Rochester Cemetery is one of Iowa’s most biologically diverse prairie remnants and one of the most unusual prairies left in America. This thirteen-and-a-half-acre sand savanna overlooking the Cedar River, just east of Iowa City, is home to fifteen giant white oaks that were growing when the first white settlers arrived in the 1830s, and more than 400 species of plants. The vast majority (337) are native to the region. It is also the last resting place of the local pioneers and their descendants, with roughly as many gravestones as there are types of plants, and burials continue to this day. Graves are scattered among the wildflowers, across hills geologists consider sand dunes. These are held in place by the deep roots of the plants and their people. Yet the fate of this prairie hangs in the balance, a source of local controversy that flares up almost as often as the shooting stars, the spring wildflowers for which it is famous.
To botanists, Rochester Cemetery is a pilgrimage site, and it is a source of pride to many local residents. Others in this rural community, once the county seat, call it a weed lot and a shame and believe regular mowing would show more respect for the dead. To Stephen Longmire, a landscape photographer and writer, it is a place where the history of the Midwest is written on the land—a long exposure, lasting almost two centuries. The story of the land’s settlement is here, when immigrants from the eastern states and northern Europe transformed Iowa’s native landscape in their effort to make themselves a home. Also evident is the gradual industrialization of farming that left communities like Rochester by the wayside. In the tug of war between people and place, the prairie plants reclaim their native ground. Historic cemetery plantings grow wild among the wildflowers, while bright plastic flowers decorate modern graves. The plastic flowers bear no more resemblance to the local flora than the weeping willows on early markers. It has been a challenge for people to see this place on its own terms.
As an active burial ground, the Rochester Cemetery prairie is a conservation conundrum, with no formal preservation status. Local people will have to keep caring for it for it to survive. Since 2006, they have had help from the Friends of Rochester Cemetery, a dedicated group of volunteers. In his book, Life and Death on the Prairie (forthcoming from The Center for American Places at Columbia College Chicago and the University of Chicago Press), Longmire portrays this patch of native Iowa in photographs and prose, showing it to be a living time capsule of all the land’s uses since its settlement. Roughly half the photographs from the book are on display.