02 October 2007

Don't Bury Me on the Old Prairie

It's amazing what you can find in your own back yard, and how even what appears most mundane can become an opportunity for a homeschooling lesson.

Our tiny town of Loda has one cemetery, and it dates to the mid-1800s. In the last six years, we've been in that cemetery dozens of times. And unbeknownst to us, we'd been missing out on an ecological treasure.

Then, this August, I happened to catch an interesting story on our local public radio station. The commentary was part of a feature called "Environmental Almanac," which airs once per week. According to the radio program, as recently as 1820, 60% of Illinois was covered by original prairie grasses and plants. Then agriculture boomed, and almost all of that prairie got plowed under and converted to commercial crop production or pasture. Today, there's nothing left of the original prairie except a few slivers here and there.
And one of those slivers, it turns out, adjoins the Pine Ridge Cemetery in Loda. The cemetery had kept that plot of land unbroken with all the natural prairie grasses growing on it, and had planned to expand into it when it ran out of burial space in the existing plot. Then, about 25 years ago, a local preservation society managed to acquire the prairie land and supply a different plot (probably farmland) for the cemetery to expand into. They've fenced off the 3.4 acres of prairie, and made it a permanent preserve.

But, as I said, we had no idea this jewel even existed before I happened to catch the story on the radio. All the times we'd been in the cemetery, we figured that adjoining plot was just another weed-covered empty piece of land locked up in a state program where they pay you not to grow crops. Unfortunately, the preservationists haven't done a very good job of educating the public as to the value of this prairie; the only sign is a tiny thing warning folks that everything behind the barbed wire is protected by law. Hopefully someday they'll be able to raise enough money to put up an "interpretive" sign that lets people know what they're looking at and why it's so special.

Mrs Yeoman Farmer and I immediately recognized an opportunity for a homeschooling lesson: it was time to take a literal "field trip" and learn about state history and ecology. One by one, I took each child for a tandem bicycle ride over to the cemetery (notice, we also managed to cover Physical Education with this field trip).

We walked around, looked out on and admired the stunning variety of grasses and plants, and I gave a mini-lecture about the site based on what I'd been able to learn ahead of time. I wish we could've actually walked around the prairie land itself, but it was clear from the barbed wire fencing that they didn't want people out there trampling any of the native vegetation. My rather poor camera phone picture doesn't really do justice to the beauty of the place; the Grand Prairie Friends site has many photos which are much better.

The kids thoroughly enjoyed the field trip. And I've resolved to look harder for the the other school lessons that might be hiding in our back yard.

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