Those of us who live in a city occasionally need an oasis away from the throngs, a place that is relatively quiet, has some open space, and offers us information about the place where we live and the creatures we share our city with. Providence’s North Burial Ground is such a place.
Founded in 1700 at what was then the edge of town, it contains more than 300 years of history, with famous people, war veterans, criminals, and waves of immigrants interred in its 109 acres. Gravestones tell the stories of longevity and child mortality. Historians from Rhode Island College, among others, offer tours that can be found online. You will also find here one of the best-preserved sections of the Blackstone Canal.
As much as I like to read headstones and figure out how the people listed were connected, I am more interested in the natural history of the place, the other creatures we share our planet and community with. My work in the Burial Ground began with a study of the life cycle of Fowler’s Toads, but as the visible parts of the lifecycle occur in two or three months of the year, I rapidly pivoted and began making videos of the entire diversity of animals there. Over ten years, I have seen nearly everything that lives there at least occasionally, and I have learned not only to recognize the critters but have become conversant with the behavior and ecology of many species, while developing a fair bit of expertise in the life cycles of Fowler’s Toads. I use a camera which allows me to take pictures of very small things, and from very far away. North Burial Ground offers a wealth of information beyond almost any other place in the city. Check the link here for exact location.
Sitting between I-95 and Rt 1 (North Main Street), the 109 acres are in the heart of the urban core and the transportation networks that bind our communities together. The acreage has been central to transportation networks for thousands of years. Our indigenous predecessors, until they were quite rudely removed, walked what became North Main Street as the primary path between the incredibly abundant marshes in what is now downtown Providence and the fertile fields where Pawtucket now sits. The geology of a glacial terrace above the swampy river valley of the Moshassuck made what is now North Main Street a perfect footpath that crosses into downtown Pawtucket at the lowest part of the hills that separate the Moshassuck and Blackstone Watersheds. Geology also is the reason the Blackstone Canal was routed through the lower Moshassuck valley instead of ending up in Pawtucket, but that is a story for another day.
The abundant life of the cemetery includes almost every large wild mammal or bird that inhabits Rhode Island: great blue herons, night herons, turkey vultures, five kinds of hawks, bald eagles, Canada geese and a large assortment of ducks occasionally passing through, not to mention a vast array of songbirds and woodpeckers that either live here year-round or pass through on migration. The larger mammals that have been recently recorded include white-tailed deer, coyotes, red fox, racoons, skunks, woodchucks, muskrats, fishers, and otters, along with many small mammals such as field mice and squirrels. Several kinds of snakes, at least two kinds of turtles, and three kinds of amphibians reside in the cemetery along with a vast array of insects. You can even see fish in the ponds and in the river.
The North Burial Ground is a beautiful place to wander, and regular walks will allow anyone to become familiar with even the relatively rare critters. For those in the neighborhood who have not yet visited, and for other readers around the city, I hope you will visit soon.
Greg Gerritt is an activist, writer, and forest gnome. He writes mostly about how ecological healing and economic justice are the keys to neighborhood prosperity. His writing can be found on his blog ProsperityForRI.com.