The flower-fed buffaloes of the spring
In the days of long ago,
Ranged where the locomotives sing
And the prairie flowers lie low…
I went for a hike a few days ago at Nachusa Grasslands, 90 miles west of Chicago, where I volunteer as a dragonfly monitor. Nachusa has been in the news in Illinois quite a bit over the past several months.
The spotlight on this amazing 3,200-acres-plus mosaic of prairie, wetlands and woodlands revolves around Nachusa’s successful bison introduction last fall.
The first baby bison birth announcements have hit the front pages of the newspapers. There’s a lot of excitement over these charismatic megafauna and their cute offspring, and deservedly so. But, it’s easy to forget some of the more humble inhabitants — more than 700 species — who live at this beautiful place.
One of these inhabitants – and one of the first prairie wildflowers to bloom at Nachusa — is one of the most fleeting and difficult to see.
The pasque flower.
Also known as the Easter flower, wild crocus, prairie crocus, or windflower, pasque flowers (Anemone patens) bloom for a week or two in early spring. The pale lavender blooms are almost invisible against last year’s prairie grasses. Then, before you can blink, they’re gone.
We’re at the southeasterly boundary of the hairy pasque flower’s range in upper Illinois. Looks furry, doesn’t it? Native Americans said the Great Spirit gave the pasque flowers those hairs to serve as a warm furry robe, in gratitude for helping a young man.
In “Wildflowers of the Tallgrass Prairie: The Upper Midwest” authors Sylvan Runkle and Dean Roosa tell us the pasque flower is highly toxic; none-the-less used by Native Americans and early settlers medicinally. Various concoctions were used to treat “nervous exhaustion.”
Runkle and Roosa also tell us when the Dakota Indians spotted the first pasque flower, they sang a special song. Singing was believed to encourage the rest of the prairie to bloom.
Paying attention, noticing the wildflowers, composing songs in honor of their blooms and the blooms to come…
After a long cold winter, perhaps this pasque flower tradition — singing the prairie to life — is the best medicine of all.
Thanks to Thomas Dean for introducing me to the poem, The Flower-Fed Buffaloes by Vachel Lindsay, excerpted above. The complete poem is available online at The Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/242582. The Native American story of the hairs of the pasque flower is found at http://galileo.org/kainai/pasque-flower/.
All photos above by Cindy Crosby, taken at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL: Nachusa headquarters; two photos of bison; Prairie Pot Holes Unit; and six different photos of pasque flowers in various stages of bloom and post-bloom.