Tag Archives: bison

Hope in the Tallgrass

“Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering, ‘It will be happier.'” —Alfred, Lord Tennyson

I watched a flock of sandhill cranes scrawling their calligraphic way south this week, high above my backyard prairie patch. You’re late, I said under my breath. But of course, they’re not.

 

Sandhill cranes know the rhythms and patterns encoded deep in their bones; ancient and primitive. They don’t need someone like me, who lives by clocks and calendars, to tell them when it is time to shift places. The wild things know what they need to know.

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But we who do live by clocks and calendars know that this particular week is a symbolic one; one that brings our year to a close.

It’s been a bittersweet year for many of us. For some, a year of losses. Disappointments.

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For others, a year of joys. A year of surprises, perhaps. Of new beginnings.

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For most of us, a blend of all of these. In a few days, the coming season stands ready to be unwrapped, like a bright shiny package. Full of unknowns.

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We look back on a prairie season that brimmed full of braided ladies’ tresses orchids and ebony jewelwing damselflies;

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…dickcissels and purple prairie clover; Scribner’s panic  grass and ornate box turtles.

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Subtle sunrises and in-your-face-spectacular sunsets. Clouds that splattered the prairie sky in a thousand different patterns. Thunderstorms and snow. Wide open spaces that gave us room to think.

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Rainbows and sun halos and sundogs that prismed the clouds with color.

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Astonishing! All of it. How can we not marvel?

But most of all, this past year the prairie continued to amaze me with its people. Volunteers. Their generosity and willingness to give continually exceeded my expectations. People who care! They are willing to put sweat equity into ensuring the tallgrass prairie’s survival.

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Such a diverse group! Some are gifted in art or poetry; theology or math; in music or mechanical engineering; in home economics or biology. These volunteers are pilots, librarians, homemakers, real estate agents, clergy, nurses, and lawyers. They are the unemployed, the already-too-committed, students, and retirees.

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They arise early in the morning. Drive long distances to pull weeds, cut brush, collect seeds. Set prescribed fires. Listen patiently to someone like me talk or teach about prairie. Week after week, they get up and do it all over again. It’s because of them that the tallgrass prairie has a chance in this world.

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As this year ends, I think of the prairie and its community of rich diversity. And I think of this rich diversity of people I know who so faithfully care for it. For without them, the prairie today would no longer thrive in a world where its currency has tenuous value.

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Looking back on 2017, it is easy to feel overwhelmed, anxious, discouraged and—even at times, looking at recent headlines—despair about the natural world. I’ve felt all of these things at some point during the year. But this week, I choose to feel hope.

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Because of the volunteers I know. Because they are working to make this world a better place. Because they show up, week after week.  They believe they can make a difference.

Don’t give up.

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This year, I hope you’ll be out there on the prairies and other natural areas with us.

We’ll be waiting for you.

****

Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892), whose quote opens this blog post, is a good writer to end the year on. He was Poet Laureate of Great Britain and Ireland. He suffered great grief in his family; his father was abusive, and of his 11 siblings, two became addicts and several others suffered acute mental illness. Poetry was his escape, and he poured his life into it. Read about his work and explore his poems at The Poetry Foundation.  I particularly like his short poem, The Eagle.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom):  sun halo with sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis); last weeks of December at Orland Grassland, Forest Preserves of Cook County, Orland Park, IL; goldfinch nest (Spinus tristis), Orland Grassland, Forest Preserves of Cook County Orland Park, IL; bison (Bison bison) at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;   praying mantis (Mantis religiosa) egg case, Orland Grassland, Forest Preserves of Cook County, Orland Park, IL; ebony jewelwing damselflies (male and female) (Calopteryx maculata), Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wetland and prairie, Orland Grassland, Forest Preserves of Cook County, Orland Park, IL; clouds over Orland Grassland, Forest Preserves of Cook County, Orland Park, IL; sundog over Lake Michigan after a prairie visit, St. Joseph, IL;  volunteer on Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; volunteers caring for prairie planting, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wetland and prairie, Orland Grassland, Forest Preserves of Cook County, Orland Park, IL; clouds and prairie, Orland Grassland, Forest Preserves of Cook County, Orland Park, IL; Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), Orland Grassland, Forest Preserves of Cook County, Orland Park, IL; two-track through Orland Grassland, Forest Preserves of Cook County, Orland Park, IL.

Thanks to Heather Herakovich for the nest ID! And thanks to the staff and volunteers who work to preserve the 960-acre Orland Grassland, and to Bob Rottschalk, a faithful blog reader who suggested I go see this preserve for myself. What a beautiful prairie and natural area! I’ll be back.

A Prairie Patchwork Quilt

“You have to keep taking the next necessary stitch, and the next one, and the next…you realize that the secret of life is patch patch patch. Thread your needle, make a knot, find one place on the other piece of torn cloth where you can make one stitch that will hold. And do it again. And again. And again. ” — Anne Lamott

***

It’s a ritual of autumn. The changing of our summer comforter to a heavy quilt, made for us by a friend. A few nights ago, as sleet tapped against the window, I slipped into bed and pulled the quilt close under my chin. Admired the patchwork. Taupe, rust, emerald, peach. Grass-green and olive. Pearl. Oyster.

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As he quilted, our friend incorporated the transient autumn colors of prairie grasses into the coverlet. I was nestled into the prairie itself. Deep under. I might go dormant. Sleep for several months. Awaken to a cleansing fire in February, and leaf out. Be fresher. Vibrant. Renewed.

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It’s a heavy quilt, made from denims and corduroys; a quilt that—like the Midwestern prairies—looks tough and ready to handle anything the future might throw at it. A quilt for the ages.

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As I slipped off to sleep, I thought of the thousands of tiny stitches in this quilt and the prairie it reflects.  The time and the care that one person put into one quilt. And the time and the care — all the “stitches” that have been put into the care and repair of the grasslands which have been lost to us in the Midwest.

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How will the grasslands “quilt” be patched back together?

We need the conservationist in the field, who is bringing back the bison. One stitch.

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We need the research student, who is trying to understand why the bison make a difference to the upland sandpipers and prairie vole and the dung beetle. Stitch. Stitch. Stitch.

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We need the steward who cares for the remnant where the new bison are browsing, and reconstructs new prairie plantings close by. She knows these new plantings won’t exactly replicate the old, but she hopes, she hopes… .

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The activist at the state capital, who has ridden the bus and marched with a sign, and spent the day pleading the case of the natural world to the legislators. Stitch.

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We need the poet who sees  little bluestem, red and wet under November rains, rippling in the wind, and wrestles with just the right words to share what she sees on paper. More stitches.

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Or the textile artist, the photographer, or the painter…

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…creating images that share prairie in ways that open doors of understanding to those who may not have experienced prairie before. Stitch.

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The gardeners, who make their backyards their painter’s palettes. They plant prairie patches that swirl and glimmer with color and motion. A neighbor pauses. Asks a question. A spark is kindled. Another stitch.

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Or people like my friend the quilter, who took up his needle and created something beautiful.

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Each person who places each stitch—one carefully thought-out restoration, one painstakingly done research study on hands and knees in the cold and rain—each photograph, wall hanging, poem, book, song, painting, quilt—

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—adds another stitch to the patches of the prairie patchwork quilt. Brings us closer to the beautiful whole of the Midwestern tallgrass that once was complete, and now is lost.

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Keep hoping.

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Keep stitching.

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Sweet dreams.

***

The opening quote is from Anne Lamott’s (1954-) Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair. Read some highlights of her book here.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby: prairie patchwork quilt by Lynn Johnson; prescribed burn on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, United States Forest Service and The Nature Conservancy, Wilmington, IL;  volunteer collecting seed, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL, compass plant  (Silphium laciniatum) with water droplets, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL , purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea) on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; clouds over the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; grasses in the rain at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  photographer at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Flint Hills prairie, Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, U. S. National Park Service, The Nature Conservancy, Strong City, KS; fences at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, United States Forest Service and The Nature Conservancy, Wilmington, IL; savanna at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, United States Forest Service and The Nature Conservancy, Wilmington, IL;  Willoway Brook, The Schulenberg Prairie Savanna at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; harvesting big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, United States Forest Service and The Nature Conservancy, Wilmington, IL; fall at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; mouse tracks in the snow at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Franklin Grove, IL.

And with ongoing thanks to my friend Lynn Johnson, whose beautiful prairie patchwork quilt warms me and my husband Jeff each winter.  Kudos, my friend.

Prairie Ghosts

“O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.” — Thomas Wolfe

***

Prairie restoration often seems a paradox.

We set the prairie aflame, to bring life out of the ashes.

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We learn to weld fences—in hope of the return of wild things.

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Although we are organic gardeners; we take tests, earn licenses to spray herbicide to keep aggressive plants at bay in the tallgrass.

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We listen to plants which have no voices; ask them to tell us their stories.

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We construct beautiful buildings to tell the message of open spaces.

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We look for traces of the past in order to create a different future. Ghosts. They linger in out-of-the-way places. A certain wildflower, perhaps. An endangered bird. A rare butterfly. Do they still exist? Or have they vanished forever?

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Even as we search, we wonder at the absurdities. Past generations labored to change these prairies into fields of corn and soybeans. We patiently endeavor to return fields to  prairie.

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Why did we lose so much before we realized its value?

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We envision a different future for the acres we care for. A future that might be possible through the work of our hands, the strength of our longing, the power of our imagination…and a little luck.

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We recognize that the prairie restoration work we do is in part, our desire to know that we can make a tangible difference. That change is possible.  That it is never too late to try.

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We pray that what is now fragile and  broken…

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…and once almost erased…

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…will return again. A shadow of what it once was, perhaps. An echo.

But worthwhile, all the same.

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Because we recognize that when we heal the land, in many ways, we heal ourselves.

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As for how we accomplish both—we make peace with the paradoxes.

****

Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938) was the author of Look Homeward, Angel (1929), from which the first quote in this post was taken. This quote is also included as a stunning conclusion to John Madson’s classic book, Where the Sky Began: Land of the Tallgrass Prairie

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Schulenberg Prairie prescribed burn, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bison (Bison bison) herd, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; interpretive sign at Kent Fuller Air Station Prairie, Glenview, IL; the stunning Evelyn Pease Tyner Interpretive Center, Kent Fuller Air Station Prairie, Glenview, IL; prairie burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) seed head, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; small white lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium candidum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) in bloom, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; broken eggshell in a nest, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; icy bison track, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale purple coneflowers (Echinacea pallida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The Last Wild Prairie Places

“Undisturbed remnants of ancient ecosystems, habitats for rare or threatened species, pristine stretches of river, unusual geologic features, exclamations of topography—-wild places aren’t merely beautiful landscapes; they possess a totemic lure, a power or presence that attracts people, sometimes across generational and cultural chasms spanning centuries.” — George Frazier

***

Go west of Illinois. Drive through the small towns of Kansas.

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Imagine thousands and thousands of acres of tallgrass prairie here.

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Then discover the Flint Hills, which are just that.

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Sweeps of bronze, backlit by sunshine, wash the prairie in early autumn. Big bluestem, little bluestem, switchgrass, and Indian grass predominate.

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Bison are all around, plopped across the landscape.

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Keep your distance.

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To appreciate prairie here demands that you pay close attention. Look deep into the buffalo grass.

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You might see something fuzzy.

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Or rubbery.

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You may see a critter in seemingly constant motion that is motionless for a moment.

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Fall flowers add bright dabs of color.

Yellows.

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A few purples and lavenders.

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Blue blooms, as if the sky has flaked into the grasses.

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Heath aster spangles its pale stars everywhere you look.

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As you hike the miles and miles of trails…

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…you feel a sense of something lost.

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You catch the vision of what once was. And you wonder what the future here will be.

It’s in these last wild places that our imagination has room to take flight.

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They are the “thin places” as the Celts tell us. Places that change the way we see the world. Perhaps these places are more precious to us because they have almost vanished. And still may.

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Unless…we continue to pay attention and care for them. Share these wild places with others. Never lose our sense of wonder about them. Marvel.

And make time to go see.

***

George Frazier is the author of The Last Wild Places of Kansas: Journeys into Hidden Landscapes  (University Press of Kansas), from which the opening quote in this essay was taken. This book was a wonderful companion for my first trip to the Flint Hills.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): barn in Burns, Kansas (population 228); trail through the autumn grasses, Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, KS; trail through the Flint Hills in autumn,  Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; lone bison (Bison bison), Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; buffalo grass (Buchloe dactyloides), Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; yellow bear caterpillar (Spilosoma virginica), Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; unknown fungi, Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; red-legged grasshopper, (Melanoplus femurrubrum), Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; prairie coneflower (Ratibida columnifera), Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; curly-cup gumweed (Grindelia squarrosa), Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; prairie blazing star (Liatris punctata), Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; unknown aster, Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; blue sage (Salvia azurea), Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; heath aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides), Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; trail through the Flint Hills in autumn, Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; feather caught in the tallgrass, Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; kite flying over Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; possibly an immature western meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta), cemetery in Burns, Kansas.

Thanks to Mike and Donna Kehoe, who generously hosted us in Kansas and who help keep the last wild places alive through books.

A July Prairie Vocabulary

“I have come to understand that although place-words are being lost, they are also being created. Nature is dynamic, and so is language.” — Robert MacFarlane

***

How can we fix a vanishing landscape like the tallgrass prairie in our minds and hearts?

It may start with words. Here are a few proposed vocabulary words for this hot July summer on the prairie.

Croakfloat:

A frog hanging out in a pond.

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Bumblebloom:

When two or more bees visit a flower.

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Petalrash: 

The splotches of color left behind when pale purple coneflower petals fade.

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Furflower:

What happens when a bison hybridizes with a compass plant.

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Powerpond:

When manmade meets prairie wetland.

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Monarchmagnet:

Any one of the native milkweeds (like this whorled milkweed) that provides life for monarch butterfly caterpillars.

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Bisondifference:

Being ignored by a small herd of bison.

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The July prairie season is in full swing.

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What new words will you add to our summer prairie vocabulary?

***

Robert Macfarlane’s (1976-) opening quote is from his book Landmarks. In it he reminds us of the power of words, and lists many of the words that have been lost in describing the landscape of the British isles. Read what a New York Times reviewer said about it here.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): green frog (Lithobates clamitans), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; unknown bumblebees on white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) with bison (Bison bison) fur, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; pond at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Nachusa Grasslands in July, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.SaveSave

A “Prairie Love” Shack

“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” –Aldo Leopold

***

Some people swear they need to see Bob Dylan in concert before they die. Others vow they’ll climb Mt. Everest. Or aspire to drive the length of historic Route 66.

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But for many of the almost 200 people who gathered for The Aldo Leopold Foundation‘s  “Building a Land Ethic” Conference in Baraboo, Wisconsin, this past week, their goal was  this:

To see “The Shack.”

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No, not the “Love shack, baby,” (with apologies to the B-52s). Although this shack is “set way back in the middle of the field” as the song says.

“The Shack” is a remodeled chicken coop and iconic Wisconsin weekend retreat that provided inspiration for conservationist Aldo Leopold’s book, A Sand County Almanac, published in 1949.

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In his series of essays, Leopold eloquently writes about the tension between humans and nature. He was inspired by the prairies, marshes and woodlands that surrounded The Shack, as well as other places he had worked at or traveled to. Leopold’s words are an eloquent plea to change the way we think about–and care for—our world.

 

In the 1940s, not every publisher thought people were ready to hear this University of Wisconsin professor’s conservation ideas. Look at this letter Leopold received from a publisher considering his manuscript:

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Thank goodness Leopold persisted in keeping his “monotonous” ecological theories in the book!  Although he died before A Sand County Almanac went to print—with a different publisher—he had the joy of knowing his conservation ethics would be shared with a larger audience.

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What Leopold couldn’t know was that his ideas would become the foundation upon which we build many of our conservation ethics today.

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For those who care for prairies, woodlands or other natural areas, it is difficult to choose a favorite Leopold quote. One of his most famous is this: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

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A favorite of mine: “We shall never achieve harmony with the land, anymore than we shall achieve absolute justice or liberty for people. In these higher aspirations the important thing is not to achieve, but to strive.”

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Or this quote, which is frequently circulated in prairie restoration circles: “What a thousand acres of Silphiums looked like when they tickled the bellies of the buffalo is a question never again to be answered, and perhaps not even asked.” A bit depressing, isn’t it?

The Silphiums refer to four prairie plants:

Compass plant, which blooms right around the summer solstice, sending periscopes of yellow flowers across the sea of grasses.

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Cup plant, whose opposite leaves join around the stem to “cup” water after a rain. The perfect goldfinch drinking fountain.

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Rosin weed and prairie dock complete the quartet.

I think Leopold would be happy to know that today, almost 70 years later, many of us are restoring tallgrass prairie.

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We won’t reclaim all that was lost, but perhaps we are following his direction: “To keep every cog and wheel is the first rule of intelligent tinkering.”

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The Silphiums are just four of those many critical “cogs” and “wheels” we plant, tend, and celebrate. Today,  at larger prairie restorations in the Midwest, it’s possible to see a thousand acres of prairie—with Silphiums–“tickling the bellies of bison” again.

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Leopold’s love for prairies, woodlands, marshes, and the natural world continues to influence and inspire those of us who volunteer and work in restoration today.

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Visiting “The Shack” reminds us of the power of words. They can change the world.

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Which of Leopold’s words resonates with you?

****

The opening quote is from the foreword to A Sand County Almanac (1949) by Aldo Leopold (1887–1948). His groundbreaking ideas continue to influence the way we care for the natural world today. If you haven’t read A Sand County Almanac (And Sketches Here and There), consider beginning with one of these essays: “Thinking Like a Mountain,”  “A Marshland Elegy,” or “Good Oak.” To discover more about Leopold and his conservation ethics, you might also read Curt Meine’s excellent book, Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): monarch (Danaus plexippus) on butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), International Crane Foundation prairie, Baraboo, WI; outside “The Shack” with daylilies (Hemerocallis fulva), Aldo Leopold Shack and Farm, Baraboo, WI; outside Aldo Leopold’s Shack, Aldo Leopold Shack and Farm, Baraboo, WI;  inside looking out a window of “The Shack”, Aldo Leopold Shack and Farm, Baraboo, WI; yellow hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens), Aldo Leopold Shack and Farm prairie, Baraboo, WI; letter,  Leopold Center, Baraboo, WI: black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Aldo Leopold Shack and Farm prairie, Baraboo, WI: foundation with prairie planting,  Leopold Center, Baraboo, WI; leadplant (Amorpha canescens), International Crane Foundation prairie, Baraboo, WI;  spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis), Leopold Center, Baraboo, WI: compass plant (Silphium lacinatum), The International Crane Foundation prairie, Baraboo, WI; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), Aldo Leopold Shack and Farm prairie, Baraboo, WI;  pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Leopold Center, Baraboo, WI; widow skimmer dragonfly (Libellula luctuosa), International Crane Foundation prairie, Baraboo, WI; bison (Bison bison) with their ten offspring, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; goat’s rue–also called “the devil’s shoestrings” (Tephrosia virginiana) Leopold Center, Baraboo, Wisconsin; hairy beardtongue (Penstemen hirsutus), International Crane Foundation prairie, Baraboo, WI. 

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.