Sunday, March 9, 2014

Graves Beneath the Snow

The winter of 2013-2014 is one of the snowiest in Philadelphia history. I write this at the end of February, 2014 and we are finally seeing a break from the snow, ice, and cold (though more is expected later this week). Since I have relatively few photographs of cemeteries in the snow, I decided to make the most of the weather – the polar vortex, the clipper systems, the mini-ice age. Whatever you want to call it, it’s a great catalyst for the creation of new art, for looking beyond – pushing yourself to handle a new challenge!

On a weekend in mid-February, after a particularly grueling week of shoveling and navigating the near-death experience (as I’ve come to refer to my car, as it has bald tires), I needed a few hours relief. What better way to spend it than languorously strolling a cemetery in the snow, snapping a few photos here and there? Well, as my readers are well aware, I do nothing simply. (Also, I never snap just a few photos!) So I decided to drive out to the abandoned Jewish cemetery in the hilly woods of Gladwyne, Pennsylvania (a northwestern suburb of Philadelphia).

Headstones in the woods in Gladwyne, PA.'s abandoned Jewish cemetery

One thing I realized fairly quickly as I set out this winter to photograph cemeteries in their snowy glory: I do not own a 4-wheel-drive vehicle! Almost got stuck a few times with my car, so my access was usually by foot. Which has been relatively painful with the deep snow, wind and cold! I envy those who can just do a drive-through and shoot out the window! (You can read about some of my trials and tribulations in the Cemetery Traveler blog posting, “Have You Fallen in the Last Week?”)

Anyhow, Gladwyne was no exception. While the roads out to the Main Line (of Philadelphia) were clear of snow, potholes abounded! It was like dodging moon craters on City Avenue. When I finally made it through the twisting, turning roads of Conshohocken State Road into the area of the Har Ha Zetim Cemetery (see this past blog for specific directions as well as a history of the cemetery), I found the hilly private driveway covered in snow. One attempt, made it halfway. Second attempt, made it to the first house and lost momentum on the turn. Bald front tires on my turbo Saab did not help the effort. (“Winter” mode when selected on the traction console warns me that I have lost traction. Indeed, my front wheels are spinning and I’m not moving. I didn’t really need an illuminated dashboard indicator to tell me that.)

Cemetery lies to left of private tennis court off Conshohocken State Road
I backed up in the driveway, parked, and knocked on the door of the first house. Maybe I could park in their driveway, behind the tennis court? No answer. Noticed a car just like mine alongside their house, half covered in a snow bank, like some half-excavated mastodon in the ice. Got in my car and nosed back down the hill, but, as I said, it was snow and ice-covered. I rode the deep snow at the side of the road so as not to slide uncontrollably onto Conshohocken State Road.

Cemetery is up over the hill at left

I drove up the road looking for a place to park, but the plowed snow barricaded any of that. About a quarter mile away was the synagogue, Beth David, which has taken ownership of Har Ha Zetim. Maybe I could park there? No, too far away, and no sidewalks here! I figured I’d give it one more chance: shoot up the driveway to the cemetery and gun it around the bend and try to make it further up the hill. As I was doing this, I kind of figured the pull-off to the overgrown entrance to the cemetery would not be plowed, and I was right. I continued up the hill toward the two houses further up. This is a private drive, but there is an easement for access to the cemetery, which is a holdover from bygone days when there were horseback riding trails here.

I had no choice – I had to circle the last driveway and ask to park there – either that or give up. I knocked at the door of this palatial home that overlooked the wooded eighteen-acre ravine known in other times as Mount of Olives cemetery. A woman came to the glass storm door, but did not open it. I politely shouted my request, to which she nodded her head and walked away. Presumably, not to phone the police. I went to my car and made a production of getting my camera gear out (in case she was watching through a window), then proceeded to walk back down the icy, plowed driveway.

Cemetery entrance off access road
It was only about a five-minute walk to the graveyard entrance; a fallen tree blocked pedestrian entry. As I cut off the plowed drive into the woods, toward the entrance, I was surprised to find that the foot of snow had an icy crust that made every step quite laborious. I would step on the surface, lift my weight onto the surface … then the icy crust would give way and my foot would plunge down a foot into the powdery snow. Arghh. Did I really want to spend an hour doing this? Turns out I spent two. And was I ever exhausted!

With each laborious footfall, however, a new snowy scene presented itself. The shapes and shadows of the grim, abandoned graveyard in the woods greeted me in all directions. It was so difficult breaking through the snow that I probably spent more time than usual photographing each dramatic gravescape. I tried following the jackrabbit tracks so I wouldn’t crash through the snow with every step, but they trailed off into the denser woods. At one point I almost fell over backward as I lost my balance while composing this scene with the old brick crypt!

The lighting was perfect. The old iron plot fencing and gateposts were perfect. The only distraction I had was the thought of the long climb ahead of me, when I ventured back out of this place. Snow usually makes things look prettier, more pure. Not here. It just accentuates the desolation, the forgotten memories, the forgotten people. Rabbits had obviously been here, but I saw none. Saw no animals, in fact, the entire, deathly silent time I was there. But I captured some wonderful images, creating my own memory of this place, this time.

It is a graveyard lost to history, this Har Ha Zetim Cemetery. It is full of the simple art and architecture of its heyday, the late 1800s. Carved doves and flowers can be seen here and there, with names and Hebrew text still visible on many stones. There is even a U.S. military veteran's marker decorated with an American flag sunk in a small gully. This inactive "Gladwyne Jewish Cemetery," aka "Mount of Olives," was supposedly established in 1860, and served the poor Jewish population of Philadelphia and Norristown until the 1920s. It is a community of thousands of Jews, some of whom no doubt emigrated to America from Russia during the pogrom in 1881.Where are the descendants of these people ...?

After about twenty minutes of plodding down the hill into the ravine (where the headstones and cradle graves become more densely crowded), I realized that I was lugging about forty pounds of camera gear with me. If I didn’t have that weight, would I still break through the icy crust? I stripped myself of the camera bags and lo and behold, I could walk on the surface of the snow! It was strong enough to bear my two hundred pounds! Great. Now what? Leave my gear in the snow? That was a failed experiment. I picked up all my cameras and plunged further on down through the woods!

Acres and acres of graves fade into the distant forest

Gaiters would have been nice. Since the foot of snow below the crust was powdery, my socks filled with snow as my pant legs were pulled up by the ice layer with each heavy step. Sigh. Maybe this is why they call it artWORK– because it sometimes takes a lot of WORK to create it! At least it wasn’t cold, about thirty-eight degrees. However, this was way more work than I expected. But it paid off. This trip was worth the effort on so many levels.

In the back of my mind, I had thought maybe if I walked in my own footsteps back up the hill, it would be less work. The reality, though, is that the foot pattern is just the opposite of what I needed for this to work! The only way to reuse the snow holes made by my feet on the way in would be to walk backwards on the way out! Sigh.Well, at least the long, slow plod allowed me to concentrate on my surroundings from the opposite direction. This is a technique of mine that is so basic and effective, it fascinates me. Just walk toward the same thing from different directions and you’ll see things differently!
One of the best images I made here today was done in this manner. The scene with the grave marker that says “At Rest” was invisible to me on the way down the hill. When I came upon this setting, about halfway out of the ravine, I was startled by the shadows made on the snow by the dead leaves still clinging to the branches of a small tree. I automatically went into my black and white mode of thinking, where you “see” in black and white. The ripples of leaf shadows and the snowdrifts gave the impression of headstones afloat on seawaves of snow.

You know how you might spend a period of time on a shoot and then - Eureka! you instantly realize that that was the shot you were after!? Your hard work just paid off with the success of that single image! I regained control from my imagination and set to climbing out of Har Ha Zetim with that thought. I left the memory of the hard work and exhaustion buried back there in snow.

Further Reading:
Read more about Gladwyne's abandoned Jewish cemetery in the Cemetery Traveler blog posting:  Passover and Gladwyne's Abandoned Jewish Cemetery