Spirit Sanctuary Trail offers peaceful stroll, passing by green burial site
By Tim Rowland
The trail off little-used Cook Road in Essex skirts a charming meadow, enters a white pine plantation, passes an open grave and plies a cozy hemlock wood carpeted with golden needles through frozen wetlands, jet black cliffs and icy brooks.
About that open grave.
This is the Spirit Sanctuary Trail, which was opened to the public Nov. 27 by Champlain Area Trails, providing a fine hike in its own right, but also calling attention to a green burial cemetery where those who have passed on can give life to a forest community.
Amy Valentine, coordinator for the three-acre natural cemetery that is the creation of the Eddy Foundation, said four people have been buried there, and four more burial sites have been purchased. Some choose to dig their own graves, which by burial standards are shallow, at 18 inches just deep enough to be undetectable to animals. Simple markers, like Tibetan prayer flags, might decorate the site, or some choose just to return to the meadow, pushing up pollinators without further comment.
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The idea takes some help, and sometimes adjustment, from family members, who transport the body to the cemetery and — motorized vehicles not being allowed — negotiate the last few yards with cart, toboggan, or horse-drawn cart hired from a local farmer, Valentine said. Fires built on mounds of earth allow the grave to be filled when the ground is frozen.
The cost is flexible, either a flat $3,500 fee or a bequest to an approved conservation group. Either way, it’s a third or less of a traditional burial, Valentine said.
The Spirit Sanctuary is marked by a piece of statuary at the trailhead and an occasional mound of earth. Little else suggests the hand of man.
On the Saturday opening of the Spirit Sanctuary Trail, snow the night before had frosted the tree limbs and a morning sun transformed nondescript saplings and shrubs into nature’s bling.
The Spirit Sanctuary Trail combines with CATS’ Black Kettle loop trail to make for a 2.5 mile hike, with a very modest elevation gain of just over 200 feet. But that doesn’t mean the trail lacks drama. After passing the white-pine plantation (and the somewhat freshly dug grave) the trail weaves through increasingly imposing rock formations and past seeps and springs that bubble out of the duff and trickle off the chattering brook that is a companion for much of the hike.
Crossing the brook and arriving at the base of a cliff, the Spirit Sanctuary Trail meets the Black Kettle Trail at three quarters of a mile. It’s worth continuing on, because the trail ascends the modest escarpment and arrives at a couple of overlooks whose views of the Champlain Valley far exceed what might be expected for such a minimal investment of effort.
While the Spirit Sanctuary nourishes the meadow and forest, the protected lands over which these trails traverse are forested links in a chain that reach from Lake Champlain to the High Peaks, serving as a corridor for wildlife, and also for mosses, ferns, shrubs and trees that advance and recede. “Plants move too,” said Chris Maron, executive director of CATS. And if they reach the end of a wooded cul-de-sac, they can perish.
Several interpretive signs on Black Kettle Trail explain the importance of woodland connectivity uninterrupted by development or open lands.
“Instead of saying ‘this is a hemlock’ or ‘this is an oak,’ we want to get people thinking in terms of natural communities,” Maron said. “It’s all part of an ecological process.”
That process includes life, but also death. The Spirit Sanctuary Trail accomplishes many things, but maybe the primary revelation hikers will come away with is this: There are far worse places to spend eternity.
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