In the encyclical “Laudato Si’ (On Care for Our Common Home),” Pope Francis observes: “We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature.”
In the midst of urban St. Louis, in the northeast part of the city of St. Louis, is a 24-acre native tallgrass prairie providing the sense of nature that the pope cited. It’s the same scene as what was found when explorers first traveled down the Mississippi River. The prairie remnant is land that has likely never seen a plow.
The last fragment of the city’s once extensive grassland heritage is in an undeveloped area of Calvary Cemetery, the second-oldest cemetery of the Archdiocese of St. Louis. Established in 1854, it contains the graves of many noted persons identified with the founding of St. Louis, such as Auguste Chouteau, and others, including Dred Scott and Civil War Gen. William T. Sherman.
“This is as pristine a prairie as you would have found 200 years ago,” said Matt DeWitt, managing director of administration services for the Catholic Cemeteries of the Archdiocese of St. Louis. “We’re looking at what the Europeans would have looked at for the first time.”
Prior to settlement by Europeans, according to the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, prairie blanketed an enormous swath of central North America, from Canada south to Texas, and from Indiana west to Colorado — nearly 600,000 square miles of grassland. Farming and development have reduced the tallgrass prairie to less than 1 percent of its former range, putting it among the world’s most endangered ecosystems, according to the U.S. National Park Service.
The prairie restoration at Calvary began when a biologist walked through the undeveloped tallgrass area and discovered a type of grass — bigblue stem, little bluestem and indiangrass — that hadn’t been seen naturally occurring in the metro area for decades, DeWitt said. A partnership formed in 2005 with a 99-year agreement with the Missouri Department of Conservation and other groups to use the land.
At that time, the prairie was in poor condition because of invasive plants, and it took five years of work to rid them. Controlled burns help native species by promoting the growth of flowering plants that insects and other wildlife in the prairie ecosystem depend on for survival. The fire also kills non-native species of plants that are not fire tolerant. The last controlled burn was in December.
“They put a lot of work into this,” said Tom Kuehner, managing director of grounds and facilities for Catholic Cemeteries. “And it keeps getting better because it reseeds itself.”
Wild turkey, foxes, coyote, deer and birds inhabit the area. According to the Great Missouri Birding Trail, Calvary is home to a wide variety of birds, especially ground-nesting birds that are often hard to locate within the city. In a recent visit, Erin Shank, an urban wildlife biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation, pointed to an indigo bunting, a neotropical migrant songbird that heads to Central America and surrounding regions in the fall.
Shank, who builds partnerships with parks, schools, neighborhood organizations and other nonprofit organizations to improve urban habitat, quickly identifies birds, insects and flowers. She pointed to a purple flower, monarda, also known as bee balm. “The bees love it,” she said.
Standing in front of two large marble markers donated by Catholic Cemeteries that are placed at the head of a trail through the prairie, Shank cited the coreopsis plant, which has a yellow flower with red center. The trail, mowed about a month earlier, already is nearly overtaken with native wildflowers as it reseeded naturally and grew easily in the exposed area.
Prairie plants have roots that are 4 to 12 feet deep. “I’d be willing to bet no runoff ever leaves this prairie,” Shank said. “It is all absorbed by the roots of the plants here and serves an important function in a community for stormwater control and retention and also carbon sequestration. So, all that mass of root tissue underground stores a lot of carbon as well.”
The plants also are drought tolerant because of the root structure.
“What the cemetery has done here, allowing us to do the restoration and monitoring, has been just tremendous,” said Shank, who’s been involved since the beginning. “It’s been kind of my baby.”
‘A special place’
Saint Louis University researchers, led by associate professor of biology Gerardo Camilo, are helping to monitor bee pollinators. The prairie has just shy of 100 species of bees, including seven species of bumblebees as well as longhorn bees, mason bees, leafcutter bees, sweat bees and mining bees. The bee population includes about a fifth of the species found in Missouri, Shank said.
The prairie is “a very special place,” Shank said. “It tells a story of the interweaving of the human and natural history of our region.”
In “Laudato Si’,” Pope Francis warns that we cannot set ourselves apart from nature. And he is keenly aware that many, especially the poor, are surrounded by environments that are chaotic, noisy, ugly and dangerous.
Shank agreed: “A place like this can support such a diverse suite of life, from the measly little invertebrates to flies and bees to some of the bigger, more impressive animals we see here like deer and turkey and everything in between. The diversity of life is ultimately what we need to conserve and sustain in order to have a healthy planet. This is a great example of how that can be done in the midst of miles of concrete.”
A day never goes by that she’s inspired and feels “that sense of awe about the complexity of the natural world around you,” Shank said.
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