I was born on the aptly named Verndale Avenue. My mother pushed the wicker carriage down the street into Roger Williams Park, where I stared at the statues, the stately trees, the ponds and the aviaries, the museums and the yellow brick botanical structures. “Nature” seemed neat and cared for, as was I.
We moved to the East Side, where farmland was slowly turning into a kind of eclectic suburbia. I watched, more in horror than in wonder, as the empty spaces, wee wildernesses, were transformed into house lots. Weed patches struck me as much more intriguing than lawns and yards.
I visit our Lincoln cemetery and put stones I store in my pockets upon the tombstones and headstones of kith and kin and of kind friends who have passed. I walk by the large boulder marked “Nefalim.” I think the word had something to do with ancient angelic creatures who were large and imposing. In the Jewish graveyard the term means, I believe, the unfinished souls of stillborn embryos. I paid a visit to Mr. Adler, a reliable source of accurate information about Hebrew religious inscriptions. He assured me that the word itself refers to the idea of “fallen.” Spelled with English lettering, it gets confused with [nephilim] those giants, angels, or mythical beings between two worlds, but here it is the memorial monument to lives “fallen” before their time on earth.
Behind the rock and its inscription, once upon a time, my time, I could stroll around a pond, the watershed of the former farmland. I recall meeting the farmer, the basement of whose residence now holds the sacred Hebrew books, buried there in honor of their spiritual service to the community. Decades ago, I wrote letters to rabbis and temple leaders, urging the restoration and celebration of this little lake, hoping that we who mourn might find solace at the shores of the living, and therefore sacred, silver mirror. “It doesn’t belong to the Chesed Shel Emes,” I was told, but at my recent visit I saw the granite marker declaring that the land and lake were a gift to the cemetery from the previous owners of the landscape.
All this time, the natural pool has been used as a dump for the refuse from the graves. There is no more water, no more Eden.
It is there at each edge of one’s world, that our courtesy to the planet is put to the test.
Care for a distressed tree, respect for the remaining puddle or patch of wildflowers at a boundary, a touch of art and poetry in memory of the history of the terrain, these are religious symbols. The world itself is a Bible. We read its signs and look for meaning. Alas, such gestures have gone with the wind.
The Jewish cemetery is bounded by an airport and the wobbling and loud whirring sound of the Amtrak trains, not to mention the whining of the tires of the endless traffic of route I-95. And the machinery of commercial “care.” A quiet reflective stroll around a restored pond would do much to bring peace and spirituality, a Shalom and an Amen to the occasions on which we are traditionally expected to pay homage to those who have passed.
Editor’s note: Mike Fink (email@example.com) teaches at RISD and writes a regular column for The Jewish Voice.