Life Among the Headstones

Dave Leatherman
January 1, 2021

“Nature” has always been important to me. Since childhood, all things animal and plant have been a source of fascination, enjoyment, and even worship. As a kid, I went off to the fields and woods within walking distance of my house near the Ohio State University campus to collect butterflies and other insects. By the age of nine, I had binoculars and a bird field guide. Formative experiences were watching a male Blackburnian Warbler from a bridge over the Olentangy River, its fierce orange and blackhead pattern leaping from the background of spring green leaves of a tree growing to eye level from an island below; a majestic cecropia moth magically pumping up its wings in our living room after emerging from the cocoon Dad brought me; having my grandmother take me to the Museum of Natural History in New York City where a life-sized blue whale covered an entire wall of a great hall; gazing through a microscope loaned by next-door neighbor Dr. Carl Venard at myriad one-celled organisms in pond water from OSU’s Mirror Lake.

I received college degrees in biology and forest protection and spent most of my 32-year career as an entomologist. I have been a lifelong birder and count photographing Nature as the most fun a person can have.

I divorced 26 years ago and retired from the Colorado State Forest Service in 2005. My three grown kids and four grandkids all live over an hour away in the Denver area. My lady friend Janeal, herself a Nature lover, lives 254 miles away to the southeast of my apartment in Fort Collins. She long ago achieved the status of “Savior” in my personal history and is inseparable in my mind from Nature. When I think of one, I think of the other. I live alone. Even in “normal” times, given the current construct of my arrangement, I usually study and enjoy Nature alone. For decades my go-to place has been a beautifully landscaped cemetery not far from my one-bedroom apartment.

Grandview Cemetery was founded in 1887 on 40 acres. At that time it was a mile and a half west of town. A 3-month old baby named Felix Scoville became the first resident. The first gravedigger and sexton, Joe Woodcock, interestingly had the surname of a bird. Available plots in the original graveyard design quickly filled when fully 5% of the local population of 7000 succumbed to the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918. Since then many more plots have been added and over 600 trees planted. Two irrigation ditches, both connected to the Cache la Poudre River (a tributary of the South Platte River) provide water. At present, the cemetery is primarily a solemn sanctuary (necessary mowing and road maintenance excepted) for the deceased and their survivors, but doubles as a site for recreation of many types that defer to its main purpose. Such activities include walking, running, geocaching, genealogy/history investigation, nature study, and even Pokemon pursuits among others. Overtopping the entire scene is an urban forest of distinction.

The sudden, widespread shutdown of the world due to COVID-19 in 2020 affected me, to be sure. But because of my particular circumstances, on the surface, the virus did not alter my day-to-day routine to the extent it did most of us. At the outset, it was comforting to think not much had really changed. In some ways, shutting down and slowing down was a relief. All of us, whether formally working or officially “retired” from full-time jobs, tend to fill up our schedules. Not having to prepare for presentations, field trips, surveys, and other optional activities committed to long ago was welcome rest. Not having the expense of filling up the gas tank once or more a week helped the wallet. Not going downtown for an evening of beer, good food, and jazz didn’t hurt my waistline.

But a month or six weeks into the new situation, reality arrived. I missed my family, my lady, my social interaction with friends at the bistro. I missed live music, the sounds of happy humans, scenery speeding past at highway speed. I started wearing a mask.

ABOVE: The author and his first mask, important both for protection against the virus and maybe for robbing the train rumored to be passing thru town soon with a load of toilet paper.

Options available online or on TV/radio to compensate for the weirdness were not particularly helpful. Sports, a major interest of mine, went away. No March Madness. No MLB Spring Training. Without getting overly political, which is pretty much impossible these days with everything from the truth to science to wearing a mask and flying a flag being made political, the news dominating the media was both depressing and frightening. It was April when it first occurred to me 2020 could be one of the worst years of my 71-year life, if I let it. What about movies? Without a subscription to a movie service, the standard channel options were quite limited. How many times can a person watch “Pretty Woman”, “Titanic” or “Fried Green Tomatoes”?

What to do to maintain sanity? Do what I always do – turn to Nature! Always deep in Nature, it was time to go deeper. For the last several years, my normal rate of visitation to the cemetery had been about once a week. I plan a book on “life among the headstones”. Government, like an aunt or uncle who thinks she/he knows you but not really, came up with its list for us of “essential” activities. I added visits to the cemetery. For me, immersing myself in a very familiar place, to refine my understanding of what were once weekly changes to now daily changes, was absolutely “essential”. From mid-March thru June 1, I went to Grandview 73 out of 75 days.

Since 2016, for sure, and probably for at least a decade before that, our society has allowed itself to be placed increasingly into two camps. These factions, depending on the date or channel, have different names – conservative or liberal, with “us” or against “us”, rural or urban, white or “of color”, rich or poor, entitled or suppressed. Truth be known, most of us probably consider ourselves “moderate”. We’re all pretty much the same, all want the same things for ourselves and our loved ones. Even science, with its willingness and requirement to bear the burden of proof, has been rendered, suspect. Think of that: SCIENCE is now open to interpretation, with belief in it an option. Think Dark Ages II.

At the onset of the shutdown, the clan engendering my strongest allegiance, “birders”, was no different. Camp #1: be compliant and stay at home, look out the window, bird your backyard. Camp #2: run all over chasing rare and unusual birds reported by others, don’t miss a migration, risk unconsciously vectoring the virus into every nook and cranny of the state, regulations be damned. My choice of venturing 3 miles from my door to the cemetery was a slight modification of the Camp 1 position. I rationalized it still fit the definition of staying “local”. After all, the 25,000+ souls in residence there practice social distancing, remaining at all times 6 feet….under. A few, who for religious reasons are entombed above ground, are behind thick sepulcher walls. Living visitors, for the most part, donned masks. Dogs, as best we know, aren’t carriers. And in a few cases, even the faces on headstones acquired PPE.

ABOVE: A photo adorning a headstone acquires a mask and message during the shutdown.

By going essentially, literally essentially, every day, instead of weekly, I refined the scale and intensity of observations. Instead of just noting in my journal a snowfall or hard freeze had happened, I could now follow the progression of symptoms on individual plants, even individual leaves. Instead of noting bird species presence or absence on a checklist, and maybe counting how many of each species, I could now follow nuances of behavior like feeding preferences and milestones of nesting cycles. As examples of the latter, during the shutdown, for the first time in my 2500+ visits, breeding of two species was documented: Red Crossbill and Western Tanager.

ABOVE: At Left, a male western tanager feeds its youngster. Both events constituted “firsts’ for Grandview Cemetery, at least as far as is known to the author.At Right, a newly fledged red crossbill in a spruce next to its nest tree.

As of this writing on October 1, I have seen 127 species of birds in the cemetery this year. Over the years, I see an average of about 95. New information has been obtained. I was able to devote an entire issue of a column called “The Hungry Bird” written for the journal “Colorado Birds” to the subject of multiple bird species relying on European elm scale insects as a late-winter/early spring staple.

ABOVE: An always-masked cedar waxwing feed on overwintering stages of European elm scale in early spring at Grandview Cemetery.

ABOVE: A black-capped chickadee feeds on overwintering stages of European elm scale in early spring at Grandview Cemetery.

The listing of this year’s other revelations exceeds space available here, but suffice it to say they were exactly the kind of medicine needed to cure ache, moderate angst, and inject the hope my soul needed.

Random cemetery observations constituting change since the arrival of the virus:

-Many more people walking outdoors (most of them seemingly accompanied by dogs)

-Graveside service groups reflected our bi-polar society: some all wearing masks, some maskless, very few exhibiting mixed compliance. Some of the burials were people who died of COVID-19, which, unlike 1918, necessitated new procedures by the staffs of both funeral homes and the cemetery.

-For the first time, police on bicycles riding the cemetery roads, presumably checking on compliance to regulations regarding distancing and masks.

-Masks, gloves, and a note promoting “Truth #9” (the use of chloroquine as a virus antidote) appearing as litter.

Nature, operating under the laws that govern its “society”, namely evolutionary truths like survival of the fittest, will carry on. It does not need us the way we need it. In many ways, it feels like we are being regulated, being put in our place for our greed and indifference to the myriad organisms with which we share the Planet. The Teacher has issued a report card. “Play well with others”, she is shouting, or go stand in the corner, maybe even suffer expulsion from school.

In summary, the world has changed. Or maybe we are seeing history repeat itself. Whichever it is, going forward the virus-dictated changes are what we make of them. We can be scared, indifferent, and stubbornly defiant. Rather, my hope is we wake up, look closer, both outward and inward, and come to the realization expressed on the bumper sticker adorning my refrigerator door: “Mother Nature Bats Last”. She deserves our respect and adoration, or else. Grandview Cemetery, with its wonders galore and 8000 available spaces, exemplifies the choice confronting our species.


PBT team photo. Summer 2023

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