Category Archives: nachusa grasslands

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.

How to Speak Fluent Prairie

“Although place-words are being lost, they are also being created. Nature is dynamic, and so is language.” –Robert Macfarlane

***

What’s in a name? The Oxford Junior Dictionary has eliminated some words from its children’s dictionary that name things.  Acorn. Willow. Buttercup. Kingfisher–and, other words that are about nature. Adults I encounter no longer seem to have a reference point for common names of plants and other members of the natural world.

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In an adult prairie ethnobotany class I taught this July, I casually mentioned the silky fluff or pappus of milkweed seeds in a pod. Several of my students exchanged blank looks. “You know,” I said, pointing to the milkweed plant in bloom. “The seed pod that comes after the flower.”

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A few people smiled and shook their heads.  I asked for a show of hands. “How many of you know what a milkweed pod is?” There were a few nods. But, almost one third of my class did not know what a milkweed pod was. Nor had they cracked one open to sail the canoe-like pod shells on a creek. They hadn’t blown the silky seeds into the wind and watched them float off toward the horizon. The words, “milkweed pod,” and “milkweed seeds” had no meaning for them.

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It got me thinking — if words  like “kingfisher”  are disappearing from our vocabulary in dictionaries and “milkweed pod” no longer conjures up a visual memory or experience for people, how can we return these words to use? Perhaps learning more specific words for the inhabitants of the natural world and sharing them with others in ordinary conversation is one way to keep our landscape full of rich and beautiful names.

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But –are there other words we need to imagine and create for the natural world?  Surely there are names we haven’t yet thought of yet. Can we meet this hemorrhage of word loss by contributing our own new words for things on the prairie –descriptions, perhaps, that have not been invented yet? Let’s try a few.

Is there a name for the sandpapered curve of a compass plant leaf in winter, dry and brittle?

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Or a term for the color of pink that flushes the sky in a frigid, December sunrise?  IMG_9021 (2).jpg

What might we call the sound of white wild indigo seed pods, rattling in the wind?

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Is there a name for the flotsam and jetsam that blows into a coneflower seed head in winter?

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Does the voice of a prairie stream, rushing through the ice and snow, beg for a new word to describe it?

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A group of coyotes is called a pack. But is there a name to describe a pair of them, picking their way through the snow and ice, moving toward me? Perhaps better yet — a word to describe how I feel at that moment?

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What do you call a clump of snow, caught in the stems of the figwort plant?

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“Arch” seems like the wrong word to describe the Canada wild rye seeds against a winter sky. An “apostrophe of rye seed”? An “eyebrow” of wild rye? A “bristle” of rye? Or?

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When wild quinine turns silver in the frost, but still emits its clean, fresh scent, what word describes it?

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What do you call the sun, when it attempts to break through the wintry sky? And –is there a word for the green of plants persisting under snow? Or for a single tree, punctuating a prairie landscape?

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What do you think?

To express the beauty of the prairie–and the natural world– in all its sensory appeal, we may require a new vocabulary. Let’s put one together. I have my words for all of the above. What are yours?  Think of compiling this list as a good occupation for a cold winter’s afternoon. Or try this — the next time you hike the prairie, what new word descriptions would you add to the prairie’s dictionary and thesaurus?

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Learn some new names for plants, birds, insects, and animals on the prairie. Keep names from becoming lost. Make up your own descriptions for specific things when you can’t find them. Use them. We need these new words –and–we need the existing words we are losing. They help us notice the details. They remind us of the splendor of the natural world. When we use specific words and names, we invite others to appreciate the rich diversity found in tallgrass prairie.

Ready? Let’s get started.

****

British writer Robert Macfarlane’s (1976-) opening quote in this essay is from  Landmarks, in which he seeks to re-wild language with specific names for what we discover in the natural world. MacFarlane’s work can be dense, but like all good things, benefits from a second look and a close paying of attention. He believes that if we lose the names for things in the natural world, we may also lose those very places and plants, critters, and landscapes that are named through a gradual lack of interest and care. Worth thinking about.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Nachusa Grasslands in December (Thelma Carpenter Unit), The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; common milkweed pod (Asclepias syriaca);  white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis), author’s birdfeeders by her prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; compass plant (Silphium lacinatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; December sunrise, author’s prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla) seed pods, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) , Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; two coyotes (Canis latrans), Hidden Lake, Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL figwort (Scrophularia marilandica) with snow, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; December at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  Thelma Carpenter Unit, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

Seeds of Hope in an Uncertain World

“Where there is hatred, let me sow love.” — from the Prayer of St. Francis

***

So much hate. How did we come to this?

The tallgrass offers solace, if only for a few hours. Come hike with me.  See what the prairie has to say about it all. Gain some perspective.

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It’s good to be reminded that there is beauty in the world, even if it is sometimes fleeting.

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There are small creatures who keep singing, no matter what the headlines say.

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Little winged ones who bathe themselves in light.

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Comical critters who make us smile, even when world events and politics seem grim.

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The tallgrass reminds us that the cycle of the seasons will continue.

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The prairie ripens its fruits, as it has each autumn for time past remembering.

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The grasses and wildflowers foam with seeds.

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The seed fluff puffs like fireworks…

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…catches the wind, and sails aloft.

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Landing in unlikely places.

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Other seeds are plucked from thistle plants to line a goldfinch’s nest, and help nurture a new generation.

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Each fruit, each seed is a promise. Although the road ahead is fraught with uncertainty…

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…we will soon find ourselves at the beginning of a new season.

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Every day, beautiful things are unfolding.

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The prairie reminds us that the issues that consume our attention are only a blink in the immensity of time.

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How will we spend our days this week? Let the seeds we sow for the future be ones that lighten the darkness.

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When so many around us speak hate, let’s sow love. Let’s make a difference.

****

The opening quote is widely attributed to St. Francis of Assisi (1181-2 to 1226). He was known for his simplicity and a love for nature and animals, and often portrayed with a bird in his hand.

All photos above copyright Cindy Crosby at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL (except where noted): view from Fame Flower Knob in October; two cabbage white butterflies (Pieris rapae), an orange sulphur butterfly (Colias eurytheme)and two clouded sulphur butterflies (Colias philodice) puddling by Clear Creek; red-legged grasshopper (Melanoplus femurrubrum); field sparrow (Spizella pusilla) bathing in Clear Creek;  American bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus) ; fiery skipper (Hylephila phyleus), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; Nachusa Grasslands in October; ground cherries (Physalis spp.); little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) with sweet everlasting (Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium); virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana);  unknown seed; unknown seed in spider web at Clear Creek; goldfinch (Spinus tristis) on pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor); road through Nachusa Grasslands; common buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia) on white clover (Trifolium repens);  eastern comma butterfly (Polygonia comma) at bison watering area;  grasses on Fame Flower Knob with St. Peter’s sandstone; whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata) seed pods. 

Leaving Home

“Migration is a blind leap of faith… .” Scott Weidensaul

*****

September.

In a prairie pond, a turtle and a few ducks snooze in the late afternoon sun.

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A baby snapper ventures slowly out to explore the rocks.

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The last great blue lobelia flowers open and bloom amid the goldenrod. September’s colors.

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Deep in the tallgrass, a grasshopper takes a hopping hiatus from the heat.

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A cool breeze stirs. The tree leaves begin to rustle, then rattle. A sound like waves rushing to shore sweeps through the prairie. It ripples in the wind. Tall coreopsis sways.

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The prairie whispers, Go.

The black saddlebags dragonfly feels restless, deep down in its DNA. Orienting south, it joins the green darners, variegated meadowhawks, and wandering gliders to swarm the skies. Go. Go.

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The meadowhawk dragonfly hears, but doesn’t respond. It will be left behind. Only a few species of dragonflies answer the migration call. Why?

We don’t know. It’s a mystery.

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A flash of orange and black, and a monarch nectars at the zinnias that grow by my prairie patch.  Mexico seems a long way off for something so small. But this butterfly was born with a passport that includes a complimentary GPS system. This particular monarch will go. Just one more sip.

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A viceroy butterfly delicately tastes nectar from goldenrod. No epic trip for this look-alike. Although its days are numbered, the butterfly bursts with energy, zipping from prairie wildflower to wildflower. Go? I wish!

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A turkey vulture lazily soars through the air, headed south.  These Chicago buzzards won’t drift far. Once they hit the sweet tea and BBQ states, they’ll stay put until spring.

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Go? The red-tailed hawk catches the whispered imperative. She stops her wheeling over the prairie for a moment and rests on top of a flagpole, disgruntled. Go? NO! So many birds heading for warmer climes! She ignores the command. She’ll winter here,  in the frigid Chicago temperatures. Wimps, she says, disdaining the pretty warblers, flocking south.

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Meanwhile, the last blast of hummingbirds dive-bomb my feeders, slugging it out for fuel. Think of the lines at the pump during the oil embargo crisis of the 1970s –that’s the scene. Destination? Central America. You can feel their desperation as they drink deeply, then buzz away.

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Saying goodbye is always the most difficult for those left behind. Seeing those we know and care about leave home is bittersweet, fraught with loss.

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But, as the prairie brings one chapter to a close–with all of its colorful and lively characters…

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…another chapter is about to begin.

Meanwhile, we watch them go. Bon voyage. Safe travels.

 

*****

The opening quote is by Scott Weidensaul, the author of Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom):  painted turtle (Chrysemys picta) and mallard ducks ((Anas platyrhynchos) on the  prairie pond, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; baby snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) and Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; grasshopper (species unknown), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Glen Ellyn Public Library prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL; black saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata), James “Pate” Philip State Park, Illinois DNR, Bartlett, IL;  meadowhawk (Sympetrum spp.) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; monarch (Danaus plexippus), author’s backyard garden and prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) on Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; turkey vulture (Cathartes aura), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) , author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; sunset at Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL. 

Wild Things

“Two great and conflicting stories have been told about (wildness). According to the first of these, wildness is a quality to be vanquished; according to the second, it is a quality to be cherished.”–Robert Macfarlane

So often, we settle for “pretty” when we think about place. And yes, the prairie can be pretty, and full of pretty things. Great blue lobelia. Creamy white turtlehead blooms.

“Wild” makes more demands of us.  It changes our idea of beautiful. The prairie as a wild place asks us to be uncomfortable in order to experience it.  To be scratched, sore, tired, and bitten.

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Wild may be more subtle than pretty. It asks us to look at the sweep of a prairie landscape; the nuances of color and movement.

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It pushes us to pay attention to small things, that may otherwise easily slip below our radar.

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To be wild is sometimes unsafe. Prairie dropseed lures us with its buttered popcorn smell, while tripping us up with its silky grasses and mounded roots. Early European settlers called prairie dropseed, “ankle breaker.”  To cross a prairie in that time, with your belongings packed into your wagon, was to enter the wild. A place of hazards.

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Other plants, like the prairie cordgrass towering over your head, slash bare skin with razor-like leaf cuts if you venture too close. Its nickname: “rip gut.”

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And yet…look again. So many delicate blooms amid the rough and ready grasses! You pick your way carefully, still conscious of the perils.

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Beauty and terror co-exist, side by side.

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The idea of “wild” invites us to marvel over less-appreciated creatures, who have a certain ferocious allure.

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The wildness of prairie may seem empty. The openness of sky and grass leaves us vulnerable to whatever is “out there.”

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You feel the eyes of a thousand inhabitants of the natural world watching.

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You stand, a solitary figure in the tallgrass. No other person in sight. Prairies, like other wild places, give us room to be alone with ourselves, without white noise and distractions. And perhaps this is the most terrifying demand of all from wild places. But for those who make the journey, it is the most satisfying reward. What will you discover?

Why not go, and find out?

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby: (top to bottom) great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) and white turtlehead (Chelone glabra linifolia), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL: great spangled fritillary (Speyeria cybele) on pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor) , Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  September colors at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; familiar bluet damselfly (Enallagma civile) , Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; prairie dropseed, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata) , Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; violet wood sorrel (Oxalis violacea) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) and bee (Megachile spp.), Nachusa Grassland, Franklin Grove, IL; banded garden spider (Argiope trifasciata), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; September at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; common buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

Robert Macfarlane (1976-) penned the opening quote, which is from his book, The Wild Places. He is a contemporary British writer, and winner of the Boardman Tasker Prize for literature.