and sometimes the bur ets you.
Sitting beneath the drought-drooping branches of a bur oak in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood cemetery, we tapped our feet a bit impatiently, waiting for the trolley we were told would take us to the jazz concert in the catacombs. William Parker, freeform bass player, had been scheduled to perform. Nice view, stretching out over the New York City rooftops.
Constructed in the early 1850s, the Catacombs were an option if you couldn’t afford your own mausoleum. One famous person so entombed is Ward McAllister, the Gilded Age arbiter who coined the phrase “the 400” to refer to the guests of Mrs. Astor’s ballroom.
What could be more wonderful than jazz in the catacombs at the tail end of summer?
Well, there was some competition. We entered through the Gothic brownstone gate to a cacophony of bird song. It was almost dusk. Looking up, we saw a network of tuft-y nests above us.
The spire was home sweet home to dozens of birds. Not just any birds. Monk parrots, shining iridescent green at this magic hour, flitted and floated in a cloud above our heads.
Something curious about monk parrots. Driving the New Jersey Turnpike the day before, I looked up to see a small flock of them overhead. You cannot miss them, they are chartreuse. Were they following me?
Monk parrots materialized in New Jersey around a decade ago and theories have been floated as to their presence in the American northeast. These birds hail from Argentina. Was there a shipment intended for a pet store that broke open at JFK and released them? Maybe. Or perhaps individual pet-bird-owners got sick of them and they went on to propagate here. In any case, there are now multitudes of monk parrots in fifteen states, including Florida and Texas as well as New Jersey and New York.
Monk parrots are the only parrots to build a nest of sticks rather than roosting in a hole in a tree. They have some other distinctions. They can live to be twenty or so years old. Also, a pair shares a nest with another pair, with a separate entrance for each couple, intricate globe-shaped condos that feature different rooms, or apartments. There’s a community room, a front porch, and spaces for mothers to sit on their eggs. Siblings help with baby care. A pet monk parrot’s vocabulary of human words can rival that of the African Gray.
At Green-Wood, the grounds crew initially tried to destroy the nests at the entrance gate, but no longer does so because the presence of the parrots has reduced the number of pigeons nesting within it. Scientists actually conducted a comparative chemical analysis of pigeon feces, which destroy brownstone structures, and monk parakeet feces, which do no such damage. The monk parakeets are in effect preserving this historic structure. Edith Wharton would probably prefer the pigeons.
She hated brownstone, a new building material in Gilded Age Manhattan. “It’s like New York City is covered in cold chocolate,” she said. In her 1933 memoir, A Backward Glance, she opined that brownstone rendered New York “hide-bound in its deadly uniformity of mean ugliness.”
Green-Wood Cemetery is an astonishing 478-acre amalgam of history, nature and art. And death. Founded in 1838, it was a place to go for picnicking New Yorkers in the Victorian era, before the availability of large “rural” spots like Central Park.
At one time it was more famous as a tourist destination than Niagara Falls. Fashionable folks chose it as a burial site, and you’ll find the graves of Leonard Bernstein, Boss Tweed, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Louis Comfort Tiffany there, along with the uppertens of the Gilded Age and countless Civil War generals. The New York Times observed in 1866 that “it is the ambition of the New Yorker to live upon the Fifth Avenue, to take his airings in the Central Park, and to sleep with his fathers in Green-wood.” I am quite sure that Edith Wharton would have spent some time ambling at Green-Wood.
The place does a great job with its plantings.
Nice place to while away some time while waiting for the music to start.
You can always find mysteries among the headstones, such as these offerings I inspected while awaiting the jazz.
Which, bye the bye, was postponed, and later cancelled. Fire trucks sped past along the winding cemetery lanes. Fire alarm? Bomb scare? No one seemed to know, and we didn’t wait around to find out.
The chatter of the monk parrots was as sublime as any catacombs jazz one could hope for.