Monday, January 21, 2013

Haunted by nuthatches: Greenwood Cemetery

A few posts ago, my most faithful reader (Hi, Mom!) left a comment requesting that I write more often about haunted cemeteries. Since I am a birder, and not a ghost-hunter, I am straying a bit out of my element by doing so; but I have been interested in old cemeteries since childhood, and as for ghosts, well, let's say I am very open-minded.

As it turns out, Illinois is jam-packed with purportedly haunted cemeteries (and there is already at least one blogger out there devoted to them), and one of the best known, Greenwood Cemetery, is located in the same city that I work in, Decatur, IL.

I had visited Greenwood once before, last spring. My parents were in town, and as my mom loves that sort of thing, I suggested we explore a bit. We were joined by my brother and one my nieces. It was a beautiful May morning, and we really didn't pay any attention to possible ghosts. For my part, I was too busy being distracted by a lot of great birds, including red-headed woodpecker, eastern wood pewee, eastern kingbird, brown thrasher. It all resulted in a fun, but not at all spooky, outing.

Last Friday, I decided to stop at Greenwood again on my way home from work and see if I could stir up anything spooky by myself. I was also hoping to see another red-headed woodpecker, or some interesting winter species. (As this post from the Audubon magazine blog shows, looking for birds in cemeteries isn't a bad idea.)

It was a bright and windy afternoon, which probably reduced my chances for either kind of sighting. Birds tend to hunker for cover on windy days, and ghosts and sunshine don't really seem to mix either.

One of the haunted areas is said to be this staircase by the Barrackman graves. Legend has it that a weeping woman can be seen sitting there at sunset.

I wandered around the area and even sat for a few minutes on the allegedly haunted stairs, but really didn't get a spooky feeling or any sort of impressions. (Actually, I'll come back to this later.)

On the subject of ghosts, and most other supernatural things, as I mentioned, I consider myself to be open-minded. I grew up having the heebie-jeebies scared out of me by listening to my mother's tales of growing up in a haunted house (I would beg her to tell me the stories over and over, even when they kept me up at night), and to this day, I love ghost stories, horror movies, any sort of strange tale.

Indeed, when I was younger, I had several experiences of haunted places that were quite convincing at the time. One of the most memorable occurred when I was fourteen, and my parents were looking to rent a house around Newport, Rhode Island. As they talked interminably to the realtor, I became bored and went up to the attic by myself, where I sat down and started reading aloud some words on my French homework. I had been sitting there for maybe five or ten minutes when I distinctly felt that I was not alone. I became quiet and glanced around, and all of a sudden, had an impression of a voice telling me, "You are not welcome here."

Well, that was all it took. I hurried back down the stairs, managed to pull my mom aside, and told her, "We can't stay here. It's haunted." My mom being the person she is, she believed me. We ended up living in a different, non-haunted house.

Over the years, these feelings have grown fewer and fewer. I'm not sure why. A skeptical person would probably suggest that I've just become less imaginative over time. Maybe young people are just more sensitive to such things. Or maybe it's just a matter of noticing most what we pay most attention to. I still like spooky stuff, but it's moved quite a bit down my list of interests. When I was younger, I almost never paid attention to birds, for example, and now I see birds everywhere. The difference isn't with the birds, but the observer.

In other words, although I would have enjoyed having a spooky experience in the cemetery, I wasn't expecting one. And indeed, most of the trip was just a pleasant stroll, looking for interesting things to photograph.

Even without a single ghost, Greenwood Cemetery is an interesting place.

I was enjoying myself, despite being a bit cold. Mostly, I had the grounds all to myself, although I was happy to see a groundskeeper whizzing by on a golf cart now and then. Decatur makes me a bit nervous, and although I'm not afraid of ghosts, all I had to defend myself against corporeal threats were my pepper spray and my imaginary kung fu skills.

Besides not seeing ghosts, I was also not seeing birds. At once point, I could hear the distinctive yank yank call of the white-breasted nuthatch, but with the wind distorting it, so that I could not pinpoint where the birds were. I thought, "Wouldn't it be my luck, to come to a spooky cemetery and end up haunted by nuthatches?" After a bit of twisting about with my binoculars, I did finally see them, and then continued on my ramble.

Among the funerary art to be found were several small stone chairs.

I was vaguely aware that there were urban legends about these "mourning chairs," which were not uncommon in cemeteries in the late 1880s, sometimes merely as decoration and some for visitors to sit and rest on. This morning, as I looked for information to enrich this post with, I learned that these are known as "Devil's chairs," and that one of the more famous ones is here in Greenwood Cemetery. Basically, the legend is that if you sit in one of these chairs you can make a pact with the devil, although everyone from Faust onwards knows that such pacts will always come back to bite you in the ass.

I'm open-minded but not downright silly, and would dismiss this whole "haunted chair" legend out of hand if it weren't for one thing....

There were three places in the cemetery where I did feel something strange. One was a corner of the graveyard by the woods with some very old stones.

Now everybody brace yourselves for this highly scientific measurement: I felt weird. It was subtle, and a bit hard to describe. The area felt heavy. And I had a bit of a headache there, which I didn't have before I strolled by these particular graves, and which promptly disappeared as soon as I left.

And while taking this photo, I thought I caught something out of the corner of my eye. But when I put my camera down and glanced around, there was nothing out of the ordinary, and no further weird feeling.

And finally, there was the creepy feeling I got not far from the Barrackman steps. As I described earlier in the post, I recognized the steps from photos on the Internet, verified from the names on the nearby graves that it was, indeed, the right place, and then sat on them for a few minutes to see if I got any impressions. I did not, apart from the impression of being cold.

I got up, and wandered further up the hill from the steps, where I came across one of the mourning chairs by some other graves. As I said, I was vaguely aware that these chairs had some sort of legend attached, but did not place any credence to it, and did not know that Greenwood was supposed to have a "haunted chair." (Comparing the inscriptions in the photos, it's not the same chair anyway; there are several in the graveyard.)

Still, the first thing I thought was, "There is no way I would sit in that chair!" As my mother, who sometimes joins me on these jaunts, will confirm, I am not afraid of ghosts. I am not superstitious. I had just happily sat down on the supposedly haunted steps. Right before that, I had sat down on the ground by the old graves that had the "heavy feeling." But for whatever reason, I did not want to sit in the chair.

Instead, I took some photos of the area, including the head stone next to it, that of W.W. Kerr. For some reason, out of the 150 photos I took in the cemetery that day, this is the only one that is out of focus.

And this is the only photo I've ever taken that has spots on it.

Hey, this haunted cemetery thing is kinda fun! Sure, some weird feelings and a spotty photo aren't enough to convince me that Greenwood is haunted, but I remain open-minded.

Has anyone else had a strange experience in Greenwood? Or a favorite spooky cemetery of your own?

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The frozen lake

At first glance, all is barren. There is a certain quiet beauty to the sweep of white ice over the lake, especially in the sunshine, with the blue sky providing a bit of color and contrast. It's this sort of thing that I would miss if I moved to a place unvisited by winter.

But, as I look out across the lake at Sportsman's Park in Decatur, what I am not seeing is any sign of life.

For a moment, I am fooled by leaves scudding across the ice in the fierce breeze. There is one area of open water, in the corner of the gazebo, but it's barely larger than a duck puddle, and has attracted no puddle ducks. Earlier in the week, a flock of Canada geese had congregated on the ice, but today they are not in evidence.

It's my lunch break. The clock is ticking. The frustrating thing about lunch time birding is that I have no time to spare to take a few minutes and just soak everything in, or that's all I'll be doing. But it's certainly better than no birding at all.

The wind off the lake is unpleasant, despite the sunshine, and there aren't any birds there, so I decide to stroll along the line of trees heading away from the water. There are several species that I haven't seen yet in the New Year which are potential candidates to be found right now, in this park, and I mentally check them off: cedar waxwing, brown creeper, red-breasted nuthatch, Eurasian collared dove, white crowned sparrow, pine siskin.

And there is always the chance of a complete surprise, a bird I hadn't even thought of, which has already happened twice this year at this straggly little area by the lake. A week ago, I found a northern mockingbird, and then last Friday, a red-shouldered hawk, the latter of which confirmed his identity by circling a few times over the water, causing the red shoulder patches on his wings to shimmer in the sunlight.

And last Friday, there was water, and in the water, lots of mallards and Canada geese. Higher temperatures over the weekend swiftly opened up the shallows along the shoreline, and a subsequent plunge of temperature caused them to ice back over just as swiftly. Noticing how much ice covers the lake on any given lunch break is not, perhaps, the most exciting past-time, but is nonetheless the highlight of my day.

Darkness is what I dislike most about this time of year. The sun rises shortly before I must leave for work, thus removing the possibility of any morning birding; and just as surely, it sets before I go home. Lately I have noticed a lingering wash of light on the edge of the horizon when I leave the office, a sign that we have passed the solstice and are edging back towards spring; but spring is merely hypothetical at this point. For the time being, we have darkness.

So this is it, this half hour by the lake. And it looks like admiring the ice might be all I do today, as a careful search in the branches has revealed nothing.

Winter's bareness has opened a makeshift path through the trees, and I pick my way along it, with a new goal in mind: can I find a single bird in this park, in the time I have allotted? Which bird will it be?

My feet crunch along noisily over the fallen leaves. The chances are getting better each minute that I will indeed break my record for fewest species seen and come back with a whopping zero. I don't really mind, though. I'm outside and moving around. I'm not stuck in a building, in a chair, in front of a computer, surrounded by endless ringing of the telephones.

More and more over the past few years, my dislike of office work has blossomed into a full-blown hatred. It seems so pointless and dreary and unnatural. In my defense, research is starting to show that it is also unhealthy. Being outside in nature reduces blood pressure and raises mood. Sitting down all day inside shortens your life span. But I didn't need a news bulletin to tell me that.

Telephone Torment by Jean Du Buffet

So this is my one chance for the whole day, and birds or no birds, I am going to soak up each minute.

Finally, I notice movement on a tree trunk. My first thought is, "nuthatch," but it turns out to be something even better, a brown creeper, one of my favorite species. I watch it creep up the tree for a minute or two, but, alas, the clock is ticking, so I stroll on.

A shadow of a bird flying overhead--I twist around quickly and catch a glimpse of a male northern cardinal. Two species. I heard a cacophonous honking, and see a half a dozen Canada geese flying along the treeline, down by the frozen lake. Up to three!

The makeshift trail peters out by the road, so I turn around and head back towards the lake. The unmistakable barking sound of a red-bellied woodpecker breaks the stillness, and I wait until I've gotten a good look at it.

I have frequently noticed that a single sighting often breaks the spell. After a long stretch without seeing anything, all of a sudden, birds will be everywhere. And so it is.

The area that I passed earlier without seeing so much as a feather is now crammed with cardinals, goldfinches, and white-throated sparrows scratching in the leaves. I glance at the time. Lunch break over. Six species total. Ice on the lake.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

A flight of fancy

The Fairies Have Their Tiffs with the Birds -- Arthur Rackham

The best part of my day was my lunch break, as it was the only time I got to spend a few minutes outside, scrambling around the brush and grasses on the edge of Lake Decatur, down the street from my work place. It wasn't just enjoying the warm winter sunshine and looking for birds.

It wasn't even the excitement I felt upon seeing a northern mockingbird in the shrubbery, a first sighting for both the year and the county, and all the more satisfying for being unexpected.

No, the truly nice part was that, as I crouched under the the branches and hopped over stumps and peered across the frozen water, I was actually having fun. I felt just like I used to as a child when I'd run around in the woods pretending I was looking for fairies or dragons. (Not really all that different, I suppose, as fairies, dragons and birds all have wings.) I didn't feel at all like a disgruntled office worker who's passed the far side of forty. Really, I don't know why everyone doesn't just run outside and play on their lunch break; it's like finding the potion of youth.

On my way back to the office, my magical interlude with the mockingbird being much too swiftly over, I thought of the book I read last night, having borrowed it from Library on the Go for my Kindle, The Fairy Ring: Or Elsie and Frances Fool the World by Mary Losure. (I actually just looked it up on Amazon and realized it's a children's book, which explains why it was such a quick read!)

The book is about the girls behind the Cottingley Fairy hoax, Frances Griffiths and her older cousin Elsie Wright. When Frances was around ten, she and her mother stayed with family in Yorkshire, England, while her father fought in the First World War. Elsie, who was five or six years older, was quite willing to befriend her cousin, but Frances still had time on her hands after school, while Elsie, who had left high school at thirteen, was at work.

Frances loved to wade around in the stream, or the "beck," behind the house, frequently getting her shoes and clothes muddy. When scolded, she defended herself by saying that she could see fairies there, and Elsie suggested the adults would have to give her a break if they showed them some photographic evidence.

What? This was faked?!? -- Cottingsley fairy photo

As Elsie had a talent for art, she painted some cut-out pictures, stuck them with hatpins, and the girls produced their evidence. The pictures went into a drawer, and that probably would have been the end of it, except that many people of that age (the immediate post war period) were fascinated by the supernatural. Elsie's mother attended a Theosophist talk on nature spirits, remembered the photographs, and mailed them off to a leading member of the Theosophical Society, Edward Gardner. He was so excited by them that he got Arthur Conan Doyle (creator of Sherlock Holmes) involved. Doyle believed in fairies, and he did not believe that a pair of country girls had the wit or talent to fake the photos. Once things had gotten to that point, the girls didn't feel able to confess what they had done, and it wasn't until decades later that they admitted the hoax.

Both women insisted that, although at least four of the five photos were faked (of the last, they had contradictory accounts), they actually had seen the fairies. To be honest, my impression has always been that Elsie was just being playful, but Frances really did see something, who knows what? We might as well call them fairies. After all, there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, etc.

The Wish Fairy of the Sunshine and Shadow Forest -- Alice Ross Colver (1919)

I find it interesting how much a product of that particular age this story is; interest in Spiritualism, seances, magic lodges and all things occult had been gaining steam for a couple of decades, and then the tragedy of the First World War lent a sense of urgency to many people's, such as Conan Doyle's, attempts to prove that there was "more" out there. As early as 1848, some other young ladies, the Fox sisters of Hydesdale, New York, rose to fame with their ability to talk to spirits by means of "rapping," years later confessing to a hoax, and then leaving room for true believers by recanting the confession.

It seems that the "supernatural" (which I'm defining very loosely here) has its fads like anything else. I remember when angels were all the rage in the nineties, and while I like angels (doesn't everyone?), I am still trying to recover from the stifling sweetness of that awful TV series, Touched by an Angel, whose only redeeming feature, as I recall, was that some of the angels were rather easy on the eyes.

And remember the UFOs? I'm not sure if The X Files was so popular because the zeitgeist was into aliens, or if people believed in aliens because they liked the show, but it sure was popular for a while. (I recall seeing a documentary around that time that mentioned that polls reporting belief in UFOs skyrocketed after the series came out.)

I can never decide if I'm more "Mulder" or "Scully"

Just for the record, I was never convinced that the truth is out there, but I sure was addicted to that show for a while.

It's interesting how every once in a while, something comes along that not only captures the popular imagination, but seems to answer a deep-seated need for the mysterious and fanciful, the suggestion that much more lies behind the reality that we can see and touch.

One of my favorite recent offerings presented the mystery in the form of a puzzle box, and even though I was rather disappointed in the ending, I am still entranced by the way the series appealed to my curiosity and sense of wonder.

A scene from Lost

As frequently happens, I feel that my train of thought is getting derailed the more I ramble on, but what ties all of this together -- my nod to some of my favorite TV shows, the Cottingsley fairy photographs, my moment of fun on my lunch break -- is that they all provide a glimpse of something expansive, enchanting; to some, even fearful. (Legends warn that many who stumble into fairyland do not come back; likewise, far too many in our workaholic world scorn finding time just to explore and play, even for their over-scheduled kids.)

Despite the hours I spent outside as a child, I never did see any fairies. I sometimes think that I've found something even better in birds, those other beautiful, winged creatures with the power to enchant. And no matter how old I get, every time I scramble through the woods, I know that if I just pause for a moment, and let myself find a bit of wonder, perhaps stretch out my sense of possibility...just a little...the child I used to be will take a few steps with me.

Do you believe in fairies, even a little bit? What keeps your sense of wonder going?