'You know, I could mow that mess for you.'
August 4, 2017 9:34 AM   Subscribe

A handful of pioneer cemeteries in Illinois also represents some of the last remaining acres of virgin prairie in the state, as described in this long piece from Christopher Borrelli of the Chicago Tribune.
Pellsville cemetery, which holds 44 pioneers and contains more than 80 native flowers and grasses, is largely untouched prairie, at its dazzling peak in midsummer. It is considered, by the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory and Illinois Department of Natural Resources, "Grade-A" prairie, or "virgin" prairie. It has never been plowed, grazed or uprooted. It is as close as we get to what Illinois looked like before European pioneers rolled in, around the 1820s.
Illinois once had 22 million acres of tall-grass prairie. Today, only 2,300 acres remain. But of those acres, many of the finest examples of untouched, pre-settlement prairie sit on 29 tenuous pioneer cemetery plots, fragile islands of untamed land in what is now an ocean of agricultural conformity. Together these cemeteries, often left undisturbed because they are burial grounds, make up about 50 acres. It is as if the pioneers, in their deaths, left us a few seeds of life.
More about Illinois' cemetery prairies:
posted by orthicon halo (10 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
If you're in the Chicago area and interested in something closer, the University of Illinois at Chicago still owns and maintains the James Woodworth Prairie Preserve, a six-acre section of original prairie land about 20 miles northwest of the city on the outskirts of Glenview. Tucked quietly in the middle of suburban sprawl, it is usually open to visitors during the summer and upon request at other times.

I worked a few summers at the McDonald's next door and never appreciated what was there. I thought it was just some undeveloped suburban tract that was forgotten. Thankfully the UI has held onto it even though the land is probably worth a few million dollars now.
posted by JoeZydeco at 9:56 AM on August 4, 2017 [7 favorites]

Awesome post! My aunt's husband has some land in central Illinois and has been doing prairie restoration on it (a concept I wasn't familiar with before meeting him). They do yearly controlled burns! I hope I can make it up there for that sometime. I'll send him and my aunt these links for sure.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:25 AM on August 4, 2017 [1 favorite]

It should be noted that the prairies the colonist/settlers found were to a certain extent man-made constructions, burned and tended by native Americans for centuries.
posted by jetsetsc at 10:26 AM on August 4, 2017 [10 favorites]

I did find this sentence odd: "Some of the stones are black from the controlled fires used to manage plant growth." There's no other mention in the article of how these patches of 'natural' prairie have actually been controlled and cultivated.
posted by Flashman at 11:01 AM on August 4, 2017

Even in the absence of humans, prairies naturally see a lot of fires from lightning strikes, and the fires are a necessary part of their growth cycle. Humans just do controlled burns so that the fire doesn't sneak up on them unawares. (But I would also love more info on how these things are managed!)
posted by showbiz_liz at 11:43 AM on August 4, 2017 [2 favorites]

Damn interesting. Thanks for posting!
posted by carter at 11:54 AM on August 4, 2017

Grasslands not only naturally experience lightning (non-anthropogenic) fires; they certainly evolved to take advantage of, and may have evolved because of, seasonal fires that wipe out trees* and bushes. The seasonal fires happen because of seasonal rain/dryness, which grasses are also well-adapted to, but germinating trees can't survive.

That said, there are regions -- including much of the eastern NAm prairies -- with frequent enough damp decades that trees will establish if there aren't regular fires, and some of those have apparently been dependent on human management for a long time.

* Eucalyptus caught up, though.
posted by clew at 12:42 PM on August 4, 2017

Oh, hey, my husband oversaw some of these cemeteries for the state of Illinois for the five years he worked there! And he's on the board of another cemetery with original prairie (prairie bluff, which is a little different than high prairie) and constantly at war with a couple of philistines on the city council who want it mowed. I can probably answer some questions!

Privately-owned (and city/county-owned) "retired" cemeteries are maintained very haphazardly. State-owned sites (whether under natural resources or historic preservation) are managed much better and with an actual plan that gets actually executed, although still almost certainly radically understaffed (DNR and IHPA sustained some of the biggest cuts in personnel and budget over the past 10 years while seeing their duties increase considerably, so a lot of maintenance that should be yearly is every other year, etc.).

I've been to a couple of controlled burns, they're kinda fun, but it's mostly just fire burning grass while a firefighter, a few scientists, and several overexcited spectators watch.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:43 PM on August 4, 2017 [5 favorites]

Yes, the recent articles on the westward expansion of tree species likely have a lot to do with changes in fire regime and grazing. Trees move slowly so we are seeing it now. Interesting stuff.

And sad that so little prairie is left, I hope the efforts of landowners and restoration ecologists can expand it just a bit each season until it's a bit safer from total loss.
posted by fshgrl at 12:46 PM on August 4, 2017

Near and dear to my heart!! I'm a major native plant nerd and a life-long Illinois resident, and this year became co-site steward to a couple of tiny hill prairies here in Central IL. I mean, like, exceedingly tiny, fractions of acres. But they're each such gems!! Each one is so unique in its plant assemblage, even the ones that are right next to each other, separated only by small ravines. Slight differences in slope, aspect, shading, and soil chemistry combine to make one a little sedgier than the rest, while another is a mossy fairy garden, while another seems to get all the larger forbs.

And you know, it's the big, super showy, summer prairie plants that usually get all the love in prairie restorations and prairie replantings--the Echinacea, the Silphiums, Desmodiums, Liatris, the various asters... They're all great and important, obviously. But its in hill prairie remnants like these and the cemetery prairies where the full spectrum of native prairie vegetation really shines. The tiny spring blooms of yellow star grass and birdsfoot violet, the ADORABLE hemiparasites like wood betony and bastard toadflax, to say nothing of the small-statured late-summer bloomers. Currently our Agalinis and field milkwort are beginning to bloom, and they are just... I can't even. They're just too precious.

Don't even get me started on native milkweeds, I too many feelings.

(And shout out to the fantastic In Defense of Plants! Matt consistently gets great interviews and does an incredible job of being a prolific podcaster, all whilst working on his Ph.D.)
posted by Ornate Rocksnail at 6:07 PM on August 4, 2017 [7 favorites]

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