Old Florida cemeteries offer nature, too
It seems as if I’ve been on a side tour of old Florida cemeteries these past few weeks. And now, I’ve visited three of them – all different.
First off was Bosque Bello Cemetery right here in Fernandina Beach. I’ve visited this cemetery before, of course; it is a local landmark, full of Fernandina history from Civil War times onward. My most recent visit here with friends Susan Gallion and News-Leader editor Peg Davis was a deeper experience than most. Peg has many relatives buried here and told us lots of stories about others in the graveyard that she once knew, too. Sadly, just a couple weeks after our walk through the tombstones, another family member, her mother, was added to the ground as well.
I’m not much of a history buff, but even for a nature lover, there is plenty to enjoy at Bosque Bello, too. The old live oak trees have withstood countless storms and overseen decades of burials, but still stand mutely in respect. Here and there, we heard woodpeckers tapping on the trunks, and we stopped often to admire and photograph the mature trees and flowering shrubs that grace the area.
Traces of the rampage of Hurricane Matthew were still evident when we visited; a number of large cedars gave up the ghost, and their stumps were scattered through the landscape. On the day we visited, we saw lots of vivid orange mushrooms consuming dead wood on the cemetery floor, doing their part in the ecology to clear up the mess.
Interestingly enough, when I sent photos of the mushrooms to my mycologist friends Deb and David Viess in California, although they couldn’t tell for sure (I didn’t photograph the underside, make spore prints, whatever) their best guess was something called the jack-o’-lantern mushroom, a toxic mushroom that glows in the dark. I meant to go back and check it out, a night walk through the cemetery – what a story that would have been! But alas, I got caught up in other things, and the mushrooms faded away before I got around to it.
A few weeks after this cemetery visit, I was again walking around another old cemetery in Florida, the Antioch Cemetery near Cross Creek, where Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings is buried. This time, I was with an old friend of mine, my Ph.D. major professor, Dr. Liz Wing. Every few months, I visit Liz in Gainesville, and we drive to the Yearling Restaurant for a great local meal of frog legs and venison tidbits. This time, we also traveled down an inconspicuous dirt road to find the Antioch Cemetery.
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings wrote the 1939 Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Yearling and other stories about her time living in the Cross Creek area. Although Rawlings died in 1953, she apparently still has many admirers. Her grave marker beside her husband is decorated with small deer statues and lots of pens, signifying her writing, that people have left over the years and still do. Other gravesites at Antioch with some of her contemporaries are marked with the words, “Immortalized by the writings of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.” It was a fine place to walk around the blooming azaleas on a late winter day in mid-Florida.
Most recently, I also visited another old cemetery I had heard about in Cedar Key. This cemetery is situated on a point of land nearly surrounded by saltwater marshlands, and the adjacent area has been made into Cemetery Point Park. Three friends and I strolled around the grounds and walked along a well-maintained boardwalk overlooking the marsh. The sun was shining, the air was clear, and a group of ducks was cavorting in an open area of the wetland right in front of us. Perfect.
Bucko and I have always said that we want to be cremated and scattered in water when we die, but now, after these inspiring visits to peaceful nature-bestowed cemeteries, I’m beginning to rethink this plan. There is something to be said, I’m realizing, about being honored in a beautiful spot where people come to revere their ancestors while breathing fresh air, surrounded by old trees and flowering shrubs with only the sounds of birds and breezes for company.
And in the meantime, I’ve now learned that old Florida cemeteries are great places to visit if you want peace and quiet, and natural beauty. Who would have guessed?
Pat Foster-Turley is a zoologist on Amelia Island. She welcomes your nature questions and observations.