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Field & Street

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Reaching Loda Prairie took me a couple of hours. I'd set out alone on a Tuesday morning on a whim, driving south without precise directions for how to get there. I hadn't been to this small preserve in years, though I had the vague memory that it was northwest of the town of Loda, about 35 miles north of Champaign.

I had the relationship of nature and cemeteries on my mind, and Loda Prairie is a preserve of magnificent ecological integrity that lies adjacent to a 140-year-old graveyard. I recently ran across the figure that 10 percent of Illinois' highest quality nature preserves are located in cemeteries. This made me wonder whether nature and humans, like certain other warring couples, coexist best when one of the parties involved is six feet under.

I remembered the prairie's neighboring graveyard was named Pine Ridge Cemetery. Finding this landmark turned out to be easy. Loda is within the section of the state ecologists call "the Grand Prairie," which encompasses much of Illinois' middle. Two hundred years ago the Grand Prairie was covered with 20 feet of loamy topsoil. Flowers and grasses set roots deep into the rich earth and grew taller aboveground than the pioneers who eventually annihilated them. Today the region would be more appropriately named the Grand Cornfield, as only specks of true prairie remain alive.

The region is now noteworthy mostly for its extraordinary flatness. All I could see that day was a wide plain of pale crops and dark soil stretched out for miles under the cold gray sky. With the soybeans harvested and the corn shriveling in the fields, nothing blocked my view. Once in Loda, I spotted Pine Ridge Cemetery immediately. The ridge it occupied was so subtle it couldn't be called a ridge anywhere but central Illinois. In this flat earth the evergreens on top of it stood out like skyscrapers.

I turned right by the granary, thumped over the railroad tracks, and drove out of town toward the trees. It was high noon, but the dark sky made it look as though evening were coming. Above a bare bean field a small falcon swooped low and swung upward again.

I parked the car on the shoulder of the gravel road and walked north along a mowed lane that led to the prairie. To my left I could see the tops of semis hurtling by on I-57. To my right, a quarter mile away, Santa Fe freight cars rattled along the tracks, heading fast for Chicago.

In the lane fragments of artificial flowers were strewn like petals at a wedding. They must have blown across from the cemetery. Among them was the top of a fake daffodil, filthy with age, and parts of other synthetic flowers that the manufacturers, not content to simply replicate dull old Mother Nature, had dyed shocking shades of neon.

Loda Prairie is a typical central Illinois preserve. Since every acre of the black dirt was precious to the farmers that settled here, the only earth left untilled was the land where they buried their dead. They occasionally scythed the grasses, and the cemeteries where this mowing was rare are among the very few spots in the state to retain their original vegetation. When the Illinois Natural Areas Inventory was conducted in 1978 24 of the highest quality sites were found in old graveyards; 111 more cemeteries were found to have significant populations of native plants and had the potential to become good-quality grassland if someone were to manage them as natural areas.

For many years half of Pine Ridge Cemetery was mowed and manicured and the other half was left mostly alone, awaiting the time when it would be needed for burial sites. In the mid-1980s the Nature Conservancy and the Natural Land Institute worked out a deal with the cemetery association to protect the prairie. The association cared little for the prairie, which represented nothing to its members other than the ecosystem that shortened the lives of their ancestors. The thick sod of the prairie had been no friend to the farmer who had to break the ground with a hand plow and a mule.

The two conservation organizations arranged to buy agricultural land adjacent to the cemetery and trade it to the association for the five acres of prairie. The association was willing to bury the community's descendants in a former cornfield because the agricultural land would bring in income until it was needed for burial plots.

Today the unmowed half is fenced on all four sides to protect it from mowers and combines on adjacent properties. But the preserve looks a little like a wild animal that's less dangerous when caged.

The entrance to the preserve is a narrow gap in the wire fence. A long stem of a sawtooth sunflower leaned over the opening. A trail was visible, but it had been overtaken during the summer by dock and flowers. A granite boulder held a small plaque describing the preserve's importance. I climbed on top of it and with the three extra feet of height could see the whole prairie.

A band of sunlight had broken through the thick clouds; it touched I-57 briefly, moved slowly over the agricultural fields, and came toward me like a spotlight. When the beam passed over the five acres of prairie, the illuminated blue of the asters against the curry-color grasses forced me to close my eyes. My urban sensibilities can't take in too much beauty at once.

I stepped down from the rock and strolled clockwise around the prairie. It didn't take long, since the preserve's not much larger than a good-size suburban yard. As holy places go, this is more chapel than cathedral.

I slipped back out past the guardian sunflower and crossed the fence into the cemetery. It occurred to me how fortunate the people who visited the cemetery residents were to have the view of a true prairie. I'd never taken the time before to look around the cemetery, which holds graves from the 1850s to the present. Some of the white limestone tablets had been standing so long that the letters and numbers were weathered away completely, leaving blank slates. At the modern end of the spectrum was the Crum family's shiny pink stone carved into the shape of two interlocking hearts. Mr. Crum died in 1993, and the birth year of Mrs. Crum is etched into the rock, followed by a hyphen.

A flock of five goldfinches in subdued fall plumage flew from a skinny cedar to a stouter tree. The cemetery is called Pine Ridge, but most of the conifers are cedars or spruce. They're not native, but they're a common sight in central Illinois. Trees that stayed green and bushy in winter were the settlers' defense against the prairie winds. Even today many central Illinois farmhouses are guarded by a line of spruce planted on the north and west sides of the house. The dark evergreens are as unnatural as plastic flowers, but in the long, harsh winter the settler families must have taken some comfort from seeing plants that were visibly alive.

It can be easy to romanticize living in the midst of wilderness while I'm snug in my Chicago apartment, but out here it's clear how bleak the natural world must have been for the early settlers. The gravestone of Charity Ann, wife of Horace C. Dean, reads, "Died March 16, 1857, aged 26 Y's and 11 M's."

People living far removed from nature often reminisce about it the way some of my friends remember people with whom they were once in terrible relationships. I know one woman who always tends to see her past lovers through a fuzzy, happy filter. She remembers only a man's beauty and forgets how brutalized and defeated she felt. She also forgets the hateful acts she committed to win the upper hand. Now that she's been out of the relationship for years she sometimes wishes she'd stuck it out. She imagines she could handle him in a different way if they were together today.

In Loda the natural prairie has been almost as successfully vanquished as it has in Chicago, but the conflict is fresher in people's minds. Loda hasn't glossed over the hard parts of a relationship with nature. As I was leaving I took a last look at the prairie from where I stood on the groomed cemetery grounds and saw that on the boundary between the two the cemetery association has planted a row of cedars. The trees are so young and short I hadn't noticed them before, but it took me only a second to understand the intent of placing them there. The evergreens are meant to grow up as a border that will shield cemetery residents and visitors from ever having to look at the wildness next door.

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