Camping among the Tombs
After going again to the express office and post office,
and wandering about the streets, I found a road which led me to the Bonaventure
graveyard. If that burying-ground across the Sea of Galilee, mentioned
in Scripture, was half as beautiful as Bonaventure, I do not wonder that
a man should dwell among the tombs. It is only three or four miles from
Savannah, and is reached by a smooth white shell road.
There is but little to be seen on the way in land, water, or sky, that
would lead one to hope for the glories of Bonaventure. The ragged desolate
fields, on both sides of the road, are overrun with coarse rank weeds,
and show scarce a trace of cultivation. But soon all is changed. Rickety
log huts, broken fences, and the last patch of weedy rice-stubble are left
behind. You come to beds of purple liatris and
living wild-wood trees.
You hear the song of birds, cross a small stream, and are with Nature in
the grand old forest graveyard, so beautiful that almost any sensible person
would choose to dwell here with the dead rather than with the lazy, disorderly
Part of the grounds was cultivated and planted with live-oak, about
a hundred years ago, by a wealthy gentleman who had his country residence
here But much the greater part is undisturbed. Even those spots which are
disordered by art, Nature is ever at work to reclaim, and to make them
look as if the foot of man had never known them. Only a small plot of ground
is occupied with graves and the old mansion is in ruins.
The most conspicuous glory of Bonaventure is its noble avenue of live-oaks.
They are the most magnificent planted trees I have ever seen, about fifty
feet high and perhaps three or four feet in diameter, with broad spreading
leafy heads. The main branches reach out horizontally until they come together
driveway, embowering it throughout its entire length, while
each branch is adorned like a garden with ferns, flowers, grasses, and
But of all the plants of these curious tree-gardens the most striking
and characteristic is the so-called Long Moss
It drapes all the branches from top to bottom, hanging in long silvery-gray
skeins, reaching a length of not less than eight or ten feet, and when
slowly waving in the wind they produce a solemn funereal effect singularly
There are also thousands of smaller trees and clustered bushes, covered
almost from sight in the glorious brightness of their own light. The place
is half surrounded by the salt marshes and islands of the river, their
reeds and sedges making a delightful fringe. Many bald eagles roost among
the trees along the side of the marsh. Their screams are heard every morning,
joined with the noise of crows and the songs of countless warblers, hidden
deep in their dwellings of leafy bowers. Large flocks of butterflies,
flies, all kinds of happy insects, seem to be in a perfect fever of joy
and sportive gladness. The whole place seems like a center of life. The
dead do not reign there alone.
Bonaventure to me is one of the most impressive assemblages of animal
and plant creatures I ever met. I was fresh from the Western prairies,
the garden-like openings of Wisconsin, the beech and maple and oak woods
of Indiana and Kentucky, the dark mysterious Savannah cypress forests;
but never since I was allowed to walk the woods have I found so impressive
a company of trees as the tillandsia-draped oaks of Bonaventure.
I gazed awe-stricken as one new-arrived from another world. Bonaventure
is called a graveyard, a town of the dead, but the few graves are powerless
in such a depth of life. The rippling of living waters, the song of birds,
the joyous confidence of flowers, the calm, undisturbable grandeur of the
oaks, mark this place of graves as one of the Lord's most favored abodes
of life and light.
On no subject are our ideas more warped and pitiable than on death.
Instead of the sympathy, the friendly union, of life and death so apparent
in Nature, we are taught that death is an accident, a deplorable punishment
for the oldest sin, the arch-enemy of life, etc. Town children, especially,
are steeped in this death orthodoxy, for the natural beauties of death
are seldom seen or taught in towns.
Of death among our own species, to say nothing of the thousand styles
and modes of murder, our best memories, even among happy deaths, yield
groans and tears, mingled with morbid exultation; burial companies, black
in cloth and countenance; and, last of all, a black box burial in an ill-omened
place, haunted by imaginary glooms and ghosts of every degree. Thus death
becomes fearful, and the most notable and incredible thing heard around
a death-bed is, "I fear not to die."
But let children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings
and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity,
as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our
blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as
beautiful as life, and that the grave has no victory, for it never fights.
All is divine harmony.
Most of the few graves of Bonaventure are planted with flowers. There
is generally a magnolia at the head, near the strictly erect marble, a
rose-bush or two at the foot, and some violets and showy exotics along
the sides or on the tops. All is enclosed by a black iron railing, composed
of rigid bars that might have been spears or bludgeons from a battlefield
It is interesting to observe how assiduously Nature seeks to remedy
these labored art blunders. She corrodes the iron and marble, and gradually
levels the hill which is always heaped up, as if a sufficiently heavy quantity
of clods Could not be laid on the dead. Arching grasses come one by one;
seeds come flying on downy wings, silent as fate, to give life's dearest
for the ashes of art; and strong evergreen arms laden with
ferns and tillandsia drapery are spread over all
-- Life at work everywhere,
obliterating all memory of the confusion of man.
In Georgia many graves are covered with a common shingle roof, supported
on four posts as the corner of a well, as if rain and sunshine were not
regarded as blessings. Perhaps, in this hot and insalubrious climate, moisture
and sun-heat are considered necessary evils to which they do not wish to
expose their dead.
The money package that I was expecting did not arrive until the following
week. After stopping the first night at the cheap, disreputable-looking
hotel, I had only about a dollar and a half left in my purse, and so was
compelled to camp out to make it last in buying only bread. I went out
of the noisy town to seek a sleeping-place that was not marshy. After gaining
the outskirts of the town toward the sea, I found some low sand dunes,
yellow with flowering solidagoes.
I wandered wearily from dune to dune sinking
ankle-deep in the
sand, searching for a place to sleep beneath the tall flowers, free from
insects and snakes, and above all from my fellow man. But idle negroes
were prowling about everywhere, and I was afraid. The wind had strange
sounds, waving the heavy panicles over my head, and I feared sickness from
malaria so prevalent here, when I suddenly thought of the graveyard.
"There," thought I, "is an ideal place for a penniless
wanderer. There no superstitious prowling mischief maker dares venture
for fear of haunting ghosts, while for me there will be God's rest and
peace. And then, if I am to be exposed to unhealthy vapors, I shall have
capital compensation in seeing those grand oaks in the moonlight, with
all the impressive and nameless influences of this lonely beautiful place."
By this time it was near sunset, and I hastened across the common to
the road and set off Bonaventure, delighted with my choice, and almost
glad to find that necessity had furnished
me with so good an excuse
for doing what I knew my mother would censure; for she made me promise
I would not lie out of doors if I could possibly avoid it. The sun was
set ere I was past the negroes' huts and rice fields, and I arrived near
the graves in the silent hour of the gloaming.
I was very thirsty after walking so long in the muggy heat, a distance
of three or four miles from the city, to get to this graveyard. A dull,
sluggish, coffee-colored stream flows under the road just outside the graveyard
garden park, from which I managed to get a drink after breaking a way
down to the water through a dense fringe of bushes, daring the snakes and
alligators in the dark. Thus refreshed I entered the weird and beautiful
abode of the dead.
All the avenue where I walked was in shadow, but an exposed tombstone
frequently shone out in startling whiteness on either hand, and thickets
of sparkleberry bushes gleamed like heaps of crystals. Not a breath of
air moved the gray moss, and the great black arms of the
overhead and covered the avenue. But the canopy was fissured by many a
netted seam and leafy-edged opening, through which the moonlight sifted
in auroral rays, broidering the blackness in silvery light. Though tired,
I sauntered a while enchanted, then lay down under one of the great oaks.
I found a little mound that served for a pillow, placed my plant press
and bag beside me and rested fairly well, though somewhat disturbed by
large prickly-footed beetles creeping across my hands and face, and by
a lot of hungry stinging mosquitoes.
When I awoke, the sun was up and all Nature was rejoicing. Some birds
had discovered me as an intruder, and were making a great ado in interesting
language and gestures. I heard the screaming of the bald eagles, and of
some strange waders in the rushes. I heard the hum of Savannah with the
long jarring hallos of negroes far away. On rising I found that my head
had been resting on a grave, and though my sleep had not been quite so
sound as that
of the person below, I arose refreshed, and looking
about me, the morning sunbeams pouring through the oaks and gardens dripping
with dew, the beauty displayed was so glorious and exhilarating that hunger
and care seemed only a dream.
Eating a breakfast cracker or two and watching for a few hours the beautiful
light, birds, squirrels, and insects, I returned to Savannah, to find that
my money package had not yet arrived. I then decided to go early to the
graveyard and make a nest with a roof to keep off the dew, as there was
no way of finding out how long I might have to stay. I chose a hidden spot
in a dense thicket of sparkleberry bushes, near the right bank of the Savannah
River, where the bald eagles and a multitude of singing birds roosted.
It was so well hidden that I had to carefully fix its compass bearing in
my mind from a mark I made on the side of the main avenue, that I might
be able to find it at bedtime.
I used four of the bushes as corner posts for
my little hut, which
was about four or five feet long by about three or four in width, tied
little branches across from forks in the bushes to support a roof of rushes,
and spread a thick mattress of Long Moss over the floor for a bed. My whole
establishment was on so small a scale that I could have taken up, not only
my bed, but my whole house, and walked. There I lay that night, eating
a few crackers.
Next day I returned to the town and was disappointed as usual in obtaining
money. So after spending the day looking at the plants in the gardens of
the fine residences and town squares, I returned to my graveyard home.
That I might not be observed and suspected of hiding, as if I had committed
a crime, I always went home after dark, and one night, as I lay down in
my moss nest, I felt some cold-blooded creature in it; whether a snake
or simply a frog or toad I do not know, but instinctively, instead of drawing
back my hand, I grasped the poor creature and threw it over the tops of
the bushes. That was
the only significant disturbance or fright that
In the morning everything seemed divine. Only squirrels, sunbeams, and
birds came about me. I was awakened every morning by these little singers
after they discovered my nest. Instead of serenely singing their morning
songs they at first came within two or three feet of the hut, and, looking
in at me through the leaves, chattered and scolded in half-angry, half-wondering
tones. The crowd constantly increased, attracted by the disturbance. Thus
I began to get acquainted with my bird neighbors in this blessed wilderness,
and after they learned that I meant them no ill they scolded less and sang
After five days of this graveyard life I saw that even with living on
three or four cents a day my last twenty-five cents would soon be spent,
and after trying again and again unsuccessfully to find some employment
began to think that I must strike farther out into the country, but still
within reach of town, until
I came to some grain or rice field that
had not yet been harvested, trusting that I could live indefinitely on
toasted or raw corn, or rice.
By this time I was becoming faint, and in making the journey to the
town was alarmed to find myself growing staggery and giddy. The ground
ahead seemed to be rising up in front of me, and the little streams in
the ditches on the sides of the road seemed to be flowing up hill. Then
I realized that I was becoming dangerously hungry and became more than
ever anxious to receive that money package.
To my delight this fifth or sixth morning, when I inquired if the money
package had come, the clerk replied that it had, but that he could not
deliver it without my being identified. I said, "Well, here! read
my brother's letter," handing it to him. "It states the amount
in the package, where it came from, the day it was put into the office
at Portage City, and I should think that would be enough." He said,
"No, that is not enough. How do I
know that this letter is yours?
You may have stolen it. How do I know that you are John Muir? "
I said, "Well, don't you see that this letter indicates that I
am a botanist? For in it my brother says, 'I hope you are having a good
time and finding many new plants.' Now, you say that I might have stolen
this letter from John Muir, and in that way have become aware of there
being a money package to arrive from Portage for him. But the letter proves
that John Muir must be a botanist, and though, as you say, his letter might
have been stolen, it would hardly be likely that the robber would be able
to steal John Muir's knowledge of botany. Now I suppose, of course, that
you have been to school and know something of botany. Examine me and see
if I know anything about it."
At this he laughed good-naturedly, evidently feeling the force of my
argument, and, perhaps, pitying me on account of looking pale and hungry,
he turned and rapped at the door of
a private office
-- probably the
-- called him out and said, "Mr. So and so, here is a man
who has inquired every day for the last week or so for a money package
from Portage, Wisconsin. He is a stranger in the city with no one to identify
him. He states correctly the amount and the name of the sender. He has
shown me a letter which indicates that Mr. Muir is a botanist, and that
although a traveling companion may have stolen Mr. Muir's letter, he could
not have stolen his botany, and requests us to examine him."
The head official smiled, took a good stare into my face, waved his
hand, and said, "Let him have it." Gladly I pocketed my money,
and had not gone along the street more than a few rods before I met a very
large negro woman with a tray of gingerbread, in which I immediately invested
some of my new wealth, and walked rejoicingly, munching along the street,
making no attempt to conceal the pleasure I had in eating. Then, still
hunting for more food, I found a sort of eating-place in
and had a large regular meal on top of the gingerbread! Thus my "marching
through Georgia" terminated handsomely in a jubilee of bread.
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