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Walk on wild side

AMHERST — Emily Dickinson’s grave, a popular draw for fans of the 19th-century poet, features newly restored ironwork surrounding the family plot and well-groomed grass that honors its place of prominence in West Cemetery.

But across a narrow dirt cemetery road, an older section of the cemetery, where Amherst’s earliest settlers are buried, provides a sharp contrast. Many of the gravestones are obscured by overgrown grasses, weeds and wildflowers, thick vegetation and small trees pushing up against them.

This unkempt section of the cemetery, which greets visitors entering from the North Pleasant Street gate, is jarring.

“Some people think it is disrespectful,” said Alan Snow, division director for trees and grounds for the Department of Public Works

But it is intentional.

The “meadowfication” of what is known as the 1730s knoll, the oldest portion of the cemetery that slopes upward, was initiated in 2009. It grew out of the 1999 West Cemetery Preservation Plan, prepared after the cemetery was placed on a list of the state’s most endangered historic resources.

“Part of the idea was it would make sense to return this oldest part, the 1730s knoll, to something like an historical landscape,” said James Wald, a Select Board member who previously served as chairman of the Historical Commission.

Additional work included installing new wrought-iron fences around several family plots, erecting a perimeter fence for the entire 4-acre cemetery, and commissioning a mural depicting the town’s history. That painting covers the back wall of the Amherst Carriage Shops, facing the cemetery.

Bounded by Triangle Street and North Pleasant Street, the burial grounds hold the graves of many members of Dickinson family, other prominent residents from the 18th and 19th centuries, such as William S. Clark, a president of the Massachusetts Agricultural College, and Frazar Stearns, the son of Amherst College president, who was killed in a Civil War battle. It is also the resting place, in their own section, of African-American residents from those earlier centuries, including black soldiers who fought for the Union in the Civil War.

Snow said he has heard plenty of gripes from people about the appearance of the West Cemetery’s oldest section.

“Most complaints are that it looks unkempt, even when it is being kept up,” he said. The expected maintenance is an annual mowing, which Snow acknowledges has been neglected in recent years due to staff shortages.

“Maintenance there, unfortunately, has fallen aside,” he said early this week.

Coincidentally, , though, a few days later a three-member crew was there trimming the area, as well as the rest of the cemetery.

Desolate feel

During a recent tour of the place, Wald explained that with the cemetery set behind the commercial district, the thought was that meadow would provide an appropriate ambiance, transporting visitors, many of who m are there to visit Dickinson’s grave, away from the bustle of the nearby businesses and back to the 18th century. Cemeteries in Colonial America were created to have a desolate feel, he added.

In fact, Snow said, he might take the cemetery a step further into the past by bringing sheep and goats onto the premises to munch the excess vegetation. He said he has been in touch with local farmers about the possibility.

According to the preservation plan, provided by Planning Director Jonathan Tucker, it is likely that the cemetery’s oldest section once resembled a meadow or pasture. “By replacing the turf in the 1730 Section with woody ground covers and perennials, this 18th century effect can be restored,” it reads.

But the plan also acknowledges that the appearance of the meadow grasses and wildflowers might be disturbing for some visitors.

“Today, such a planting might appear unkempt, and invite vandalism,” it goes on. “To recreate the feel of a meadow without its height, we recommend introducing low hardy ground covers, such as perennial Thyme, creeping Phlox and Mosses. For added texture, Snowdrops, Black-Eyed Susans, Indian Paintbrushes, Willow Gentian, Lupine and Queen Anne’s Lace could be planted in swaths, and mown once a year.”

One problem with allowing the section to grow wild, from Wald’s perspective, is that tree-like weeds and vines have invaded Queen Anne’s Lace, creeping Phlox and spring flowering bulbs. While the white flowers of the Queen Anne’s Lace dominates some of the landscape, small trees have positioned themselves among the plantings, creating more of a jungle than a meadow.

Some of this woody material has been knocked down this summer, Snow said. There are also plans to eliminate the Japanese knotweed.

“The look of it, when you cut out the woody, tall stuff, is really authentic,” Snow said.

He said maintaining West Cemetery is a time-consuming proposition anyway, because it is not laid out in a grid. And, he said, being in the downtown area, there are problems, such as empty beer bottles, used hypodermic needles and soiled clothing disposed among the headstones.

While a prominent sign stands near the Amherst history mural, listing the name of the artist and contributors, there is no explanation of the 1730 knoll.

“Signs installed to explain the meadow have a habit of wandering off,” Tucker said, “which is why many people happening on the meadow in the middle of this historic burying ground can be confused.”

Snow agrees that new, permanent signs would be helpful.

“There is a need for an educational component,” he said.

Not mowing has practical benefits for the cemetery’s oldest section, Wald said. There is less risk that headstones will be damaged by equipment, he pointed out. It is also more environment-friendly to reduce mowing.

Wald suggests that volunteers, possibly students from the Alpha Tau Gamma fraternity affiliated with the Stockbridge School at the University of Massachusetts, could help remove the invasive weeds and small trees not intended to be part of the meadow.

Overall, Wald said, he thinks treating sections of the cemetery differently gives the place a unique feel.

In fact, he said, even with the meadow not in perfect condition, he prefers it appearance to the sight of short grass that, by the end of summer, begins to turn brown.

“I think it looks better than a scalped lawn.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com

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