I stood as still as I could, raising the phone up to my eye level. I tapped on the screen to make it focus on the little brown bird in front of me. He looked at me, looked up at the grey sky and seemed to wait patiently for me to snap a series of photographs of him. Then the bus came, I got on the bus and I went to work.
Sometimes using Google Maps makes me feel like a ghost. I stood outside the front gates of Highgate Cemetery in London, I then walked slowly around the perimeter. I couldn’t go into the gates, but I walked around the edge, looking in through the thicket at the gravestones. I walked the entire way around. I felt like a ghost, tracing my way around the perimeter, invisible and unable to go inside.
There was an overgrown cemetery in the town I grew up in, in Lusaka. It was in a neighborhood across town from where I lived. The Aylmer May Cemetery, in Rhodes Park. I was obsessed with it as a child. The cemetery had been opened in 1922, closed in 1958 and by the time I was a child had been closed and fallen into disrepair. It has now been reopened, and since 1999 has been undergoing renovations and repairs. However, when I was a little girl the gravestones were cracked, tumbling and the entire place was overgrown. There was a little chapel at the entrance with broken strained glass windows and crumbling bricks. It was unassuming, the kind of place you could drive past everyday and never really notice, but from the first time we found it on a drive, I was in love. Love at first sight.
My mother would take me on long drives in her sky blue Nissan Sentra when I was a kid, 6, or 7, we’d drive through the unfamiliar streets of Lusaka, “following the rain,” turning in whatever direction moved us closer to the menacing dark grey clouds that perpetually hovered over the skyline in the humid summer months. On afternoons where there was nothing to do, we would look for rain, and use it as a way for my mother to learn the meandering and usually unmarked roads. To this day, she’s uncannily good at drawing little maps of Lusaka, and directing people through neighborhoods.
We stopped the car, and got out. We picked to the edge of the broken fence. There wasn’t anyone there, and so we poked around a bit. My mother would diligently remind me not to tread on people’s graves, we would stop and read the gravestones and work out how old people were, or how long they’d been dead. I loved how derelict it was, how dark, overgrown, and frankly, creepy. We went back many times, I’d beg on rainy afternoons to go. Sometimes we’d chat to people – the man who half-heartedly swept around the graves, or someone passing by, we’d take grave-rubbings. Running our crayons over the white paper, capturing record of the etched words.
I was almost sad as a teenager when I realized my beloved cemetery was being fixed up. It’s important to preserve these sorts of spaces, but there is something about the charm and power of the overgrown cemetery that captures the imagination. Visiting Highgate in London had much the same effect, I loved it. I loved the stale, cool air, the endless shade, and the cracked stones. I loved the moisture and decay as if it crawled out of the ground, the darkness and the mystery. Not in a I-want-to-wear-black-and-lounge-around-on-tombstones sort of way, but more in a sense of feeling all the intensity and impressiveness of burial ritual, of the dead as they sleep forever. I liked sitting quietly, and listening to the noises old, quiet places make. I liked visiting it today, even as an apparition myself. It made me want to explore Washington’s cemeteries. To find out if there’s a dank, overgrown patch of ground, with aging stones for me to explore, here, closer to home.
What does anything have to do with the bird I took photographs of today? I don’t know, I don’t know if it has anything to do with the daydreams about cemeteries that followed. But I do know that I photographed a bird, and then has a ghostly visit to a ghostly place.