Naturalists Past and Present at Mt. Auburn Cemetery

By Eamon Corbett

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Looking at invasive hemlock woolly adelgids with Prof. Pfister

Finals period is a stressful time, but also a good opportunity for some mid-week nature trips! Three of us took a break from studying this afternoon to head to Mt. Auburn Cemetery with Professor Donald Pfister, a renowned fungi and botany expert and former interim dean of Harvard College.

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Memorial to the “US Exploration Expedition” to the South Pacific

Not only was Prof. Pfister able to point out all of the plants and fungi around, he gave a fascinating historical tour of the cemetery, which contains the graves of some of the most important figures in Boston, Harvard, and scientific history, including Asa Gray, Louis Agassiz, and John Thornton Kirkland, among others.

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Asa Gray’s final resting place

Gray and Agassiz are of particular interest to evolutionary biology students, because they were at the center of the first great debates on evolution in the United States: Gray, the pioneering botanist, was a friend of Darwin’s and an early champion of his ideas, while Agassiz, a geologist, was the first to recognize the influence of glaciers in shaping landscapes, founded the Museum of Comparative Zoology but was a staunch opponent of evolution. They never agreed in life, but in death they lie only a few hundred yards apart in Mt. Auburn.

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Agassiz’s grave is appropriately marked by a rock

On the more biological side, we also got a firsthand look at the damage done by invasive species in the cemetery, including hemlocks infected by woolly adelgids and a winter moth on a gravestone.

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Winter Moth

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All of the trees at Mt. Auburn are labelled, making it a perfect place to study tree ID, such as with this Douglas fir

The common resident winter birds were out in force, including Blue Jays, Black-capped Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Dark-eyed Juncos, White-breasted Nuthatches, Downy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers, and, most unusually, a single Red-breasted Nuthatch.

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Blue Jay

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Couldn’t manage to get these turkey tail fungi in focus… That single piece of wood had at least 5-6 visible fungi and lichen species

There were also plenty of fungi, including polypores like the turkey tail fungus, as well as a cluster of mushrooms whose name I forget (maybe Coprinus?)

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Mushrooms!

We ended our walk at the tower, where we had a fantastic view of the entire region, from downtown Boston to Harvard to Middlesex Fells and beyond. It was a great way to spend an unseasonably warm December afternoon, and certainly beats writing papers!

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View from the top

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I love Mt. Auburn, but that seems like a bit of an overstatement…

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