By ERIC FREEDMAN
Capital News Service
LANSING — Four white-tailed deer graze atop a rise, oblivious to Jay P Lee and GW Palen, and other folks named Stowell and Whitehead and Slayton and Potter interred there. It’s afternoon — an uncommon feeding time for deer that usually prefer dawn and dusk — on a fall day at Mount Hope Cemetery in Lansing.
The deer browse amongst the graves, apparently unperturbed by the writer, photographer, and ecologist walking at the foot of their hill, discussing varieties of lichen on tombstones, the food value of non-native honeysuckle for wildlife and the evils of invasive buckthorn.
The ecologist is Brian Klatt, director of the Michigan Natural Features Inventory, and we’re exploring the cemetery, which was farmland until 1873. It sits at the intersection of two busy roads about three miles from the classic white-dome state Capitol and backs into the floodplain of Sycamore Creek.
The best-known of those buried here is Ransom Olds, founder of the Oldsmobile car company.
While much of the 82 acres is mown and planted with non-native grasses, the hilly terrain still contains high-quality remnants of native habitat. Snakes feed and overwinter in the floodplain but hunt on the sunnier higher ground, Klatt says.
Owls and other birds shelter from winter storms in the white cedars. Maples produce huge amounts of seeds. Black oaks produce acorns, or “mast,” a staple for squirrels, deer, and other urban wildlife.
Klatt also points out an ash, that “disappearing guy,” a species beleaguered by the emerald ash borer that’s wiped out millions of trees in Michigan.
Mount Hope reflects the landscaped urban cemetery movement that started in the 1830s where the intent was not to protect biodiversity but to provide park-type areas where the living could commune with a quasi-natural environment.
It was a change in approach to burying the dead.
“For hundreds of years, you’d have a little fenced plot next to a church,” Klatt explains. But then in the mid-19th century, a lot of interest in plants developed in an era when landscape architecture “was coming of age,” and when cemeteries “could be used for relaxation and recreation.”
Regardless of the original intent of cemetery landscape designers, when it comes to protecting biodiversity, cemeteries provide “a lot of the same benefits you get from parks,” Klatt says. Whether urban or rural, they reflect the key ecological principle of “habitat islands” — patches of wildlife habitats surrounded by large areas of unsuitable habitat.
Scientists developed the concept of habitat islands to explain species richness on actual islands but expanded the concept to include other isolated natural communities such as cemeteries.
The diversity found in each “island” depends on several variables, including size, distance to the next or nearest islands and greenspace connections like river corridors and floodplains, such as the Sycamore Creek floodplain by Mount Hope Cemetery.
More scientists are now collecting evidence of cemeteries’ value to biodiversity at a time of growing concern about climate change, urban sprawl, habitat destruction and species extinction.
For example, studies, have examined bird diversity in cemeteries in Pittsburgh and Bratislava, Slovakia, plant diversity in a Berlin cemetery and orchid diversity in cemeteries in Turkey and Albania.
I’ve visited Mount Hope Cemetery many times, wandering along its narrow, hilly roadways and wondering about the people buried here, some of their names weathered away over the decades or obscured by lichen. And I’ve wondered at how life thrives in the unlikeliest of places.
Those laid to rest here can’t hear the spring peepers in the Sycamore Creek floodplain or see the white-tailed deer nibbling at the grass above their graves. Fortunately, we can.
Given their comparatively small size and the general lack of connectivity between many cemeteries and other habitats, scientists say it would be an exaggeration to call cemeteries such as Mount Hope “earth arks” that can rescue endangered and threatened species from the floods of extinction and carry them to salvation, or at least eternal survival.
Instead, their research suggests that we think of them as small lifeboats that may carry some of their desperate passengers to at least temporary harbors.
This column is adapted from the author’s article in the spring 2017 issue of “Earth Island Journal.”
ADDITIONAL RESOURCES FOR CNS EDITORS
“In the Shadow of Death”: http://www.earthisland.org/journal/index.php/eij/article/in_the_shadow_of_death/
By ERIC FREEDMAN