I recently found myself in need of some quiet wilderness + creative therapy so I grabbed some cameras and hit the road to one of my favorite natural retreats, Rochester Cemetery. For those not familiar, Rochester Cemetery lies in Cedar County between West Branch and Tipton, not far from the banks of the Cedar River. Sprawling across a quiet gravel road, Rochester Cemetery was established during Iowa’s early pioneer days. It is the final resting place of over 900 people, with graves dating back to 1838.
In addition to being one of the oldest cemeteries in the region, Rochester Cemetery remains a mostly-unmaintained 13.5-acre tract of never-plowed prairie. Its diverse natural landscape boasts more than 400 species of plants and is significant because it embodies a natural heritage that, today, is mostly gone. According to an article in the Quad City Times, “At one time, Iowa was mostly tallgrass prairie. Today, less than one-tenth of 1 percent of that remains.” Rochester Cemetery is perhaps what this region “might have looked like when European settlers first arrived. This is a sand prairie/savanna, meaning there are scattered trees – mainly huge white oaks – among the grasses and prairie plants that bloom according to the seasons, beginning in the spring with pinks and whites and continuing through summer/fall with yellows.” (source)
Families who wish to maintain their ancestral plots may do so, but maintenance of the cemetery as a whole is not regulated so most of it remains overgrown prairie. There are a few paths cut by machines and a few others blazed by the deer and other wild creatures who call this tract of land and its surrounding woods home, but by and large Rochester Cemetery serves as an untouched natural monument to both those who are buried here as well as the natural landscape that once existed throughout the region.
I shot the following pack of black and white Polaroid SX-70 film at Rochester Cemetery (with the exception of the last 2 images – the “tavern” painted barn was along a nearby gravel road and the status of Isis is at the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site in West Branch) on Sunday, August 21, 2016. To view large versions of the images, click on any image below and simply arrow through the slideshow.
I have often told others that nature is my church and my therapist and this couldn’t be more true. Immersing myself in nature is a healing and rejuvenating practice and without it I begin feel noticeably irritable and ungrounded. A simple walk in the woods will usually bring me back to myself. Being a steward of nature and ally to all creatures is one of the most important things in my life. I do what I can to honor nature through my art, through volunteer service with local wildlife rehabilitation organizations, and through striving to live a life in harmony with the natural world.
As more information flows into the mainstream about the healing qualities of spending time in nature (see links below), I invite you to take a few moments to contemplate what nature means to you and to humanity as a whole. The destruction of natural places has unfortunately become all too commonplace and because of this I think it is very important for us all to seriously consider what impact losing more of our natural spaces would have on us, on future generations, and on the planet.
As the saying goes, the Earth does not belong to us; we belong to the Earth. In the case of Rochester Cemetery, that last statement can be taken quite literally. Those buried beneath this tract of prairie truly belong to the Earth. There is no difference now between their remains and the prairie grass, the wildflowers, the majestic white oak trees, their limbs reaching skyward and roots mingling with the dead. And really, there never was.