 and his wife and some others had to feed the passengers for near-on a week until it opened again. I?m not sure if he is talking about 1966, the year I was born, or 2010, the year I turned 44.
I?m not sure he knows which it was either.lenalee
He goes on, his voice like water, just the sound of it making me happy.
Soon Jimmy has told me the unmarked equine facility I?d passed at the edge of town is the oldest horse show arena in the country and he?s soon talking about the TWA flight that crashed December 1, 1974 right on t?other sahd of that hill there. Only the tail was left. ?Mount Weather,? he says. FEMA hill. He points to some communication towers.
Other things this town is known for, Jimmy volunteers, scarcely stopping to breathe, include the filming of Hitchcock?s Topaz? ?Filmed just up there,? he informs me, pointing over the fence to a farm house I can?t quite make out. Jimmy explains Hitchcock chose it for the stars. ?The way them stars come down ?? and I realize he means stairs.
He talks about someone who is ?retard? here. “Robert Duvall” ? and he lists some movies. “ReTARD.” I realize he is saying retired.
I could listen all day but soon the hubby has pulled up with the car.
As I make my way around to the passenger door, Jimmy goes on, the mud on the shovel now dried. Drahd, I should say.
I thank him, thank him again and wish him well.
We drive out, gravel crunching under the tires. Tars.
?I love the way that man talks,? I tell my husband.

PART II The Arboretum, a Photo Essay

A dazzling southern plantation-turned-public park. Learn about native plants, dream among the trees, thrill your dog.


Playing ‘guess the genus’ in the crabapple and quince forest.
The ginkgo grove is the result of a University of Virginia research project started in 1929. Learn more about it here: Blandy Ginkgo Grove
Former slave quarters, above, now house offices of the Virginia Native Plant Society, the American Boxwood Society and the Northern Shenandoah Valley Audubon Society as well as staff offices and dorms for visiting students and scientists.


By Maile

Maile Field is a writer living in Northern California. Born in Hawaii and raised in Montana, she earned her master of fine arts in nonfiction at George Mason University in Virginia. She encourages constructive criticism.