Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Taming the Wild Side of Bonaventure: Tourism and the Contested Southern Landscape

Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Taming the Wild Side of Bonaventure: Tourism and the Contested Southern Landscape

Article excerpt

In 1869, twenty-nine-year-old John Muir left his home in Indianapolis and began to walk south. With Florida as his goal, Muir botanized his way through Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Georgia, before stopping in Savannah. There, he ran out of money and had to spend almost a week "camping among the tombs" in Bonaventure Cemetery, a private cemetery just a few miles outside the city. Muir marveled at Bonaventure's landscape, and declared it "one of the most impressive assemblages of animal and plant creatures I ever met"---high praise from the future founder of the Sierra Club. Although intended for the dead, the cemetery was a living ecosystem replete with Spanish moss, bald eagles, "large flocks of butterflies, [and] all kinds of happy insects," and he observed that "the few graves are powerless in such a depth of life." For Muir, Bonaventure showed that humans were only a small part of nature's cycles of life and death, and he took pleasure in watching the efforts of humans fade into the timeless processes of nature. Where several owners had attempted to ornament their plots with landscaping, Muir noted "how assiduously Nature seeks to remedy these labored art blunders" by "corrod[ing] the iron and marble, and gradually leveling] the hill," erasing these human marks on the landscape with "strong evergreen arms laden with fern and tillandsia drapery ... spread all over." Muir's final impression was of Bonaventure as a place where life was "at work everywhere, obliterating all memory of the confusion of man." (1)

At the time of Muir's visit, Bonaventure was one of the most popular tourist sites in the nation. Thousands of middle- and upper-class visitors filed through the cemetery's gates in the mid nineteenth century, and Bonaventure was featured in countless travelogues, poems, short stories, and novels circulated in literary magazines, tourist guidebooks, and newspapers. By the late nineteenth century, the oak-shaded grounds had even attracted notable visitors like Millard Fillmore, Ulysses S. Grant, and William McKinley. Just five years after Muir camped there, Harriet Beecher Stowe--herself one of the cemetery's many visitors--wrote that "the thing that every stranger in Savannah goes to see, as a matter of course, is Bonaventure." (2)

Few tourist sites in the South ever achieved this much fame, especially in the nineteenth century. Yet Bonaventure captivated tourists because it featured a landscape that could not be found in any other rural cemetery in the United States. Even at the beginning of the twentieth century, unpaved walkways meandered through overgrown avenues of live oaks draped with Spanish moss, surrounded on each side by dense foliage. Because cemetery officials were often stymied in their efforts to "improve" the grounds, nineteenth-century visitors watched as vegetation swallowed up ruins, tombs, plots, and avenues. This set it apart from the manicured pastoral scenery of popular rural cemeteries like Mount Auburn in Boston and Laurel Hill in Philadelphia, and it softened the edges between nature and human artifice in a way that few other tourist sites could. While it may seem counterintuitive to view a cemetery as "wild" terrain, nineteenth-century visitors concluded that despite human designs, nature reigned supreme at Bonaventure. (3)

Bonaventure's landscape appealed to tourists, but allowing nature to reclaim expensive tombs and monuments was difficult to justify to plot owners, who joined with municipal officials to express a different vision for the cemetery. Rather than maintaining the natural elements that drew tourists, these groups wanted to remake Bonaventure into a pastoral space more reminiscent of mainstream rural cemeteries. For more than six decades, these competing uses of the landscape were in tension. Was Bonaventure a tourist site or was it a working cemetery? The changing ways that businesspeople, city residents, public officials, and tourists answered this question had important implications for the complex history of this celebrated site. …

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