It’s Halloween, and I find myself thinking about graveyards. I’ve always loved a good ghost story — when I was a kid I sat in my bed and wrote whole collections of them — and I’ve always been drawn to cemeteries. Some people, I know, find them depressing and even frightening — which is why they’re so often put to use in horror movies (I love those too) — but they’ve always struck me as places of quiet, deep power. They resonate with all the lives that have come to rest there, and with the echoes those lives leave, like the reverberations that linger long after a bell is rung. Every grave holds an entire life — all those moments large and small, all those joys and sorrows, satisfactions and frustrations, loves and losses, lessons learned and not learned — and they remind me not to take my short time here for granted.
It helps that many cemeteries, especially older ones, are astonishingly beautiful places, naturally quiet and verdant, and often full of birds. Oakdale Cemetery in Wilmington is one of those.
Spread over 165 acres, it’s a gorgeous old graveyard, chartered in 1852, where enormous live oaks and magnolias, draped with Spanish moss, stand above a maze bristling with every sort of headstone, sepulchre, and funerary statuary. The foliage is luxurious, the stonework includes everything from rough, tilted slabs to ornately carved obelisks and statues, and for a history buff like me, the place is an almost literally endless repository of fascinating stories.
And for a birder, it’s a bounty of riches. It’s a North Carolina Birding Trail site, and it’s one my favorite spots in the Wilmington area. The habitat includes everything from deep woods to open lawns, and it’s full of hidden nooks and paths, climbing vines and impassable brush, small cover such as azaleas and dogwoods, and large trees like sycamores and poplars.
Oakdale is a haven for kinglets, vireos, flycatchers, orioles, thrushes, cuckoos, you name it; on New Year’s Day last year, I even found an out-of-season White-eyed Vireo.
In the spring and fall, it’s a natural magnet for warblers and other migrants. A stream runs between the historic, more gloriously unkempt section of the cemetery and a newer, more manicured quadrant, and along that creek you’ll sometimes find Hooded Mergansers, Wood Ducks, herons and other water-loving birds.
Raptors abound — especially Red-shouldered and Red-tailed Hawks, but also accipiters and even the occasional falcon; I was walking along a footpaths one day and looked up to discover a gorgeous Merlin looking down at me with a ferocity that belied its small size.
One family of birds reigns over all others at Oakdale Cemetery, though, and that’s the woodpeckers. Just within the past few weeks, the Northern Flickers have arrived. Red-headed Woodpeckers abound, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers chuckle and whinny overhead. Their smaller cousins, the Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers, scoot up and down the treetrunks.
And Oakdale is the surest place I know for the grandest of North Carolina’s woodpeckers, the prehistoric-looking Pileated Woodpeckers.
None of this is to say that Oakdale is always hopping. I had an hour to kill last weekend and went by the cemetery only to find it eerily — and, given the Halloween season, perhaps appropriately — quiet. The ubiquitous mockingbirds were out, and a Carolina Wren or two and a smattering of flickers, but that was about it.
But it was an hour well spent anyway. Wandering among the gravestones, imagining the lives they marked, admiring the lichen-spattered stone sculptures, I considered that were worse ways to spend an hour. I turned my face toward the warm sun and drank in the gift of just being here to feel it.