Iowa’s Rochester Cemetery (near Tipton) is one of the most unusual and bio-diverse prairies left in America, boasting more than 400 species of plants–337 of them native to the region–on its thirteen-and-a-half acres. Among them are fifteen massive white oaks that stood watch as the surrounding landscape was converted into farmland after Euro-American settlers arrived in the 1830s. The cemetery is the last resting place of these pioneers and their descendants, down to the present. Graves are scattered among the wildflowers, across hills that geologists consider sand dunes held in place by the deep roots of the plants and people and is beautifully presented in Life and Death on the Prairie by Stephen Longmire.

Pioneer cemeteries have been recognized as important prairie remnants and seed banks ever since Aldo Leopold, another Iowa native, called attention to them in his landmark essays of the 1940s, as he developed the new field of ecological restoration. At Rochester Cemetery, the drama of the prairie’s survival continues to this day, in a controversy that flares up as reliably as spring’s shooting stars. To botanists across the country, this place is a pilgrimage site. To local residents, it is either a source of pride or a shameful weed lot (some feel regular mowing would show more respect for the dead). To the photographer and writer Stephen Longmire, it is a place where the stories of the rural Midwest are written on the land-a long exposure, extending back to the days when Meskwaki Indians camped nearby and wildfire held back the forest. In the creative tension between people and place, Rochester’s prairie holds its native ground. Historic cemetery plantings grow wild among the native wildflowers, and bright plastic flowers decorate modern graves.

In compelling photographs and prose, Longmire shows this patch of original Iowa to be a living record of all the land’s uses since its settlement. (description provided by publisher)

Song of Years (1939) The state of Iowa was still young and wild when Wayne Lockwood came to it from New England in 1851. He claimed a quarter-section about a hundred miles west of Dubuque and quickly came to appreciate his widely scattered neighbors, like Jeremiah Martin, whose seven daughters would have chased the gloom from any bachelor’s heart. Sabina, Emily, Celia, Melinda, Phoebe Lou, Jeannie, and Suzanne are timeless in their appeal — too spirited to be preoccupied with sermons, sickness, or sudden death. However, the feasts, weddings, and holiday celebrations in Song of Years are shadowed by all the rigors and perils of frontier living. This novel captures the period in Iowa’s history of Indian scares and county-seat wars, as well as the political climate preceding the Civil War. Mrs. Aldrich based this novel largely on her grandfather’s adventures in Iowa and the stories she heard as a child. from

I read this book while I was in high school. I would lay on my bed with the breeze coming though the windows and am transported onto the Iowa prairie. Bess’ description of the prairie, and every breathless detail made the characters believable, and the characters stay with me long after I finished the story. This book would appeal to readers on many different levels. First of all, there is the historical aspect of the struggle of life on the prairie when Iowa was just becoming state. Second, there is the story of a young girl, unsure of herself, growing to womanhood and finding out who she really is as she faces events that are out of her control. We witness Suzanne’s first infatuation, her crushing disappointment when she realizes her feelings are not returned, and, eventually, a true love that will outlast anything. The reader realizes that though the times may change, the emotions of growing up do stay the same.  Sometimes we need a good, old-fashioned story. It still remains my favorite book of all time.

America’s Lost Landscape: The Tallgrass Prairie tells the rich and complex story of one of the most astonishing alterations of nature in human history. Prior to Euro-American settlement in the 1820s, one of the major landscape features of North America was 240 million acres of tallgrass prairie. But between 1830 and 1900 – in the space of a single lifetime – the tallgrass prairie was steadily transformed to farmland. This drastic change in the landscape also brought about an enormous social change for Native Americans; in an equally short time their cultural imprint was reduced in essence to a handful of place-names appearing on maps. America’s Lost Landscape examines the record of human struggle, triumph, and defeat that prairie history exemplifies, including the history and culture of America’s aboriginal inhabitants. The story of how and why the prairie was changed by Euro-American settlement is thoughtfully nuanced. The film also highlights prairie preservation efforts and explores how the tallgrass prairie ecosystem may serve as a model for a sustainable agriculture of the future. The extraordinary cinematography of prairie remnants, original score and archival images are all delicately interwoven to create a powerful and moving viewing experience about the natural and cultural history of America. Written by David O’Shields

David O’Shields and Daryl Smith are the producers of this  film.

David O’Shields is  writer, producer and director with New Light Media, Cedar Falls, IA. David has been a working member of the production community since 1985. In addition to his work in public television, he has extensive experience as a cameraman and director in commercial television. David founded New Light Media in 1995 to pursue his dream of making important and engaging documentary films.

Daryl Smith has served as head of UNI Department of Biology, president of the Iowa Academy of Science. A native Iowan, Smith has been involved in prairie preservation, management, and restoration for 35 years.