Sunday, August 19, 2007

Bigelow Cemetery

Hi all, and it's good to be back and have some time for posts! I have been more than busy of late finishing up a book, and just handed in the manuscript to my publisher last Friday. Oh, what a relief it is :-) Wasted no time getting afield, and in a twist of good fortune, my route today took me right by Bigelow Cemetery in Madison County. Doing anything other than stopping was out of the question, and I picked up my dusty camera and photo-documented this wonderful micro-prairie.

Bigelow is a pioneer cemetery in the middle of the former Darby Plains, one of Ohio's great prairie ecosystems. Blanketing parts of Franklin, Madison, Fayette and other counties just west of Columbus, this tallgrass prairie would have been a sight to behold to the first pioneers. Stands of Big Bluestem and Indian Grass grew so luxuriantly that a man on horseback could scarcely see over them. Prairie fires regularly swept the landscape; horrifying spectacles to prioneers, no doubt.

Dr. Jeremiah Converse, an early pioneer, wrote: “The blaze of the burning grass seemed to reach the very clouds…[flames] would leap forty or fifty feet in advance of the base of the fire. Then add to all this a line of the devouring element three miles in length, mounting upward and leaping madly forward with lapping tongue, as if it were trying to devour the very earth, and you have a faint idea of some of the scenes that were witnessed by the early settlers of this country”.

Today, all that remains are postage stamp-sized remants; well under 1% of the original Darby Plains. Bigelow Cemetery is one of those relicts and every Ohioan should visit it to see what a big part of Ohio's natural heritage was like.

Prairie flora abounds in tiny half-acre Bigelow Cemetery. Here, the massive leaves of Prairie-dock are set off by Purple Coneflower and Gray-headed Coneflower. Bigelow seems inordinately lush with flowering prairie forbs, and Gary Meszaros, my collaborator on the new book, has a theory which explains this. Prairie pioneers, as no florists were available in those days, gathered brightly colored flowers from the prairie and planted them around the headstones. They persist in abundance to this day.

At this time of year, butterflies abound, seeking the nectar of late summer prairie plants. This Eastern Tailed Blue is working a Gray-headed Coneflower. I saw many other species in my short visit today.

Masses of Monarchs are drawn to prairie remants, especially attracted to the bright yellow blooms of Prairie-dock, which are held high aloft like luminescent beacons. Things went badly for the couple above, though. Apparently locked in tandem, they bumbled into the web of this orb weaver spider, which got a two-for-one meal.

One of the real prairie stars is Royal Catchfly (Silene regia). This plant is a prairie obligate, not occurring outside of prairie areas, and is now listed as threatened in Ohio. Bigelow is filled with them. Most were done, but a few still stood in good flower.

The modern prairie clashes with beautiful native prairie vegetation of Bigelow Cemetery in the foreground. Beyond lay thousands of acres of soybeans, along with wheat and corn. In 1837 John Deere launched his chisel plow, and rich prairie sod - some of the world's most productive croplands - quickly were converted. That's the fate of nearly all of the 1,500 square miles of prairie that once cloaked Ohio. It's too bad that we didn't have the foresight to set aside large swatches of Bigelows long ago, so Ohioans could enjoy the prairie landscape that was so prominent a part of our history.


Tom said...


I like Gary's theory. I've been to Bigelow several times and always pondered why there were so many plants there. That may explain why the coral colored catchfly is there in such abundance. People may have sought out all that was interesting to adorn the cemetery.

Norma said...

Something for genealogists to look at besides the headstones.