Green-Wood Cemetery: I Know Why The Free Bird Sings

After spending two years in Austin, I moved back to New York City in October and into the relatively elusive neighborhood of Green-Wood Heights Brooklyn, directly across from the Green-Wood Cemetery. My first thought was, “At least the neighbors are quiet.”

I spent my days walking past the cemetery and looked onto a sparkling pond beyond the iron gates nearly every day. I admired the Gothic Revival style gates at the main entrance every time that they were in view. During Hurricane Sandy, I took some comfort in the fact that the highest point in Brooklyn, Battle Hill, is within this cemetery. I suppose I thought I would simply sit atop the hill if my street flooded and wait for the waters to recede. I listened to stories about an urban colony of parakeets that live within the cemetery. I once lived in an apartment in Brooklyn alongside an industrious little parakeet named Handsome who flew away one late summer morning. I awoke to an odd silence that prompted me out of bed and wandered sleepily through the halls until I discovered an open window and an empty cage. Although I thought the stories of born again birds to be folklore, I privately hoped them to be true. I sometimes catch myself wondering how Handsome adjusted to his first outdoor winter when he found a permanent home within the immortal gates of Green-Wood Cemetery.

%Gallery-187199%This designated netherworld was a major tourist attraction in the 1850s. Many affluent and famous New Yorkers who passed during this time are buried here. Green-Wood’s eternal guest list includes Jean-Michel Basquiat, Leonard Bernstein, William Livingston, Samuel Morse, Henry Steinway and many members of the Roosevelt family. Inventors buried there brought contraptions like the safety pin and sewing machine to fruition. Unidentified victims of the 1876 Brooklyn Theater Fire, 103 in total, are buried together in the cemetery. The Wizard from “The Wizard of Oz,” Frank Morgan, rests here and I can’t help but wonder if his visitors ever utter pleas for advice beneath their breath at his tomb. The cemetery’s rich history, remarkable architecture and scenery snowballed into one massively compelling landmark of a neighbor for me.

It was gray and drizzling on Easter Sunday, but I decided to finally explore the grounds. As I climbed the hill that leads to the ornate, umbrella entrance gate, I heard the parakeets before I saw them.

“Aren’t the birds just lovely?” an older woman who was on her way out asked me.

I looked around for an image of the birds she referenced.

“You’re taking pictures of them, right?”

She was pointing toward the points of the gate. I had been taking pictures of them, but I hadn’t noticed them in my frame. The rumors were true and the evidence was before my eyes: a colony of parakeets do inhabit this cemetery and several nests lie within the crevices of the gate itself. These birds are said to have descended from monk parakeets that once escaped during transit. Of course, as my imagination would have it, the current colony warmly embraces any newcomers to their community, including rather ordinary, escaped apartment birds. Like an orchestra comprised entirely of flutes and piccolos, their soprano notes sound like hurried footsteps or bouncing raindrops. I envision them swooping down to me in unison and adorning me with ribbons. What I mean is: walking through a towering gate like this one all while the sonic wave of a wild parakeet choir crashes over me is a surreal experience in and of itself, but in the context of New York, it seems like an acid trip.

Now on the other side of the gate, I head toward the direction of Battle Hill, eager to see whatever elevated sights there are to see from such a height. At the top I see the Manhattan skyline from an unfamiliar vantage point. I continue walking and see tombs far more elaborate and likely expensive than any home I could ever hope to afford. One is shaped like an Egyptian pyramid. Another is accented with Roman columns. I pass a gravestone topped with a statue of a dog whose skeleton I presume to be buried beneath. Immaculately landscaped, each winding path in the cemetery seems like a shaded and enchanted trail toward a secret garden. Even in the midst of bare-boned and fruitless trees, I feel as though I am in a forest.

This is my 10th year living in this city and yet I never noted the existence of the cemetery until moving into an apartment on a street beside it. I wonder how this happened, how a site like this slipped beneath my radar. But it’s just as well, I think. Part of the charm of a place like this in New York City is that it isn’t overflowing with crowds. The sky is open and there’s room to breathe. The quiet that accompanies respect for the dead blankets the grounds and the only voices raised belong to the birds and I think I know why the free bird sings. Its song is a carol of joy and glee in a place where endings are engraved and for that, life is all the more sweet.

[Photo Credit: Elizabeth Seward]