A Southwest Virginia college community is experimenting with a habitat-friendly plan to nurture wildlife and enhance the ecosystem, all while brightening a historic cemetery.
The Holston Conference Cemetery-Emory & Henry that overlooks the campus of Emory & Henry College in Washington County is among a growing number of communities throughout the country that are adopting initiatives to encourage a living landscape of native wildflowers, insects and birds.
According to Monica Hoel, chair of the cemetery board and director of alumni at the college, the idea surfaced after exploring ways to reduce the money required for upkeep to the adjoining acreage that surrounds gravesites.
“We were excited to discover how other places are using cemeteries as a natural space,” Hoel said. “Cemeteries in England are using their burial grounds to let native plants grow. We were looking to do something differently with our own cemetery.”
Through a partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program and its nonprofit partner, Canaan Valley Institute, as much as 2 acres of the property not being used for graves is being repurposed as a pollinator meadow habitat restoration project.
“It’s a win-win opportunity to do something good for the environment and be more financially sound,” Hoel said.
According to Gail Berrigan, executive director of the Canaan Valley Institute, which works to create healthy communities and clean watersheds throughout Central Appalachia, the major goal of the project in Emory is to reduce the turf grass in the meadow, which is a sterile environment for wildlife and costly to maintain.
Native plants will provide habitats for organisms ranging from game birds and small mammals to pollinator species such as bumblebees and other insects.
“I think there’s something rather poetic about a meadow brimming with life at a cemetery,” Berrigan said.
Frank Wagner, a habitat restoration specialist with the Canaan Valley Institute, said the assignment represents the largest continuous upland meadow restoration project undertaken by the nonprofit. The agency consults with landowners to help them conserve and improve wildlife habitats.
“People will say we only care about the squirrels and foxes,” said Hoel, “but the reality is when we lose that part of the ecosystem it damages the health of the planet and the people who live here as well.”
Hoel, who is a member of the Holston Rivers Chapter of Virginia Master Naturalists, understands the codependent relationships plants and insects share. “Having the right plants for insects is crucial for everything to work,” she said.
Research has taught her that insects are programmed to recognize and flourish on certain native plants. “Believe it or not, everything on the planet is based on the welfare of insects,” she said. “They are like the building blocks that everything else is built on.”
She likes to quote E.O. Wilson, an American biologist and naturalist, for saying, “If we were to wipe out insects alone on this planet, the rest of life and humanity with it would mostly disappear from the land. Within a few months.”
Starting with a clean slate
The project came together as a result of collaboration from multiple community partners.
“The most important partners in this venture are members of the Holston Conference-Emory & Henry Cemetery Board for having the foresight and creativity to approve the plan, and Emory & Henry College for supporting the idea, doing some of the work and pulling students into the project for education purposes,” said Hoel.
Before work began, Hoel described the project area as “manicured, but not especially interesting. It was just grass.”
For starters, the Canaan Valley Institute and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Partners Program administered applications of herbicide and the Virginia Department of Forestry oversaw a controlled burn in the meadow. These measures left the site with a clean slate for sowing native seeds.
“I’ve already seen a lot of black-eyed Susan, native sunflowers, larkspur and native grasses start to surface,” Hoel said.
“Part of the challenge of projects like this is some of the plants that will be the hardiest in the long run are plants that take a couple of years to get established. I liken it to a baby swan that’s gangly now but eventually turns into something awesome,” she laughed.
Because the area is a public space that frequently welcomes families for funerals and visits, the partners team planted quick-growing, fast-blooming flowers, such as cosmos and other flowering annuals, around the perimeter of the acres for temporary visual appeal.
“We want people to be excited about the project and if they can’t see something happening, it’s hard to accomplish that,” Hoel said.
According to Wagner, it will take a couple of years ecologically for the meadow to get into its final form. “All of the perennials we’ve planted in our native mix will eventually take the place of the annuals. After the first two years of routine maintenance, the meadow will be a self-sustaining system with a nice mixture of native forb and grass species,” he said.
As partners in the project, members of the Holston Rivers Chapter of the Virginia Master Naturalists have pledged to provide ongoing care for the natural habitat. After receiving training from the partners team, the members have helped to remove invasive or alien species that often outcompete with native plants.
By getting rid of invasive species, such as Chinese privet, Oriental bittersweet and multiflora rose, native plants such as purple coneflower are starting to thrive in open spaces enhanced by sunlight. In some areas, a native plant called pokeweed is being thinned to give other native plants more room and sunlight to grow.
Just since May, volunteers with the Holston Rivers Virginia Master Naturalists have completed as many as a hundred service hours for the project.
Even people outside the community are on board with the project.
Bucky Clabaugh, an Emory & Henry alumnus from Gate City, has donated his handcrafted bluebird houses for the habitat area; one will be placed near the grave of Randy Smith, a Master Naturalist who led bird walks, owl prowls and an annual bird count. The first box will be installed during a meeting of the Master Naturalists on Sept. 5.
A corner of the area is being allowed to return to a wooded state, with trees and shrubs, such as spice bush, witch hazel and an American chestnut.
A rich history
It’s easy to understand why the welfare of the Emory cemetery is such a big deal to the college community.
The cemetery has a rich history as a final resting place for many of the college’s founders and presidents.
According to Hoel, the first plot of graves in the cemetery was established and placed there by James A. Davis, the first Emory & Henry graduate to return to campus as a faculty member. An alumni award named after Davis is given to a faculty member each year.
Dating back to the 1800s, some of the first graves include Richard G. Waterhouse, the president of the college in 1893; Creed Fulton, a Methodist minister who was considered to be one of the four founders of the college; and Ephraim Emerson Wiley, the second president who joined the college in 1938 as its first full-time faculty member.
Wiley’s widow, Elizabeth Wiley, founded Holston United Methodist Home for Children in 1895. She also is buried in the Holston Conference-Emory & Henry Cemetery.
Grave sites continued to be available to faculty, staff and alumni of the college as well as to members of Holston Conference and the Emory community.