The first prairie I ever saw was a prairie pioneer cemetery in central Ohio. The visit was an ecological epiphany and set me on the course to a career in ecological restoration.
It was in the early 1970’s and I had the opportunity to go on a field trip sponsored by the Ohio Chapter of The Nature Conservancy (TNC). The field trip began in Columbus, OH on a Sunday afternoon in July. We carpooled for what seemed like hours through the flat and unchanging agricultural landscape of central Ohio. The Ohio landscape was much like what one sees in central Illinois, northern Indiana, and parts of Iowa–it’s America’s Corn Belt and former prairie land. At the time I had no inkling of what a prairie was, let alone an idea of what a prairie pioneer cemetery was all about. But I guessed I was going to find out.
Western and central Ohio is the eastern-most extent of America’s once-great prairie peninsula, thus parts of the state did have a true prairie landscape. And, like most of the prairie peninsula, that prairie landscape has been reduced to small and scattered remnants. The survivors of the extensive prairie are found today along railroad rights-of-way, steep and rocky hillsides, in other neglected spots, and in the cemeteries of the European pioneers who conquered the prairie ecosystem.
These pieces of the original prairie survived because they were either never plowed or were only lightly grazed or mowed once every great while. Remnants along RR tracts also benefited from the occasional fire sparked by passing trains.
Our caravan eventually turned off the main road and then rattled down several miles of dusty gravel roads through a maze of towering corn stalks. When we turned in to a small roadside pull-off we were there. An old cemetery in front of us filled with colorful and unfamiliar plants and corn fields on all sides–the sight was amazing.
To see a piece of the virgin prairie–even if a tiny patch–is today a special event and those of us on the trip were very fortunate to visit Bigelow Prairie Pioneer Cemetery. I was struck by many things. For one, the area was small, just about one half acre. For another, the adjacent fields were a good 8″ below the grade of the virgin prairie; one had to step up from the fields into the cemetery. The height differential, the tour guide explained, represented the amount of soil that had been lost through wind erosion over the years.
I was also impressed by the plants I was seeing for the first time. Some of the new plants, I learned, were native to Ohio (to me a new and intriguing concept). Among the prairie plants in the cemetery were big bluestem, cup plant, and royal catchfly. I did not have a camera with me that day so you will have to visit the website of the Bigelow Cemetery State Nature Preserve to get an idea of what it looks like today.
The tour group wandered through the cemetery for a couple hours, looking at the old gravestones, examining the prairie grasses and flowers, guessing their identify, and pausing in the shade of the few open-grown oaks to cool off on a very hot day.
In 1978, Bigelow Cemetery was dedicated as an Ohio interpretive state nature preserve. According to the website: “A special management program for the preservation of the historic tombstones, perpetuation of the prairie species and elimination of noxious weeds was initiated following dedication by the Division of Natural Areas and Preserves.”
If you get a chance, stop in to see Bigelow. It is a piece of our natural heritage. Bigelow and places like it across the country need to be managed, preserved, and perpetuated.