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In “Cemetery Birding,” discovering bittersweet beauty close at hand

Photograph by Jennifer Bristol

“In wildness is the preservation of the world.” The central word in Henry Thoreau's famous quote is often misremembered as “wilderness.” But Thoreau's emphasis is not on “pristine,” “untrammeled” places, but on the wild energies that surge in and around us.

This spirit of nature near-at-hand infuses Jennifer Bristol's new book, “Cemetery Birding: An Unexpected Guide to Discovering Birds in Texas,” from Texas A&M University Press. Bristol — the keynote speaker at this year's sold-out Davis Mountains Hummingbird Celebration — leads us into the bittersweet beauty of these reflective places.

“The original parks in the United States were cemeteries,” Bristol said. “They're designed for us, the living, to come and enjoy and reflect.”

"Cemetery Birding: An Unexpected Guide to Discovering Birds in Texas,” from Texas A&M University Press, takes readers into the bittersweet beauty of cemeteries.
Courtesy of Texas A&M University Press
"Cemetery Birding: An Unexpected Guide to Discovering Birds in Texas,” from Texas A&M University Press, takes readers into the bittersweet beauty of cemeteries.

A veteran outdoor educator, Bristol published “Parking Lot Birding” in 2020. She started research on the new volume early in the COVID-19 pandemic. The roads were empty. In the shutdown stillness, birdsong was clear.

But the settings themselves also exerted an influence. At one cemetery, Bristol saw the losses from an historic cholera outbreak — putting Covid in perspective. And the Covid threat connected Bristol to the birds' own plight. Bird populations have declined a third since 1970, due to human impacts.

“I had this deep empathy for what they go through every single day,” she said, “to make sure that even their next generation survives. We had a pandemic, and we're sort of like, 'Oh, we're done with that.' And we don't feel the threat anymore, but the birds do.”

Many modern cemetery designs reflect the Romantic movement, which linked deep emotions with nature. And near communities, these places have become natural sanctuaries. Many include mature trees and water features, which make them birding hotspots.

Bristol visited more than 300 cemeteries, selecting 91 for the book. For each, she includes not only avian highlights – but a “tombstone tale,” showcasing a unique monument or headstone.

“I was really looking for that nexus of habitat, and an interesting cemetery,” Bristol said. “It had to have that. The third element was — is this accessible? I think cemeteries really offer that space for people with limited mobility to get around.”

Some of of Bristol's favorites are in West Texas. The Van Horn Cemetery is one she returns to. And she had her first-ever sighting of a lark bunting — a striking black-and-white songbird — in Fort Stockton.

“I was like, 'What is this cool looking bird?,'” Bristol said. “It kept moving fast, and finally it perched on a headstone. I was like, 'Ah, okay!' That's a lifelist bird I got right there in the cemetery.”

The High Plains, too, have rich sites. The Canyon Lakes abut Lubbock's cemetery – drawing ducks, geese and sandhill cranes. A veterans memorial at the Amarillo cemetery includes an art-deco eagle statue – which also seems to announce the cemetery as a raptor hub. Bristol saw red-tailed, red-shouldered and Cooper's hawks here, and a great horned owl.

Collectively, Texas cemeteries span hundreds of thousands of acres, making them an important part of the conservation picture. Bristol hopes more will embrace native plants – which support birds and other creatures.

Photograph by Jennifer Bristol

Bristol includes ethical guidelines in her book – stressing respect for gravesites, and mourners. But, she noted, cemeteries are also for the living. And they're accessible places where anyone can connect with the winged life that ornaments our planet.

“Each one has something cool,” Bristol said, “that I really look forward to other people getting out and discovering for themselves.”

Drew Stuart is the producer for the Marfa Public Radio series Nature Notes.