This one is way out there. I came across it while taking that long A train ride to Rockaway for a day at the beach. It’s in Ozone Park, right at the point where the subway comes above ground, before skirting the edge of Howard Beach, then crossing the often-magnificent Jamaica Bay. The shock this corner gave me felt particularly appropriate — there’s something about the far outer boroughs, especially here on the southern shore of Long Island, that always feels foreign to me, further away from Manhattan in attitude than it might be in miles. At this distance the designation “New York City” can feel rather arbitrary.
What I was seeing, from above, was the Bayside Acacia Cemetery. But for a second I could have sworn I was looking at New Orleans, or maybe Narnia. The crowded but maintained gravestones I saw initially quickly gave way to a riot of plant life, tall bushes and vines, until by the middle of the cemetery it was a forest: trees at least twenty feet high, canopies spread, with tiny slabs of carved stone lined up beneath them. It all seemed too symbolic. Here was an image made manifest in reality of something that resonates in all of us. Namely, that time is just going to devour you; what we’re up against is eternity. Hell yeah we are! You know, I really get excited by that kind of thing.
The Bayside Acacia Cemetery was founded in the mid-nineteenth century, making it one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in New York. At the time it opened the surrounding area was rural farmland, with the neighborhood of Ozone Park not being developed until 1882. The congregation of Shaare Zedek on the Upper West Side was responsible for maintaining Bayside Acacia, but clearly at some point their funds and desire fell off a bit. It’s been a few decades at least without any grounds-keeping. Although that’s changing now, with a major cleanup underway, sponsored by The Community Association for Jewish At-Risk Cemeteries. You can see the result of some of their efforts already.
I think there was a whole school of English landscape design that followed the general principle at work in Bayside Acacia. Call it controlled chaos, or actually just chaos, vibrantly living nature as symbolic of death. In laying out the grounds of an estate, for example, you would build a ready-made ruin and let the plant life around it run wild. According to Joseph Campbell it was the ancient jungle mythologies of the world that tended to be the most violent. These people, living as they were surrounded by an explosion of life, came to see death, and more specifically murder, as the primary cause of it all – the seed from which life paradoxically begins. Werner Herzog says something along those lines in Burden of Dreams while speaking about filming in the Amazon. “The birds do not sing; they shriek in pain.” Living in that setting you lack any physical horizon, instead the world crowds in around you, you have to fight to keep it back, what Herzog again called “the obscene, explicit malice of the jungle.” So that’s what we’re up against. Now being at the beach is the exact physical opposite – it’s all horizon – although the emotion can be just the same: the malice of our certain death, each wave what Arthur Koestler called, “a shrug of eternity.” We went body-surfing in them.
(Originally posted July 31st, 2009 on Takethehandle.com)