lessons in ecology from mount auburn cemetery, with david barnett

YEARS AGO, a friend who founded a botanic garden in Massachusetts took me to visit a landscape that he had long loved and admired. It was not just beautiful, but a designated National Historic Landmark—and one that was also a cemetery, on land that was consecrated for the purpose in 1831.

Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts is still all those things—historic, beautiful and a place of burial—but in more recent years, its mission has also been one of environmental stewardship. How has that been accomplished, and continues to be accomplished, in an established landscape is our topic today.

David Barnett came to Mount Auburn Cemetery in 1993 as the cemetery’s first director of horticulture. Today, he is its president and CEO, which he has been since 2008. Good thing Dave had not just a degree in horticulture, but also a PhD in ecology, since he has drawn on that background extensively in recent years to guide Mount Auburn, to see itself as an urban wildlife refuge, and a forward thinking model of sustainability. Details on birds and other wildlife at Mount Auburn, and on how to visit–more than 200,000 people visit the grounds each year–are at the bottom of the transcript.

Read along as you listen to the August 3, 2020 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

ecology lessons from mount auburn, with dave barnett



Margaret: Hi, Dave. It’s like we’re reunited. Earlier in our careers, I was the “Newsday” garden editor and you ran Planting Fields Arboretum, an important property on my beat back in the day. So.

Dave: Yeah, the years just flowed by, Margaret, let’s not talk about how many years have flowed by, but yeah, it has been a long time. You did mention that I came here in 1993, so it was before that.

Margaret: So you didn’t get to use your ecology degree as much earlier in your career, but tell us about when Mount Auburn sort of formalized the idea of emphasizing its place as an urban wildlife refuge and set specific sustainability goals. What’s that? When did that happen?

Dave: Well, I would say, even before I was here, there was certainly a focus on at some degree of sustainability, sustainable practices, but it really started ramping up after I got here, because of my own interest, and many of the other staff at the time as well. And we just really felt it was time to do more—focus, and spend more time focusing on it, and really do the right thing.

And it gradually became more formalized in some longer-term planning processes. And when several years ago we did a strategic plan,, and one of the top-level strategic initiatives of the plan was to be a model of environmental stewardship. So, that’s when it really became kind of core institution-wide, instead of just the horticulture department.

Margaret: Well, because sort of in the Boston area, I mean, you’re this piece of “ecological uniqueness,” I think I read one description, right? I mean, it’s an unusual place to have 175 acres in the condition that you have.

Dave: It’s such an important—more and more important these days—because we’re surrounded by an urban environment and green, open green space that’s good for wildlife and people, is that much more important than it used to be and recognized as being important. So, we’re really in a unique spot.

Margaret: So, now as with Central Park in New York City and other such spaces… The birds, for instance–and you have a lot of birds there, especially during migration periods at Mount Auburn–the birds knew all along this was a great ecologically important spot. [Laughter.] So tell us a little bit about the wildlife, and who calls it home and so forth.

Dave: The… let’s just say just say forever, birds have stopped by Mount Auburn, but it happens to be on the flyover—the path of migrating birds coming kind of following the coastline from Central America, and on up North. So we’re right in that flyway.

But in recent years, with the more urbanization has happened, and here we are, and the birds are flying over and all they see is 175 acres of 5,000 trees, and the tree tops, as they’re flying over. So it really is an obvious place for them to stop and take a rest and get replenished with food on their way North. We happened to be in an area, a zone, that birds are migrating through anyway. And of course, there’s also a lot of resident birds as well, that take up space here.

Margaret: And I imagine that you have bird clubs and so forth that love to be there and looking at birds. [Above a citizen scientist making observations in a meadow at Mount Auburn.]

Dave: Yes, absolutely. We are quite a popular destination for many, many bird clubs and Mass Audubon Society and other organizations that organize groups to bring here. And then just people flock here, as individuals, especially in May, and peak migrating season and also throughout the year.

Margaret: So, it’s not just birds. I know, for instance, when you did your woodland… You’ve done a number of—as part of this sort of overall mandate of greater sustainability and being more of a wildlife refuge in recent years that’s intensified—you’ve done a number of projects. You restored the woodland, didn’t you? Or you’ve been restoring the woodland?

Tell us a little bit about some of the sort of steps and what did you do? Did you monitor populations and figure out who was there and what you needed to do to… What’s the thought process that when you begin—and again, this is a historic place and a place that a lot of people have attachment to. It’s an emotional place, it’s a treasured place, so you can’t just change everything, right? You have limitations.


Dave: Right, right. And I’m glad you mentioned that we still are very much an active, ongoing cemetery, creating and selling space and burying people all the time, in addition to generations of people that have already been buried here. So, yes, so we have to keep that in mind while we continue to move forward in other directions.

But the woodland you mentioned is what we call Consecration Dell. It’s really right in the heart of the cemetery. And it’s where our consecration ceremony was held in 1831, when Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story gave the address and founded and described the vision of what our founders had envisioned at the time. It was a natural woodland area, and he described—standing in the middle of this woodland area—he described the vision, and 160 or so years have gone by.

And from that time, and when I first came here that woodland area had become more dominated by Norway maple and some other invasive shrubs and trees that had come in over the decades. And so we started looking at it as: What can we do to restore that woodland? And it just so happened, as you said, talking about wildlife, right in the middle of this area, there’s a vernal pool [below] that has a population of spotted salamander [above] that mates in vernal pools, and certainly in ours. And we knew we had a pretty valuable ecologically valuable population of the spotted salamander that was a threatened species.

And it really kind of started with that salamander population in mind–what could we do to improve the habitat, and then start gradually improving the surrounding woodland habitat for that salamander. And of course that quickly turned into really thinking about what we could do to improve the habitat for all the birds—from wood thrushes and ground-nesting birds, to migrating birds, and warblers and everything in between. But it really kind of started with the interest in the salamander population, while within, right in the heart of, an active cemetery.

Margaret: They’re smart. Animals like the salamanders use vernal pools because fish don’t live in a temporary body of water, and fish would eat…. [their eggs]. You know what I mean? It’s just so beautiful and intricate why that body of water is a good body of water for something like a salamander to reproduce in, because it’s not a fish habitat. Yeah, yeah. Or a bullfrog habitat from that matter, probably really, is it? I mean, I wouldn’t imagine they-

Dave: …it’s not, in fact we had lost, we have since re-introduced… There weren’t any American toads here in the cemetery, and there weren’t any spring peepers, and gray tree frogs, but we’ve introduced all three of those since in using this vernal pool as the place to put the eggs, to collect and put them. Working with various officials that going through all the proper permitting process, we’ve been able to do that over the years. And it’s really–yeah, the vernal pool turns out to be a very successful place to do that.

Margaret: It is, it is. It’s very important, these small and sometimes temporary bodies of water are very important for the amphibians, especially. So I didn’t know about those other successful re-populations, that’s wonderful.

Dave: It’s been very gratifying to be able to do that. Of course years ago, why were they not here–in past decades, long before I was here, many of the people, decades ago, the practices were different with chemicals, and when grass was being planted below the trees, even near in the woodland. The woodland had kind of disappeared, but it’s been really been great to restore it.

And what our goal horticulturally has been is to plant everything in this 4-acre area, kind of a valley surrounding the vernal pool, in our native species to New England. And that’s been our goal there in this area. That’s not our overall mantra throughout 175 acres, but in this area, we certainly we tried to focused on making sure we have all native New England plants.

Margaret: Did you first, then—you mentioned Norway maples for instance, and other invasive things, non-native things—so is that where those of us who are thinking about our own properties or in general, is that where the thinking starts, is identifying what needs to go? What’s putting the most pressure on the environment and making the environment the least diverse, so to speak—is that what you do first?

Dave: Yeah, I think that is a fair statement to say, you’ve got to start there. We recognize that there are plants that are having a negative impact on the landscape. And certainly in this case, there were several very large Norway maples that are just so competitive and dense, and very few things grow under them.

In addition to the fact they seed themselves and sprout up everywhere, and that’s why they’re invasive. But yes, that they were there, plus a number of Japanese barberries, and honeysuckles and assorted other shrubs that we now know are invasive, but back decades ago, they were very popular ornamental plants. And now we know better about some of these kinds of plants. So, yes, we started there, and in projects since, by removing the invasive plants, but with a plan to as quickly as possible replace them with more suitable plants.

Margaret: In some of the plants substitutes that I read about—I don’t remember whether it’s on their website or in somewhere else about my Mount Auburn. Some things were just getting too big or out of shape or whatever, and in picking something new you still had to retain kind of the look, because again, this isn’t just a wild place. This is a place with history, and sentiment attached–both are deep. So for instance, I think you had a lot of yews, I think, that our non-native English yews, I guess are they, were they?

Dave: Yes. Japanese yews [Taxus cuspidata], and English yews [T. baccata]. That’s a good point that we’re, I mean, we’re largely focused… we have a large focus on environmental stewardship, but that’s not the only focus and initiative. And yes, it’s very important.

One of our overriding, and part of our master plan and all planning processes, is to preserve the historic character of Mount Auburn. And when I say “character,” that doesn’t mean restore to 1831, or 1920, or any particular year, but to really preserve that what we imagined to be the intent of the founders of being a cemetery, but also a beautiful and inspiring place for the living.

And then over the years, in different parts of Mount Auburn, there are what we call “landscape character zones” from our original master plan that the Halvorson Design partnership did for us way back in 1993.

There are areas that best represent the Victorian period of the 1800’s that were very ornamental, ornate, colorful kinds of plantings. And there’s very naturalistic areas—like the Consecration Dell, that best represent the naturalistic. And ornamental parkland, and various other character zones in between. So as we do any replanting, or replacement of plants, we are looking at the character of the area and picking plants that are appropriate to what we’re trying to recreate and restore. [Above, the Consecration Dell woodland with the vernal pool beyond.]

But so that’s different in different areas, but yes, as far as plants, I think the overriding concept is that “right plant in the right place,” when you’re going back to this environmental sustainability and stewardship part of it, is a plant that wants to be 12 feet tall in a place that you have to keep it to be 4 feet tall, then it’s the wrong plant, because it takes so much pruning and effort. And Japanese yews had that character type, that category, because they want to be a tree or a large shrub.

And they’re so popular as foundation plantings, but they’re the wrong plant. So, obviously there are dwarf cultivars of yews, and many other more compact plants that we have been gradually over the years replacing the larger plants that need a lot of maintenance with more suitable Ilex glabra, or the winterberry—or with evergreens, there’s globe arborvitaes, as far as evergreen plants, but also ‘Little Princess’ spiraea, and all kinds of shrubs, whether they’re flowering or evergreen, that only grow 2 feet tall or only grow 4 feet tall as opposed to 7 or 8or more so.

And the same applies to groundcovers were replaced English ivy with that grows like crazy and needs to be cut back all the time with things like barren strawberry, or cranesbill geraniums, and a long list of things, and are much more easy to establish, but better-behaved.

Margaret: Right, right.

Dave: They require less water and less maintenance and all those kinds of things.

Margaret: Right. There’s a new project, I think. I’m not sure if you’re fundraising for it now, or if it’s scheduled to begin, isn’t there another initiative? I mean, you’ve done the woodland and I know you’ve done some other areas of the property, kind of updated them. But do you have a new initiative that’s kind of beginning in the planning stages now?

Dave: We do. We it’s called Indian Ridge Path. There’s a long, natural esker, a glacial esker, that is a long, narrow ridge with a steep slope on both sides. That is what we call Indian Ridge, and it’s a very popular, has always been a very popular visitor area, and especially birding destination. You’re kind of up on the ridge and you can look into the trees on both sides, but anyway, that’s the area that we’re currently, yes, we’re currently fundraising for. And we actually started this spring, in June, we started the first phase of it.

So we’re very actively in it where we, similar to the woodland, we restarted over the winter and removed some more Norway maples, and a whole bunch of honeysuckles and other invasive shrubs. And then we started the first phase of the planting of more of natural naturalistic shrubs, mass plantings of shrubs, and perennials, and groundcovers and ferns that are now have been planted in this area and will continue to be over the next couple of years as we go through this phased project. [Above, the view with work under way from Indian Ridge Path.]

Margaret: I read, I was reading about it, and so I didn’t… Somehow I didn’t visualize that it was that ridge, literally that it’s a dramatic spot, yes?

Dave: Yeah, it really is. And it’s always been a popular spot, so we… Why are we doing this? I mean, it had invasive plants, but to the average person, it looked pretty good, as it always has looked.

And that’s kind of a little dilemma at first, when we do remove a lot of significant trees and shrubs, then it looks pretty bare for a while. And it always attracts attention, not necessarily good at first,. But over the years, I think most of our visitors have learned that when we do that it’s for a reason, as for a longer-term improvement. Both aesthetically—this gives us a chance in this historic part of a historic core to add plants that restore it to a look that we think it would have had a hundred years ago—but as importantly, improve the wildlife habitat value and the aesthetic value of the plantings.

And that’s exactly what this project is, is doing all of those things, and improving on making it a better habitat for a wider diversity of birds, and other animals.

It’s actually part of a bigger… I should say, about five years ago, we did a Wildlife Habitat Action Plan. We had a great, wonderful, three day meeting of experts in herpetology and ornithology and landscape architecture, and design, and meadow planting, etc., that really came and then studied what we’d done in past years, but then developed a 10-year-plus plan for additional projects to do as part of the broader, bigger, overall goal to improve wildlife habitat value of Mount Auburn in general.

And this project, the Indian Ridge Project, was identified at that time as an area that would really help in that sense, kind of connecting our different areas, woodland. You’ve heard that for wildlife the more you can connect areas, give a bigger area that whether it’s toads or salamanders or birds can crawl through or fly through without having to cross wide expanses of mowed lawn. That’s what we’ve been trying to do, is to connect the various parts of the ponds and the aquatic habitats and the woodland habitats of Mount Auburn, and this project is part of that broader, longer-term effort.

Margaret: Just for a couple of minutes, I wonder if you could tell us about… There’s a famous botanist buried there who has a garden named for him. Can you tell us just a little bit about that? Because there’s another botanical layer to this botanically rich place, isn’t there? [Laughter.]

Dave: Yes, and I would love to, I’m glad you brought that up. But it’s very exciting that we did recently did a renovation of Asa Gray Garden [above, and top of page], which is named after the Harvard botanist, Dr. Asa Gray, who really in the mid-1800s was right here at Harvard, right down the street from us in Cambridge. And he was really one of the American foremost botanists of his time, and a contemporary of Charles Darwin.

And because of his studies of herbarium specimens of Asian and North American plants that were being sent to him by plant explorers from around the world, he noticed the similarities between Asian and North American specimens, and really was a big proponent of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, as it was being published or before it was being published, even.

And so what we’ve done in this new garden that we just renovated, is incorporate Asian and North American plants into the garden in his honor. It was already named after him, and he is buried here at Mount Auburn. But the garden had become old and it was in need of a little bit of renovation. There was a fountain in the middle of it, and a pretty nice annual garden, but we think we’ve improved upon it dramatically, aesthetically and horticulturally in this botanical sense, by incorporating these plants into it. But I think it’s important to… That’s for people that are interested in that.

We’re also very much still an active cemetery, and this garden is right in between our two chapels, and it’s where people park. There’s a circular drive around the garden with a fountain in the middle of it where the people are parking and then going to a memorial service at one chapel or the other. So, it’s also serving—and we really had this in mind all along—to create a contemplative tranquil spot, restful spot, for people to sit and rest and linger before or after memorial services, whether they had any interest in horticulture or not.

So, it’s trying to serve all of the different audiences. And so far we see it, we think it’s doing very well, but yeah, the fun part of it from your question is the botanical, horticultural aspects of it in addition to everything else.

Margaret: So I know this has been an unusual year, but normally you have a lot of visitors. We talked about the bird clubs and you have people like myself, I visited years ago as a plant person… Can people visit now, or how does it work this year?

Dave: Yes, we’re open now. We had to close for a while in the end of March through April, and through May, where we were only open for certain hours for grave visitation, then we just decided to do that. And we were closed to the general public.

But fortunately in June, we reopened gradually. And now since July 1st, we’ve been open dawn to dusk, basically, we’re open 8:00 AM to 8:00 PM this time of year, completely open for visitation from anybody, and it’s working well. It was a tough decision to make, to close, like so many other people had to make, but we’re glad to be open again, but we are requiring face masks and following all the protocols that are so important right now.

Margaret: Of course. Well, I have a very strong memory of having visited and I have to come across the Pike and I have to visit again and see some of these incredible and environmentally forward thinking enhancements. So, thank you, Dave Barnett for speaking to us from Mount Auburn in Cambridge, Mass. Thank you so much. I’m glad to speak to you again and catch up finally, after a couple of years [laughter].

Dave: Well, please do. And I do hope I hear from you. I’d love to show you around. So, thanks for having me.

more about mount auburn

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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 11th year in March 2020. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the August 3, 2020 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

  1. Heidi Husnak says:

    Fascinating Q & A. We have vernal ponds adjacent to some freeways here in Los Angeles. Often see egrets there but now I know they are probably poaching water dwellers! From the oh so reliable source Rosemary & Thyme British show I learned about the relation between yews and churchyards. I did look it up too. Always more to learn.

  2. Betsy Hawes says:

    Especially enjoyed this piece as my ancestors are buried in a family plot in Mt. Auburn. I think now I’ll need to visit!

  3. Fred Soviero says:

    Congratulations , what a wonderful article you and Margaret have put together for all to read about that most wonderful forward moving destination , mount Auburn. I loved it and look forward to hearing more. Keep it up and hope to visit again soon.

  4. Thank you Margaret. It was wonderful to see two of my interests and passions colliding in this podcast. I am a gardener, with a passion for native plants, and a member of the Association for Gravestone Studies (AGS.) Mount Auburn has been on my bucket list (!) to visit for many years. I hope to see it before too long. I’m sharing this with my AGS friends on Facebook now. :)

  5. Lauren? says:

    That’s so interesting about the vernal pools and why frogs etc choose them. I always wondered why they would go to those pools, since they dry up. Thanks! And I do recall my one encounter with a spotted salamander as a South Bronx kid up at Lake Sebago in Harriman State Park for a week of greenness. Never forgot it.

  6. Alan J. Meyer says:

    Margaret I’m long overdue in telling you how much I enjoy “breakfasting” with you each Sunday morning. Thank you.

  7. Caroline says:

    I LOVE THE NEW SITE UPDATES! Sorry, great article – I grew up near Mt Auburn – but really I came here for the new layout comment. I know those updates can be a pain, but wowza it’s looking great and much easier to read. Thank you from a long time reader :)

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Caroline and thank you — I haven’t even “mentioned” it yet because I am still tinkering. Was meant to happen in spring and then…world went mad. So I am plugging away and more enhancement to come.

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