This article was written by Artist in Residence, Patrick Gabridge.
When I tell people I’m the artist-in-residence at Mount Auburn Cemetery, they are often shocked that such a thing exists and also very curious about what, as a playwright, I intend to do at a cemetery. Most folks assume I’ll be writing about the various people buried here. Which I will. But even from the very start of my residency this winter, I knew I wanted to write about the diverse and unique natural environment of Mount Auburn.
Since I started in January, I’ve been walking the grounds, toting binoculars with birders at dawn, looking for nighthawks at sunset on the tower, shining flashlights in Consecration Dell looking for spotted salamanders, and trying not to step on tiny toadlets by Halcyon Lake. And, more crucially for a playwright, I’ve been listening to the people who are deeply invested in protecting and improving the flora and fauna that make Mount Auburn such a special place.
The challenge for a writer tasked with creating plays about Mount Auburn is the embarrassment of riches when it comes to potential stories. A hundred thousand tales are wrapped around the people interred here, and they are surrounded by hundreds of species of birds and trees, and thousands upon thousands of plants, all of them tended by dedicated stewards.
In the end, I chose to create two series of short plays–one mostly about historical figures buried here and their role and relationship to the formation of American identity, and another set of nature plays. Some are already written and will be read on the grounds in September—like a short play called Hot Love in the Moonlight is about the mating habits of spotted salamanders. There will be a play about birds and birders (Cerulean Blue), and another about Asa Gray and Louis Agassiz. I’m still exploring play ideas around some of the secret mushroom spots that may or may not exist, and there will almost certainly be a play inspired by conversations with the grounds crew members who help Mount Auburn remain the gem that it is.
Beyond writing and research, the next step begins with reading and playing with the text with actors and audiences. This September, you will see me and Courtney O’Connor, my director, gathered with clumps of actors at Consecration Dell and near Auburn Lake, and other spots, with scripts in our hands, reading dialogue aloud. We’ll see if the structure and content of the work makes sense, if it has power, but also how it works in three-dimensions. How does it feel to have our voices and bodies in action on the actual grounds? It’s one thing for me to imagine how it all feels and sounds when I’m typing away in my office, but it’s entirely different when we have actors do it while standing on the edge of a pond.
At the public readings in September, we’ll start exploring what the plays feel like with an audience. (Plays are nothing without an audience.) When staging site-specific work there are additional concerns we don’t have in a traditional theatre, where the environment is controlled and well understood. We have to ask questions about where does the audience sit or stand, is there noise (traffic, neighbors) that will impact that site? How do the plants and topography affect where we can stand, how much sound reaches the audience, the visual palette? Entrances and exits are never simple when performing outdoors. How does the audience know when the show is over? And, in a cemetery, where do we perform such that we are respectful of the people who are buried here. How do we perform plays about nature, in nature, in ways that don’t harm the environment we’re talking about?
Having to answer all these questions, as we explore people and ideas in the text, is part of the challenge and fun of doing site-specific work. The other thing I truly love about this kind of theatre is that the barrier between the performers and audience is much more fluid and informal than in work created in a traditional spaces. The enormity and concreteness of the natural world around the very small play we’re creating helps unite the audience and performers.
In June of next year, we will fully stage the Nature Plays on the grounds, in a production that we hope will engage and delight audiences in all kinds of interesting ways. In the meantime, my team and I will be researching, writing, and playing, as we explore ways to illuminate the important natural elements of Mount Auburn Cemetery.
Roger Tory Peterson was the first to coin the phrase” Confusing Fall Warblers” in his Field Guide To the Birds first published in 1934 and devoted separate pages depicting those birds and pointing with arrows the significant points to look for during the fall migration.
John Dunn in his Field Guide to Warblers of North America (Peterson Field Guide Series-1997) states: “Despite the fearsome concept of “confusing fall warblers” the identification is generally straightforward given adequate views”. Before fall migration, many species of warblers lose their bright and distinctive spring plumage and molt into duller or drab colors for the winter months.
So how does the new birder identify warblers in the fall? First remember that there are basic features such as wing bars that help to identify the warbler in any plumage, then there is habitat preference, the Common Yellowthroat likes marsh and other wet habitats; the Wilson’s and Canada warblers tend to be found low in thick shrubbery and many others prefer the tops of trees- exactly like they do in the spring. Watch for distinctive behavior: the American Redstart always fans its tail, the Palm and Prairie warblers raise their tails. Warblers rarely sing in the fall so you need to familiarize the call notes or chips they make, this is a bit more difficult but it easy to start with the Yellow-rump’s fairly distinctive loud “check” call.
Here at Mount Auburn you won’t see the multitude of birders that “flock” to the Cemetery each spring. It is quite frustrating to see birds at this time of the year, remember they don’t sing, rarely make any noise, and are hard to detect in fully leafed out trees. Birders tend to look for fall migrants at coastal locations where trees are shorter and have been known as costal traps, as birds tend to follow the coast line in fall. The good thing is that fall migration is more leisurely, starting as early as July and continuing right up to the first days of December.
In the fall, birders at Mount Auburn should concentrate around the ponds, I’ve had the best results at Auburn Lake, lots of low shrubs, and easy access to get a drink- essential for the migrating warblers. Though most warblers are strictly insect eaters, some – especially the Yellow -rumped – will also eat seeds, and the black-eyed susans and cone flowers at Auburn Lake are ideal for them in late summer, as well as the Sweet Bay Magnolia which also attracts both warblers and other birds to its flowers.
During the fall migration the Mount Auburn birder has the opportunity to find a few species that are rarely encountered in the spring. The Connecticut Warbler is one of the most sought after species by birders in the fall, though not the most ideal location, look for it in the Cemetery around the ponds or up by the wildflower meadow at the Tower. The other bird that has appeared more often in the fall is the Yellow-breasted Chat- again look for it in similar locations. One rare fall warbler visitor to Mount Auburn was a Black-throated Gray Warbler which was present from September 27 through October 2, 2000, and brought back with it many of the spring birders.
The Nighthawk is a member of the nightjar family which include the Whip-poor-will. All members of this family are rather cryptic in color with tiny bills and huge mouths. Join us for a Nighthawk Watch this summer at Washington Tower:
The flight of the nighthawk is unmistakable as it wheels erratically chasing insects. The Nighthawk nests most often on open cultivated fields, gravel beaches, rocky outcrops and burned over woodlands. It is also well known to nest on flat gravel roof tops especially in cities. Locally birds have nested in a number of different places in Cambridge and Somerville as well as the Back Bay and South End sections of Boston. The roofs of many of these buildings have been converted to rubber and are no longer appealing to the nighthawks. (more…)
The month of May is when the peak abundance of migrant birds is found at Mount Auburn. In the following week by week timetable is a rather unscientific schedule of when you might expect the optimal time to see certain species. The third week of May is probably the week in which you could see close to 100 species in the Cemetery. This week you still have a few stragglers from the last days of April and the first few of the birds that come in the last days of May. Remember that as the month progresses, the foliage gets thicker, so the earlier in the season that you can find a migrant, the easier it will be to see it!
By the first week in May, many migrants will already be present such as Northern Flicker, Eastern Phoebe, Blue-headed Vireo, both Golden and Ruby crowned Kinglets, Hermit Thrush, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, and the following early warblers: Yellow-rumped, Pine, Palm and Black and white, Chipping Sparrow and Eastern Towhee. (more…)