Dear Readers, those of you who have been following this blog for a while will know that I’m a great fan of cemeteries. My heart is already given to St Pancras and Islington Cemetery with its Victorian trees, tumbledown tombs and colony of feral foxes, but I occasionally like to walk in East Finchley cemetery. This is a much more manicured, controlled space, but it has some spectacular specimen trees, and is a haven for birds.
I spend a lot of time listening as I walk – I find it helps me to tune in to what’s going on. There are lots of conifers: cypresses and spruces, pines and fir trees. They vibrate with the twitterings of small birds. I see goldcrests and long-tailed tits, and hear the scolding of blue tits. None of them stay long enough for me to get a photo, but it’s enough to know that they’re there, working their way through the needles.
There’s the sing-song squawking of ring-necked parakeets, the cackling of magpies, the cawing of ever-present crows. The goldfinches sound like little bells. There’s a flight of finches at the top of one of the big, bare trees, but they’re too far away for me to see what they are. When I get home, I see that they are most probably greenfinches, at least judging from the heavy beaks and the gold wing bar that I can see on one of the wings. These birds were hit very hard by a parasitic disease (Trichomonosis) a few years ago, and the British Trust for Ornithology noted a decrease in the number of gardens who were visited by the birds of 40%. So, it’s cause for celebration if they’re recovering. Fingers crossed.
There’s a theme of wings in the cemetery. Secretly, I always wished that I could fly, and our myths and legends are full of humans who took to the air, from Icarus to the angels. We seem to want the freedom of the air, and perhaps also a release from our heavy, earthbound bodies.
I find the garden of remembrance, where the sound of running water is added to the bird calls. There are still a few last roses in bloom, but mostly they are now well-pruned and dormant, waiting for spring. I sit on one of the benches and wait to see what will happen. Nothing does, except that I notice how the golden of the leaves on some silver birch is offset by the darkness of the firs behind it, and how the yellow foliage on the topiary box bushes make them look as if they’re touched by sunshine.
When I am walking, I often think that something will happen, and then I’ll know that it’s time to go home. There’s often a moment when I think ‘Aha, this what I was meant to see/hear/smell’. I am, I suppose, waiting for a sense of completion, and permission, a sense of closure. But what will it be this time?
I walk along a path towards the crematorium, and am stopped in my tracks by the waves of scent coming from a most modest little bush on one of the graves. I have to stop, bend down, and take a good long sniff. We think we know what a rose smells like, but there are subtle differences: some perfumes have a lemony edge, some are deep and spicy. This little rose is pure floral, essence of rose.
I take a little path along the very edge of the cemetery and, as I meander along, I have a feeling of being watched. Who, or what, is it? And there, perched stock-still on one of the gravestones is a squirrel. I laugh out loud, because he looks so much like a glove puppet. And there he sits, unmoving, as I walk along the path and then away. While every other squirrel scurries away at my approach, this one seems to believe that if he sits still, I won’t see him. As he looks plump and confident, it seems to be a strategy that’s served him well.
Once I’ve laughed with delight, I know that my job here is done and I can head home, but my eyes are attracted (much like a magpie’s) to some bright red fruit on the ground. I have found a strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo), a member of the heather family. The fruits look delicious, and are apparently edible fresh, although they bruise very easily. I love the tableau that they make amidst the sedum and the grasses.
And then, just as I turn for home, I see a jay perched on another gravestone. How I love these brownish-pink crows with their electric-blue wing feathers.They are everywhere in the cemetery, gathering acorns that they’ll bury for the winter. This one watches me and then flies off on rounded wings, emitting an alarming cackle.
So now I’m surfeited with wonders and can head for home. As I cross the road outside the cemetery I see a 143 bus in the distance and head towards the bus stop at a brisk but sensible trot – I still have my camera round my neck and so I don’t want to do anything foolish like fall flat on my face. Just as I reach the stop the bus pulls away, and I plump down onto a seat, defeated.
An elderly man passes me a few minutes later, and smiles.
‘Next time’, he says, ‘you’ll have to fly’.