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Goodybe ‘meadowification’, hello newly mown cemetery

AMHERST — Clumps of drying grass clippings and piles of brush awaiting their turn through a chipper are all that remain of a historic meadow landscape at the West Cemetery that some visitors said created an unkempt appearance at the town’s first burial grounds.

Over two days, the overgrown grass and wildflowers, planted as part of an effort to bring back the original look of the 1730s knoll section of the cemetery, were cut back, giving this area, by Thursday afternoon, a nearly identical appearance to the rest of the downtown cemetery’s neatly manicured lawn.

“We’re just trying to get caught up,” said Alan Snow, the division director for trees and grounds for the Department of Public Works.

Snow, who oversees the town’s tree crew, explained that the two members and a seasonal employee were instructed to use mowers, weed-wackers and chain saws, as well as a chipper, to knock down the long grass, remove the large and often woody invasive weeds and generally clean up the section of the cemetery that, for most of this year and last, has appeared to be growing into a jungle of vegetation.

This unkempt appearance, Snow said last week, has led people to complain to him that it is disrespectful to those buried in the cemetery. For those entering the cemetery from North Pleasant Street, the tall grass and wildflowers in the 1730s knoll had stood in stark contrast to the mowed areas of the cemetery, including the plot containing the grave of Amherst’s famous poet, Emily Dickinson.

The creation of the historic meadow came out of a 1999 West Cemetery Preservation Plan and commenced in 2009 with the planting of Queen Anne’s Lace, creeping Phlox and spring flowering bulbs.

DPW Superintendent Guilford Mooring said the historic meadow is supposed to only be mowed once a year, but he may instruct employees to keep the area cut for the rest of this year and into next.

His concern, he said, is the lack of signs informing the public about why the grass is growing long.

“Unless permanent signs can go up explaining it, I don’t think we’re ready to start the ‘meadowification,’” Mooring said.

Temporary signs have been put near the area before, but often get stolen.

Select Board member James Wald, who was on the Historical Commission at the time the restoration plan began, said an autumn mowing was recommended in the plan. A mowing in the first week of August, though, may be too soon, he said.

“My instincts would have been to do it later to make sure everything has flowered and dropped their seeds,” Wald said.

The plan called for the historic meadow to be “mown once a year” and that mowing in late summer would “encourage distribution of seeds and maintain an 18-inch height.” Wald said this means that the grasses should rise to that height annually before being trimmed.

Planning Director Jonathan Tucker said in an email that since the flowering perennials were planted, the DPW trees and grounds division has arranged the mowing once a year in late summer and after the perennials finished their annual cycle.

“After a year or two, it became apparent that the hand removal of any woody plants that had sprouted during the year needed to precede the annual mowing, in order to prevent the establishment of their root systems, and that was conveyed to DPW and added to the work list,” Tucker said.

The challenge for the DPW, Tucker said, is keeping this maintenance arrangement for the meadow up to date, with new personnel often being hired to do the work.

The maintenance came just days after the thick vegetation seemed overgrown with invasive species and was growing so high some gravestones of Amherst’s earliest settlers were obscured. The work happened to coincide with what would have otherwise been down time for the crew, Snow said.

Wald said a recent visit indicated the need to clean up the 1730s knoll. “This underscores the fact that there needs to be maintenance of the invasive plants,” Wald said.

He added that it will take several years to establish the various plants that will give the meadow its historic appearance.

Snow said he is confident the meadow-like appearance will return eventually.

“The grass will grow back up,” Snow said. “Unless I’m told otherwise.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com

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