Did you know that Foxfield Preserve was once a working farm? If you visit, it is pretty easy to tell where the original homestead once stood – the sculpted arborvitae is a dead giveaway!
While dedicating this land for use as a cemetery, The Wilderness Center is also working to return it to a natural space. Our efforts so far have focused on planting trees to begin reforestation of one section, and the planting of native grasses and wildflowers to establish a prairie. With these efforts come some land management techniques you certainly wouldn’t see in any traditional cemetery.
On April 23rd this past spring Gary Popotnik, our land stewardship director at TWC, directed us in performing a controlled burn of the Prairie Crest at Foxfield. Those species which should be growing on the prairie have incredibly long roots – in fact, we only see about 1/3 of prairie plants above the surface – so burning doesn’t harm them. In fact, burns provide important nutrients for the healthy growth of the plants. Trees and invasive species which don’t belong on the prairie are removed when we burn and therefore are no longer in competition with the prairie plants. So with ideal temperature, humidity and wind speed/direction (and all necessary permits and approvals), we suited up in our fire protection gear.
This was my second burn experience, as I was allowed to assist in last spring’s burn of the Lower Prairie at Foxfield. I have to say that I was more comfortable this time. During last year’s burn I’m pretty sure I drained my water pack putting out every flame I saw. This year I was able to suppress that instinct and merely squirm nervously. Even when you know you want something to burn, it is hard to avoid the concern at seeing those large flames licking through the grasses! As Gary told me, you have to keep a healthy respect of the destructive power of the fire because that will keep you safe.
The results from that burn have been astonishing to watch these past few weeks. It is hard to believe that in just 7 weeks nature could turn scorched blackened earth into these lush green grasses. The first wildflowers have started blooming, having spread and flourished following the fire. They dot the prairie, offer small pockets of divine beauty amidst the rich and waving sea of green foliage. The deep purples of spiderwort reward morning visitors, before closing their petals to the afternoon sun. Delicate beardtongue sway lightly in the breezes that blow across the hilltop, and thickly surrounded a recent burial site. Recently each trip to mow along the edges of the paths has delighted me with a burst of freshly mown mountain mint. Always a welcome delight!
As with all the regular, seasonal changes at Foxfield, this recovery from our burn has served as a metaphor for me. No matter how desolate and devastating an event may seem, life will move forward and can flourish with indescribable beauty.