Once again, it is Spring Quarter at UC Davis, which means my EVE 16: Wild Davis students will be choosing their sit spots, in which they will complete three 45-minute observation activities throughout the quarter; one at dawn, one at mid-day and one at dusk. To start them off, I also do a dawn observation at a local green space – in the past, I have visited, the Wildhorse Ag Buffer, the East Regional Pond, the UC Davis BOG, the Ruth Risdon Storer Garden, and my own backyard. This year, I’m visiting the Woodland Cemetery.
Why a cemetery?
I first visited the Woodland Cemetery last summer with my sister, Tai, a historian at Johnson County Community College in Kansas. In her field, cemeteries long served as the primary resource for data on local population statistics like life span and family size. In her courses, students visit a local cemetery for an activity on documenting birth and death dates to determine average life span of men and women throughout different time periods.
In my field, cemeteries serve as increasingly important green spaces in urban centers. As more and more people live in urban or suburban areas, urban sprawl threatens even parks and other natural spaces. The sacrosanct nature of cemeteries protects them from alteration or development more so than a park or playground. Consequently, cemeteries are increasingly viewed as recreational spaces, important habitat for urban birds and mammals, and even tourist attractions. While these roles may be surprising and perhaps disconcerting, they also serve as avenues for continuing the investment of funding and other resources in order to maintain cemeteries indefinitely.
More personally, I also find cemeteries to be very calming spaces as they are intentionally designed for quiet introspection. I find the feeling of being alone and yet surrounded by people to be a curious one. Cemeteries hold a very personal history, and at first, it felt like a strange breach of privacy to visit the graves of people I never knew. Yet somehow I don’t think they would mind. Woodland is the county seat, so I assume the cemetery is one of the oldest in Yolo County, and I imagine the residents of 1850s Woodland (from which many of the gravestones originate) would be pleased to know their resting places are still visited over 150 years later.
Visiting the Woodland Cemetery
For my dawn visits, I prefer to be on site when the sun rises; however, the Woodland Cemetery doesn’t open until 7 am (approximately 20 minutes after the sun’s actual rise). I split the middle and arrive at the cemetery at 6:50. I assume I will be the only person on site; in fact, I assume the gates won’t actually be opened right at 7, so I am prepared to do most of my observation from the gates surrounding the park. I am wrong – when I arrive the gates are already open and a car drives through them just ahead of me. In the 45 minutes I spend in the cemetery, I see two cars come through, though neither stays long, and I see a handful of grounds crew members cleaning up debris and marking out plots.
The primary wildlife out at this time of day is the dawn chorus of birds. I hear more than I see – my entire visit is a pleasant cacophony of chirps, whistles, and songs, punctuated by the occasional whistle of a passing train. I recognize (by eye or by ear) chickadees, scrub jays, mourning doves (which seem especially apropos in a cemetery), blackbirds, hummingbirds, and even, to my great delight, a great-horned owl that swoops into a large conifer just at the end of my visit. I assume the owl is returning to roost after a night of foraging and the manner in which it cleans its talons after it lands suggest a successful hunt.
Beyond the birds, I see no other animals, though I have previously seen many squirrels in this space, and a few holes in the ground suggest some burrowing mammals as well, which I hope to see on my afternoon visit. I also hope to see pollinators in the future visits. Dawn is a bit early for even the busiest of bees, and the number of flowering plants in the cemetery make me hopeful for a robust pollinator survey in the afternoon visit.
I’m visiting the day after Easter, and I wonder if Easter is a popular day to visit the deceased. Even when I was religious, I was several states away from any family graves, so visiting grave sites was never something my family did, on holidays or otherwise. Not surprisingly, the older sections of the cemetery are not very adorned; however, graves in the newer portions, especially the newer section of St. Joseph’s, are bright with fresh flowers and gifts. It makes sense, given Easter’s relevance to death and mourning. It also lends this section of the cemetery a festive, almost celebratory air. I enjoy this evidence of loved-one’s visits – it feels hopeful somehow, especially with Easter’s ending in resurrection.
As I wander, I notice a rolling canopy (often used for sun and rain protection during graveside services) placed over a freshly covered grave. It doesn’t yet have a headstone, instead a collection of flower bouquets cover the freshly turned dirt from head to toe. One arrangement contains multiple plastic sport fish and a pair of antlers – a fisher and hunter, then. I enjoy that even this temporary memorial tells me something about the person below.
One of my goals for the visits this quarter is to document the cemetery wildlife on iNaturalist. Not surprisingly, both the Woodland Cemetery, and the smaller adjacent St. Joseph’s Cemetery, have very few iNaturalist posts, as most visitors to the cemetery are likely not focused on urban wildlife. Currently, the Woodland and St. Josephs cemeteries have 9 observations:a daffodil, a buttercup, a garden snail, a grimmia moss, two western bluebirds, a pocket gopher, and the tail feather of a feral pigeon courtesy of yours truly on my visit with my sister. The iNaturalist project Found Feathers is my absolute favorite, so a significant number of my iNat posts are feathers. And already one of my assumptions is incorrect – two of the posts (the buttercup and the moss) include a measuring tape for scale, which suggests not a casual iNat post by a graveside visitor, though the most recent post (other than mine) is from 2021. For my afternoon and evening visits, I hope to learn more about both the wildlife and the human residents. I can’t seem to find online a year that that cemetery was established, so on my afternoon visit, I plan to do a casual survey of the dates of internment to see if I can narrow it down.