A Little Tallgrass Tranquility

“June comes with its own tranquility, predictable as sunrise, reassuring as the coolness of dusk.”– Hal Borland

******

Peace, quiet, and tranquility sound appealing right now.  As meteorological summer arrives, the prairie is a good place to find all three. Let’s take a look.

ClearCreekKnollsNG53020WM

The dragonflies and damselflies are out at Nachusa Grasslands. Common green darners aimlessly work their way across the pond. A few common whitetail dragonflies hunt for prey in the cool, overcast day.

It’s quiet.

PowerLinePonds53020WM

I slosh through what was prairie last season; now a new wetland created by beavers. The dammed pond overflows with water, which runs into the grooves on the dirt two-track alongside it.

Two-trackpowerlineponds53020NGWM

These small, ephemeral water-filled ruts teem with life. So many tadpoles!

On the edges, immature eastern forktail females flutter weakly, still in the teneral stage.

Immature Female Teneral Eastern Forktail NG Pwlpds53020WM

Their color gradually comes into focus, like a Polaroid picture. Later, they’ll mature from orange and turn powdery blue.

EasternForktailFemalePLPsNG53020WM

The male eastern forktails are everywhere, looking for females to mate with.

EasternForktailPLPsNG53020WM

I watch the females lay eggs—oviposit—into a vegetation mat floating in the pond. Eastern forktails are usually the first damselfly I see each year, and–with a few season’s exceptions–the most numerous species of damselfly I see at both my prairie monitoring sites. They are easy to dismiss, because they are so common. When I first began learning dragonfly and damselfly ID, I was confused by their different appearances. How could one species of damselfly be three different colors? And that’s not including their teneral stage. The most common damselflies have incredible complexity.

In the quiet, the stress of the last few days fades. I hear a bird that I don’t know–a gallinule, a friend tells me later. A new one for me!

I watch the dragonflies and listen a bit longer before I turn and go back to my monitoring. The wildflowers hum with activity.

YarrowCCNG53020WM

I can still hear well, but my eyes are weaker as I’ve gotten older. As I’m scribbling data on my clipboard, I notice one of the “forktails” is moving differently — floating, instead of fluttering. Another seems a bit off-color for a eastern forktail. But I can’t make out the details, even with my binoculars.

GreatAngelicaCC53020WM

It’s not until I’m home and sorting through blurry photo after blurry photo of my “eastern forktail” damselfly photos, that two crisp photos jump out at me.

Sedge sprite! Nehalennia irene. The first time I’ve seen one. They’ve been found at two sites at Nachusa, but this is the first time I’ve found it— and it’s new for this particular area. Sedge sprites are rare and uncommon in Illinois.  The scientific name almost always tells a good story, and Nehalennia, I discover, is the name of a Rhein River goddess. Appropriate for something so lovely.

SedgeSpritePLPondsNG53020WM

This male’s length is from the tip of my baby finger to the knuckle. Its lack of eyespots–little color markers on top of the eyes–sets it apart from other damselflies, notes Robert DuBois, author of Damselflies of Minnesota, Wisconsin & Michigan. So tiny. So beautiful.

And then—oh! Look. Another species. Fragile forktail damselfly. Ishnura posita. I’ve seen it here before, but only once. I thought the color looked wrong for an eastern forktail when I was sloshing through the pond perimeter and logging it on my data sheet as such, and I was right. The pale green exclamation mark on the thorax is the tip-off.

Fragile Forktail NG PowerlinePonds53020

The fragile forktails fly from May to September, so I should see them again here as I walk my route this summer. I had to go back and revise my data submission. Next time, I’ll pay more attention. I’ll wait to log it until I review the photos.

Later, Jeff and I hike and marvel at the smallest wildflowers in bloom. Long-leaved bluets.

LongleavedbluetsNGFFK53020WM

Blue toadflax, so minuscule I struggle to get my camera to focus on the flower.

ToadflaxCCNG53020

Sedges—so many to try and name—are woven into the wildflowers and grasses. The light casts them into silhouettes.

SedgesNG53020WM

Small moths lay in the tallgrass like winged ghosts.

MothScopula spp. NG53020WM

A flycatcher—possibly an alder flycatcher but likely a willow flycatcher—talks to me from a scrubby shrub. As I wrote this, I tried to remember the exact call, as this is one of the ID markers between the two.  Cornell’s All About Birds website describes the sound of a willow flycatcher as someone quickly zipping up a jacket. Alder flycatcher is described as free-beer! I wish I had paid more attention so I’d be sure of my identification.

WillowFlycatcherNG53020WM

These fleeting moments are easy to miss. I try to remember to listen attentively. What else am I overlooking today?

Pale beardtongue’s bright flowers are difficult to pass by without pausing.

PalePenstamon53020FFKNGWM

Up close, they are surprisingly hairy.

Pale PenstamonBeardtongue NGFFK53020WM

A contrast to the pea-like blooms in the tapered spikes of violet lupine, the color of summer’s last light on the clouds at dusk.

LupineNGCC53020WM

The startlingly clear purple-blue of the spiderwort always fails description. Such a color!

NG53020SpiderwortWM

I soak it all up.

For a while, I forget the outside world.

Thank you, prairie.

******

The opening quote is by Hal Borland (1900-1978) from Sundial of the Seasons, a selection of 365  outdoor essays that follow the days of the year. Born in Nebraska, he wrote more than 1,200 essays, many published in the New York Times, often about the passing of the year on his Connecticut farm.

*****

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (top to bottom):  Clear Creek Knolls; beaver pond; new pools in the gravel two-track; video of tadpoles in the ephemeral pools and tire track ruts; eastern forktail damselfly (Ischnura verticalis)); eastern forktail  damselfly (Ischnura verticalis); eastern forktail damselfly (Ischnura verticalis); video of pond; unknown bee on common yarrow (Achillea millefolium); great Angelica (Angelica atropurpurea): sedge sprite damselfly (Nehalennia irene); fragile forktail damselfly (Ischnura posita); long-leaved bluets (Houstonia longifolia); blue toadflax (Nuttallanthus canadensis); unknown sedges (Carex sp.); unknown moth (possibly one of the Scopula genus); possibly a willow flycatcher (Empidonax traillii, they are difficult to tell apart from alder flycatchers except by song); pale beardtongue (Penstemon pallidus); pale beardtongue (Penstemon pallidus); wild lupine (Lupinus perennis); Ohio spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis).

*******

Join Cindy for a class online!

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” begins June 7. Work from home at your own pace for 60 days to complete the material, and meet other prairie volunteers and stewards on the discussion boards and in the optional ZOOM session. Register here.

Want more prairie while you are sheltering in place? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction.

A Belmont Prairie Stroll

“Look carefully and look often” — John Weaver

******

May. The spring greens are coming in; the garden overflows with spinach, onions, kale, radishes and the first flush of potato growth.

Garden 52220WMWMWM

Meals now include salads with a mish-mash of whatever looks good or needs a little thinning.

Salad520WM

Severe weather this week poured rain on the garden, making the plants happy. The clouds put on a show that could compete with anything on Broadway. Tornadoes to the north. Tornadoes to the south. Heat that topped 90 degrees.

Spring in Illinois.

Clouds over Backyard Prairie 52020WM

In between the raindrops, heat, and storms, Jeff and I find a sunny evening to hike the Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve in Downer’s Grove, Illinois.

BelmontPrairie52120pathWM

The rains and heat hurry along the new growth, emerald under last year’s dry grasses in the evening light.

BelmontPrairietrees52120WM

The prairie is spangled with blue-eyed grass…so much blue-eyed grass. It mingles with orange hoary puccoon.

HoaryPucconandBlueEyedGrass52120WM

Blue-eyed grass is such a tiny flower, neither a grass nor blue-eyed. It’s in the iris family. These flowers at Belmont Prairie are bright white, although you can find this species in blue, ranging to violet.

BlueEyedGrassBelmontPrairieWMWM52020

Gerould Wilhelm and Laura Rereicha’s Flora of the Chicago Region gives it a 6 out of 10 as its coefficent of conservatism score, simply meaning it is moderate in its ability to flourish in degraded areas. Some of its neighbor, the hoary puccoon, is beginning to fade. Soon—in a matter of weeks—these two spring prairie standouts will forgotten in the onslaught of high summer prairie wildflowers and tallgrasses.

HoaryPuccoonBlueEyedGrassBelmontPrairie52120WM

As I walk, I notice the changes a few weeks have brought to this prairie.  Spittlebug froth is everywhere, as if a hiker had spat at plants along the trail.

Spittlebug52120BelmontPrairieWM

I gently lift the mass of foam onto my finger, then tease it apart.

SpitbugBelmontPrairie52120WM

Hello, spittlebug nymph! Click here to see what it will look like as an adult. The nymph blows these “bubbles” out of its backside, so it isn’t technically “spit.”  In its nymph stage and adult stage, it feeds on plant sap but don’t cause much damage.

There are patches of bubbly spit everywhere, but this isn’t the only white I see. This is the season of white flowers. Pearl buds of bastard toadflax are opening.

BastardToadflax52120WMCloseupBelmontPrairie

Bedstraw is in flower, its tiny pale blooms almost invisible.

BedstrawWM52120BelmontPrairie

The first meadow anemone buds show promise of what is to come.

AnemoneWM52120BelmontPrairie

Yarrow, a weedy native with coefficient of conservatism score of “0” out of “10” (according to Flora of the Chicago Region, where Wilhelm calls it “one of the more common plants of our region”) will open any day now. Butterflies and several moths visit the flowers.

YarrowBelmontPrairie52120WM

Another weedy native, Philadelphia fleabane, is everywhere in the wetlands of the preserve. Common? Yes. But cheerful. I love its”fringe.”

fleabane52120BelmontPrairieWM

I notice the prairie violets are less prominent now, although still in bloom; common blue violets with their more heart-shaped leaves are scattered among them. The false strawberries—also called “Indian strawberries” or “mock strawberries” —are out for the first time, sunny splashes of yellow flowers across the prairie.

False StrawberryWM BelmontPrairie52120

Their fruit is not at all tasty, as I’ve found from sampling it in my yard where it pops up from time to time. This non-native is only found in about a dozen counties in Illinois. Another cheerful non-native in bloom is dames rocket, which skims the edges of the prairie.

Dames RocketWMBelmontPrairie52120

It’s one we pull from restorations, but I can’t help but admire it this afternoon for its tenacity and its pretty color. I leave it, but feel my fingers itch to yank! yank! However, the parking lot is full of teens congregating, doubtless anxious for some time with friends. To pull something as pretty as dames rocket and carry it out would doubtless be misunderstood and I’m not feeling up to long explanations. Later, I promise myself. I’ll be back for you.

Summer’s tall floral denizens, such as compass plant, are only leaves right now. But such leaves!CompassPlantBelmontPrairieWM52120

So green. So graceful. I imagine the yellow flowers towering over me, up to 12 feet tall this summer.

CompassPlantCloseUpWMWMBelmontPrairie52120

Out of the corner of my eye I glimpse a butterfly—-is it a black swallowtail? I’m not sure. I chase it for a while, and it teases me, lighting on a plant here, then as I focus my camera, fluttering off out of reach of my lens. On Memorial Day, Jeff and I saw the first monarch cruise our backyard in the sweltering heat, although it didn’t linger. I think of the monarchs, and how they’ve brightened so many summers before this one. The monarchs will be glad to see the yarrow in bloom this coming week.

CROSBY Monarch 816 My backyardWM

Discovering these butterflies lifts my spirits. So many more to come.

As of last week, the first ruby-throated hummingbirds are coming to the backyard feeders. As the prairie wildflowers progress, I’ll watch for them in the tallgrass, working the bee balm and royal catchfly and late figwort. For now, I enjoy their company at home, and look forward to seeing them on the prairie.

Hummingbird GE 2016WM

There’s a lot of promise on the prairie right now. The promise of new discoveries, each time I visit. The promise of more wildflowers unfolding, and their associated pollinators appearing each time I hike here. The promise of learning some new plants, and reacquainting myself with some ones I know well. All I have to do is show up. Pay attention. Be curious.

The summer stretches ahead, with all of its unknowns.

HollowtreeBelmontPrairie52120WM

I’m glad the prairies will be here to offer their own kind of certainty, in a year that is turning out to be full of ambiguity. The certainty of new wildflowers. The certainty of emerging insects and butterflies. The certainty of migrating birds and dragonflies and monarchs.

BelmontPrairieStream52120WM

The certainty that every hour spent hiking a prairie is an hour well spent.

****

John Weaver (1884-1956) was a world renowned prairie ecologist and an expert on grasses. Weaver published the first American ecology textbook and was a faculty member at University of Nebraska.

****

All photos taken at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL, unless otherwise noted: (top to bottom): author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; salad from the garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; clouds over author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; path through Belmont Prairie; trees at Belmont Prairie; common blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium albidum) and hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens); common blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium albidum); common blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium albidum) and hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens); spittlebug foam (possibly from Philaenus spumarius); spittlebug nymph (possibly Philaenus spumarius); bastard toadflax (Comandra unbellata); bedstraw (possibly catchweed bedstraw, Galium aparine); meadow anemone (Anemone canadensis); yarrow (Achillea millefolium); Philadelphia fleabane (Erigeron philadelphicus); mock strawberry (Potentilla indica); dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis); compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) taken in the authors backyard in 2016, Glen Ellyn, IL); ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) taken in the author’s backyard in 2016, Glen Ellyn, IL); trees at Belmont Prairie; stream through Belmont Prairie.

*******

Join Cindy for a class online!

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” begins June 7. Work from home at your own pace for 60 days to complete the material, and meet other prairie volunteers and stewards on the discussion boards and in the optional ZOOM session. Register here.

Nature Journaling is online Monday, June 1 — 11am-12:30pm through The Morton Arboretum: Explore how writing can lead you to gratitude and reflection and deepen connections to yourself and the natural world. In this workshop, you will discover the benefits of writing in a daily journal, get tips for developing the habit of writing, and try out simple prompts to get you on your way. (WELL095) — Register here.

Want more prairie while you are sheltering in place? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction.

A Very Prairie Cemetery

“The prairie landscape insists on patience and commitment. It does not give up its secrets and wonders easily.” — James P. Ronda

*****

It’s the end of the work day at home, and I’m scrolling through Twitter. Then I see it —a tweet by tallgrass artist Liz Anna Kozik about a local prairie awash in shooting star blooms. A prairie I’ve never seen before! It’s only 30 minutes from my home. Jeff looks over my shoulder and sees the photo Liz has posted. Wow! We look at each other.

Let’s go!

The 37-acre Vermont Cemetery Prairie is part of the Forest Preserve District of Will County. One acre of the pioneer cemetery is designated as an Illinois Nature Preserve. This acre, untouched by agricultural plows which destroyed most of Illinois’ original 22 million acres of tallgrass prairie, is a rare piece of our history.

signVermontPrairieIllinoisNaturePreserve51220WM

The cemetery is home to the federally endangered  and state threatened Mead’s milkweed. Illinois has about two dozen native milkweeds, all of them host to the monarch butterfly caterpillar. I’ve seen many of these native milkweeds. But the Mead’s has been elusive. Maybe later this summer, I’ll see it here.

Sign-VermontPrairieCemetery51220WM

As we get out of the car, I’m disappointed. Prairie plants? Sure. The immediate area around the parking lot seems to be prairie wetland, and we spot some familiar species.

VermontWM Cemetery Prairie PReserveWMWM looking west 51220

Birds are moving through. A killdeer. A mallard. Another mallard. And—what’s that?

Vermont Cemetery Prairie Preserve 51220 copy

Lesser yellowlegs? I think so. Tringa flavipes. For fun, I look up the meaning of its scientific name. I discover “Tringa” is “a genus of waders, containing the shanks and tattlers.”  Hilarious! The Latin name flavipes is pretty straightforward: flavus is “yellow” and pes means “foot.” I love the scientific names; they always have a story to tell about a member of the natural world. I check the lesser yellowlegs’ range in Cornell’s All About Birds; it seems they are stopping here on their way to their breeding grounds up north.

We watch the lesser yellowlegs move through the wetlands for a while, then continue looking for the cemetery.   Jeff spies it first—-the black fencing in the distance is a tip-off. The Tall Grass Greenway Trail runs parallel to the prairie, between the fence and railroad tracks, flanked by towering power lines.

VermontCemeteryPrairiedistant51220WM

A mammoth subdivision borders the other side of the preserve. House after house after house. But few people are at the prairie.

VermontCemeteryPrairieSubdivisionWM51220

The fence, which keeps us out, is necessary, as the prairie would easily be damaged by vandalism or poaching. Remnants like this have almost vanished in Illinois; only about 2,300 high quality original prairie acres remain. Remaining prairie remnants tend to be along old railroad tracks, on rocky knobs unsuitable for farming (such as you find at Nachusa Grasslands in Franklin Grove, IL), or in cemeteries, such as these.

Jeff and I walk the perimeter. Outside the cemetery fence, even the ditch and buffer zones are a treasure trove of prairie plants. Golden Alexanders.

GoldenAlexandersVermontCemeteryWM51220WMTWO

And its cousin, heart-leaved golden Alexanders.

USE THIS ONE WM Heart-leaved Golden Alexanders Vermont Cemetery 51220

Compass plants.

compassplant51220VermontCemeteryWM

Wild strawberries.

wildstrawberryVermontPrairie51220WM

Tall coreopsis.

TallcoreopsisVermontCemetery51220WM

Prairie dropseed.

prairiedropseed51220WMVermontPrairie

All this on the outside of the fence! Magical. Could it really be any better inside?

VermontPrairieCemeteryFence51220WM

We look in.

VermontCemeteryPrairieWM51220CLOSER

Wow.

VermontCemeteryPrairie51220shootingstarsandpowerlinesWM

So much shooting star. We see bumblebees among the graves, working the flowers in the early evening light.

shootingstargraves51220WM

Among the shooting star is wood betony…

Wood Betony Vermont Cemetery PrairieWM 51220

..and so much hoary puccoon! These pops of orange are startling among the yellow of wood betony and the pink of shooting star. A few bastard toadflax throw white stars in the grasses.  Sedges are in bloom too! But what species?HoaryPuccoonVermontPrairieCemetery51220WM

I have no idea.

The health of this prairie is a tribute to long-time dedicated stewards Don and Espie Nelson. (Watch a video about their work on this prairie here.) Without the efforts of this dynamic duo, this prairie would not be the vibrant, diverse place we see today. It also owes its existence to Dr. Robert Betz, a professor at Northeastern Illinois University, who worked to restore this remnant in the 1960s through cutting brush and using prescribed fire. He’s one of our Illinois prairie heroes.

vermontprairiecemetery51220WMtombstones

I wonder what those who were buried here would have thought about the importance we put on the prairie flora found here today. Curious, I look up Wilhelmine Grabe, whose name appears on a gravestone with her husband, John Grabe.  She was born in Germany, immigrated here, and died in 1895, at the same age as I am today. What did she think, when she came from the forests of Germany and first walked through a tallgrass prairie? Was she enchanted? Or was she afraid of the vast, empty spaces that became her new home? Did she and her husband, John, work hard to break the prairie sod so they could farm and grow food for their family? Would it puzzle her to see how much we value the last vestiges of prairie here?

I look up other names I see on the markers, but find nothing. There are many other gravestones worn beyond deciphering. All of these markers ask us to remember people who called the prairie state home for a portion of their lives. All of them are now at rest in one of the most beautiful cemeteries I’ve ever seen.

shootingstargraves51220WM copy

This prairie…these beautiful prairie wildflowers. This unexpected evening. This visit is a surprise that lifts my spirits and revives my sense of wonder.

The surprises have not all been good ones this week. My ginkgo tree, resilient and indestructible—-I thought — had leafed out. Then—wham! All of its leaves died this week.

Ginkgo dying 1 51720WM

Will it survive? I email the Morton Arboretum’s plant clinic, a free service the Morton Arboretum offers to anyone, anywhere. Sharon, a repository of expert plant knowledge,  diagnoses freeze damage. She says it’s possible my little tree will summon enough energy to put out a new set of leaves.

Or not.

All I can do, she said, is watch…and wait.

compassplants51220WM

I’ve gotten more practiced at watching and waiting the past two months. No problem.

Another surprise:  Sunday evening, three and a half inches of rain fell in a few hours. The Arboretum is still closed because of the pandemic, so we drive to Leask Lane which borders the west side of the Schulenberg Prairie to see how the prairie has fared. There, we pull off the road to peer through the fence. Willoway Brook rampages wide and wild. As a steward, I know the seeds of invasive plants are coming in with this deluge, and will require attention as the waters subside.

Willoway Brook MA flooding 51720WM

It’s a challenge I anticipate. But it will be a few more weeks before the Morton Arboretum is open. Although my steward work won’t resume for a bit longer, I’ll be able to hike the Schulenberg Prairie again in less than two weeks.  At last. At last.

I’m anxious to see what the past two months have brought to the prairie. I look over the fence and wonder. Are the small white lady’s slipper orchids in bloom? This should be their week. I remember the delight of discovering them nestled deep in the new grasses.

Orchids-SPMA2016 copy

It’s a discovery that has never lost its charm, year after year.

What about the shooting star? Will they be visible, even with the old growth, unburned, still in place? Try as I might, I can’t see them. But I remember them, from previous years.

shootingstarSPMA51918wm

I think of these years, and how beautiful the wildflowers were. I imagine the queen bumblebees, alighting on one bloom after another,  using their strong thoracic muscles—-performing “buzz pollination”—to loosen the pollen. Like salt sprinkled from a salt shaker.  One thought led to another. Had the federally endangered rusty patched bumblebee emerged? Was it out and about in the wildflowers?

ShootingStar51220VermontCemeteryPrairieWM

I wonder if the first eastern forktail damselflies are emerging along Willoway Brook, and what effects the water’s rise and fall are having on the dragonfly and damselfly populations.

easternforktailwmSPMA51918wm copy

So much is happening! So much to anticipate. June 1, I’ll be back on the prairie I’ve grown to love for the past 22 years where I’ve been steward for almost a decade. Less than two weeks to go now. Until then, I peer through the fence.

It will be worth the wait.

****

James P. Ronda, whose quote kicks off the blog today, is the author of Visions of the Tallgrass from University of Oklahoma Press. If you haven’t seen this book of lovely essays with gorgeous photographs by Harvey Payne, check it out here.

****

All photographs taken at Vermont Cemetery Prairie, Forest Preserve District of Will County, Naperville, IL unless otherwise noted; copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): sign; view of the wetlands; lesser yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes); approach to cemetery remnant; approach to cemetery remnant; golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea); heart-leaved golden Alexanders (Zizia aptera); compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); wild strawberries (Fragaria virginiana); tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis); cemetery fence; shooting star and gravestone (Dodecatheon meadia); shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia); shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia) and gravestone; wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis), hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens) and bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata); prairie and power lines; ginkgo tree (Ginkgo biloba), author’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; small white lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium candidum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL–photo from previous years; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL–photo from previous years; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia); eastern forktail (Ishnura verticalis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Tremendous thanks to Liz Anna Kozik  for the heads up about Vermont Cemetery Prairie. Check out her tallgrass prairie graphic comics and other art here.

***

Join Cindy for a class online!

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology” class online in May through The Morton Arboretum is SOLD OUT.   Sign up now to ensure a spot in our June 7 class here.

Nature Journaling is online Monday, June 1 — 11am-12:30pm through The Morton Arboretum:
Explore how writing can lead you to gratitude and reflection and deepen connections to yourself and the natural world. In this workshop, you will discover the benefits of writing in a daily journal, get tips for developing the habit of writing, and try out simple prompts to get you on your way. (WELL095) — Register here.

Want more prairie while you are sheltering in place? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction.

May on the Prairie

“In May one simply can’t help being thankful . . . that they are alive, if for nothing else.” — L.M. Montgomery

******

It’s been a wild ride this week, from weather so warm I itched to plant my tomatoes (but heroically resisted) to hail—or was it graupel?—and snow-ish flurries, then a freeze warning that sent me to the garden beds with armfuls of sheets.  Chives pop up in every crack in the patio, ready to explode into bloom. We’re pulling the first green onions for omelets, and the promise of radishes and spinach are only days away.

A pair of male Baltimore orioles have whistled up spring in the backyard this the past week, but stayed invisible. This weekend, lured by the promise of half an orange and cups of grape jelly, they made an appearance and brightened up a rainy Mother’s Day.

BaltimoreOriolePair51020WMGEbkyd.JPG

In the backyard prairie patch, my queen of the prairie is up…

queenoftheprairie51120WMTWO.jpg

…its unusual leaves fanned fully open. Last year, it grew to almost five feet tall.

Queen of the Prairie 51120 GEBKYDWM.jpg

Later this summer, its plumes of cotton candy pink flowers will drift through the prairie.

queenoftheprairie71219WMGEbackyardWM.jpg

Tallgrass summer wildflowers tend toward purples, yellows, and white. A little pink is a welcome change. I’m looking forward to it.

Less showy, perhaps, is my two-year-old prairie alum root which sends up bud spikes along the patio. Its flowers won’t be as spectacular as those of queen of the prairie, but its leaves are beautiful, aren’t they?

prairiealumrootGEBKYD51120WM.jpg

Sometimes, you’ll hear it called “coral bells,” for its resemblance to the familiar garden plant that’s in the same genus.The name “alum root” refers to its use as a substitute for alum in pickling.  The hummingbirds  nectar at the flowers—another great reason to grow it. I imagine alum root, mingling with the prairie phlox, shoots of lead plant, and sedges this month on the still-closed Schulenberg Prairie where I’d usually be spending my spring hours. I miss seeing it there, but having alum root at home helps alleviate my sadness.

prairiealumnroot6219WM.jpg

And look! The first leaves are showing on New Jersey tea. I purchased this pricey shrub last season at a native plant sale, and there was the “will it make it? will it not?” anxiety as it went through the first winter.

NewJerseyTea51120GEBKYDWM.jpg

Unlike garden shrubs such as forsythia which bloom on old wood, prairie shrubs, such as New Jersey tea and leadplant, flower on first year wood. It’s an adaptation strategy that allows it to survive prairie fires and still set seed. This summer, I’ll hope to see the first flowers.  Like a foamy cappuccino, don’t you think?

SPMA-newjerseytea62018CRosbyWMcopy.jpg

Or maybe I just need more coffee.

Purple meadow rue’s layered leaves unfold toward the sun. They appreciate my wet backyard, and often tower up to six feet high in the prairie.

Purple Meadow Rue 51120 GEBKYDWM.jpg

Its distinctive seeds in the fall are different than anything else in my prairie patch.

SPMAMeadowrueinseed2017.jpg

Later in the day, a white-crowned sparrow picked at the birdseed scattered across the patio. Its not as flashy as the orioles. But perhaps just as beautiful, in its own way.

whitecrownedsparrow51120WMGEBKYD.jpg

*******

This past Friday, Jeff and I went for a hike at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve to see hoary puccoon, a high-quality prairie wildflower. Hoary puccoon! Hoary puccoon. Everywhere on this remnant is hoary puccoon. What a treasure trove of orange flowers.

Hoarypuccoon5620WM.jpg

“Puccoon” is an oddball kind of word, and one which Native Americans assigned to plants that were useful for dyes. “Hoary” simply refers to the hairs that fur the plant. Sylvan Runkel and Dean Roosa tell us in  Wildflowers of the Tallgrass Prairie: The Upper Midwest that Native American children blended the red dye from the roots with compass plant resin to create a red chewing gum. The hoary puccoon flower petals (probably dried) could also be used for a yellow-orange colored chewing gum.

HoaryPuccoon5720BelmontflowersWM.jpg

At one time the seeds, Runkel and Roosa tell us, were made into beads by Native Americans for ceremonial use. Today, we value this plant for its beauty and its relative scarcity, rather than any practical use. The seeds of hoary puccoon are difficult to germinate, which makes this plant doubly more precious in the field and highly valued for its place in the prairie community. Flora of the Chicago Region gives it a coefficient of conservatism score of 8 out of 10.

The flowers make me think of my backyard Baltimore orioles.

Baltimore Orioles GEbkydWM51020.jpg

As I stroll the Belmont Prairie, I wonder. What’s happening on the Schulenberg Prairie? Is the common valerian in bloom?

commonvalerian51318wm.jpg

Are the shooting star flooding the prairie with pink?

shootingstardreamySPMA52918WM.jpg

There’s no way to know.

But I do know that had I been able to access the Schulenberg Prairie this week, I might not have spent so much time getting to know this Belmont Prairie remnant. And what a joy that has been. Seeing its spring treasures, such as the hoary puccoon and this violet wood sorrel, has been a consolation.

Violet Wood Sorrel BelmontPrairieWM5720.jpg

I stop for a moment at a drift of violet wood sorrel; then think about how its flowers and leaves fold together at night and in cloudy weather. Its tiny, shamrock leaves remind me of origami. Violet wood sorrel leaves Belmont Prairie 5820.JPG

Just off the trail…

blueskiesandcloudsBelmontPrairie5820WM

…the tiny prairie violets offer more than just pretty flower faces.

CrabSpideronPrairieVioletWMBelmontPrairie5620.jpg

Here, at Belmont Prairie, there are endless possibilities for investigation and observation this spring. Plenty of prairie to satisfy my soul. Whenever I feel discouraged or stuck…

kiteinthetree5820WM.jpg

A walk here puts the world to rights for the moment.

BelmontPrairieinearlyMay2020WM.jpg

Thank you, Belmont Prairie.

****

The opening quote by Lucy Maud Montgomery is from her book Anne of Avonlea (1909), from her Anne of Green Gables series.  When she was less than two years old, she lost her mother to tuberculosis, and was mostly raised by her grandparents on Prince Edward Island in Canada. She was a lonely child, and surrounded herself with imaginary friends. It’s not a stretch to see how Anne Shirley, the orphaned protagonist of the series, came into being. Montgomery published 20 novels and numerous short stories and poems.

All photos and video from Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve unless marked otherwise (Schulenberg Prairie photos are from previous seasons), copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Baltimore orioles (Icterus galbula), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn;  queen of  the prairie (Filipendula rubra), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; queen of  the prairie (Filipendula rubra), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; queen of  the prairie (Filipendula rubra), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie alum root (Heuchera richardsonii ), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie alum root (Heuchera richardsonii ) with prairie phlox (Phlox pilosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; purple meadow rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL;  purple meadow rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL;  hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; Baltimore oriole (Icterus galbula), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; common valerian (Valeriana edulis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia); Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; crab spider on prairie violet (Viola pedatifida), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; trail through the Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; violet wood sorrel (Oxalis violacea), kite in a tree, on the Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL in early May.

*******

Join Cindy for a class online!

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology” class online in May through The Morton Arboretum is SOLD OUT.   Sign up now to ensure a spot in our June class here.

Nature Journaling is online Monday, June 1 — 11am-12:30pm through The Morton Arboretum:
Explore how writing can lead you to gratitude and reflection and deepen connections to yourself and the natural world. In this workshop, you will discover the benefits of writing in a daily journal, get tips for developing the habit of writing, and try out simple prompts to get you on your way. (WELL095) — Register here.

Want more prairie while you are sheltering in place? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction.

Early May at Nachusa Grasslands

“There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something. You certainly usually find something, if you look, but it is not always quite the something you were after.”–J.R.R. Tolkien

******

Spring. At last! It’s come to the prairies and savannas in full flush.  Welcome back, prairie trillium.

prairietrilliumCODEASTPRairie5120.jpg

Hello, Virginia bluebells!

virginiabluebells5120WM.jpg

A few days of warmth and sunlight followed by rain and cool nights keep the wildflowers fresh and vibrant. And as always, there is the promise of more to come.

SolomonSeal5120CODEASTWM.jpg

*****

With the first days of May come good news. Our dragonfly data collection efforts at Nachusa Grasslands, restricted in April because of COVID-19,  could now—cautiously—begin. Saturday, Jeff and I drove to Franklin Grove, IL, so I could walk several of my regular routes and see what was flying.Nachusa Fame Flower Knob 5220 rocks WM.jpg

The day started out fair and sunny but gradually turned overcast and windy as we traveled. Yet the thought of being back at Nachusa–taking on a task that felt “normal” for spring—was a lift to our spirits. It felt odd to travel an Interstate highway again. Strange to stop and put gas in the car—our Suburu has gotten about eight weeks to the gallon lately. It’s bizarre to see many businesses shuttered; to pass a shopping outlet mall turned COVID testing center, lined with cars. What was so familiar only months ago is now changed.

Arriving at Nachusa, I hop out of the car to maneuver the heavy metal bars of the bison gate open and drive into the bison unit,

Nachusa Grasslands May 2 2020WM just off the two track.jpg

Jeff and I scan the prairie ahead. The bison are noticeably absent. How such massive animals can disappear into the prairie is a mystery. I know that this spring, at least nine bison calves have been sighted. I look again. Nada. I remember previous summers and the joy I felt when the mamas and new babies appear.

BisonTWOCROSBY-BisonwithbabiesNG2017WM.jpg

We continue to look for bison—and dragonflies—as we travel the gravel two-track to one of my route locations. Normally, the first dragonfly monitoring hike of the season is in April, although not much is flying at that time. Common green darners (Anax junius) will have arrived from the south. Freshly-minted  dragonflies and damselflies should be emerging from the ponds and streams, ready to participate in the ancient dance of pairing up and creating new life.Cattails NG PowerlinePonds5220WM.jpg

Although we’ve driven this two-track many times, it looks different this spring. Nachusa is known for prescribed fire; this is the first time I’ve seen its approximately 3,500 acres untouched by flames at this time of year. If you didn’t know it was May—and ignored the temperature —it could easily be January. But look closer, and you see that underlying carpet of emerald.

Nachusa Grasslands 5220skiesWM.jpg

Our first stop is a large pond I’ve monitored since 2013. But wait!

Where is it?

Bison Pond 5220 dried out!WM.jpg

What? It’s gone! Oh no…I can’t bear looking.

greategret-cindyshot1114WM.jpg

It was in this pond that I saw my first Northern pintails, migrating through Illinois and stopping for a quick paddle and a bite to eat. It was here I had my one and only face-off with a mama bison; me, carelessly walking my route without paying attention to their movements. This pond is where the great egret would stop to rest on its hunting expeditions. So many memories. What could have caused such a change?

I remember the pond as it was in previous years.

NachusaWetlandsfall2017WM.jpg

I look again. Wow.

Bison Pond 5220WM.jpg

Later, I learn what’s happened. Beavers! They’ve spent the past months re-sculpting the prairie landscape to be more to their liking. Who would have thought? At Nachusa, I usually think about the thousand pound-plus bison and the changes they may make to the places I frequent. Amazing what a few 50-pound beavers can do in a matter of months. Such a big changes from a small animal. I think of Mary Oliver’s poem “Little Owl Who Lives in the Orchard”: “It’s not size, but surge that tells us when we’re in touch with something real…” Although the beavers’ work was slow and gradual; the end result brings about a surge of emotion. The beavers have upended my idea of a place I thought I knew. I feel unsettled.

Onward! Next monitoring route. Once a stream, then re-shaped by beavers several years ago as a pond, now a stream again. It’s fascinating to see the different types of dragonfly and damselfly species change over time with the habitat changes; some dragonflies prefer running water, others choose still water.  Jeff sets up his camp chair and pulls out a book while I pick my way alongside the stream, watching for any insect movement.

BeaverPondturnedstream5220NGWM.jpg

The skies fill with clouds as the wind picks up, although the temperature remains in the 70s. A great blue heron flies over.

Great Blue Heron NG5220WM.jpg

After 30 minutes, it’s clear no Odonates are out and about; at least none I can find. Not surprising at this time of year. I log my times and mark the data sheet with a big fat zero. We pack up, and move to the next route.  Around a curve, over a bridge, and across the prairie on the gravel two-track.  Still no bison. But—stop the car!— I shout. Jeff quickly pulls over, and we get out and marvel over a carpet of wood betony—Pedicularis canadensis—more than I’ve seen in all my years as a prairie steward.

woodbetonypowerlinepondsareaNG5220WM.jpg

Wood betony is a hemiparasite which can draw nutrients from other plants, especially prairie grasses. For this reason, it is coveted by prairie stewards who want to open grass-dominate areas for prairie wildflowers. I love this wildflower for its crazy flowers and crinkly leaves.

Bumblebee on Wood Betony NG PLPondsWM5220WM.jpg

The bumblebees are working the pinwheeled blooms, sampling one after another.

woodbetonyandbumblebeeNG5220WMpowerlineponds.jpg

I read on Illinois Wildflowers website later that long-tongued bees are the primary pollinators, including queen bumblebees and mason bees.

BumblebeeonWoodBetony 5220NGWM.jpg

We watch the bees for a while, then clamber back into the car and continue to the next site, a small pool I call the “Power Line Pond.”

Except…not so small anymore.

powerlinepondsfloodedbeaver5220NGWM.jpg

The beavers strike again!

This pond is flooded almost beyond recognition.

PowerlinePondsfloodedNG5220WM.jpg

When bison came to Nachusa Grasslands, their hooves changed the shoreline of this watering hole, making it difficult to get close to the water in places. Last year, I re-rerouted my data collection hikes in an ever-widening arc to stay on solid footing. Today, I’m grateful for my knee-high rubber boots. Looks like I’ll be wading.

As I slosh through the water, I see them. Common green darners!

Busse Woods Mating Green DarnersWM.jpg

My first dragonfly data for the season. Delighted, I mark my tally sheet.  Jeff and I watch them zip across the expanded pond, occasionally stopping to oviposit, then flying to a new spot to start again. Another common green darner appears, flying solo. One of the best moments of dragonfly season is making the first hash mark on your data sheet. Today is that day. The season is off and running. At last.

There are several small ephemeral pools nearby, perhaps bison-made, that sometimes shelter damselflies of various species. Today, all I see are a few water-striders, admiring themselves in the mirror of the sky-reflected water.

Water Skater?NG5220WMpsd.jpg

One of my all-time favorite novels, Crow Lake, tells the story of three children unexpectedly orphaned in rural Canada. The oldest son, about to leave for college, chooses to invest in his siblings and stay home so they won’t be parceled out to various relatives. By doing so, he comes to terms with his losses, including a promising future derailed. Mary Lawson uses the life of a pond—-in particular, its surface tension—as a way to consider how sudden change may re-route our plans; cause us to reinvent ourselves. The outcomes aren’t always what we’d expected, or even hoped for. It’s how we choose to respond to sudden change that shapes us and our future, she shows through her story.

This trio of common green darners  turned out to be all we’d see for the day. A spatter of rain begins, and our hopes of more sightings disappear. We drive out of the bison unit, and head for home. But on the way, we pass Clear Creek, one of my routes I’ve not gotten to today. We swing in and park. The chances are slim to none to see any dragonflies or damselflies, but who can resist one more hike?

two-trackClearCreekNG5220WM.jpg

As we walk, we glimpse the quick touch-down of a mourning cloak butterfly. This spring, I’ve only seen the cabbage white butterflies and red admirals. Mourning cloak butterflies are unusual in that they often overwinter, then mate in the spring. This one refused to turn around and give us the full glory of its coloration.

MourningCloakNGFFK5220WM.jpg

But I had seen this species in bright sunlight the previous spring, and marveled.

mourningcloakSPMA51419WM.jpg

It is exciting to see the first butterflies of the season. But I want dragonflies. I wade into Clear Creek and scrutinize the shoreline, slowly walking the edges. Later in the season, Clear Creek is populated by ebony jewelwing damselflies and springwater dancer damselflies and shadow darner dragonflies. But today, no damselfly or dragonfly is stirring under the steel gray skies.Clear Creek NG 5220WM

I pull a few garlic mustard plants, then wade back to the trail. Jeff has already hiked to the top of  Fame Flower Knob, overlooking the creek.

fame flower knob NG 5220WM.jpg

I follow the trail to the top, scrutinizing the new growth as I hike. No dragonflies on the trail…but look!

sandphloxNG5220WM.jpg

Sand phlox. An unexpected delight. And over here…pussy toes.

PussyToes5220NGFame FlowerWM.jpg

Such unusual flowers. Like a cluster of shaggy Q-tips.

PussyToes5220NGcloseupWM.jpg

And over here….a small patch of birdfoot violet. So tiny!

birdfootviolet5220WMNGFFK.jpg

I spend some time admiring them up close. Then, I join Jeff.

fameflowerknobNG5220WM.jpg

Together we’re silent, taking in the view. It’s familiar, yet changed by circumstances — the lack of prescribed fire, the work of prairie creatures such as bison and beavers, the temporary lack of stewardship activity over the past weeks during Illinois’ quarantine. Witnessing these changes to a place I care about is part of building a relationship with it.

What other changes will 2020 bring?

Red-winged blackbird Fame FlowerWM 5220NG.jpg

There’s no way to know. But I do know this. I’ll be back here, to watch them unfold.

******

J.R.R. Tolkien is best loved for his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, and the delightful prequel,  The Hobbit. The lines that kick off this post are spoken by the dwarf Thorin to young dwarves in The Hobbit as they look for shelter in a rainstorm on their way to burgle treasure from the fearsome dragon Smaug. Instead of shelter, the dwarves find… well, if you haven’t read the book in a while, this is a great time to revisit it. Read more here.

******

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL, unless otherwise noted (top to bottom): prairie trillium (Trillium recurvatum recurvatum), College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; smooth Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum), College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; Fame Flower Knob;  Nachusa in early May; bison (Bison bison) with their little ones (taken in a previous year); pond in early May; Nachusa Grasslands in early May; dried out pond in May; great egret (Ardea alba); pond in 2017; former pond in 2020; stream; great blue heron (Ardea herodias); wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis)); wood betony ((Pedicularis canadensis) with unknown bumblebee (Bombus spp.);  wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis) with unknown bumblebee (Bombus spp.) ; wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis) with unknown bumblebee (Bombus spp.)’ Power Line Pond; Power Line Pond; common green darner dragonflies (Anax junius) at Busse Woods (taken in a previous season), Forest Preserve of Cook County, Schaumburg, IL; water strider (possibly Aquarius remigis); two-track gravel road to Clear Creek; mourning cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa); mourning cloak butterfly (Nymphalis antiopa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Clear Creek in early May; Fame Flower Knob in early May; sand phlox (Phlox bifida); field pussy toes (Antennaria neglecta); field pussy toes (Antennaria neglecta); birdfoot violets (Viola pedata); Fame Flower Knob in early May, red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus). Thanks to the Kleimans for their help in understanding how beavers are changing Nachusa Grasslands.

*****

Several of Cindy’s classes have moved online! For updates on classes and events, please go to http://www.cindycrosby.com.

If you enjoyed the “Wild and Wonderful Illinois Wildflowers” webinar, please join me for the new Enchanting Spring Prairie Wildflowers, an online webinar this Friday, May 8 1-2:30 p.m. CST, through The Morton Arboretum. Spring on the prairie is a story of color, pollinator pizazz, and native  plants that shaped North American history through their value as  edibles, medicine, and even love charms! Enjoy colorful  photos of some of Illinois’ most beautiful blooms—and a few native  grasses, too!  Click here to register.  

The next “Tallgrass Prairie Ecology” class online on May 4 through The Morton Arboretum is SOLD OUT.   See more information and registration for our June class  here.

Want more prairie while you are sheltering in place? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction.

The Prairie at Twilight

“Observation is a great joy.” –Elizabeth Bishop

*******

Riiiiiiiinnnnnnggggg! It’s time for recess at the elementary school down the street from our house. The bell echoes in an empty playground, roped off with yellow hazard tape. No one sits at the desks inside. No games of hopscotch and tetherball. No lines of cars with parents, waiting to pick up little ones.

School Closed 420WM.jpg

Jeff and I are walking the neighborhood, something we’ve done more of in 2020 than in the 22 years previous. As the pandemic has gradually closed off everyone’s normal routines of work, school, play, shopping and eating out over the past two months, we’ve become a bit hardened to some of our losses. But the school bell, ringing endlessly over an empty playground, caught us off guard.

School Closed Playground 420WM.jpg

Unexpectedly, my eyes fill with tears.

Time to go for a prairie hike.

*******

Evening has come to Belmont Prairie Preserve.

BelmontPrairietrails42620WM.jpg

This 10-acre remnant in Downer’s Grove, IL, is one of my favorite local prairies to hike, yet we’ve avoided it since early April because of the crowds of people on its narrow trails. I’ve found myself thinking about Belmont since our last hike there. A lot. I miss it. Why not go see if it’s less congested?  We can always turn around and go home. I argue with myself. It’s getting late. Why not, indeed?

We get in the car and go.

A crescent moon glimmers high over the prairie.

CrescentMoonBelmontPrairie42620WMblueskie.jpg

The parking lot is empty. Cheers and fist bumps! We still have an hour before sunset, although the grasses are backlit with the lowering light.

And….we’re off.

Belmont Prairie Preserve at the end of April 2020 is a different prairie to the eye than when I’ve seen it in previous years. Without prescribed fire, to the casual observer the it  looks similar to the tallgrass in fall or winter. Until you walk the trails and look closely.

BelmontPrairietrailandgrass42620WM.jpg

There! Wild strawberries are in bloom.

WildStrawberryBelmontPrairie42620WM.jpg

There’s the old husks of rattlesnake master…

BelmontPrairieRattlesnakeMasterWM42620.jpg

…juxtaposed with its new spring growth. I’m not sure I’ve seen this in such profusion before. Most of the prairies I hike in the spring have been fire-washed of their past year’s finery.

RattlesnakeMaster42620WM.jpg

It’s a new perspective.

Overhead, the crescent moon scythes its path through the darkening sky.  I notice Venus—a chipped crystal—barely visible in the deepening twilight, seemingly falling in synchronization with the moon toward the horizon.

CrescentMoonVenusoverWMBelmontPrairie42620.jpg

In the gathering dark, the prairie seems dreamlike.

BelmontPrairiedreamytwilight42620WM.jpg

Along the path, shoots of tall coreopsis leaf out…

TallcoreopsisBelmontPrairie42620WM.jpg

…otherworldly in the dusk.

TallcoreopsisBelmontPrairieWMTWO42620.jpg

It almost looks like it’s underwater; its graceful leaves lightly swaying in the wind currents. Or maybe it’s the illusion of this half-light.

Golden Alexanders is up; its leaves, even in the dimness, standing out against the ruined grasses.

GoldenAlexanderBelmontPrairieWM42620.jpg

Everywhere, sprouts of new life mingle in random groups; to sort them out would be the delightful work of several hours…

Collageofprairieplants42620WMBelmontPrairie.jpg

Some identifiable in the dusk, like the bastard toadflax…

BastardToadflaxBelmontPrairieWM42620.jpg

…or the meadow rue…

BelmontPrairieMeadowRueWM42620.jpg

…and, that prairie denizen, the familiar bee balm.

Beebalm42620WMBelmontPrairiepsd.jpg

Here and there are a few undesirables, like yellow rocket…

BelmontPrairieyellowrocketWMBelmontPrairie42620.jpg

..and the ubiquitous garlic mustard. I crush a leaf and sniff it.  I have known neighbors to carefully mow around patches of this in suburban yards, mistaking it for a wildflower.

GarlicMustard42620BelmontPrairieWM.jpg

As I walk, I yank whatever garlic mustard I can see. It’s a ritual of spring on the prairies where I’m a steward—now closed for that activity.  Such deep satisfaction to make a small difference here in the health of a prairie that’s given me so much!

Not far from the garlic mustard is another plant. Look! Is it the prairie violet? Or the birdfoot violet? Difficult to tell in the fading light. Violets are so variable.

PrairieVioletLeafandBloomWMBelmontPrairie42620.jpg

Jeff holds the half-closed bloom open so I can examine the throat.

PrairieViolet42620BelmontPrairieWM.jpg

Prairie violet, it appears as I puzzle over it, then pore over my field guides. The flower looks correct, but the leaves look…wrong. Finally, I take the photos and my question to the Illinois Botany Facebook page. Yes. It is.

Or what about this one, in the wetter areas?   A buttercup….”small-flowered buttercup”? The buttercups, like the violets, are difficult. I can barely make out the bloom.

CrowfootButtercupWMDownersGrove42620.jpg

Small-flowered buttercup, I decide, with iNaturalist offering support for the ID. I double-check it with Illinois Wildflowers on my return home later. Looks good. Every spring, I’m aware of how much I need to re-learn and remember. Makes me grateful for good ID tools both in the field and at home.

I pause in my ID conundrums to look around me. A red-winged blackbird calls. Oka-leee! The stream is bright in last light.

CreekthruBelmontPrairie42620WM.jpg

I walk alongside it for a bit, watching my step.

CreekthroughBelmontPrairie42620WM.jpg

…then turn back to the path. The dusk pixels everything; the air itself seems grainy. Then, the grasses light up…

BelmontPrairieIndianGrasstwilightWM42620.jpg

…the last glints of sundown sparking the dry, brittle leaves and stalks.

Lastlightongrsses42620WM.jpg

Gradually, the prairie grasses lose the light and become silhouettes…

BelmontPrairieSunsettallgrassWM42620.jpg

…as the sun free-falls through the cloudless sky.

BenchonBelmontPrairie42620WM.jpg

Jeff has made his way to the car. I can’t help but linger. This opportunity to be here—so longed for—is difficult to bring to a close. This hour—this concentration on prairie, instead of the news—has been a consolation.

I notice a kite, stuck in the treetops.

BelmontPrairie42620KiteinTreeWM.jpg

I imagine how that person must have felt to see it aloft, then, their dismay as they watched it plummet into the tree. The end of something free and wild.

My absence from Belmont Prairie these past weeks makes this visit so much the sweeter. With the dusk, however, comes melancholy. When will I find this prairie so uncrowded again? I think of the prairie where I am a steward, closed. Did the painted skimmer dragonfly return this spring? Are the killdeers nesting in their usual spots? In Illinois, our shelter-in-pace has extended to the end of May.  The weeks stretch ahead, uncertain.

I think of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “One Art:”

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
BelmontPrairieSunsetwithflatgrassWM42620.jpg

I’m becoming more intimate with losses, big and small, as the weeks go on. In some ways, the pandemic has seemed like a dream. Surely, we’ll wake up and turn to our partner and say–wow–you won’t believe the nightmare I just had…

BelmontPrairieSunsetyarnskeintangleWM42620.jpg

… but we wake, and we remember. For now, there is no end in sight.

Darkness is falling fast. A great-horned owl calls in last light.

SunsetBelmontPrairietrees42620WM.jpg

The sunset tats the tree branches into lace.

EdgedLaceTreesTattedbySunsetWMBelmontPrairie42620.jpg

Good night, Belmont Prairie Preserve.

 

PreserveHoursBelmont42620WM.jpg

Later that night, right before bed, I step onto my front porch. The darkness is absolute, except for a few lights in the windows along our street. And—that sky! Deep in the west, falling to the horizon, the crescent moon holds steady with bright Venus in alignment. Tuesday, Venus will be at its brightest for the year.

I watch for a while, until the cold drives me back inside.

Crescent Moon and Venus GEWM 42620.jpg

I made it through the past 24 hours. Tomorrow, I’ll get up and pay attention to whatever the day brings. There will be prairie walks, and work in my backyard prairie patch and garden, and plant ID’s to reacquaint myself with since last year and new ones to learn. I’ll pore over my field guides. Then, I’ll call my loved ones to see if they are well.

The peace and promise of the spring prairie has calmed and centered me today. Now, sleep beckons.

Sweet dreams.

******

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) was an award-winning poet who overcame a tragic childhood of losses to give us beautiful poems. Her father died when she was in infancy; her mother was committed to a mental institution when she was five and never recovered. Virtually orphaned, she was then shuttled between relatives, some abusive. She lost several loved ones—including her partner of many years—to suicide. Bishop’s poetry collection Poems: North & South/A Cold Spring (1955) won the Pulitzer Prize. Haven’t read her? Start with “The Fish” , or  “One Art.”

*****

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve in Downer’s Grove, IL, unless marked otherwise (top to bottom): school, Glen Ellyn, IL; empty playground, Glen Ellyn, IL; path through Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve; crescent moon over the prairie;  path through the prairie; wild strawberry  (Fragaria virginiana); rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium); rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium); crescent moon and Venus;  the prairie at sundown; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); possibly heart-leaved golden Alexanders (Zizia aptera); mixed prairie plants; bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata);  one of the meadow rues (uncertain which species); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); non-native yellow rocket (Barbarea vulgaris arcuata); garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata); prairie violet (Viola pedatifida); prairie violet (Viola pedatifida); small-flowered buttercup (Ranunculus abortivus); Belmont Prairie creek; Belmont Prairie creek; sunset and grasses; sunset and grasses; sunset and grasses; bench at Belmont Prairie; kite in a tree at sunset; grasses at Belmont Prairie; trees and sunset; trees and sunset;  trees and sunset; Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve sign; Venus and a young moon in alignment, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Thank you to Kathleen Marie Garness and the Illinois Botany Facebook page for help with variable violet ID’s! Check out her work for the Field Museum on the awesome violet family and guides to other common families of the Chicago region here.

*****

Join me for “Enchanting Spring Prairie Wildflowers,” an online webinar, Friday, May 8 1-2:30 p.m. CST, through The Morton Arboretum. Click here to register.

The next “Tallgrass Prairie Ecology” class online begins May 4 through The Morton Arboretum.  Take 60 days to complete the course! See more information and registration  here.

Several of Cindy’s classes have moved online! For updates on classes and events, please go to http://www.cindycrosby.com.

Want more prairie while you are sheltering in place? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction.

Spring on the Prairie

“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” — J.R.R. Tolkien

******

Spring! It’s here—at last—on the Chicago region’s prairies.

CODeastskyline41920WM.jpg

Hiking the prairie in April is like going to a class reunion. So many friends you haven’t seen for a long time. Look! Cream gentians.

Pale Gentian COD EAST 41920WM

You realize how much you’ve missed each native plant species since you last saw them a year ago in April. Ahhhh. Spring beauties.

springbeauty41920WMCODEast

And, like any reunion, there are a few old acquaintances you wish hadn’t shown up. Oh no...garlic mustard.

garlicmustardCODEastPrairie41920WM.jpg

After a wild week of snow and sunshine, Jeff and I left the confines of our house to explore the East Prairie at College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn. With almost 30,000 commuting students, COD is the largest community college in Illinois and a hop, skip, and a jump from our house. Its large, modern buildings and campus are set in the midst of several well-tended planted prairies, which owe a lot to the work of Russell Kirt, a now retired professor there.

The weather has taken an abrupt turn toward warmth and blue skies. It feels so good to be outdoors…and somewhere other than our backyard. Our dilemma was only — should we look up?

 COD Skies 41920WM.jpg

Those skies! Or should we look down…

beebalmCODEAST41920WM2.jpg

…so much green growth and change. Everywhere, the life of the prairie and its adjacent wetlands offered something to marvel over. Small pollinators hummed around the willows. Try as I might, I’m not able to get a good insect ID.

willowsCODEASTWM41920.jpg

Relax, I tell myself. Just enjoy the day. And so I do.

*****

Less than a mile from COD’s prairies—in my suburban backyard—the first cabbage white butterfly appeared this week, drawn to the wreath of marsh marigolds in my small pond. After two snows in the past seven days…

backyard 41720WM.jpg

…the marsh marigolds were a little worse for wear, but not defeated. A cardinal soundtrack—Cheer Cheer Cheer Cheer Cheermade Monday’s sunny afternoon feel even more spring-like.

I sat on the back porch and watched the cabbage white until it was out of sight. Usually, the first butterfly I see on the marsh marigolds is the red admiral. Had it already arrived—-and I missed it? Or was it slower to emerge this season? And—where were the chorus frogs that called from my little pond last year? They didn’t show up in March.  My Kankakee mallow is absent from the prairie patch this April. Shouldn’t it be up by now?

So many questions. What other changes will unfold? Will the bullfrogs appear this summer? What about the great spreadwing damselfly that appeared in the pond last summer? I wonder. What will the next months bring?

Every spring has a tinge of uncertainty. This April has more than its share.

*****

Earlier this week, Jeff and I checked to see how April is progressing at St. Stephen Cemetery Prairie, a small two-acre remnant in DuPage County. It was great to see it had been burned at a time when many prescribed fire events have been postponed. Kudos to Milton Township and its volunteers! Bee balm, goldenrod and asters are visible through the chain-link fence opening.

StStephenscemeteryprairie41820WM.jpg

Purple meadow rue shows off its distinctive leaf forms.

St. Stephenspurplemeadowrue41820WM.jpg

I love the history of this place. Once, there was a little community called Gretna close to Carol Stream. A Catholic church, founded in 1852, put two acres of native prairie aside to reserve them as potential cemetery plots for its members, many who had immigrated from Germany. These acres were never plowed. Never grazed.

ststephenscemetery4q820WM.jpg

This was the first prairie where I saw wild senna. More than 50 native species are preserved here, including Culver’s root, spiderwort, and prairie dock. Nearby are the gravestones with the names: Miller, Dieter, Stark. The little community of Gretna and its church are gone, but the prairie lives on.

As we hike past the cemetery, we notice a brochure box.  Being cautious, as we have to be in these times, we read as much as we can through the plexiglass. A Midwestern cholera epidemic in the 19th Century killed infants and small children. Some are buried here.

choleraStstephens41820WM.jpg

When we returned home, I read more about the cholera epidemic and the 1918 influenza epidemic in the Midwest. I found an interesting article by Dr. Walter J. Daly in 2008 in The U.S. National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health, which concluded:

There was an important difference in public attitude about the two epidemics, 19th Century cholera in the Midwest and 1918 influenza: in the case of cholera, the people believed the local atmosphere was at fault, consequently flight was attractive. In 1918, they knew the disease was contagious, whatever it was; they knew it was everywhere; flight would not be successful. Nevertheless, some fled.  Since mid-19th Century, the people have moved ahead. Public opinion is still influenced by business interests and the editors of news distributors. Certainly, they expect more of medical science than did their ancestors. Yet some reactions are probably imbedded in human behavior: to seek explanations and accept unworldly ones if others do not satisfy, to blame strangers among us, to flee if a safer place might be available, to postpone action, and then to forget rather than to learn from it, once the disaster is past.

Sounds familiar.

prairiedropseedCOD41920WM.jpg

I’m struck by the predictable and the unpredictable as I hike the different prairies this week. Many of the rhythms of the prairie continue, oblivious to the unfolding chaos around them. Spring comes to the prairie as it does any other year: rattlesnake master…

rattlesnakemasterCODEASTWM41920.jpg

…and gentians and bee balm emerging alongside shooting star.

shootingstarCODEastPrairie41920WM

Spring beauties and violets are in bloom. April is underway, as it has been for thousands of years in the tallgrass.

Yes, there are changes. In many places, prescribed fire has been cancelled. Some prairies are seeing an influx of hikers longing to get outside; other prairies are closed to the public for the first time for safety.

commonblueviolet41920WM.jpg

In Illinois, our shelter in place was announced March 20. As I write this on April 20, uncertainty reigns. When will life be “normal” again? Will it ever be the same? If the pandemic comes to an end, what will we have learned —as individuals, as a nation? Or, as Dr. Daly asks after recounting responses to the cholera epidemic and influenza epidemics more than 100 years ago, will we forget what we’re learning once the disaster is past?

mossesStStephen41820WM

So many media articles these past weeks advise me what to do with my “sheltering in place” time. Organize a closet. Try a new recipe. Get my finances in order. The days pass so quickly, sometimes without much seemingly getting done. Some mornings I count  successful if I’m up and dressed. My one priority has been to get outside and walk. Some days, it seems,  that this is the main event.

I’ve decided that’s okay. It’s these wildflowers and spring birds; pollinators and cloud-painted skies that keep me searching out quiet prairies to hike, when my usual prairies are closed or unavailable to me. Each time I go for a walk, I’m reminded of the beauty of the world. After each hike, I come home refreshed. I feel more hopeful. I find renewed energy to tackle the deceptively normal demands of home and work.

boxelderinbloomStStephensCemeteryPrairie41820WM.jpg

There’s so much we don’t know.  Even the “predictable” rhythms of the natural world are subjected to interruptions and change. An expected butterfly fails to show up. My pond is empty of frogs. A reliable plant fails to appear in its appointed place.

When change comes, I have my memories of past springs. The call of the chorus frogs. The contrast of the red admiral against the marsh marigolds. That Kankakee mallow bloom—wow! I remember its pink. And–as I miss the prairies and savannas I frequented that have been temporarily closed to the public, I can remember what’s in bloom there now; the pasque flowers, the bloodroot in the little copse of trees…

Beefly on Sanguinara Canadensis WM41719.jpg

…the first tentative flowering of wood betony, and the tiny pearls of bastard toadflax.

bastard toa42619dflax-Schulenberg Prairie -- P1290217

I miss those prairies I can no longer access, closed or inaccessible because of the pandemic, but I feel comfort in thinking about them. Because of my relationship to these prairies—mornings spent on hands and knees ID’ing plants, hours spent logging dragonfly data, hiking them in all weathers—their stories are part of my story. My absence now doesn’t change that relationship.

If a time comes when I get older that I’m unable to hike anymore,  I will be grateful to have these memories.  I’ll be hiking these prairies then in my memories and dreams.

red-wingedblackbirdCODEast41920WM.jpg

Today, I’m grateful for the memories I have tucked away of my favorite places. Even as I find new places to hike, I follow the progress of those prairies I’m missing and know so well in my mind and my heart.

Not even a pandemic can change that.

****

The opening quote is from Oxford English language scholar J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973), best known for The Hobbit and  The Lord of the Rings series. He was also known for speaking out on environmental issues in the 1960s. His imaginary “Middle-earth” brought hours of read-aloud delight to our family.

All photos and video clip  copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; invasive garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), Glen Ellyn, IL; cream gentian (Gentiana alba), College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; spring beauty (Claytonia virginica), College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) with some unknown bedstraw (Galium spp.), College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; unknown willow (Salix sp.) and pollinators, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris) under snow, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; video clip of marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris), author’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; St. Stephen Cemetery and Prairie, DuPage County, IL; probably purple meadow rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum), St. Stephen Cemetery and Prairie, DuPage County, IL; St. Stephen Cemetery and Prairie, DuPage County, IL; brochure box, St. Stephen Cemetery and Prairie, DuPage County, IL; prairie dropseed (Sporobolis heterolepis), College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia), College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL;  common blue violet (Viola sororia sororia), College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; various mosses and their associates, St. Stephen Cemetery and Prairie, DuPage County, IL; box elder (Acer negundo), St. Stephen Cemetery and Prairie, DuPage County, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) and bee fly (Bombylius sp.), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (taken in 2019); bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (taken in 2019); red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL.

*****

TONIGHT: “THE NATURE OF CONSERVATION” panel discussion with Peggy Notebaert Museum. FREE!

Join me from wherever you are sheltering in place for “The Nature of Conservation,” April 21, 6:30-8:30 p.m. CST.–No cost, but you must register to receive the link and additional instructions: Register Here

The next “Tallgrass Prairie Ecology” class online begins in early May through The Morton Arboretum. See more information and registration  here.

Several of Cindy’s classes have moved online! For updates on classes and events, please go to http://www.cindycrosby.com.

Want more prairie while you are sheltering in place? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction.

%d bloggers like this: