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

Prairie Pioneers

110814 tombstone 1

Turns out that compass plants and prairie dock are not the only skyscrapers at Midewin. There are towering headstones in more than half a dozen pioneer cemeteries – reminders of the men, women and children who busted the very prairie being restored today.

In a way, farmers and restorationists are not so different. We use the same fundamental tools and practices to raise certain plants. Over the past years as a volunteer at Midewin I have collected seed, separated it from the chaff, sowed it in fields and planted it in trays for raising in a greenhouse. I’ve watered tender seedlings and eliminated various kinds of “weeds” that would inhibit the growth of the “good” plants.

110731 iron bridge prairie 2

Where we part ways, of course, is farmers largely desire monocultures of a particular crop, such as corn, wheat or soybeans. Restorationists cultivate diversity. In fields once owned and farmed for generations by the Morgan family – whose patriarch is memorialized in the naming of a local road – now thrive more than 200 species of native plants in the Iron Bridge Prairie.

But the farmers of Midewin and the entire Midwest helped feed the world. What does prairie feed?

110814 pioneer tour

Some might say that prairie feeds the soul. Certainly, there’s an emerging field of ecopsychology that says that nature is fundamental to our emotional and psychological well being. But when I take a tour of Midewin’s pioneer homesteads and cemeteries – as I do today with Lorin Schab, president of the Midewin Heritage Alliance – I can’t help but wonder what the pioneer farmers who now fertilize the soil of Midewin with their remains might have had to say on the subject.

110814 prairie plant 2

Certainly, the Morgans and Hoffmans and Jacksons and Reeds and Klinglers were intent upon feeding their families and making a buck. But even as they began to tame the land, did they save a little patch of prairie for its bouquet of summer blossoms? Did they look up from their work from time to time to listen to the burbling calls of bobolinks or upland sandpipers? Did they relish falling asleep to the sleigh bell-like choruses of spring peepers?

110814 tombstone 2

Perhaps. Perhaps that’s what provided them a moment of joy as they went about the backbreaking work of draining the boggy land and busting the prairie sod. And perhaps, if you happen to believe in such things, beneath their prairie markers, within the secret places of their mouldering hearts, they, too, joy to witness the prairie, the upland sandpipers and the spring peepers returning and flourishing on the land.

Beauties and Mysteries

110503 trailhead sign

Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie isn’t just about nature. Its 20,000 acres lie at the crossroads of many different stories. Setting off from Explosives Road trailhead speaks directly to the site’s former life as the largest and most sophisticated munitions plant in the country. Within a quarter mile south along the Newton Loop Trail, you come upon one of several cemeteries that remain from pioneer settler days.

110503 newton cemetery 2

Newton Cemetery is named for the one body buried there. Or maybe not. A local paper announced that George C. Newton died at the age of 31 on December 17, 1865. Originally from Vermont, he was a beekeeper who lived with his mother and stepfather on a farmstead in the vicinity.  Whether he was actually buried there, or whether his family erected a marker as a memorial remains unknown.

hairy woodpecker

No doubt Mr. Newton once walked this land as I do, today. Perhaps while tending his bees on just such a spring day – the perfect balance between cool air and warm sunshine – he, too, took time to delight in a hairy woodpecker chasing after a house wren that seems bent on annoying the larger bird with a non-stop spate of scolding churrs.

house wren

blue grosbeak 1

However, in all likelihood Mr. Newton would not have seen a blue grosbeak. This robin-sized bird with silver beak, cobalt body and chestnut wingbars – flitting back and forth between weedy shrubs and arsenal-era barbed wire fencing – is a rarity at Midewin even today. It has been gradually expanding its range into northern Illinois only since the early 20th century. No one’s sure exactly why. Perhaps because of climate change. Perhaps because of its ability to adapt to former farmland gone shrubby or powerline cuts through wooded areas. It’s as much as mystery as what brought Mr. Newton to such an untimely end.

Later in the evening, at the annual meeting for bird monitors, Ecologist Bill Glass explains that while the management plan for Midewin calls for thousands of acres of land to be restored as prairie, at 20,000 acres Midewin is large enough to leave plenty of shrubland habitat. The prairie restoration is vital, of course, for grassland birds, which, as a group, has declined over the past 30 years by up to 95 percent in Illinois due to habitat loss. However, shrubland birds – such as blue grosbeaks – are likewise imperiled because of a lack of adequate places to feed, rest and rear their young.

crescent moon

After the meeting, I head back out into the prairie, into the night, turning my attention from bird monitoring to frog monitoring. Last time I was out, every pond and puddle seemed to harbor its own Mormon Tabernacle Choir of chorus frogs. Tonight there’s not much more than a few scattered calls here and there.

At Buttonbush Pond, in fact, there’s no frog song at all. But there is the slap of a beaver tail on the water that sounds like a pistol shot. And the calming hoot of a great horned owl. And the thinnest crescent of a new moon reflected in the still water of the pond.

In past entries, I’ve quoted poets ranging from Gerard Manley Hopkins to my good friend Jim Ballowe. But this evening, with thoughts of Mr. Newton and the beauties and mysteries of the day in mind, my internal playlist tracks to a little Neil Diamond:

And each one there
Has one thing to share
They all sweated beneath the same sun
Looked up in wonder at the same moon
And wept when it was all done
For bein’ done too soon
For bein’ done