Smith Cemetery: After a Fire

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The Smith Cemetery is located on State Road 63 in Vermillion County, Indiana, two miles southwest of the small Wabash River town of Perrysville and about three miles east of the Illinois state line.  On the surface, this one-half-acre spot looks overgrown and uncared-for.  In fact, it is a complex memorial to the past and one glimpse of a hopeful future.

Since the early 1980s, this small shard of waving botanical life has been coaxed back into existence by naturalists.  As a fading sign at the gate, put up by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, announces, the cemetery is a prairie restoration, meant as “a memorial to the Indians and early settlers to whom these grasses and flowers were once familiar.”  The irony, of course, is that those first white settlers initiated the destruction of the once-vast prairies, which once covered about a third of North America – the same grasslands this restoration itself pays homage to.  While intended as a memorial, there is no more sadly appropriate place for the prairie’s tenuous survival than in a cemetery.  For as an ecosystem, it is as broken as can be.

When this part of western Indiana was first settled by whites in the 1820s, prairies were the defining feature of the post-glacial landscape.  The scenery presented was beautiful enough to move even the future destroyers of that great ecosystem to rhapsody.  Though technically part of Indiana (once an immensely wild territory mostly covered in dense forests, with prairies along its western edge), this area of the state forms part of the geography of the fabled Illinois country, an open region whose grasslands brought many early visitors to mysticism and tears.  As settlers began to come in, just two hundred years ago, these glacial plains, flattened thousands of years earlier by the last ice sheets, were anything but devoid of beauty and variety.  Today, significantly reduced by modern agriculture (though farms have created a beauty of a different type), this country strikes us as monotonous.  But it has been made so by humans.

Lucian Caswell, one of the early settlers of Rock County, Wisconsin, came with his family west from Vermont in 1837, at the age of ten.  Caswell’s description of the prairie would have been fitting for much of this landscape that once stretched from west-central Indiana to the southern shores of Lake Michigan and to very edge of the North Woods, then west toward the Mississippi and Missouri.  In an unpublished memoir written in 1914, he reminisced about the sublime grandeur of seeing his first prairie fire, which, though often frightening and deadly to humans and animals, were essential to the life and regeneration of the grasses and prevented the encroachment of forests:

“There were no roads but we struck out across the great prairie before us, headed towards Lake Koshkonong.  No more beautiful landscape was ever painted.  Nature, the greatest artist of all, had fairly outdone itself.  The Indians as they always did every year, had burnt out every foot of ground and the land was as clean as a yard.  You could see the wild gophers, at a great distance running here and there, and the flowers in the large beds of an acre or more in all directions, the grass just springing out of the ground forming a background, all together a picture that dazzled the eyes and made one smile whether in good mood or not.

“ –– somewhere in Walworth County, we saw our first prairie fire.  Usually the Indians burn over all the ground in the fall.  Here and there a small piece escapes the fires.  We came to a strip of unburned prairie.  The dead grass was thick and the temptation too great.  All agreed we must set this on fire; so we stopped and began to prepare in the old fashioned way with steel punk and flint to strike fire.  However, one of our party drew from his pocket a little box he had been saving up and said he had something new and he would try it.  He opened a small box of matches, the first that any of us had ever seen or heard of.  The box contained about fifty little sticks with sulphur on one end of each, for which he had paid seventy-five cents in Milwaukee and brought along for an experiment.  He struck one of them according to directions, and lighted the dead grass, to our great astonishment and wonder how that could possibly be.

“Well, the fire spread rapidly, as there was quite a strong breeze, and soon we saw what we had never seen before, although often read and heard of, a prairie on fire.  We watched it till it had run some miles away, and then reluctantly started on our journey.”

Caswell remembered that this was a great sight “for Vermonters who had been accustomed to look upon rocks, hills and woods.”  (See his “Reminiscences of 1836-1914,” an unpublished manuscript at the Hoard Historical Museum, Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin.)


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(Larry Schwarm, photographer.  Prairie fire near Cottonwood Falls, Kansas, 1997.)


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(Larry Schwarm, photographer.  Three trees burning, Z-Bar Ranch, Chase County, Kansas, 1994.)


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(Larry Schwarm, photographer.  Grass fire near Kingman, Kansas, 1997.)


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(Larry Schwarm, photographer.  Fire and moon, along Bloody Creek Road, Chase County, Kansas, 2006.)


The explorer William Clark, a Kentuckian, also wrote of the deep beauty and tragedy of prairie fires as he ventured onto the Northern Plains for the first time.  On October 29, 1804, while traveling on the Upper Missouri near the Mandan Villages in what became North Dakota, Clark noted the following entry in his (erratically-spelled) journal, probably the first historical account of a makeshift “fire shelter,” which wildland firefighters now use as a last resort to protect against heat:

“The Prarie was Set on fire (or Cought by accident) by a young man of the Mandins, the fire went with Such velocity that it burnt to death a man and woman, who Could not Get to any place of Safty, one man a woman & Child much burnt and Several narrowly escaped the flame — a boy half white was Saved un hurt in the midst of the flaim. Those ignerent people Say this boy was Saved by the great Spirit medisin because he was white — The Cause of his being Saved was a Green buffalow Skin was thrown over him by his mother who perhaps had more fore Sight for the pertection of her Son, and less for herself than those who escaped the flame, the Fire did not burn under the Skin leaving the grass round the boy This fire passed our Camp last about 8 oClock P.M. it went with great rapitidity and looked Tremendious.”


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(Fighting a prairie fire, 1912.  MG108 II C 1, University of Saskatchewan Archives.)


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(Big Prairie Fire, Stuart, Nebraska, November 7, 1912.)


In his masterpiece , an environmental history of wildfire’s subduction by Europeans since the last ice age, Stephen Pyne writes of Europe’s ancient disdain for the primordial, free-ranging form of this “element.”  As Europeans acquired mastery over fire, Prometheus-like, and used it to alter the landscapes and biogeography of ancient Europe, wildfire became increasingly “cultivated out” of the environments they knew.  Slowly, humans all but eradicated it there.

In his masterpiece Vestal Fire, an environmental history of wildfire’s subduction by Europeans since the last ice age, Stephen Pyne writes of Europe’s ancient disdain for the primordial, free-ranging form of this “element.”  As Europeans acquired mastery over fire, Prometheus-like, and used it to alter the landscapes and biogeography of ancient Europe, wildfire became increasingly “cultivated out” of the environments they knew.  Slowly, humans all but eradicated it there.

Yet “anthropogenic” fire (that of the hearth and torch) virtually created European culture.  Fire-mastery allowed Europe’s inhabitants not only to domesticate an unwelcoming post-glacial wilderness and many of its creatures, but more importantly, to domesticate themselves.  The process was already underway seventeen millennia ago, when the earliest clear depiction of fire’s effect on human beings was created.   As the poet Clayton Eshleman writes in Juniper Fuse, his beautiful attempt to unearth the meanings of Upper Paleolithic cave art, Europeans’ conquest of fire went hand-in-hand with the invention of art itself and all the transformations that ensued.  Pyne and Eshleman agree that fire’s incorporation into hunting restructured human understandings of their encounter with animals and allowed a mental “separation of the human out of the animal.”  It was a psychological process fabulously documented in the shamans’ or hunters’ visions scrawled in red ochre and black manganese dioxide on the walls of Lascaux Cave in the French Pyrenees, rediscovered in 1940 after 17,000 years in the dark.

The “theft” of fire marked a huge shift not only in terms of human survival:  it irrevocably altered the human mind and led into realms beyond the merely physical.  Fire and art’s conjunction in subterranean places created signs of what could be interpreted as the earliest human spirituality, depicted (disturbingly) in symbols of man’s growing dominance over nature and of his spiritual separation out of it.  Read like this, Lascaux becomes a potentially frightening prologue to much of what follows in human history.

Later Western attitudes toward wildfire take root in one reading of what happened at Lascaux, the deep-seated fear that we are not in control, that since we are no longer animals, what is natural is ranged against us.


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(Hunter and bison disemboweled on a spear, Lascaux Cave, France, 15,000-13,000 BC.)


Stephen Pyne writes of what Europeans at home, and later overseas, feared to lose when fire occurred naturally in the wild, the very sense of control that defined European perspectives on unshackled nature:

“There was literally no place in Europe for the primordial fire.  It went the way of the auroch, the lion, the mastodon, and the mouflon – extinct, bred to domestication, recorded in art, or nurtured in the social zoos of preserved ritual.  The originating fire survived only in ancient ceremonies, like vanished bison recorded on Aurignacian rock art…  Desired fire belonged on hearth and altar;  unwanted fire appeared along the rough fringes of an unraveling society, in the cracks of disintegrating cities, amid the rubble of collapsed civilizations.  Intellectual Europe saw fire as an atavism, as disorder and destruction, as nature gripped by delirium tremens.  But wild or tame, fire persisted…

“Europe’s temperate core – not shaped by a well-defined fire season – granted humans an unusual degree of control over fire, and encouraged the belief that fire was, in principle, a strictly human agency, that it was a convenient tool but not an essential process… Fire was, so the saying went, a good servant but a bad master.  The keepers of Europe’s flame accepted this condition as normative.  They distrusted free-burning fire and sought to cultivate it from the landscape and ultimately replace it with the industrial combustion of fossil fuels.”

As Europeans re-settled the North American continent, these imported attitudes toward wildfire were quickly replicated, even in landscapes (like the Midwest) where fire was a critical part of the ecosystem and extremely common, especially in the spring.  The European insistence, perhaps as far back as the Neolithic, that landscapes should be not wild but a garden under human control spelled the doom of these ancient American places.

Today the defining feature of Indiana is certainly no longer prairie and old-growth forest.  Only a handful of scattered places still give an impression of what Indiana looked like even 150 years ago.  This state is, in fact, one of the most profoundly man-altered landscapes in the U.S.  (Iowa, a sister state, is estimated to have had, in the 1860s, more biological diversity than any other American state.  Today, it has the least.)  Yet the difference does not lie only in the presence of local family farms that replaced old ecosystems after the first waves of settlers “busted” the sod and denuded the land of trees.  These family farms, too, are disappearing rapidly.  The defining feature of Indiana today, by contrast, is industrial agriculture, increasingly run by corporations, sowing monocrops of corn and soybeans, and the much blander human culture that often comes with this form of so-called “farming.”

Where hundreds of species of prairie grass once flourished, only a handful of plants now grow.  Much of this old natural diversity was literally ripped out of the earth by steel plows.  Yet prairie seeds occasionally still survive in earth that has not been tilled repeatedly by agriculture, such as in a handful of cemeteries, and in other seemingly unlikely places, including military buffer zones, bombing ranges, and railroad rights-of-way.

No single generation destroyed the land by itself, however.  The demolition of prairies, wetlands, and forests was merely begun by the early generations of settlers, their bones buried under prairie grass at the Smith Cemetery.  As for the memorial “brought back” by the DNR in their name, the irony is that probably none of these pioneers (mostly Pennsylvanians, some of them Quakers) would have wanted to be buried under tallgrass, in what (to their eyes) would look like a horribly abandoned, dilapidated burial ground.  The cemetery, in fact, was kept mowed into the 1970s, then abandoned.  But since gravediggers have done the only deep “tilling” here, prairie has survived intact, rooted in its pioneer-laden soil, off and on for generations.

One of the early settlers who lived nearby, along the banks of Jordan Creek near where it flows into the Wabash, was Jacob Hain.  Born in Berks County, Pennsylvania, in 1799, he became a farmer and was buried at the Smith Cemetery in 1876 next to his parents, John and Catherine Hain, who (as their single stone proclaims) died “on the same day” in 1830.  Yet Jacob Hain’s florid obituary in a newspaper, The Hoosier State, does not suggest that he would have been happy being memorialized by a stand of semi-wild prairie, today resurrected over his grave:

“Another Pioneer has gone from among us and leaves the member less of those sterling, noble men, who were the first to lay the foundation of civilization in the beautiful Valley of the Wabash,” the obituary reads.

“The subject of this sketch was born in Berks County, Pennsylvania, December 1st, 1799, and at the age of 10 years emigrated with his father to Virginia, and from thence at the age of 21 to Vermillion County, Indiana.  Stopping first near Clinton, he went from here to Coleman’s Prairie, and thence to said Prairie, located two and one-half miles south west of Perrysville, and was the first man to break sod on the prairie.  There were then ten Indians to one white man, and he was therefore, one of those men to whom the present generations owe so much; whose strong arms, invincible courage, and patient, plodding industry transformed a wilderness into flowing fields and gardens and replaced the wigwam of the savage with churches, school houses and comfortable refined houses of civilization…

“The deceased closed his eyes peacefully, and with a hope that was cheering to his friends, on the 15th of March 1876, at the ripe age of seventy-six years, three months and fourteen days, and was laid away by kind and appreciative neighbors, in Smith-Cemetery, where he helped dig the first grave, and which he had lived to see become an extensive city of the dead.”


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(Unidentified woman, Olathe, Kansas, circa 1910.  Personal collection of the author.)


The solid work of old antebellum stone carvers survives here next to flexible prairie grasses that bend with the wind.  The work of the old craftsmen of the 1830s, though often illegible, has been solid enough to outlast many of the farms and lineages of farmers that succeeded them, and all but a few broken remnants of the ancient prairie itself.   Ironically, the earliest pioneers’ stones, made from slate, which weathers much slower than sandstone, have often survived in a better condition than the monuments erected to their children and grandchildren.  After the 1860s, craftsmanship and material for gravestones diminished in quality, and many names are lost altogether.

A few hours south of Chicago, next to a noisy state highway, the grass here stops just short of the road, dying in a sharp line marked by an old concrete fence post at the edge of a soybean field.  This is a piece of a broken land, not a romantic, expansive grassland.  The sounds of birds and the wind-tossed grass are certainly here, but come amid the constant sound of trucks on the four-lane highway to Chicago.  Beyond the gate, a farmer’s field is doused in gallons of life-killing chemicals and pesticides.

I have visited the place several times, in different seasons:  in early autumn, when the grass was high enough to cover all but the big marble stones of the wealthier farmers who had died after the Civil War, their monuments rising like obelisks, while totally enveloping the small markers of the earlier pioneers;  then, in the first week of April, I visited again, just a few days after naturalists had set fire to the cemetery.

A late-winter cold front was just coming through, and struck by the bizarre sight of a cemetery covered in ashes, I photographed it in a 40-mile-an-hour wind, pelted by sleet and rain, interrupted by times when the wind died off entirely and sunshine came through the clouds in great beams.  It was not easy scenery to look at:  a totally incinerated burial ground.  The ash over the graves was so fresh that my feet knocked up clouds of it as I stepped over the scorched bones of deer that had probably died there last fall or huddled down in the grass for warmth that winter.  The gravestones had been turned orange by fire, a discoloration that was temporary and would wash off.  But tiny blades of bluestem were already popping up.  Within days of the burn, life was coming back.  I could not escape the symbolism that gives a Christian cemetery its meaning, that of death and resurrection, and how the stones gave even deeper meaning to the annual death and rebirth of the prairie in the weeks around Easter.


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(Tintype of a woman, circa 1870.  Personal collection of the author.)


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(Tintype of a girl, circa 1870.  Personal collection of the author.)


The Western photographer Mark Klett, trained as a geologist, pioneered a genre known as “re-photography.”  In the 1980s, Klett revisited the sites of U.S. Geological Survey images, photographed a hundred years before, to document the change (or lack thereof) in natural landscapes across the American West.  Finding the exact vantage point of a Timothy O’Sullivan or Carleton Watkins image from the 1870s, Klett demonstrated not only how the has changed over the course of a century, but how our cultural views of landscape and landscape photography have altered, as well.  In paired images, it becomes clearer how Manifest Destiny has waned, how we see a sadness in the very same landscapes where an earlier generation of photographers found great promise, a divine plan, and romantic emblems of the nation’s rising fortunes – or a prescient warning that Americans did not heed.

The Western photographer Mark Klett, trained as a geologist, pioneered a genre known as “re-photography.”  In the 1980s, Klett revisited the sites of U.S. Geological Survey images, photographed a hundred years before, to document the change (or lack thereof) in natural landscapes across the American West.  Finding the exact vantage point of a Timothy O’Sullivan or Carleton Watkins image from the 1870s, Klett demonstrated not only how the land has changed over the course of a century, but how our cultural views of landscape and landscape photography have altered, as well.  In paired images, it becomes clearer how Manifest Destiny has waned, how we see a sadness in the very same landscapes where an earlier generation of photographers found great promise, a divine plan, and romantic emblems of the nation’s rising fortunes – or a prescient warning that Americans did not heed.

The poet Edgar Lee Masters, in 1915, may have caught onto Klett’s later insight.  In the “epitaph” delivered by Rutherford McDowell, Masters’ small-town photographer in Spoon River Anthology, we hear this graveside lament for the landscapes the poet imagined the first cameras captured in the eyes of early settlers:

They brought me ambrotypes
Of the old pioneers to enlarge.
And sometimes one sat for me –
Some one who was in being
When giant hands from the womb of the world
Tore the republic.
What was it in their eyes?
For I could never fathom
That mystical pathos of drooped eyelids,
And the serene sorrow of their eyes.
It was like a pool of water,
Amid oak trees at the edge of a forest,
Where the leaves fall,
As you hear the crow of a cock
From a far-off farm house, seen near the hills
Where the third generation lives, and the strong men
And the strong women are gone and forgotten.
And these grand-children and great grand-children
Of the pioneers!
Truly did my camera record their faces, too,
With so much of the old strength gone,
And the old faith gone,
And the old mastery of life gone,
And the old courage gone,
Which labors and loves and suffers and sings
Under the sun!


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(Tintype of a man, around 1870.  Personal collection of the author.)


I made a few images in this place.  None were well done, as I had a thing for a “toy” camera at the time.  At best, I was knocking together a few sketches for better work in large-format that I still have not made.  Like much of the past, these pictures strike me now as suspiciously bleak and grim, “suspicious” because I know that (in Clark’s phrase) there was a “Tremendious” beauty and color there that I failed to capture.  (Larry Schwarm, surely, has made the most sublime photos ever created of prairie landscapes, of the Flint Hills on fire at night.)  Klett’s technique was far more sophisticated than mine, but instead of Geological Survey photographs, I used gravestones to pinpoint one exact spot on the earth’s surface and show some elements of the natural variation it undergoes throughout the year.  In this case, more than seasonal variation was involved.  Rather, it was the dramatic aftermath of a prescribed burn.

These admittedly un-lively photos, however, maybe have less to do with “history” than in how we see history – with a sadness tinged with nostalgia that often characterizes our approach, also, to nature.  “Nature” has become, by some definitions, a historic thing:  I believe this is a wildly inaccurate point-of-view, though there is some truth in the perspective.  Yet the photographer Jeff Whetstone, who, in the simplest definition of his work, documents humans among nature, says that “When I see nature, now, I don’t think of it as something we are necessarily separated from.  But what I do see is a great sadness, this tremendous sense of loss in nature and in ourselves.  I see a great ruin.”

We live in amid those ruins.  In the end, these photographs, like the Smith Cemetery, are a memorial for an ecosystem, the grasslands, taken where the grass was buried but clung to life, and where, somehow, it might eventually outlast even us.  Yet as with all things touched by nostalgia, longing is an active emotion.  Sometimes a crippling, debilitating illness, nostalgia was first diagnosed hundreds of years ago, a spiritual “disease” of Swiss soldiers separated from home.  But a love and desire for the past, even for those people who began the destruction we see the results of now, can be a positive force for activism and change.  If a hunger for the past helps an ecosystem cling to tenuous life, that hunger is no sickness at all.


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(Smith Cemetery, before and after a prairie burn.  Perrysville, Indiana.  October 2010, April 2011.)

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