Thursday, August 6, 2009

Not much left...

Bigelow Cemetery, Ohio's smallest state nature preserve at a mere one-half acre. But it is among the most important of our protected areas. For Bigelow locks up some of the only untilled prairie sod in the state. None of us can accurately imagine what the original prairies of the black soil regions of the Midwest must have been like. In the case of this pioneer cemetery, we are glimpsing a tiny shard of the former Darby Plains, a once expansive tallgrass prairie that covered hundreds of square miles.

To the first settlers penetrating the region, the bluestems and Indian Grass resembled a sea. Men standing in the stirrups of their mounts could scarcely see over the vegetation. They nicknamed their wagons "prairie schooners" as these wooden-wheeled conveyances were for all intents and purposes ships cutting a course through uncharted oceans of prairie grasses.

Forging through virgin prairie was daunting. Not only were the grasses and forbs intertwined so thickly as to give a horse a heart attack, there were the fires. Early accounts from pioneers speak of great golden roaring walls of flames, flicking fiery tongues hundreds of feet into the air and advancing in unstoppable fronts stretching miles across. Advancing across the landscape with astonishing speed, these conflagrations must have been awe-inspiring and horrific.

Such wildlands could never be allowed to last in modern-day America, and we've done an incredibly remarkable job of eliminating our prairies. Aided by the genius of inventor John Deere, who put his chisel plow on the market in 1832, people have managed to transform the original prairie into the modern prairie: corn, beans, and wheat. Less than one percent of Ohio's former prairie remains, and stats are similar for elsewhere in America's breadbasket region.

From space, we look down on many square miles of what was once Darby Plains prairie in Madison County. The red arrow points at a tiny speck; that's Bigelow Cemetery. See why it is so important, if we put any stock at all in trying to preserve our natural heritage? All the prairie that once surrounded Bigelow is gone. You're doing well to find a Sullivant's Milkweed or a clump of Big Bluestem growing in an unmowed ditch.

Bigelow is but one of about 130 state nature preserves, all of which are crown jewels protecting the rarest of the rare. But due to budget cuts and other priorities, funding for the Division of Natural Areas, which manages the preserve system, has been cut to zero beginning July 1, 2010. A sad sign of the times, and reflective of the larger problem of society's increasing disenfranchisement with nature; Nature Deficit Disorder writ large.

Topped with turkey-footed culms stretching 10+ feet skyward, Big Bluestem grasses wave in the summer breeze, enwrapping the headstones of long dead pioneers. Personally, I could think of few better places to take my eternal dirt nap.

Mixed among the grasses are forbs - the prairie wildflowers. An obligate of prairies, Stiff Goldenrod musters its forces in the foreground, preparing to burst into flower in a few weeks time. Behind them are the lemon-yellow blooms of Prairie Coneflower.

In spite of its tiny dimensions, Bigelow plays host to a dizzying array of life. This is a robber fly; a goshawk of the insect world. Robber flies miss nothing. Should you be a lesser insect, it would be a very large mistake to haplessly bumble into one's field of view.

When I visit Bigelow and see all of the critters, such as the beast above, it is impossible not to wonder how their stock must be depleted when compared to the olden days. Of course, I suppose many people these days would be just fine knowing that fewer robber flies patrol the skies.

One thing that we surely did not know when we embarked on our mission to conquer prairies absolutely some 170 years ago is just how RICH in life these ecosystems are. Few if any midwestern habitats compete in the biodiversity department. Butterflies, dragonflies, bugs of all stripes, badgers, bison, prairie-chickens, hundreds of species of wonderfully prairie-adapted plants co-evolved to survive and thrive in the fire-scoured rich soils of some of the most fertile land on the Mother Earthship. Many are gone from the Buckeye State, and probably others slipped away before people like you and I were around to document that they ever existed here.

Were our collective society somehow able to momentarily adopt the souls of our native ancestors and live in moccasin'd feet for a bit, I bet our collective sense of shame for how we've treated our backyard would be overwhelming.

Star of the prairie, brilliant scarlet sprays of Royal Catchfly grow in profusion at Bigelow Cemetery. Just beyond is a barren wheat field, a land of monocultural zero biodiversity, providing an ironic backdrop to the explosion of life in the tiny prairie island.

Special trips are made for this one, and jaws often drop upon arrival. Few flowers can rival the sheer chutzpah of blooming catchfly. Rare, it will not be found growing outside of prairie regions unless someone took it captive.

The cup that a flower sits in is called a calyx, and in the case of Royal Catchfly it is green, ribbed, and cylindrical. And sticky, very sticky. Hence the name. Next time you see some, gently press a calyx between your fingers and you'll see for yourself. Why is it this way? I don't know for sure.

Tiny Bigelow Cemetery plays host to a very rare salmon-colored form of Royal Catchfly. It is beautiful indeed; one might argue it is even showier than its normal siblings. I'm sure the gardening crowd would lust after these salmons, if they could get their hands on some. Not to lecture, but gardeners and the nursery industry would do well to remember that ALL of their leafy pets come from somewhere in the wild originally, in spite of how crossed and inbred some of those plants may now be.

The place above is a postage stamp. I'm sure some that learn about Bigelow would question why it is even worth fooling with. The allure of golden coneflowers, towering prairie grasses, and crimson catchflies might not punch them with the same impact that it would you or I. There's no question that people exist who feel that preserving any natural area is an exercise in outdated foolishness, and it's time to move on and completely shed these non-essential ties to the past.

But for me, I'm glad such places still survive, since I can't beam myself back in time to see what we once had.


Dave Lewis said...

Unfortunately, our politicians are only interested in making enough money and friends to get re-elected. They care not about what's left of the natural world and how we are all tied together with this amazing planet.

Jana said...

Great post about a place I want to visit real soon. The photos make it even more enticing.

Janet Creamer said...

Very nice, haven't been there yet.
The salmon colored Silene are beautiful. Barb sent me some pics of a light pink variety they found at Huffman.

Justin said...

Zero budget? That is completely unacceptable! While in graduate school in Ohio, I spent many hours visiting and marveling at the beauty and ecological significance of Ohio's natural areas including Bigelow and Smith Cemetaries. What is going to happen to such places?

nina at Nature Remains. said...

Can you imagine--
seeing it as it must have been?

Kyle Brooks said...

Thanks for telling about this place. After seeing this blog I decided to go and check Bigelow and Smith Cemetery Nature preserve. Both are very close to each other ( a few miles apart) and both are prairie openings. It's amazing to think that just a few hundered years ago the area around that look like that, to bad it's gone.

Jack said...

Great post..i love that last picture.its simply superb...WOW! wow!.....Thanks for sharing with us.
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