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August’s Opening Day on the Prairie

“The first week of August hangs at the very top of the summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning.” Natalie Babbitt

***

You can feel summer pause for a moment, catch its breath.

July is over.

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August is here.

The fireflies wink their Morse Code at night. On. Off. On. Off. They’re abundant this summer. People talk about it, wonder out loud. Speculate: “I haven’t seen this many fireflies since I was a kid. Must have been the wet spring? Maybe all the rain?”

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The fireflies light up the yard, the old field by the railroad tracks, the parks after dark.  Listen! The soundtrack for the fireflies is the buzz saw and hum of the invisible cicadas, crickets, and other fiddling insects tuning up in the dark.

 

We sit on the back porch and watch the fireflies twinkle in the prairie patch. Remember catching them as kids? The mason jars with a bit of grass tucked in and holes punched in the lids. Fireflies. We’ll enjoy them while they last.

On the bigger prairies, the more delicate wildflowers back off a bit as the grasses push themselves skyward and elbow them out of the way.

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Some of the heavyweight bloomers are tough enough to compete with the grasses:  stocky cup plant, rough-and-tumble rosin weed,  bristly compass plant.

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The curiously smooth prairie dock stems throw periscopes of flowers across the prairie eight feet high.  Its fists of blooms uncurl at last. They vie with the compass plants for supremacy.

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If it wasn’t for its eye-popping purple color, you might miss the low-growing prairie poppy mallows.

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Also short but eye-catching is the bright white whorled milkweed. Doesn’t look much like milkweed at first glance, but check out the individual flowers. Yes! That’s milkweed, all right.

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The bison move slower in the heat, graze a little, then look for a shady spot to cool off. The spring babies are getting bigger. They seem to put on weight as you watch.

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The prairie ponds shimmer under the August sun. July rains have filled them to overflowing. Dragonflies fly across the water in a frenzy. It’s now or never for laying eggs to make future generations happen. Everywhere, it seems, there are insect hook ups; winged romance on the fly.

The purple and white prairie clover has gone to seed and created perches for the eastern amberwing dragonflies.

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Blue dashers, too.

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The wings and bodies of the widow skimmer dragonflies take on a blue-ish powdery look that indicates age, called “pruinosity.” Old age, for a dragonfly, is a matter of weeks. If they are lucky, a few months. And with age and pruinosity, the widow skimmers become more beautiful.

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Flowering spurge has gone crazy this summer.

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It fills in the spaces between the grasses like baby’s breath in an FTD floral arrangement.

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The first breath of silky prairie dropseed grass in bloom scents the air with the smell of buttered popcorn.

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Blazing stars spike across the prairie. With their flowers comes a sense of inevitability.  Asters and goldenrods will be right on their heels, and with them, the close of the warm weather season.

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Everything on the prairie is poised for the downward plunge into autumn. But for now, summer in the tallgrass reigns supreme.

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August’s opening day on the prairie is here.

***

The opening quote is from “Tuck Everlasting,” a novel by Newbery Medal Award-winning children’s book writer and illustrator Natalie Babbitt (1932-2016). It’s worth reading the lines in context, reprinted here: “The first week of August hangs at the very top of the summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning. The weeks that come before are only a climb from balmy spring, and those that follow a drop to the chill of autumn, but the first week of August is motionless, and hot. It is curiously silent, too, with blank white dawns and glaring noons, and sunsets smeared with too much color.”

***

All photographs and audio clip copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): sunset on Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL; flood debris on a tree by Clear Creek, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; crickets and other fiddling insects audio clip, author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL;  grasses, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL: purple poppy mallow (Callirhoe involucrata) , Kickapoo Nature Center, Oregon, IL: whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; herd of bison (Bison bison),  Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL: eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  blue dasher dragonfly (female) (Pachydiplax longipennis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  widow skimmer (Libellula luctuosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata) in the tallgrass, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blazing star (Liatris spp.), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; tallgrass prairie, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

To (Intentionally) Know a Prairie

“So much of our life passes in a comfortable blur… Most people are lazy about life. Life is something that happens to them while they wait for death.”--Diane Ackerman

***

As a former independent bookseller, I love words, particularly words that come from books. Why? The best books broaden our thinking, jolt us out of our complacency, and remind us of the marvels of the natural world.  They give us hope for the future. Words also prod us to reflect on our lives. To make changes.

Native American writer N. Scott Momaday penned the following words:

“Once in his life man ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth, I believe…

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He ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience…

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To look at it from as many angles as he can…

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To wonder upon it…

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To dwell upon it.

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He ought to imagine that he touches it with his hands at every season…

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…and listens to the sounds that are made upon it.

He ought to imagine the creatures there…

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…and all the faintest motions of the wind. 

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He ought to recollect the glare of the moon…

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and the colors of the dawn… 

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…and the dusk.”

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I read Momaday’s words and ask myself: How do I “give myself up” to a particular landscape? When was the last sunrise I noticed? The last sunset? How many creatures and plants can I identify in the place where I live?  Do I know the current phase of the moon? Will I be there to touch the sticky sap of a compass plant in summer, or to follow coyote tracks through snow, even when it is inconvenient or uncomfortable to do so? What will I do to share what I discover with others?

How will I live my life this year? In “a comfortable blur?”

Or with intention?

***

Poet, naturalist, and essayist Diane Ackerman (1948-), whose words open this post, is the author of numerous books including A Natural History of the Senses from which this quote is taken. Her book, One Hundred Names for Love, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.  The Zookeeper’s Wife, was made into a movie, which opens in theaters in spring of 2017.

***

Poet and writer N. Scott Momaday (1934-) won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his novel, House Made of Dawn (1969). The words quoted here are from The Way to Rainy Mountain, a blend of history, memoir, and folklore. Momaday is widely credited with bringing about a renaissance in Native American literature. His thoughtful words are a call to paying attention in whatever place you find yourself… including the land of the tallgrass prairie.

***

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby: (top to bottom) shooting stars (Dodecatheon meadia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Newton County, IN; restoration volunteers, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; storm over the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; eastern prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; naming the prairie plants, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie trail, Curtis Prairie, University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum, Madison, WI; discovering the tallgrass, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; violet wood sorrel (Oxalis violacea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; summer on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; fall comes to the Meadow Lake prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; snow on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; spring peepers (Pseudacris crucifer) and western chorus frogs (Pseudacris triseriata), unnamed West Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; female eastern amberwing (Perithemis tenera), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; kaleidoscope of clouded sulphur butterflies (Colias philodice), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bison (bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  prairie smoke (Geum triflorum), Meadow Lake prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; moon over Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; sunrise, Hidden Lake Forest Preserve prairie planting, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County; Downer’s Grove, IL;  sunset, Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL. 

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. 

To Know a Prairie

“A walk is only a step away from a story, and every path tells.” –Robert Macfarlane

How do you begin to know a prairie?

You walk it alone, in the late summer sun.

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Wait for the mist to rise, after the rain.

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You sit quietly, doing nothing at all. Suddenly, the  focus becomes what is small.

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And the big things as well, a foil for the small. You notice the bison, formed and shaped by the land;  their bodies echoed in the knobs and the trees.

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And you stop for a while, and marvel.

How do you begin to know a place?

Your skin is scraped raw by the roughness of grass. Then soothed by the silk of the Canada rye.

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You watch the sun light the grass as it sinks out of view.

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And the darkness throws all into impossible relief.

Grasses and shrubs…

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…and wildflowers pink; catching the last light before going to sleep.

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You reflect on what you know, and what you realize  you don’t.

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There will always be mystery, here in the grass.

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You absorb what you can; you listen and learn.

And let the rest wash over you. Too much to take in.

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The story continues with each step that you take. And like a good book, you don’t want it to end.  You pull on your boots the next morning, and hike it again.

That’s how you begin.

To know a place.

*******

The opening quote is from The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot by British writer Robert Macfarlane (1976-), about the shaping of people and places.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby: (top to bottom): road through Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; mist on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; common pondhawk dragonfly female (Erythemis simplicicollis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Canada wild rye, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  sunset with big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  sunset with shrubs, Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL; gaura (Gaura biennis), Nachusa Grasslands, the Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; cattails (Typha latifolia) on Silver Lake, Blackwell Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; mist, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; clouds, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

A Lot of Gall

All that is gold, does not glitter. Especially in September… when the goldenrods bloom.

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Ahhhhh chooo!  I don’t like that plant. Goldenrods make me sneeze! So you might say.

Not so fast. Goldenrods get a bad rap for fall allergies, although they are unlikely to be the culprit for your itchy, watery eyes. Goldenrod pollen is insect pollinated and has a difficult time finding its way to your sinuses.

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Ragweed is the likely suspect, as it blooms about the same time as goldenrod and is wind pollinated, making it more likely to be inhaled. Blame it if  your eyes water and your sinuses are congested.

Now that you’re not nervous about getting acquainted with goldenrods, take a closer look. Do you see interesting-looking formations on some of the plants? Those are goldenrod galls. An gall is simply an abnormal growth, and in this case, caused by an immature insect.

The two most common goldenrod galls you’re likely to see on the Illinois’ prairie are the ball gall…

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…and the bunch gall.

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The ball gall is made by the tiny goldenrod gall fly. She lays her eggs on a goldenrod stem, and about a week or so later, the larvae hatches. It chews a tunnel into the stem where it sets up housekeeping for up to a year. The goldenrod stem gradually swells around the larvae, providing a safe spot for it to live and feed. Think of it as a spherical bed and breakfast.

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If you enjoy fishing, as I do, you’ll know a ball gall is a good place to find bait. Cut open the ball gall, scrape out the larvae, and you’re in business. Woodpeckers and hungry, insect-loving birds are also in the know. You’ll sometimes find them pecking at ball galls, looking for dinner.

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Bunch galls are formed by the goldenrod gall midge, a tiny fly which lays its eggs in the leaf buds. The larvae short-circuits the normal growth of the plant, resulting in a an explosion of leaves that sometimes look like a stacked rosette, as you see in the photo above.

If you’re lucky, you might find a ball gall and a bunch gall on the same goldenrod plant.

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And — no worries. Although they do take nutrients from the goldenrod,  most goldenrod galls are believed to be harmless. The plant is irritated, but tolerates them. Sort of like you might put up with the out of town relatives that were supposed to come to your house for the weekend, and stayed for a month.

Looking for different goldenrod galls on the tallgrass prairie is a great excuse to go for a hike on a sunny day in September.

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But really…who needs an excuse?

All photos by Cindy Crosby. (Top to bottom): Goldenrod (Solidago spp.) and big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL; goldenrod, Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ball gall, RKP; bunch gall, RKP; ball gall, RKP;  bunch galls, RKP; ball gall and bunch galls, RKP; autumn at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Some of the information in this essay is taken from the following sources: Brandeis University: http://www.bio.brandeis.edu/fieldbio/galls/galls.html; http://www.fcps.edu/islandcreekes/ecology/goldenrod_gall_fly.i.cfm.; http://www.hiltonpond.org; www4.um.edu/fieldstation/naturalhistory/bugoftheweek/galls_i.cfm; http://prairieecologist.com/2013/08/27/goldenrod-allergies-and-spitballs/;  Web MD: http://www.webmd.com/allergies/features/ragweed-pollen

The quote that begins the essay is from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.