“When despair for the world grows in me…I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds… .”–Wendell Berry
A festival is in full swing on the east side of the 1700-acre Morton Arboretum. Hundreds of cars, thousands of people.
But I’m alone on the west side trail here, except for the mosquitoes. Destination: Prairie. Good thing I brought my headnet, I think as I trek through the old gravel two-track through the savanna. The bugs buzz around my ballcap and plaster themselves against my face, trying to bite through the mesh.
A male violet dancer damselfly perches on a grass blade along the trail. Thanks, I tell him, only half kidding. I know he’s doing his part to eat as many of these mosquitoes as possible.
I leave most of the mosquitoes behind as the prairie spreads out before me. I smell the prairie dropseed in bloom, the scent reminiscent of hot buttered popcorn or cilantro. In the first days of August, the tallgrass shimmers in the heat, a mass of wildflowers and grass… grass, grass, so much grass. Beauty in the aggregate, like a wall of big bluestem shooting toward the sky.
Clouds of lavender bee balm blooms drift through the tallgrass, seducing butterflies, bees, moths, and hummingbirds with their delectable nectar. I could sit and watch a patch for hours.
They are gorgeous en masse. But there is also delight in the singular, like this tiny jewel-like fly, part of the Condylostylus genus. That face!
So much to discover. A double-striped bluet damselfly hangs out at the edges of the savanna, less than an inch long. I almost walk right by him.
The female turns up also; different color, same double-stripe. I rarely see the double-striped bluets, so they are an unexpected treat. Two in one afternoon? Joy!
I love the juxtapositions on the prairie in August. The surprises. The discoveries. The “prairie pairings,” like these two stream bluet damselflies, forming the mating wheel.
The prairie plants have their own pairings, like these wild petunia “twins” —native prairie plants—growing directly in the mowed path.
Deep in the grasses—just past the wild petunias—carrion vine has balled up its seeds. The lavender bee balm acts a backdrop; a prairie pairing that tells me we’re sliding toward autumn. Soon the carrion vine seeds will turn a dark purple. The bee balm will drop its tubular petals before the snow flies, but its fragrance will linger through the winter in its leaves and stems, scenting the tallgrass.
Nearby, a male eastern amberwing dragonfly rests on the pored and veined surface of a compass plant leaf, ready for take-off at my slightest move. The amberwing dragonflies will be around another few weeks or so, then their season will be over. Summer is going too fast.
Tiny butterflies stir the grasses, colorful blurs. The eastern tailed-blue butterfly is a common prairie flier, but no less delightful for its ubiquity. This one sips nectar from a showy tick trefoil bloom. See its uncurled proboscis, sipping nectar? Like a flexible straw! But it’s so much more. Read about new butterfly proboscis research here.
I love the crazy contrasts of rattlesnake master’s globed blooms, which mix and mingle with budding blazing star.
Or the almost clichéd pairing of monarchs and butterfly weed. Their bright orange POP of dynamic duo color is unmatched by anything else on the prairie. Except, perhaps…
…the royal catchfly in bloom, hot soloists, riffing on red.
Bee balm sings backup. What a pairing!
Sure, not all the prairie juxtapositions are welcome. I could do with a few less mosquitoes buzzing around my headnet or no Japanese beetles making inroads on the showy tick trefoil.
But its all a part of fully experiencing summer on the prairie.
What “prairie pairings” do you enjoy? Leave me a note and let me know. Can’t think of any? There’s no better time to go out and find some for yourself!
Wendell Berry (1934), whose words are at the top of this blog post, is a writer, conservationist, farmer, and philosopher. This week is a great time to revisit his complete poem, The Peace of Wild Things. from which the opening words of this blog were taken. He lives in Kentucky.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby, and taken this week at the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL (top to bottom): bridge over Willoway Brook; male violet dancer damselfly (Argia fumipennis var. violacea); big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); fly (Condylostylus spp.); male double-striped bluet damselfly (Enallagma basidens); female double-striped bluet damselfly (Enallagma basidens); male (blue) and female (greenish) stream bluet damselflies (Enallagma exsulans); wild petunias (Ruellia humilis); possibly upright carrion vine (Smilax ecirrhata) and bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); male eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemus tenera) on compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); eastern tailed-blue butterfly (Cupido comyntas) with showy tick trefoil (Desmodium canadense); rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) with blazing star (Liatris aspera); butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) with monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus); royal catchfly (Silene regia); royal catchfly (Silene regia) with bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); Japanese beetles (Popillia japonica) on showy tick trefoil (Desmodium canadense).
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