Seeking refuge, finding perspective

The Woodlands Mansion, former home of William Hamilton. This Federal-style home sits high on a hill in West Philadelphia off Woodland Avenue and overlooks the Schuylkill.
The Woodlands Mansion, former home of William Hamilton. This Federal-style home sits high on a hill in West Philadelphia off Woodland Avenue and overlooks the Schuylkill. (BETH KEPHART)

At the Woodlands, among the dead, are Philadelphians famous and not, who cared about the consequential, got things done.

Posted: January 28, 2013

When did we become what we, on our worst days, seem to be? This nation trampled by poor compromise and misplaced screech, this drowning swell of hyper-caffeinated opinion, this landscape of the random and the ruined. We are increasingly disinclined toward rational debate. We rage about the inconsequential. We want to be heard, but we don't want to listen. We're quick to deplore the mess we're in, and tragically ill-equipped to fix it.

Impotence has never been my thing. I believe in the kids I teach, the small heroics of neighbors, quantum generosity, anonymous kindness, in doing something, making something, being something. I believe in the idea of what lies ahead, what takes us forward. We are. We can.

But when the noise of now reverbs more insistently than my faith in percolated possibilities, I head west, past the University of Pennsylvania campus, across the trolley tracks, through the eternal stone gatehouses, and into the leafy atmosphere of the Woodlands. This was a 600-acre estate at the height of its glory. It was home to a man, William Hamilton, who, in the late 18th and early 19th century, trafficked in botany and beauty, befriended Thomas Jefferson, planted and tended the harvested seeds of Lewis and Clark, threw a picnic party on his own front lawn for 17,000, and gave America the ginkgo, the Lombardy poplar, and the Norway maple. A man who would stand high on the hill, taking pleasure from the river running at his feet, the terrestrial mathematics of rocks, the gardens filibustering across the way, at Grays Ferry. Hamilton was interested in Nature's boundless capacity. He reveled in it, invested in it. On the oasis of his estate, he worked to preserve it.

Today, the Woodlands is a 45-acre National Historic Landmark, a garden cemetery in an urban place, an irregular geometry of swales and stones. I rarely see another soul when I arrive, early afternoons, some Tuesdays in spring. I silence my phone. I walk down the paths and off the paths, among Victorian funerary and planted flags, wreaths left over from another season, names I do not know, dates both recent and ancient. I teach memoir at Penn - the shaping and discovery of life stories. I teach, I hope, something about meaning. At the Woodlands, among the dead, before Tuesday class, I walk among those who radically embraced the ricochet of possibility and dreams, who rose above the cacophony.

You'll need a map to find the famous ones. The artists Thomas Eakins and Rembrandt Peale. The sculptor William Rush. The illustrator Jessie Wilcox Smith. The banker, philanthropist, town builder, and newspaper backer Anthony J. Drexel. The abolitionist Mary Grew. The poet-physician Silas Weir Mitchell. The Rittenhouse Square architect Wilson Eyre Jr. The Philadelphia surgeon Samuel David Gross. The honorary deputy chair of the Philadelphia Fire Department John Chalmers Da Costa, M.D. The revolutionizing nurse Alice Fisher. The locomotive magnate Andrew McCalla Eastwick (who rescued Bartram's garden from sure destruction). And Paul Philippe Cret himself, whose architectural sensibilities infiltrated, among other things, the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, the Rodin Museum, and the eternal gates of the Woodlands.

They're all here, among the politicians and Civil War heroes, the inventors and businessmen, the founders of universities and the students. Men and women who cared about the consequential, who got things done. I meander among them, ahead of class on Tuesdays. I watch the birds on the trees. I make my way toward the southeast promontory that still looks down on the broad belly of the Schuylkill, though there are corroded rail lines now, and there is industrial char, there are the landscapes we have ruined and the landscapes that only the most persevering among us will finally redeem.

Who are you? I will ask my students after I have wound my way past the massive mausoleums and the humble sky-facing stones, past the gates. After I have headed back over the trolley tracks and turned, my chin tucked against the wind, toward the Victorian manse, where I teach. Gridlock, gunfire, impasse, pain, and yet: Who might you be?

 


Beth Kephart is the author of 14 books, including "Flow: The Life and Times of Philadelphia's Schuylkill River" (Temple University Press). Her "Handling the Truth," a book about the making of memoir, is due out later this year from Gotham. She blogs daily at www.beth-kephart.blogspot.com.

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