Leonardo da Vinci once said, “Water is the driving force of all nature.” When you think of prairie, water may not be the first image that leaps to your mind. Yet, water is a critical agent of change in the tallgrass.
At Nachusa Grasslands one morning this spring, I hike into the sedge meadow where some of the first dragonflies will emerge from the stream. Rainfall has prompted new spring blooms and quick growth in the grasses. I walk carefully, looking. You never know what surprises are under your feet. This morning, it’s a bone hidden under wild strawberries.
I pick my way through the crayfish holes that pock the sedge meadow until I reach the water. A little circle of sand marks the spot where water bubbles up to the surface. Can you find it? Great angelica and marsh marigolds dot the edges.
As I look for that morning’s elusive dragonflies, a flash of light catches my eye over toward the fen. A pond! Where a pond hadn’t been before. The beavers have been busy constructing a dam. A landscape I thought I knew well has become something different. Time to rethink my preconceptions; to learn to see something familiar in a new way.
In the ponds under the utility lines that cross the prairie, there is a blur of dragonfly activity. As I skirt the edges of the water, small frogs splash into the pond just a step or two ahead of me. A Northern pintail quietly paddles to the other side. Northern pintails stop in Illinois for a short time in the spring on their migration north for the summer. I’ve never seen one before. The water must have been an invitation for it to rest for a bit.
Agricultural drain tiles under the ground have made much of the Midwest artificially dry enough for farming. Today, in prairie restorations across Illinois, we are deliberately breaking up some of these old drain tiles and restoring the original hydrology of lands that are prairie and adjacent to prairie. Inviting water to return.
As water brings changes to familiar landscapes this season, who knows what surprises are in store for us? I can’t wait to find out.
(All photos by Cindy Crosby at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. From top: Pond grasses; bone and wild strawberries (Fragaria virginiana; great angelica (Angelica atropurpurea) and marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris) in the sedge meadow; beaver dam in the fen; northern pintail; pond.)