Saturday, August 12, 2017

NY Twenty-Six Steps: Birthplaces and Resting Places of Long Island Heroes and Saints

I'm working through the idea of environmental pilgrimage - intentional journeys to places of great natural or historical significance. It was fitting for our birthday weekend overnight to Long Island that my sister and I paid visits to the birthplace of Walt Whitman, the family home of Theodore Roosevelt at Sagamore Hill, and Youngs Memorial Cemetery where TR and his family are laid to rest. It was a great opportunity for me to observe and explore how people interact with these special places.

I spoke to a NPS staffer about Sagamore as a pilgrimage site and she agreed that it has become such a place. "People who come here as pilgrims to this place, see it as an important step on their journey to know as much about TR and his times as they can. They come here having read everything, and I mean everything, there is written about him - including the many books he wrote. They've visited his birthplace, the White House, any place with his name associated with it: his western ranch lands, bird sanctuaries, you-name-it. So, yes, it is such a place."

Youngs Memorial Cemetery.

Just down the road from Sagamore is where TR and his family are buried. Laura and I stopped early in the morning at Youngs Memorial Cemetery, a small hillside burial ground that dates back to the early 1700s. TR purchased land from James Young in the 1880s on which he built the family farm and later, his home at Sagamore Hill. At Youngs Cemetery there is nothing to announce that TR and his wife Edith, their children, and grandchildren are buried here, save for a small sign, easily missed, at the iron gate entrance. The cemetery is managed and cared for by a small non-profit and offers a information brochure at the beginning of the walkway. For a presidential cemetery it is unassuming, simple, and small. We made our way up the single paved path and approached the twenty-six steps that climbed the little hill to TR's grave. Twenty-six steps for his place as 26th President.

TR and Edith Roosevelt's resting place.

We were the only two people in the cemetery. Despite the brochure's assurance that this was...

...a place of public pilgrimage for tens of thousands of people annually, the final resting place of the 26th President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, one of the greatest Americans of all time...

...we saw not another soul. We had the peace and quiet of the grave site and hillside to ourselves. It was maybe the quiet and peacefulness that caught us unprepared for the impact that arriving at TR's grave had on us. We climbed the twenty-six steps and there was the iron gate surround, a handsome but not overly large stone, a military marker and some flags, and a flagstone walk-around. It was so simple and elegant that we both were speechless - which, if you know us, is a rare occurrence. 

TR Jr., who died days after the D-Day Invasion, U.S. Army.

I became a little emotional, I must say. I've counted TR as one of my favorite presidents, and even though I had been to Sagamore Hill NHS a few years ago, I had never been to his grave site. We stood at the iron gate for a long time. Another hour went by as we wandered the cemetery, still the only ones there. We visited the marker of Teddy Roosevelt, Jr., who died shortly after the invasion of Normandy in WWII and, along with his brother Quentin who died in aerial combat in WWI, are buried side-by-side in France. We found the family markers of the Youngs - all farmers and craftsman who lived in this area overlooking Cove Neck Harbor. We found the Youngs family slaves, too, who were given burials in the same cemetery - not segregated from their owners as is often the case. So here were slaves buried in the same ground as one of America's most famous presidents.

Slave grave markers with Youngs family sites just behind

Some slave markers were simple wooden crosses while some were incised roughly with dates and initials. It seemed ironic that one of the most well-known Americans is buried in the same graveyard as enslaved people whose names and lives have all but been forgotten. I've seen slave markers in York County where I live, chunks of rough-shaped stone with or without carved dates. Some markers are large chunks of rounded quartz arranged around a particular grove of trees, now overgrown and overtaken with forest. To see the marker style again here, much farther north than where I live on the Mason Dixon line, attested to how deeply into northern states the institution of slave-holding had advanced, far beyond southern agricultural regions and borderlands.

Carved in rough stone - an enslaved servant's grave stone.

From the top of the twenty-six steps, I turned around and faced north for the view of the cove and it is easy to see why this area has been called "The Necks." Small sharp-ended coves fan outwards towards Long Island Sound. These pointy coves are the drowned pre-glacial mouths of rivers that once drained Long Island's north shore. The cemetery sits along the shoulder of a glacial moraine and we are reminded that Long Island is just that - a long glacial artifact where ice advanced then receded, leaving behind a series of steep boulder-strewn hills. The large rounded boulders that line the cemetery's pathway probably came from the morraine hill where TR and his family now rest, moved and smoothed by ice, and thousands of years later, moved and arranged by farmers.

Sagamore Hill NHS - Home of the TR Roosevelt family at Oyster Bay, NY

Sagamore Hill sits only a mile north of cemetery and the hill on which TR's home was built was farmed long before he purchased the land from Mr. Young.  The soils here are rich and well drained and throughout the area on well-kept land, farming was profitable and practiced for generations. On land that had not been as well cared for, however, there were stark landscapes. We were shown a old photo by a docent at the Orchard Museum at Sagamore Hill that shows TR's home just-built atop the treeless hill. Even at a distance, the photographer was able to capture the bleakness of the site - eroded soils and naked ground. Thinking about it, said the docent, TR must have seen the land as exhausted and probably got it for far less than what it would have been worth had it been prime agricultural ground. "In effect," the docent said, "He undertook a life-long rescue of this hill site, planting new orchards, encouraging reforestation, getting the exposed ground under lawn and gardens." During the 1800s most of The Necks region had been cleared of forest and looked like TR's purchase had. Now the forest has returned, blanketing most of the neck that holds the National Historic Site and the cemetery.

The beach at Sagamore Hill - note the thick shoreline forest buffer of the neighboring property.

From the Old Orchard Museum we walked the trail down to Cold Spring Harbor and found the beach in much better condition than it had been after my last visit the spring following Hurricane Sandy. It's much steeper and still shows piles of gravel sands and shell material from the storm, but gone are the wrack lines of debris and garbage, the mangled boardwalk, and the piles of tree trunks and large limbs that clogged the tidal marsh.  At the park just up shore, we could see the newly exposed interior of the glacial moraine that had not been a feature a few years ago. We didn't have much time to explore, however, as the tide was coming in quickly, filling a Sandy-cut channel cut across the back of TR's beach. We had to make a fast exit before the boardwalk was cut off from the hill!

Walt Whitman's Birthplace State Historic Site.

Our final stop to the Walt Whitman Birthplace State Historic Site was several miles from Cove Neck. The small shingle home sits atop broad outwash plain left by the receding glacier. Despite the commercial-residential area closing in around the site today, it was easy to imagine (thanks to great landscape architecture) a more pastoral scene of Whitman's early childhood. These were heavily settled farmlands in the early 1800s when Whitman's father purchased the house and barn. The deep well on site still holds water which is sourced from the freshwater aquifer beneath Long Island. But by the time the Whitman's settled here, cold summers and exhausted soils made farming difficult. When Walt was four the family moved to the growing city for more reliable work in carpentry.

Birthing room where Walt was born.

My sister and I were part of a small tour led through the house by a college student who was working her way into a Master's program for historical interpretation and archival library management. Our group was a mix of interested folks, some with more knowledge of Walt Whitman than others. All of us were curious about how the young family lived. The parlor was arranged with chairs all the way around for conversations with family, neighbors, and local Friends (Quakers). What a thought - having a conversation with others! The highlight of the tour for me happened in a back hallway where we were rather closely packed looking at vintage 1950s-era photos on the walls. A mom (it turns out a professor at a NY university) and her college-aged daughter inquired about Walt's personal life - why was it that he never married nor had children. She was from China and in her home culture, children are incredibly important. Family is paramount to all else.

The parlor where chairs were placed all around the walls for gatherings of conversation.

The professor, wrapping her daughter in her arms, inquired again and again, "Why did he have no children?"  Our tour guide offered various explanations. Walt had never expressed interest in marriage. He was a bit of a 'rowdy.' He didn't want to be burdened with family. "But why not?" the professor kept asking. Suddenly, another woman burst out "You know," she said snarkily, flicking her pinky and waving her hand in a mean gesture, "he was - you know - gay! He was gay!" Our tour guide tried hard to regain control of the conversation. My sister glared at the woman. The snarky woman's companion (an older son, maybe brother or husband?) cleared his throat and grabbed her shoulder. I blurted out a disgusted laugh and said under my breath (sardonically) "Really? The pinky?"  Well, there went my professionalism. Everyone else in our group looked at the floor. Yet, the professor insisted "Why is that a problem? Why did he not leave children?"

The Whitman's family writing desk.

Sometimes when we travel to places we have long hoped to see, be it on pilgrimage or just for fun, we are met with moments of discomfort that challenge our perceptions of the place. Remembering why we come to these places, I had to put into context why I was here - at the birth home of one of America's greatest poets - and thought "What would Walt have done or said had he been here to listen in on this difficult moment?" Excessive admiration aside, I believe Walt would have been incredibly patient with both women. In his lifetime, Whitman endured professional rejection and continuous homophobic attacks. Resistance to Whitman as a gay man and poet continued through the 1950s as howls of protest from the Catholic Church of Philadelphia erupted when plans were announced to name a bridge for him. The same occurred in New Jersey as a rest stop on the turnpike was named in his honor. And here it was - still. The woman, still flapping her hand and smiling, seemed self-justified in her outburst. The Chinese professor looked to the tour leader. "Well, um, we are told not to engage in discussion about Whitman's personal life in regard to his sexual preferences." I imagined Walt standing in the corner, smiling at it all. "This is nothing," I imagined him to say, "You should have been around in 1863!"

Interpretive Center at Walt Whitman Birthplace - contemplation garden.

We can find fault with others with regard to how our heroes are remembered. But we can also fault ourselves for not acknowledging the flaws our beloved heroes carried with them during their lives. Teddy Roosevelt is best remembered for his tough talk, conservation ideals, and political leadership. But he was also known for his hard-liner's support for eugenics, the belief that imperfections and perceived weaknesses in humans could be eliminated with proper breeding. We kinda forget that part. Eugenics was a popular thing in the late 1890s through the mid-20th century but quickly faded when the horrors of the Third Reich, built upon a firm belief in eugenics, brought to light the implications of what exactly "good breeding" meant for everyone else - like gay men and lesbian women. Whitman and others like him were considered by men like TR to be unfit and degenerate. Whitman, had he been a German citizen during Hitler's reign-of-terror, would have been killed.

Manliness is often expressed through the uniform.  TR's Rough Rider outfit.

"Some day we will realize that the prime duty the inescapable duty of the good citizen of the right type is to leave his or her blood behind him in the world; and that we have no business to permit the perpetuation of citizens of the wrong type," wrote TR in a letter to a prominent eugenics movement leader, biologist C. Davenport.  These are hard lines to read for those of us who grant him American sainthood. Hitler noted that it was in the U.S. that eugenics showed the greatest promise. "There is today one state in which at least weak beginnings toward a better conception are noticeable. Of course, it is not our model German Republic, but the United States." Sometimes the pilgrim, in pursuit of the remains of the saint, may find dark corners haunted by unresolved truths.

As we sped home down the NJ Turnpike we talked about the behavior of the woman at the Whitman Birthplace. We also talked about the need for historical interpretation to include space for open discussion of trends of thought, now and then, regarding difficult subjects that continue to plague our society. (As I write this, neo-Nazis and white nationalists are rallying in Charlottesville, Virginia)

How do we think about the white crosses that mark the anonymous graves of enslaved people - even if they are placed alongside their white owners in the same graveyard? How do we relate to the disdain against gay men or women of the 1800s when it is still so evident in our present society? Heroes and saints are complicated ideas and the physical and social landscapes they inhabited have so much to teach us about these questions.

We need more bridges than walls in our society today than ever before.


TR's letter to C. Davenport -

Beloved Americans and eugenics. A tough read for some - sorry for breaking the news.

No comments:

Post a Comment