“Perhaps by learning more about the native plants that surround us and about their use and history, we can begin to develop our own conservation ethic, which will bring us into harmony with our environment.” — Dr. Kelly Kindscher
August exhales. Hot. Steamy. The prairie crackles.
All day Sunday, we waited for rain. As I worked in my backyard prairie patch that evening, dark clouds rumbled to the north and the east. Occasionally, thunder growled.
On the radar, you could see the clouds kiss the edges of my suburban town. Not a drop of rain fell.
My head tells me that prairies are built for this. The long roots of some prairie plants reach down to 15 feet or more into the recesses of the soil. It’s an insurance policy they pay into, year after year, that keeps them alive through severe shifts of weather. Yet, as I watch my queen of the prairie plants crisp and fade away…
…and the obedient plant flowers wilt and fade to the color of pale burnt sienna.
…I can’t resist turning the sprinkler on and watering the prairie for a good hour. We put a lot of money and love into those prairie plants, and it breaks my heart to see them crumple like brown paper bags.
I console myself with these words from Minnesota author Paul Gruchow about the deep prairie roots: “The work that matters doesn’t always show.” Next year, I’ll know if the plants’ hard work tunneling roots into the soil was enough to keep them alive. I’ll be watching. And waiting.
At Nachusa Grasslands this week, dust billowed around our Subaru as we bounced along an overgrown two-track road to my dragonfly routes. On the prairie, the small pools had long vanished. Cavernous fissures gaped in bare areas. Because of the lack of spring fire, combined with the need for rain, perhaps, some waterways were down to a trickle, choked with growth.
A few dragonflies went about their business; 12-spotted skimmers, blue dashers, common whitetails. Green darners patrolled the ponds.
In Chicago region this week, common green darners gather, preparing for migration. Friends text me with news of their backyard darner swarms. Social media boards light up with numbers. I get texts from my friends who love and observe dragonflies. Thirty in the backyard. Fifty this evening, a few miles east. Soon, the green darners and other migrating species in Illinois—black saddlebags, variegated meadowhawks, wandering gliders—will mass in the hundreds and begin the long journey south.
It’s a poignant time of year, especially, perhaps, this particular year. The dragonflies have been a passionate distraction from so much that is distressing in the world. Don’t go! Stay longer. Please. Of course, they will go… drawn by an evolutionary survival mechanism that tells them to ensure their progeny continue on. The prairie will seem empty without them.
Thinking of this, I look around the prairie. It’s quiet. The bison at Nachusa Grasslands, so rambunctious only a week ago, are hiding, likely somewhere shady and cool. I miss their snorts and sparring today.
And yet, there are signs of life everywhere. The common eastern-tailed blue butterfly teases me, fanning its wings open for few seconds—oh wow, that blue!—then snapping them shut.
Nearby, a chickweed geometer moth shows off his colors. I learn later that the antennae are “bipectinate” —feathery, or “toothed like a comb.” These bipectinate antennae are a male feature that has to do with detecting pheremones; the female’s antennae are more “threadlike.”
A common moth—with such a complex design. Truly we are surrounded by wonders.
I watch the eastern tiger swallowtails nectar on thistle for a while. They’ve been all over my backyard and the prairies I frequent this week, but they never fail to give me pause. And delight. About the time I take them for granted, they’ll be gone for the year.
Even the ubiquitous pearl crescent butterfly stops me for a second look.
In contrast, ghostly cabbage butterflies puddle in the salts and minerals along the stream. In the afternoon sun, they look almost pale green.
All around me—despite the need for rain—the prairie pushes out color. Black-eyed susans.
Great blue lobelia.
As I hike toward the car, I pinch off a leaf of mountain mint; hot and cool and refreshing—all at the same time. I chew it for a bit, then spit it out. My mouth tingles.
August is drawing to a close.
Why wait? Now is the time to go and see.
The prairie is waiting.
Dr. Kelly Kindscher, whose quote opens this post, is a senior scientist with the Kansas biological survey and a professor of environmental studies at the University of Kansas. Kindscher authored two of my favorite books on prairie ethnobotany: Edible Wild Plants of the Prairie and Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie (both from University Press of Kansas). In 1984, Kindscher supplemented his diet with prairie plants as he walked almost 700 miles from Kansas City to Denver.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at Nachusa Grasslands, unless otherwise noted (top to bottom): August at Nachusa Grasslands; cumulonimbus cloud over author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra) and ironweed (Vernonia fasciculata), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; overgrowth in the sand boil stream, sedge meadow fen; common green darner dragonfly male (Ajax junius); black saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata) (2018); Nachusa Grasslands in August; wildflowers and sky at Nachusa Grasslands; eastern-tailed blue butterfly (Cupido comyntas); chickweed geometer moth (Haematopis grataria); eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) with unknown thistles (possibly Cirsium discolor); pearl crescent butterfly (Phyciodes tharos); cabbage white butterflies (Pieris rapae) puddling; black-eyed susans (probably Rudbeckia subomentosa); great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica); common mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum); sedge meadow fen; Franklin Creek Prairie, Franklin Grove, IL.
Join Cindy for an Online Class this Autumn! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for details.
“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” Begin a new session September 2 through The Morton Arboretum! 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. Classes are limited to 50. Register here.
“Nature Writing Online” Begins Monday, October 5, through The Morton Arboretum. Want to commit to improving and fine-tuning your writing for six weeks? This is a great opportunity to jump start your blog, your book, or your journal writing while working online from home, supplemented with three evenings of live evening Zoom classes on alternate weeks. Watch for registration information coming soon.
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, direct from Northwestern University Press (use coupon code NUP2020 for 25% off), or other book venues. 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.