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.
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.