Tag Archives: conservation

Rethinking Wilderness: Of Prairies and Deserts

“Wilderness is not a luxury, but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. ” — — Edward Abbey

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Displacement is good for the soul; or so I tell myself as I hike the beautiful red-rock trails of Sedona with Jeff under a blazing sun.

Shade? Forget about it. Unless it’s the shade you cast as you hike.

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As a prairie lover, the plants and grasses of the desert are a study in contrasts to what I know back home. I’m used to lush foliage. Vibrant wildflowers. In the Chicago region this season, the tallgrass prairie lived up to its name. Rain ensured this. Big bluestem towers over my head whenever I go for a hike; bends over trails with the weight of its tallness.

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Sunflowers form jungle-like vegetation along the prairie streams. In places, vegetation is so impenetrable, I’ve had to abandon some of my dragonfly monitoring routes for the season.

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But when you look closely—think out of the box a little bit—there are similarities between the prairie I know and the desert I’m hiking today that I don’t know. Here in Sedona, it’s obvious most of the grasses and plants are primed for weather extremes; small amounts of  rainfall and harsh heat. There are empty creek beds everywhere that must flash flood from time to time.  But today, everything is dusty and parched in the glare of the sun.

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You can almost hear the plants whisper advice to each other. Conserve water. Adapt. Adapt.

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The tallgrass prairies of home, while receiving around 40 inches of rainfall in a good year, are also primed for weather swings between drought and flood. As I look closely at the yucca on my hike, its foliage reminds me of the tallgrass prairie’s rattlesnake master, whose scientific name, Eryngium yuccifolium pays homage to its prickly, fleshy, yucca-like leaves.  What do you think?

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Both the desert and the tallgrass have fire in common. There’s a wildfire burning in a wilderness area just a few miles away. Everywhere, there is a sense of caution.

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A sign on the highway notes: “Brushfire Danger High: Use Your Ashtray.”  Are there still ashtrays in cars? Who knew? Burnout operations — creating small fires to stop wildfires —are underway at night. Evidently, smoke creates less of a breathing hazard for residents at night than in the daytime. Fascinating stuff.  I hadn’t thought of the desert, with its cactus and forests and mountains, as a place of fire. But so it is.

A species of prickly pear cactus pops up everywhere in the desert; a relative to a prickly pear cactus we have  (oddly enough) in our Midwest tallgrass prairies. Hello, friend. Nice to see a familiar face.

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However, I keep a respectful distance. Those sharp bristles are nothing to trifle with.

I try to decipher the hieroglyphics of the trail as I hike. What is the desert trying to tell me?

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Maybe the words of Ed Abbey again: “We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it. We need a refuge even though we may not ever need to go there.”

Being in the desert prompts me to think about wilderness in new ways. Mostly, I’ve thought of wilderness as the North Woods, or maybe the Bob Marshall in Montana, or large swathes of Arctic habitat. And yet, there are ten federally designated wilderness areas in or close to Arizona’s Coconino National Forest, including where I’m hiking on the outskirts of the Munds Mountain Wilderness. Desert has its own version of a wilderness refuge, a place apart. Just as prairies are.

Another similarity between deserts and prairie is that both can be overlooked, misunderstood, and taken for granted. “Once you’ve seen the red rocks a few times, they can be pretty boring,” said the maintenance man who came to fix my hotel door lock in Sedona.

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Ditto for a shopkeeper downtown. “It’s so beautiful here,” I said to her (gushingly, I’m afraid.) She shook her head. “It’s ugly!”  I’ve heard much the same back home about the tallgrass prairie. “Weeds!”  a friend once told me. Perhaps familiarity breeds contempt? But, as the venerable garden writer Henry Mitchell rather caustically once said, these remarks tend to come from folks who “don’t see much when they look.” And we’ve all been guilty of that, haven’t we?

So, I remind myself, Look. Look again. Don’t dismiss what you don’t understand. Find connections. Appreciate the differences. Let the desert soak in.

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“What draws us into the desert is the search for something intimate in the remote.” Ed Abbey again. As an outsider here, I feel the draw. There’s so much here I don’t understand. I see a lot of other people hiking the trails, climbing the rocks, searching for something…more. 

Like the base jumper, defying laws of both gravity and the legal system. As we hiked the trails one morning, we heard a yell of delight. We looked up— just as he leapt from thousands of feet high off of one of the towering red rocks and floated to the ground.

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What was he looking for? Did he find it? I wonder.

I want to listen to the wisdom the desert has to offer, even when I don’t always know what I’m looking at. Or, what I’m looking for. Pay attention. Be grateful these places exist, even if this is may be the only time in my life I’ll get to see them.

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I want to cherish these diverse places in my memory. Act to protect them for future generations. After all, who knows what these places may have to teach us? We need to tuck them into our hearts. We need them to be there…when we go looking.

***

Edward Abbey (1927-1989) was a writer, environmental activist, and park ranger. Although personal happiness seemed elusive (he was married five times) and he held controversial views on immigration, women, and environmental sabotage, his writings on American deserts—-leaning toward mysticism—-helped inspire a public appreciation for the desert landscape that continues today. If you haven’t read Abbey, try Desert Solitaire.

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Bell Rock hiking trail, Oak Creek, AZ; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; Maxmillian sunflowers (Helianthus maximiliani), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown desert grasses and plants, Bell Rock hiking trail, Oak Creek, AZ; yucca (Yucca, unknown species), Oak Creek, AZ; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) fire hazard sign, State Highway 169, AZ; prickly pear cactus (probably Opuntia cactaceae or Opuntia phaeacantha) and unknown grasses, Bell Rock hiking trail, Oak Creek, AZ; sand track graffiti on the Bell Rock hiking trail, Oak Creek, AZ; red rocks, Red Rock Scenic Parkway, Sedona, AZ; Bell Rock, Red Rock Scenic Parkway, Sedona, AZ;  base jumper off of Courthouse Rock, Oak Creek, AZ; moonrise over Sedona on the Autumn equinox, Sedona, AZ. Any plant ID’s from my desert friends are welcome! Grateful to all of you who work to care for these amazing desert places, including Neil Chapman at TNC’s Hart Prairie in northern Arizona. Thank you. 

Prairie Passages

“The opposite of love is not hatred, but indifference.”–Paul Gruchow

The sun lobs her light into the early morning hours. Mist rises from the warmth of the tallgrass into the cool air. It’s quiet, except for the wake-up songs of a few migrating warblers, resting in the nearby trees.

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Dawn is later now. The autumn equinox is only days away. You feel the transition in the slant of the light, the scent of the breezes. The just-past-full harvest moon this week seemed to speak of the cold and dark to come.

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The prairie  year rushes toward its inevitable conclusion.

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Drive by the prairie in late September. The impression is a sea of grasses. It’s easy to be indifferent to the seeming sameness, if you don’t take time to pay attention and look carefully.  

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So. Get out of your car. Sit. Look up at the sunflowers. See the migrating monarch nectaring?

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Celebrate the grasshopper, the bee, the cricket. Each one with plant associations; each irreplaceable in the prairie community.

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Applaud the profusion of asters, dabbing the prairie with purple.

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Watch as the prairie, under the lessening light, gently puts on the brakes. Seeds ripen and fall; some gathered by volunteers, others fuel for grassland birds or tiny mice and voles.  Bison thicken up their hairy chocolate-colored coats.

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Admire the boneset, one of the last flushes of extravagant flowers before the frosts touch the grasses. Boneset was once valued for its medicinal qualities; its ability to alleviate pain. Discomfort is part of change, but there is always solace in unexpected places. The clouds of pale boneset are one of the comforts of a prairie in transition.

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Inhale, smell the buttery prairie dropseed, the lemony scent of gray-headed coneflower seeds, the dusty mint of bee balm.

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Are transitions difficult for you, as they are for me? Are you watching and listening as the tallgrass moves from the warm season; melds into the coming cold?

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Let the prairie remind  you that there is always something amazing waiting, just around the corner. Love the transitions. Embrace what is bittersweet. Don’t be indifferent. Or afraid of change. Keep moving forward with anticipation to the new season ahead.

You’ll see.

******

The opening quote is from Grass Roots: The Universe of Home, by Minnesota writer Paul Gruchow (1947-2004). Gruchow grappled with depression throughout his writing life; he found solace in the solitude of wild places, especially prairie.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby: (top to bottom): Prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; just past full harvest moon seen from author’s prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL;  Clear Creek, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on Maximilian sunflowers (Helianthus maximiliani), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; red-legged grasshopper (Melanoplus femurrubrum) on Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; silky asters (Symphyotrichum sericeum), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; tall boneset (Eupatorium altissimum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; mist over prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; September on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. 

Leaving Home

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

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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.

 

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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.

Of Bison and Butterflies

Today’s prairie post is brought to you by the letter “B.”       

“B” is for bison, big, bored, and brown.

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“B” is for barns; the prairie’s “downtown.”

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“B” is for butterflies that brighten the blooms.

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“B” is for bugs; they “zips” and they “zooms.”

 

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“B’ is for bluestem, both big…

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…and so small.

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“B” is for beaten path, the trail through it all.

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“B” is for brave, brawny, and bold…

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And “B” is for beautiful; 

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My tale is now told.

******

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby(top to bottom): bison (Bison bison) Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; old barn, Dixon, IL; black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) on gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) with flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata) in the background, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; monarch (Danaus plexippus), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; band-winged meadowhawk (Sympetrum semicinctum) with a stink bug (Halyomorpha halys), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) with flowering spurge in the background (Euphorbia corollata), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL;  trail through the tallgrass, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Flight Through the Tallgrass

“For once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return.” –Leonardo da Vinci

The summer sky tumbles her clouds. The prairie whispers, “flight.”

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So many ways to reach new heights on the prairie in August. So many ways to take to the skies.

Butterflies drift through the air like colorful leaves. The tiger swallowtails take frequent snack breaks.

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Silver skippers pause, dwarfed by the grasses now shooting skyward, considering their options.

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Some prairie inhabitants fly only as far as a hop and a jump.

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While others will travel distances limited only by the imagination.

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Yet, as satisfying as it is to take to the air, it’s wise to find shade where you can. The blazing prairie sun offers no relief.

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The zips and zags of dragonflies dazzle. When one dragonfly comes to rest on a budded blazing star, you can’t help but admire her intricate wings, those complex eyes.

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So much is unfolding on the prairie in August.

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You sense everything is moving in a new direction.

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Time is flying. Will you be there, in the tallgrass?

 

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You’ll be amazed at what you see…

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…if you make time to look.

 

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The opening quote is by Leonardo DaVinci (1452-1519), perhaps the most diversely gifted person in history. Among his many interests was flight; he created plans for flying machines and studied the flight of birds.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby: (top to bottom) big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) against the August sky, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly (Papilio glaucus), St. James Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL; silver-spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL;  green frog  (Lithobates clamitans), St. James Farm prairie area, Warrenville, IL;  American goldfinch(Spinus tristis), St. James Farm, Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL;  great horned owl (Bubo virginianus), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL;  female blue dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis)) on rough blazing star (Liatris aspera)  Belmont Prairie Nature Conserve, Downer’s Grove, IL;  Indian grass unfolding, (Sorghastrum nutans), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL;  old weather vane, St. James Farm, Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL;  vehicle at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; female eastern pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis ), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Prairie Bugs and Blooms

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” — John Muir

It’s August. The prairie shimmers with heat.

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Even the cumulus clouds fail to dial down the temperature and humidity.

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Dragonflies wiggle their bodies into cooler positions.

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As the temperatures rise, big bluestem unfolds seedheads. You can see where it gets its nickname, “turkey foot.” Autumn seems to draw closer.

 

Blazing stars light their torches, showing the way to a new season ahead.

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Tiny black bugs beetle their way across the blooms. When I shake a flower spike, there’s a tap-tap-tap of bugs falling into the tallgrass, like the patter of raindrops.

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Some of my friends won’t walk with me on the prairie in August. “Too many bugs.”

Most of us find it easier to appreciate blooms…

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…than to enjoy the complex world of insects.

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Some people, longing for a insect-free yard, even contract for companies to spray and destroy everything that flies, crawls, creeps, or hops across their lawn.

But when we realize that there is a butterfly effect–that small actions can have a big influence on all living things…

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…that everything is related, we consider this:

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The bugs and blooms need each other to exist. When we lose one living thing, others go with it.

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Then, we begin to appreciate the bugs of late summer along with the flowers.

Yes, we may brush a few insects off our clothes, and there might be a crawly critter lurking behind a petal or two.

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But without bugs, we wouldn’t have blooms.

And who would want to live in a world without flowers?

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****

The opening quote is by John Muir (1838-1914) from My First Summer in the Sierra.  Muir was a naturalist, a preservationist, an activist, and the father of our national parks.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): stiff goldenrod (Solidago rigida) and little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), The Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; eastern amberwing dragonfly, female (Perithemis tenera), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) unfolding and open, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie blazing star, (Liatris pycnostachya), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  prairie blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  eastern forktail damselfly (Ischnura verticalis), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; great spangled fritillary butterfly (Speyeria cybele) on beebalm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; the tallgrass in August, Kickapoo Mud Creek Nature Conservancy, Oregon, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus), and some other assorted critters, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana),  Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  late August, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.