In the 1980s I was managing a nature center in Pueblo, Colorado. A local Italian family asked if they could plant a cottonwood tree along our waterfront in memory of their grandfather. Beaver had cut down many of the cottonwoods over the years, so we allowed the planting and I was amazed when more than 40 people, family and friends, showed up for a picnic and tree planting. They came back year after year to see how his tree had grown.
The poignancy of this thoughtful gesture made it clear that there is great power in life’s passages. At the nature center, we immediately turned all of our landscaping projects into memorial gardens. We used native plants but allowed families to pay for the landscaping and perpetual maintenance in return for remembrance of their loved ones. They would return again and again to view the gardens and feel close to their departed friends and relatives. We planted native plants in naturalistic patterns so the nature center’s high use areas became showcases for xeriscape and native plants options to serve the needs of the nature center and the people of the community who wanted only the gardening advice. But for the families who invested to honor a memory, the memorial gardens became that special place where they could feel a connection to more than the plantings.
Through the years we had weddings, funerals, and birthday parties at the center and each of those brought people out to enjoy each other’s company while out in nature. We also put stained glass windows in the Raptor Center’s foyer as memorials, which beautified that area with birds of prey in glass. Again families returned to show visiting family the windows and the birds of prey that had a special connection to their loved ones.
Gordon Maupin at the Wilderness Center in Ohio took this notion a step further in building Foxfield Preserve. He developed a natural burial cemetery that gave people a place to bury loved ones in nature without caskets, big monuments and mown grass. This strategy not only preserves large tracts of open space but embraces one of life’s certain passages for each of us, death, and affirms that many of us prefer to be a part of nature after life, recycled, not a preserved specimen.
As I write this, we are on the Big Island of Hawaii. We went to Honaunau Bay yesterday to snorkel and enjoy the scenery. Large numbers of people were gathering at the canoe club behind the beach park to say goodbye to their friend, Nancy. They carried long traditional canoes down to the water and mounted them to paddle out and spread her ashes. Then they returned to the bay and paddled in a circle as a lone Pu horn made of a conch shell was playing beautiful, haunting tones. Those paddling the canoes spread white and pink plumeria blossoms from their leis on the water. We could not hear what was being said about Nancy but everyone on the beach area became quiet, watching intently. It was beautiful and brought tears to the eyes of many. Respect is contagious. Though we didn’t know her, we thought she might be pleased to see how many people turned out to send her out to sea in this special farewell.
Life has many passages. Sharing those special times with special people in special places connects us forever to our community of family and friends, framed by the natural and cultural heritage we all share.