I work at a physics lab operated by Columbia University. The lab buildings are located on a 57-acre estate once owned by wealthy Westchester families. In 1934 the estate was donated by the DuPont family to Columbia to be used as an arboretum. WWII brought changes to Columbia’s use of the property, and it became a particle-physics research facility in 1947.
The most attractive building on the property is the mansion house, built in 1835. Presently the second floor of the building is used to offer temporary living space for people working at Nevis; there are large meeting rooms on the ground floor.
When I started working at the lab in 1985, I often took walks around the property at lunchtime or when I needed a break. One day, a student living in the mansion house asked me, “Hey, did you find the gravestones?”
“No. What gravestones?”
“There are graves of of a couple of dogs outside the house, in a stand of trees.”
I hunted around and found them. They’re two markers, each about two feet by one foot, set flush into the ground. The markers read, respectively:
October 31, 1899
December 8, 1899
Periodically, as I took walks around the property, I visited the stones. To me, they told a sad story: two beloved pets, dying almost within a month of each other, the first on Halloween.
Later, the administrator of the lab showed me a copy of an article in an architecture magazine by someone who researched the history of the property. I learned that, at the time of the dogs’ death, the house was owned by the Schuyler family. Traditionally, the ghosts of the dogs were supposed to haunt the third floor of the mansion house.
I’ve been to the third floor only once, about 20 years ago. At the time, the unkempt and dirty rooms were being used to store films from old bubble chamber experiments. I saw no ghosts… but it was daylight.
In the years since I first visited the gravestones, the stand of trees around them has become increasingly overgrown. Eventually I visited them only once a year, when I give a tour of the grounds to the summer students after the annual lab picnic. Every year it became harder and harder to find them, and the students with me became more reluctant to brave the thorny raspberry bushes to get to the stones. I’d brush aside the layer of leaves and dirt covering the stones that grew thicker every year so the the braver students could read the inscriptions. It didn’t help that a tree fell, blocking easy access to the stand of trees, and making it even less likely that the groundskeepers would mow or otherwise clear out the area.
It also doesn’t help that over the years since I found them, the inscriptions are growing shallower and harder to read. I’ve worked at the lab long enough to see stone erode.
About a month ago, I took a couple of visiting students to see the gravestones. The first leaves of spring were just coming out. The lush growth that blocked the graves in the summer had yet to show itself, and the stones were easy to find. I thought, “Why don’t I trim the plants around the stones now, when it’s easy to do? It will make it that much easier to show them during the summer tour.”
Yesterday, I needed a break from setting up a high-availability cluster and figuring out how to map scintillator geometries to record energy deposits in a particle simulation. I got some clippers and a pair of gloves from my car, and did my best to clear a path around the fallen tree (it’s possible to climb over it) and a longer path around the tree to the place of the gravestones. I cut down a lot of wild raspberry bushes, but there plenty of such bushes around the property; in the summer some students pick raspberries to eat during lunch or bring home for dessert.
We’ll see if it makes a difference in three months when I give the tour.
Why did I do it? Why do I feel sentimental about those gravestones?
All I can say is: At one time those dogs were loved. All I know about them is their names and the days they died. I don’t even know the full name of their owner; perhaps no one does.
I have my own little loved ones who’ve passed on: Trudy, Pepper, and Ginger; one day Shadow and Mist will be gone too. When I pass on no one will remember them.
By taking care of the stones that mark the lives of Toto and T.T., I can keep their memory alive just a little bit longer.