Hetzler Cemetery Prairie

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) towering above the tombstones at Hetlzler Cemetery Nature Preserve

On July 7, I discovered quite few towering, flowering compass plants in a one-acre pioneer cemetery in Bureau County, Illinois.

This was a couple of weeks earlier than Aldo Leopold typically found his “pet” compass plant in bloom every year in a corner of an unnamed pioneer cemetery in Sauk County, Wisconsin. He figured it may have been the last of its kind in the western half of his home county. That is before it was cut down by a road crew, unlikely ever to grow back.

At the time Leopold wrote about this “funeral of the native flora” in “A Sand County Almanac,” there was no law, no regulation, no mechanism to protect small, isolated prairie remnants from destruction. In fact, in another essay Leopold relegated some of those remnants to “ultimate extinction” because it was impractical to expect government to own and take care of them.

George Fell was a huge fan of Leopold. He drank deeply of “A Sand County Almanac” Kool-aid. Except the bit about the extinction of remnant natural areas. Like Leopold, he agreed that landowners should expand their ethical spheres to protect the last vestiges of our native plant and animal habitats. But also like Leopold, he understood that could take years, decades, generations to happen. If ever.

So, George Fell — on the heels of being the driving force in the launch of The Nature Conservancy —  was the driving force in the establishment of the Illinois Nature Preserves Commission. This was the nation’s first state agency empowered to provide virtual ironclad protection to the highest quality remnant natural lands.

Hetzler Cemetery Nature Preserve among a sea of corn

Bureau County lies within the Grand Prairie Division of Illinois, which means that most of its 599,360 acres was originally covered in prairie. Today, exactly one acre of its original blacksoil prairie is permanently protected. It lies within the Hetzler Cemetery Prairie Nature Preserve. Surrounded by a sea of corn and soybeans, this pioneer cemetery was never disturbed, saved for the burial of some of the state’s earliest pioneers. It contains a rich mix of prairie grasses and flowers, including plenty of compass plants — some of which are likely older than the pioneers sleeping among their roots reaching 15 feet into the earth.

The white globe flowers of rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) gracing one of the sun-bleached headstones at Greenlee Cemetery Nature Preserve

In Henry County, directly to the west, there are two additional acres of protected prairie — one acre each in Greenlee Cemetery Nature Preserve and Munson Township Cemetery Nature Preserve. In addition to compass plants, they contain healthy stands of rattlesnake master, hoary puccoon, prairie violets and hundreds of other plants — the diversity of which stands in stark contrast to the monoculture corn and soybean fields surrounding them.

All in all, there are 29 pioneer cemeteries dedicated as Illinois Nature Preserves. Together, the contain about 50 acres of some of the best prairie remaining in the entire state of Illinois. That isn’t very much. In fact, it’s about .000002 percent of the 22 million acres of prairie that once blanketed the Prairie State.

But thanks to George Fell, our native prairie remnants — containing hundreds of different kinds of beautiful plants and the bugs and birds and other critters that depend upon them for their very existence — are not extinct. They may be small and scattered, but they are very much alive thanks, too, to the Greenfield Cemetery Association, the Henry County Natural Area Guardians, and all the other local groups who volunteer their time to tend these precious remnants of our cultural and natural heritage.

Up and close personal with compass plant blossoms, towering ten to twelve feet above the pioneer prairie headstones