“Diversity creates the biological tensioning that makes life in general vigorous and sustainable….The loss of diversity, on the other hand, threatens all life with extinction.”–Barry Lopez
Wendell Berry writes about “the peace of wild things.” I always need that peace, but this summer, I need it more than ever. You too?
Let’s go for a prairie hike.
The prairie skies are full of beautiful clouds. How could anyone ever say they are bored, when there are skies like these to be marveled at? I could spend a whole morning, just laying on my back, watching the clouds form and re-form in different patterns.
Sit up. Look around. So many beautiful wildflowers. They are opening so fast, it’s difficult to take them all in. Leadplant, with its tiny beetles.
Common milkweed, with its incredibly fragrant globes.
And Culver’s root, its candles of white flame flowers alight with tiny black bugs.
So many amazing insects are flying! As I’m admiring some rattlesnake master coming into bloom…
… I spy something different on the plant. See if you can spot it.
Look who is holding on to one of the yucca-like leaves! A tiger moth!
It’s one of so many moths on the prairie today. As I hike through the tallgrass off-trail, they fly up at my feet. Many of them are barely visible, hiding from the bright sunlight under the grasses.
Butterflies, too. A monarch jazzes up the shadows under a little grove of wild plum.
Pretty pearl crescent butterflies flutter everywhere.
Mountain mint is covered with bees, flies, wasps, all humming and buzzing and sipping and tasting. A buckeye butterfly delicately samples some nectar.
Then I see another brown flier (below). Moth? or butterfly? Take a guess.
At first, I think it’s a moth. The coloration seems…well…”mothy!” But notice its clubbed antennae? That’s a good tip-off, I discover, that it’s a butterfly. If it was a moth, its antennae would be feathery or edged like a sawtooth. My skipper book tells me it is likely a duskywing skipper—possibly an indigo duskywing. Nice!
A red-winged blackbird, sitting on top of just-about-to-bloom ironweed, warns me away from his nest area. I swerve aside. I’m not looking for any stressful encounters this morning. Just peace.
Although I’m enjoying the beetles and butterflies and moths I see today, I’m looking for non-pollinators: dragonflies and damselflies. And I’m not disappointed. Everywhere I turn on the prairie, there they are.
Eastern Amberwing males…
…and Eastern Amberwing females, too!
Those long, bristly legs! Check them out. When flying, the legs can form a sort of “basket” for catching smaller insects as prey. Dragonflies perch, but most can’t walk. Amazing, that an insect which can fly so adeptly, doesn’t have this simple power.
I love the female Blue Dashers, and their intricate patterns.
The female Eastern Pondhawk is unmistakable. That vivid green!
Whereas, the meadowhawk dragonflies are endlessly confusing, so I’m always grateful to see a pearly face. It’s the White-Faced Meadowhawk! The face is a helpful field mark.
Damselflies are also out and about on these hot summer days. This one looks like a female Slender Spreadwing. See how she’s holding her wings at a 45-degree angle? That’s a spreadwing tip-off. But females of this species can be easily confused with some other female spreadwings. Slender Spreadwing females usually have pale veining at the wing tips, and I think I can see that here.
I watch her for a while, marveling at the light on her prism-like wings. Then, she turns and gazes at me for a bit.
Turnabout is fair play.
July is such a beautiful time on the prairie to marvel over clouds and wildflowers; butterflies and moths; dragonflies and damselflies. Why not be there and see them for yourself?
Come on—let’s go chase a few.
Barry Lopez (1945-), whose quote kicks off this blog post, is the author of the recent Horizon (2019), as well as many other books. He won the John Burroughs Medal for Of Wolves and Men (1978) and the National Book Award for Arctic Dreams (my favorite of his books). He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in March 2020.
All photos this week copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, unless marked otherwise (top to bottom): the prairie in July; Ware Field prairie planting and wetland, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; leadplant (Amorpha canescens); common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca); Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum); Rattlesnake master 2016 photo (Eryngium yuccafolium); rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccafolium); possibly a virgin or phyllira tiger moth (Grammia spp.); unknown moth; monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus); pearl crescent (Phyciodes tharos) on butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa); common buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia) on common mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum), Ware Field prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; possibly a wild indigo duskywing skipper (Erynnis baptisiae); red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) on ironweed (Vernonia fasciculata); Halloween pennant dragonfly (Celithemis eponina); widow skimmer dragonfly (Libellula luctuosa) ; male eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera); female eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera); male eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera); female blue dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis); female eastern pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis), Ware Field prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; male white-faced meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum obtrusum), Ware Field prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; female slender spreadwing (Lestes rectangularis), Ware Field prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; female slender spreadwing (Lestes rectangularis), Ware Field prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown bee on white prairie clover (Dalea candida).
Join Cindy for online prairie ecology and ethnobotany classes this summer:
“Prairie Ethnobotany Online” –through The Morton Arboretum. July 31 and August 7, 9-11 a.m. with a week in between to enjoy your knowledge in the field. Learn about how people have used and enjoyed prairie plants through history. Register here.
“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” begins a new session in September! Work from home at your own pace (with suggested assignment deadlines) 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.
Just released! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History. Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Morton Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org and other book venues. Order direct through Northwestern University Press and receive 40% off this new book and/or “The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction”— use coupon code SUN40. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during this chaotic time.
Want more prairie? 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.