Category Archives: nachusa grasslands

A Little Tallgrass Tranquility

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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Small moths lay in the tallgrass like winged ghosts.

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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.

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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.

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Up close, they are surprisingly hairy.

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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.

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

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I soak it all up.

For a while, I forget the outside world.

Thank you, prairie.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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

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

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Hello, Virginia bluebells!

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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.

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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,

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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.

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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.

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

Where is it?

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

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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.

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I look again. Wow.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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

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

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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.

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The beavers strike again!

This pond is flooded almost beyond recognition.

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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!

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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.

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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?

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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.

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

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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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?

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

November Prairie Perspectives

“A woods man looks at 20 miles of prairie and sees nothing but grass, but a prairie man looks at a square foot and sees a universe… .” –Bill Holm

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November is here. Right on the heels of the end of October’s temper tantrums. Out like a lion. We woke up Halloween morning to discover snow had sledgehammered the garden, frosted the pond, and drained the last emeralds from the prairie patch. The world seemed to have gone from color to monochrome.

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It was a new perspective. Tracks everywhere. So much activity in our little backyard prairie patch and pond! Birds quickly swarmed the feeders and I doled out seed like candy to trick or treaters.

Trees along the streets, stubbornly clutching their leaves, sighed and released their grip. Birds nests suddenly went from invisible to visible on my neighborhood walks and my prairie hikes.

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The snow threw its wet blanket over the Chicago region, then melted under a temperature swing in the 50s over the weekend. On the Schulenberg Prairie and prairie savanna, Willoway Brook overflowed.

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Pools of water stood on the trails. I was grateful for my rubber boots. Other than a flutter of sparrows low in the grasses and a hammering of woodpeckers in the prairie savanna, the tallgrass was quiet.

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Sunday, Jeff and I drove to Nachusa Grasslands, 90 minutes away, for their annual Dragonfly Monitor’s end of the season celebration. As we traveled west, the wind brushed the clouds eastward and the sun appeared. We took a few moments to stop on the bridge over Franklin Creek, a diverse and lovely area just a hop, skip, and a jump from Nachusa.

On the west side of the bridge, the skies had mostly cleared.

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Turn around. On the east side, the clouds shattered into a thousand pieces. One creek, one bridge, one moment, two different perspectives.

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After the party, we hiked Fame Flower Knob, one of Nachusa’s prettiest hiking areas and also one of my dragonfly routes.

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Of course, the dragonflies are long gone. But the prairie plants had made the turn to November after the cold snap, with their own new profiles, colors, and textures.

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Blazing star is as pretty in seed as it was in flower.

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Cup plant’s square stem is now in sharp relief. Its leaves have ruffled into dry decay.

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Pale purple coneflower seedheads stand empty, mostly stripped of their future progeny by goldfinches and other seed-loving birds.

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Bright fruits of Carolina horsenettle sprawl in the grasses. Toxic, but beautiful.

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And look—common yarrow, still in bloom at the top of Fame Flower Knob!

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Yes still blooming—despite the recent snow and frigid temperatures. Tough little wildflower. Clear Creek is just barely visible from our perch,  running full and fast. I love this perspective of Nachusa Grasslands. So often, I’m focused on the individual, whether it is a dragonfly, or a prairie plant, or even a bison. This high perspective gives me context for those individuals. It also reminds me of the farming community in which the prairie restoration is enveloped.NGfromfameflower11319WM.jpg

The ledge where we sit is covered with twin colonizers, lichens and moss. Bright color. Life on the rocks.

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As we leave the knob, we see the bison grazing in the distance, close to their corral after the recent round up. It’s difficult to remember that bison were brought here about a half dozen years ago. They seem integral to this place now. In their short time here, they’ve changed the way we move through this landscape (always aware of where the herds are); how we see the prairies here, and—of course—they’ve changed the prairies themselves through their movements across the grasses.

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It’s time to go. It’s always difficult to say goodbye to a place you appreciate; just as it is to transition from one season to another.

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New adventures lie ahead. There’s plenty to anticipate. New members of the prairie community wait to see in all their variations, all through the colder weather.

Bring it on, November!

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We’re ready.

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Bill Holm (1943-2009) was the author of more than a dozen books of poems and essays, including Prairie Days, from which the opening quote was taken. A native of Menneota, MN, and a descendant of Icelandic immigrants, he died at 65.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): backyard prairie patch and pond on a snowy morning, Glen Ellyn, IL; bird’s nest, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL; bench on the Schulenberg Prairie in early November, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Franklin Creek State Natural Area, Franklin Grove, IL;  Franklin Creek State Natural Area, Franklin Grove, IL; Fame Flower Knob, Nachusa Grasslands (The Nature Conservancy), Franklin Grove, IL; Clear Creek Unit, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; blazing star (Liastris spp.),  Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; possibly Carolina horsenettle (Solanum carolinense), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; common yarrow (Achillea millefolium), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; view from Fame Flower Knob, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; mosses and lichens, Fame Flower Knob, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; Jeff hikes Nachusa Grasslands in November, Franklin Grove, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; St. Stephen’s Prairie in early November, Carol Stream, IL.

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Share Prairie Through Books!

Shopping for the holidays? Please think about books as gifts! Share prairie with the people in your life through words and images by ordering these through your favorite bookseller:

Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit (with co-author Thomas Dean, full color photography throughout). Discover the prairie in a new way through “conversations” about its relevance to themes such as home, loss, restoration, and joy. Read more here.

The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction.  Perfect for the prairie lover in your family, your favorite prairie steward or volunteer, or your family members that wonder why in the world you care about the tallgrass! Read more here.

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Join me for these upcoming events:

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology online wraps up this month! Watch for the next course in March. Registration opens on November 19 here.

Nature Writing continues at The Morton Arboretum, on-line and in-person through November 20. Next session begins March 3, 2020. Watch for registration soon!

Saturday, December 7, 1:30-3 p.m.—Sterling Stories from the Arboretum Stacks: Grab a friend and spend a lively hour together sipping hot beverages while you enjoy little-known stories about the Morton Arboretum. What’s that old fountain doing in the library? Why was there a white pine planted in the May Watts Reading Garden? Who is REALLY buried in the Morton Cemetery—or not? What book in the Sterling Morton Library stacks has a direct relationship to a beheading? Why does the library have glass shelves? How has salt been a blessing —and a curse—to the Arboretum over its almost 100 years? Listen as 33-year Arboretum veteran library collections manager Rita Hassert and  Cindy Crosby spin entertaining tales of a place you thought you knew….until now.   Register here. A lovely afternoon enjoying little known Arboretum’s stories, and a quiet respite from the holiday hustle and bustle.

Sunday, December 8, 2-3:30 p.m.: Tallgrass Conversations at Prairieview Education Center, 2112 Behan Road, Crystal Lake, IL 815-479-5779 Book signing after the talk! Free and open to the public.

See more at www.cindycrosby.com

Finding Hope in the November Prairie

“Do not go gentle into that good night…rage, rage against the dying of the light.”—Dylan Thomas

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November, shmo-vember.

Sure, a few hard-core “I love all months of the year” folks out there are going to give a high-five to November. But I’m going to come clean here.

I think November is the toughest month of the year.

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The elections are certainly a part of that.  I despise the mud-slinging, the he-said/she-said, the polarization of the world I find myself in today and the many places where hatred and suspicion are cultivated in public forums. I cast my vote early, feeling a bit like I do when I planted pasque flower seeds on the prairie this season. The odds seem long, but hope was there. The promise of something beautiful. Today, in November, there’s no sign of the pasque flowers.  But I haven’t given up hope. I’m trying to live in “prairie time.” Taking the long view.

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If you live in the Chicago region, our first few days of November have not been promising. Temperatures are cold enough to prompt extra blankets, but not cold enough for a Christmas card-worthy snowstorm.  Rain, desperately needed, came just in time to splash all the (finally) colorful autumn leaves off the trees. High winds decimated most of the rest of the foliage, which lies strewn across prairie trails like discarded party invitations.

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How do you feel about November? Does November give you the blues? If you’re tempted to hang up your hiking boots and sit this month out, here are five reasons to go outside and see the prairie this month. If you feel discouraged by the state of the world—or just discouraged by the month of November and all it brings—this hike’s for you.

1. The Good News About Bison

If you live in the Midwest, chances are you’re within driving distance of seeing bison on a prairie. In the Chicago region, I’m fortunate enough to have bison on three preserves within a two-hour driving distance. There’s something, well, reassuring about their sturdy presence, impervious to cold and rain amid the wind rippling the tallgrass in November. Bison remind me of  strength. Of continuity. Of hope. Here is a species that was almost extinct, and through the efforts of people who care, is now thriving again. We need this kind of inspiration, as the United Nations issued grim news about our natural world that made headlines this week. So hop in the car and drive to your nearest bison preserve. Bring a friend.  Feel your spirits lift?

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2. Encore Performances

Oddly enough, some native plants (and non-natives too!) put on a repeat bloom performance in November. To discover them is a bit of a bizarre scavenger hunt, worth traveling a trail or two to see what you can find. My backyard pond has pops of yellow right now; marsh marigolds which normally bloom in April are hosting a second-run performance. Other late bloomers in my prairie patch, like the obedient plant below, gave a last push of color against its deteriorating foliage this week. You can almost hear them whispering, “Do not go gentle into that good night… .”

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3. Cruising Without Guilt

I always feel a pang of remorse about driving around a natural area. After all, shouldn’t I be on foot, exploring trails, wading through wetlands looking for dragonflies, or sitting on top of a rocky knob, enjoying the breeze? Of course I want to hike this month. But in November, when pounding rain, wind gusts of 30 mph, and temps in the 40s are all in play, I can feel almost virtuous driving through a grassland, enjoying the views, without the shame that might normally accompany my gas-guzzling self. I’m outdoors! Sort of. Braving the elements.

Hey–turn the heater up, will you?

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4. Prairie Plants Take On New Personalities

In November, you can exercise your imagination to describe the familiar prairie plants of summer in new ways. Prairie dock, below, is my November favorite for its transition from flexible sandpaper-y green to a crackled surface. A little like those old decoupaged craft projects we did in the sixties; right down to the tiny beads of “glue.” Maybe you see a prairie dock leaf in November as an aerial view of Death Valley. Or perhaps you see the leaf as the back of an dry, aged hand, with pores, veins and tiny hairs. A mountain range, dotted with snow? Spiderwebs in the rain? Or? Go ahead, your turn!

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Other plants give up the above-ground life in tangled shoelaces slowly draining of color, a virtual jungle of still-green and long-past-the-sell-date leaves.

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And when is a square-stemmed plant not a mint? When it’s a cup plant! After focusing on the signature leaves and flowers of this vigorous, sometimes-aggressive native all summer, we get a good look at the scaffolding. Wonder what tiny critter made that hole?

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5. Those Spellbinding Seeds

It’s  almost worth facing November on the prairie to see how nature plans for the future. Diversity is on display in the form of prairie seeds in all colors, sizes, and shapes.

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Each seed is a possibility. The promise of restoration.

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I need that promise. You too? Of change, of hope, of restoration in the month of November. Especially on an election day, after another week of horrific shootings and dismal headlines. The prairie seeds remind me of all of those who have made a difference in the world. The stewards and site managers who are out there today, as you read this, cutting brush. Collecting seeds. Leading tours of the tallgrass. Painting prairie landscapes.

At the polls, voting to save our natural areas and fund them for the future.

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Doing their part to make sure change happens in the world.  Change doesn’t always come as quickly as we’d like. But the prairie reminds me—keep working toward restoring a  damaged world. It all starts with these small, simple actions that are ours to take.

“Do not go gentle into that good night…rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

You know, November isn’t so bad after all if it brings the opportunity of change—the hope of a better future—with it.  And at this point, I think I’ve talked myself into a hike. You too?

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Let’s go.

*****

Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) was a Welsh poet, whose lines that open this essay are from a poem of the same name. He told biographers he fell in love with words after learning nursery rhymes as a child. Thomas was a contemporary of T.S. Eliot, who helped bring him to the public’s attention as a very young man. Thomas was a high-school drop-out, an alcoholic, often homeless, hounded by creditors, and frequently cheated on his wife, Caitlin.  He died at age 39 from pneumonia, probably complicated by alcohol poisoning and drug use, and Caitlin was incarcerated for a time in an insane asylum. And yet—out of so much despair and damage—there are these beautiful poems. Click here to hear Thomas read Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.

****

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom):  Rice Lake-Danada, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Wheaton, IL; pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens or Anemone patens) in seed, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; red maple (Acer rubrum) leaves on the path, Kath Thomas’ prairie planting, Hinsdale, IL; bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; Stone Barn Road, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL: prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) and bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis) seeds, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: rosinweed  (Silphium integrifolium) seeds, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; Remic Ensweiller, prairie manager, leads a tour of the Russell Kirt Prairie at College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL; thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Hinsdale Prairie Remnant, Hinsdale, IL.

The Perils of Prairie ID

“I’d like to be sure of something—even if it is just going to sleep.” — Theodore Roethke

***

What’s in a name? Lately, I’ve been stressing the importance of learning scientific names  for plants, animals, and insects in my prairie classes and with my prairie workday volunteers. In doing so, I’ve found renewed appreciation for the simple ones.

The best: Bison bison.

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Easy, right? If only the rest of them were!

I mostly love the scientific names. They keep everyone on the same page about what is being discussed regardless of region, and they often tell me something about a prairie plant, animal, or insect. Like the pale purple coneflower, Echinacea pallida, whose genus Echinacea means—from the ancient Greek—“hedgehog.”

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Quite the resemblance!

But as steward and prairie instructor, staying a step ahead of my students and smart workday volunteers is tough. I was trained in art and journalism, not botany. Species identification makes me painfully aware of my botanical inadequacies.

At Nachusa Grasslands, with more than 700 plant species, the likelihood of stumbling over something I don’t know is certain. On the Schulenberg Prairie, we have 500 kinds of plants on 100 acres. And that’s just the plants! There are myriad opportunities to dub plants, birds, insects, and other members of the prairie community with the wrong name.

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I’m also a dragonfly monitor at both prairies, and I like to think I know most of what’s flying on my sites. Ha! As I waded a stream at the Schulenberg Prairie last week, these two elegant damselflies, finding romance alongside Willoway Brook, were a cinch to name.

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Ebony jewelwings! No trouble there. I dutifully noted them on my data sheet. But  I also found this pretty little damselfly.

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Hmmmm. I was certain it was something I hadn’t seen before. My field guides were in the car and I was thigh-deep in the stream.  I scribbled some guesses on my clipboard data sheet. “Rainbow bluet?” “Variable dancer?” Later, flipping through the field guide, it turned out this was one of the most common damselflies of all; an eastern forktail that had a different variation of coloring—nothing earth shattering, just not a variation I’d  previously seen.

Well then. Another reason to use pencil on the data sheet.

Makes me grateful for the simple damselflies, like the American rubyspot—nothing else in my region looks like them. And isn’t it nice when the common name speaks to the actual appearance of the species? Ruby…

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Check. Spot?

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Double check.

One of the joys of looking for dragonflies is stumbling across another insect, animal, or plant species I wasn’t expecting to see. While looking for midland clubtail dragonflies at Nachusa Grasslands, I found this pretty little plant.

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“Sedge” was not on the tip of my tongue. But a sedge it was, and after asking a friend who is a whiz at plant ID for input; poring over my new copy of Flora of the Chicago Region;  and crowdsourcing a confirmation from the good folks at Facebook’s “Illinois Botany” page, it was determined to be narrow-leaved cottongrass. Yes, cottongrass! You heard that name right.  And it’s a sedge, not a grass, despite the name.

And people wonder why identifying plants is confusing!

Try explaining blue-eyed grass. Neither blue-eyed. Nor a grass.

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Or late horse gentian, which is not—you guessed it —a gentian nor anything remotely equestrian. Maybe that’s why I prefer the common name, “wild coffee.”

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My most recent ID discussion was over this pretty little wildflower below. Native? Or non-native? Cinquefoil for sure. But which one?

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And what species of bee is nectaring here? At Nachusa Grasslands, we have at least 75 different bee species. Good luck to me keying that bee out. I had more success with the cinquefoil (see ID at the end).

At some point, taxonomists begin to tinker and soon, you discover the names you put so much sweat equity into learning have been changed. And that’s more of a problem if you don’t get the name right in the first place.

This little grass that I thought was white-haired panic grass…

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…turned out to be the woolly panic grass. So my initial ID was incorrect. Then, I learned the panic grasses—a favorite!—have been reclassified and renamed. The new scientific name Dichanthelium acuminatum  has the common name: “tapered rosette grass.” Definitely does not have the charm of “woolly panic grass,” which conjures up delightful images of sheep bouncing around a field. “Tapered rosette” seems quite buttoned up.  

Darn taxonomists.

Meanwhile, I console myself by noting my ID percentages are still better than the Chicago Cubs’ win-loss percentage this season (.500 at this writing). I continue to work on identification in consultation with smarter friends, pore over excellent books, and plug along the best I can. Knowing that my skills will improve. Prodding myself to be willing to be wrong in pursuit of learning new things. Reminding myself how much I’ve learned since I saw my first tallgrass prairie almost 20 years ago.

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Isn’t that the way of the natural world? The more you know, the more you discover you don’t know. The more you see, the more you realize you aren’t seeing.

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And yet. I might get all the scientific names correct—learn grasses and sedges; figure out the different colors of the eastern forktail at its various life stages—and still not “know” a species. “Knowing” comes through building a relationship with a place, and the community that inhabits it.  Seeing it in all weather, at many times of the day, in all four seasons. Getting hot, sweaty, dirty, buggy, and wet. Watching the damselflies form their heart-shaped wheel. Listening to the dickcissel sing. Touching the prickly center of a pale purple coneflower. Then, the identifications–those crazy names– become a part of my story and the story of that place.

And if I get a plant name wrong or forget which dragonfly is which?

Tomorrow’s another day.

***

The opening quote in this post is from Straw for the Fire, an edited collection from the poet Theodore Roethke’s (1908-1963) notebooks by another amazing poet, David Wagoner (read Wagoner’s poem Lost.) Roethke’s father ran a 25-acre greenhouse in Saginaw, MI, where he grew up. A difficult childhood (his father died when he was 14; an uncle committed suicide); a battle with manic depression, numerous breakdowns, his mysticism, and a feeling of alienation were foils for some tremendous poetry about the natural world and the inner self. Roethke won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (1954) and the National Book Award for Poetry twice (1959 and 1965, posthumously). He was also a revered professor at Michigan State University.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby except for the hedgehog: (top to bottom) bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Franklin Grove, IL; hedgehog (Atelerix albiventris); summer at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; ebony jewelwing damselflies (Calopteryx maculata) mating, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; immature eastern forktail (Ischnura verticalis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; American rubyspot (Hetaerina americana), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Franklin Grove, IL; American rubyspot (Hetaerina americana), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Franklin Grove, IL; narrow-leaved cottongrass (Eriophorum angustifolium) , Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium albidum), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; late horse gentian, wild coffee, or tinker’s weed (Triosteum perfoliatum) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; rough-fruited cinquefoil (Potentilla recta) with unknown bee, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; tapered rosette grass (Dichanthelium acuminatum)  formerly woolly panic grass, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; pale purple coneflower  (Echinacea pallida) opening, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; dickcissel (Spiza americana), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

Hedgehog (“Butterfinger”) photo courtesy of Kim Engels White. Thanks Kim!

Thanks to Susan Kleiman, Bernie Buchholz, and the good folks on the Illinois Botany and Odonata of the Eastern United States Facebook pages for their ID help.

Spring’s Contrasts on the Prairie

“April golden, April cloudy, Gracious, cruel, tender, rowdy...”–Ogden Nash.

***

Spring on the prairie is a showcase of contrasts at the end of April.

Jacob’s ladder.

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Sand phlox. So small! Like a paper snowflake carefully cut out with scissors.

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Tiny blooms. Balanced by rough-and-tumble bison, the heavyweight champs of the prairie.

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Delicate spreadwing damselflies emerge from ponds to tremble in the sun.

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Furry beavers coast by, on their way to ongoing construction projects.

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There’s evidence of egrets. Their pale feathers a contrast to…

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…the bright buttery sunshine of marsh marigolds, with a lipstick red beetle.

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The beetle seems minuscule until a spider wanders into the scene. The line it throws is deceptively fragile looking. Yet, it’s strong enough to capture supper.

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There is life high above, in the flight of a blue heron scared up from the fen.

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While below, tossed carelessly in the grasses, are souvenirs of death.

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Life cut short.

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Beauty and terror co-exist, side-by-side.

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But the stars still come out –shooting stars! Make a wish.

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Life, death, rebirth. It’s all here…

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…at the end of April on the prairie.

***

The opening quote is from the poet (Frederic) Ogden Nash (1902-71) and his poem, “Always Marry an April Girl.” Nash is known for his humorous rhyming verse, and his nonsensical words. An example: “If called by a panther/don’t anther.”

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL (top to bottom): Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptans), sand phlox (Phlox bifida bifida); bison (Bison bison); possibly sweetflag spreadwing (Lestes forcipatus) (ID uncertain); beaver (Castor canadensis); egret feather (Ardea alba); marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris) with an unknown beetle;  unknown spider; blue heron (Ardea herodias); bones in the grasses;  possibly red-winged blackbird egg (Agelaius phoeniceus) in nest; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia) with nest; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia); violet sorrel (Oxalis violacea) with an unknown pollinator. Thanks to Bernie Buchholz for showing me the sand phlox, and John Heneghan, for help with the nest ID.

The Perils of Reading About Prairie

“Education is thinking, and thinking is looking for yourself and seeing what’s there, not what you got told was there.”–William Least Heat-Moon

***

It’s easy to let others tell you what’s “out there.” I know. As a former indie bookseller and lover of any book with the tag “nature essay” on it, I’m addicted to words. Reading books about prairie–and following social media updates or blog essays on the natural world–are only a few of the reasons I enjoy being an armchair nature lover. I can delight in woodlands, wetlands, and prairies without any of the discomfort involved in actually being there.

Through words, I can imagine the winter greens and umbers of mosses carpeting a fallen log, with autumn leaves still lingering.

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Or, through words, I can imagine prairie aromatherapy. A little crushed mountain mint rubbed between your fingers — mmmmm.

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Through words, I can “see” how the wind moves the hyssop in undulating waves.

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Or think about thimbleweed seedheads, in all stages of blow out, and how soft they would feel if I stroked them against my cheek. Like silk.

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The furred white seed heads are in sharp contrast to the geometry of the winter grasses, crisscrossing in golds and soft bronzes. Words can tell me that.

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I love reading about prairie. It enriches what I see there; inspires me to pay attention.

And yet.

Sometimes it’s easier for me to just read  about the natural world in February. The days can be gloomy and cold. I feel a distinct lack of motivation. With reading, there is no mud, drive-time, or layering on sweatshirts, coats, gloves, and hats. The only aches and pains I have after closing a book or reading a social media excerpt are a stiff wrist and tired eyes. Unlike a good, long hike, where I remember it in my muscles for days afterward.

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But I’ve found that the biggest peril of reading about the prairie and the natural world is that I can feel as if I’ve been there and looked. And I haven’t.

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It’s easy for me to turn inwards in winter, to stay inside and let others tell me what’s going on. To read words about the world in isolation.

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But without being there, I miss the connection of the heart to what I see. And of course, what each of us sees is filtered through our own unique lens. No one else’s words can replicate that for us.

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So I go. And I look. And then I return home, calmer, more at peace. Don’t get me wrong. I continue to devour words about the outdoors anywhere I find them. But prairie is my place to be. Words, no matter how inspired, are no substitute for that.

Wherever you find yourself, I hope you’ll go see what’s happening outdoors. Take a deep breath. Notice the sounds. See what the sky looks like.

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Let me know what you discover.

After all, it’s a beautiful world.

***

William Least Heat-Moon (1939), also known as William Trogden, is a Missouri native and resident whose quote from Blue Highways  opens this essay.  He took the invitation to “go see” literally and explored the back roads of the United States. He is the author of several books, including PrairieEryth (1991), which looks at the history, landscape, and people of Chase County, Kansas. Both books are a commitment of time at more than 400 pages each, but well worth it. Another favorite quote of mine from Blue Highways: “Instead of insight, maybe all a man gets is strength to wander for a while. Maybe the only gift is a chance to inquire, to know nothing for certain. An inheritance of wonder and nothing more.” May we all have strength to wander and wonder.

All photos in this essay taken at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL, unless otherwise noted/copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): mosses and oak leaf; common mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum); yellow or purple hyssop (Agastache neptoides or Agastache scrophulariaefolia); thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica) in seed;  big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and Indian grasses (Sorghastrum nutans); trail through Tellabs prairie;  fall leaves in the Tellabs savanna; farm just outside Ashton, IL; Tellabs prairie;  tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris).

Special thanks to Susan Kleiman, nature educator at Byron Forest Preserve, for her ID help on this post. Any ID errors are my own.

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