Nature in the City

“I’m going across to Old St. John's after lunch,” said Anne. “I don’t know that a graveyard is a very good place to go to get cheered up, but it seems the only get-at-able place where there are trees, and trees I must have. I'll sit on one of those old slabs and shut my eyes and imagine I'm in the Avonlea woods.”

             -L.M. Montgomery, Anne of the Island (1915)

This is Anne of Green Gables, L.M. Montgomery’s beloved red-haired heroine, talking. While Anne is usually found on rural Prince Edward Island, here she is planning a trip to Halifax’s Old Burying Ground; actually, more accurately, she is describing its fictional version, the Old St. John’s graveyard in Kingsport. In the novel Anne of the Island, Montgomery tells us that Kingsport (a fictional Halifax) has many “historic spots…which may be hunted out by the curious, and none is more quaint and delightful than Old St. John’s Cemetery at the very core of the town, with streets of quiet, old-time houses on two sides, and busy, bustling, modern thoroughfares on the others.”

For Anne, the graveyard is a refuge in a busy, unfamiliar city. She flees to the burying grounds after the first day at university where she was “surrounded by crowds of strangers” and felt “insignificant.” As anyone who grew up reading or watching Anne of Green Gables knows, nature is a significant source of delight and comfort for Anne. She escapes to a graveyard because it is the only “get-at-able place” with trees within striking distance of the university and her urban lodgings. The Old Burying Ground is Anne’s green oasis in the middle of the city’s “busy, bustling, modern thoroughfares.”

Anne does have doubts about a graveyard’s potential to “cheer” her up, and we might too, especially after encountering Letitia Simson’s sad take on an urban graveyard earlier in this tour. However, nature’s positive impact on Anne remains. Nature feels like home to Anne, even in an urban burying ground; she imagines the graveyard’s trees as “the Avonlea woods” (for those who haven’t picked up their copies of Anne of Green Gables or been to Prince Edward Island recently: Avonlea is her hometown, an imagined version of Cavendish, PEI). During her initial excursion to the graveyard, Anne and her friend Priscilla meet a new friend and future roommate, Phillipa Gordon. By the end of the walk, Anne can declare, “I’m glad we met her, and I'm glad we went to Old St. John’s. I believe I’ve put forth a tiny soul-root into Kingsport soil this afternoon. I hope so. I hate to feel transplanted.” While Anne didn’t think that a graveyard could be “cheering,” its trees with their connotations of home and the fortuitous meeting of a new friend make it so. By the early twentieth century when Anne of the Island was published, visitors to graveyards like Anne Shirley or L.M. Montgomery could expect to find green spaces functioning like public parks. Graveyards were becoming beautiful retreats, places of leisure for quiet strolls and meeting friends, and sites where one could often learn more about local history, as we’ll see in the next landmark. 


Montgomery, L. M. Anne of the Island. Boston: L.C. Page, 1915.

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