Tag Archives: eastern amberwing dragonfly

Prairie Walking

“The path is made in the walking of it.” — Zhuangzi

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On one side of my desk are precarious stacks of hiking books. Next to them is a list of more books on walking that I’ve lost or loaned out over the years, and now need to beg, borrow, or buy. As I prep for a talk on “Great Hikes in Literature” in a few weeks I already feel a bit overwhelmed by the amount of books on this topic. Books on the Appalachian Trail. Books on the Pacific Crest Trail. Tomes on hiking through America, Alaska, Great Britain, Australia. Fictional quests by the hobbit Frodo for the “one ring to rule them all. ” Children on walking adventures in “The Chronicles of Narnia.” Not to mention all the one-off essays compiled in outdoorsy collections.

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At the core of these books are central themes: We hike to try to understand something about ourselves. We hike to work through grief, loss, or pain. We hike to make a statement or protest. We hike to find a spiritual dimension in our lives. We hike to challenge our idea of what our limits are. We hike to understand more about the world around us. We go on quests! We hike when we’ve lost our way.

When life falls apart, we go for a walk.

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And sometimes, we just feel the urge to put one foot in front of the other. For as long as it takes. For as far as we can go.

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When my two kids were teenagers and I was cranky and out of sorts, they’d look at each other knowingly. “Mom, did you go for your walk on the prairie today?” Often the answer was “no!” They could see the difference that a simple hike made.

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Now, my children are grown and have children of their own. But I still find that hiking is as necessary to me as breathing.  There is something about walking that stimulates creativity, lowers stress levels, and opens us to different perspectives. Besides, going for a walk is a time honored tradition!  You can’t help but think of that oft-quoted line from John Muir: “I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”

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My first big solo hike was 30-plus miles. As I prepared to leave, a friend told me—“I could never do that! How can you be alone with your thoughts for so long?” True words. The greatest enemy of a long solo hike is not fear. It’s listening to your life, without the distractions and white noise that our everyday work pressures and social life mask.

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Today, I’m hiking the prairie as an observer. Not much of a personal agenda. For those who love wildflowers, I would argue that there is no better month than July to see a wash of electric color across the tallgrass prairies. Lately, drenching rains have alternated with baking heat. It’s brought forth a bevvy of blooms.

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Few people visit the prairie this month because of the high temperatures, humidity, and bugs. It’s true these are issues. Whenever I check the weather report before I go for a walk, I get the same posting. “EXTREME MOSQUITO ACTIVITY.” Well, whatever. That’s what mosquito headnets are for, right?

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The dragonflies, like this widow skimmer below, appreciate the clouds of mosquitoes in a way I never will. Probably much as we enjoy a mecca of restaurants spread out along the freeway to choose from on our travels.

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These past few weeks, me and my prairie volunteers are busy collecting seeds. Many of the early spring blooming plants have seeds that are ripe and ready. It’s not easy to find the shooting star seed capsules or cream wild indigo pods under the burgeoning grasses. So green, lush, and high! At the end of a work morning, our backs ache from stooping and searching. Today,  I spot some prairie parsley seeds. I pull some, and leave the ones that aren’t quite ready.

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I pop the ripe seeds into my shirt pocket. Later I’ll put them in a brown paper bag, label it, and leave it in the cool, dark tool room for our staff. Ready to reseed a new prairie restoration. The dry seeds rattling around in my pocket feel like hope for the future.

Our pasque flower seeds, collected earlier this season, are in the greenhouse now. We cross our fingers and hope that these notoriously difficult to grow seeds will germinate. If they do, we’ll plant them on the prairie next spring. It’s difficult to remember the joy I felt at the pasque flower’s pale lavender blooms back in April. The first of its delicate color on the prairie. Now, in July, the prairie is profligate with pops of purple. I appreciate this haze of bright color in a different way than I did the pasque flower’s more subtle hues earlier in the season.

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Walking the tallgrass trails in the high humidity, I notice that the air is saturated with the smell of common milkweed. Surely one of the most underrated fragrances in the natural world! A little prairie aromatherapy.

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The pink of the common milkweed is more pastel and subdued than the July sunsets, which lean toward the color of neon flamingo yard ornaments. These sunsets grow more brilliant each evening.

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The crickets and cicadas tune up in the dwindling light as I finish my hike. The temperature drops. I think of the sunset to come and feel peaceful. Quiet.

My prairie walks this week aren’t anything epic. They are over in an hour or so, unlike the quests and hundreds-of-miles hikes I’ll be teaching about in a few weeks. I’m not counting my steps, nor am I challenging myself to see how far I can go, or grieving anything particular. But these short hikes are a good reminder of some of the many reasons why we walk.

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To try and know ourselves. To pay attention. To look for signs of hope. And to continue to marvel at the delights and complexity of the natural world.

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Zhuangzi is an ancient Chinese writer, who is credited with many parables and sayings. “Zhuangzi” also refers to Chinese text by the same name (476-221 BC) which contains fables and quotes such as the one opening this blog post. The idea of spontaneous, carefree walking is a common theme among these writings.

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Love to hike? Or do you enjoy reading about epic walks from the comfort of your easy chair? I’ll be leading a lecture and discussion called “Great Hikes in Literature” at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL on Sunday afternoon, August 5, 2018. Click here to register: Great Hikes in Literature. Hope to see you there!

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): stack of “great walks” books, author’s desk, Glen Ellyn, IL; rocky knob, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) bloom, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera) on Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bottlebrush grass (Elymus hystrix), Schulenberg Prairie savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; the Schulenberg Prairie in mid-July, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie cinquefoil (Drymocallis arguta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea) with widow skimmer (Libellula luctuosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie parsley (Polytaenia nuttallii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunset, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; pearl crescent butterfly (Phyciodes tharos), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Wings, Stings, and Prairie Things

“Every living creature on the earth is special.”–Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees
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So many flying creatures. So little time to learn them all.
That’s how I felt after US Fish & Wildlife trained us this week to monitor the rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis). This fuzzy bug’s presence has declined almost 90 percent in the Midwest in the past 20 years. As a result? It’s now federally endangered. As a prairie site steward—and someone who loves the natural world—I want to understand what I can do to help bring it back.
But the first step —learning bee ID—is a daunting proposition. So many color, size, and pattern variations in bees!  Who knew?
I have a few scraps of knowledge about honey bees after taking a bee-keeping class, and can usually ID a honey bee. The key word being “usually.” Like this one below.
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And, I like insect identification.  I’ve  been a dragonfly monitor for a baker’s dozen years or so—chasing dragonflies and damselflies, walking my routes on the prairie, collecting data. I marvel at every new species I find (Wow! Red damsel!). I also enjoy the regulars (another day, another widow skimmer) for their familiarity.  Like this blue dasher dragonfly.

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And I never get tired of the eastern amberwings, a dragonfly so tiny you barely see it in the tallgrass.
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Dragonflies usually get good press. Butterflies as well, and who can blame us for loving them? As I monitor dragonflies, I often see butterflies in the same areas. This regal fritillary, a threatened butterfly species (below), was puddling around in the mud on one of my regular dragonfly routes this week.
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But bees. Hmmm…..they haven’t been on my radar screen until lately. There are about 4,000 native bees in North America;  400-500 species of native bees in Illinois. Whew! That makes learning 99 or so species of dragonflies in Illinois seem like child’s play.
Honeybees, I learn, are not native to North America. They were brought here during European settlement. Guess what critters were here first? The native bees—sweat bees, bumble bees, cuckoo bees, mason bees. And other bees as well. But 50% of our Midwestern bees have disappeared from their historic ranges over the past 100 years, according to Wired Magazine.   This matters. Bees and other pollinators (birds, bats, butterflies, beetles, and more) are responsible for one out of every three bites of food you eat.  Imagine a world without bees! Tough to do.
With these sobering statistics in mind, I’ve been looking at bees differently. Trying to learn some of their names. Teaching myself some of their field marks.
These three bumblebees below look pretty similar, don’t they?
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But—yup, you guessed it—they are three different bumble bee species. From top to bottom: Bombus griseocollis–the brown-belted bumble bee; Bombus auricomus–the black and gold bumblebee; and the one directly above this paragraph, Bombus fervidus—the golden northern bumblebee. Aren’t they pretty?
I learned these bumble bees with an ID chart and initial help from the good folks at beespotter.org. If you haven’t checked out this site, take a look. It’s a great way to learn bee ID, and also to contribute to research on where bees still are, what flowers bees are using; which bees are in decline, and which bee species are thriving.
Just when I think I’m starting to get a handle on the bumble crowd, I see these pretty little metallic green sweat bees everywhere on the prairie. Oh boy.
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And so many other bees I’m puzzling over! Looks like a honey bee (below)…. I think. Still a lot of ID work ahead.
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Learning something new takes time and attention to details. Bee ID means re-learning patience.
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One of the first things we ask someone to tell us is their name. It helps us really see a person; it helps give that person greater meaning and significance. I want to do the same for the native bees. Learn a few names. Notice them. Pay attention.
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After all, it’s these bees that help make the prairie such a beautiful place! And all it takes is for me to make a little extra time to see them. And—the patience to realize there is going to be a lot that I won’t know. A lot.  I’ve always loved a good mystery! This bee ID challenge should be just that.
I’m going to make learning a few bee names a priority this summer. Get to know them. Then, try to make some changes in my backyard and on the prairie site I manage to help them thrive.
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How about you?
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The opening quote is from Sue Monk Kidd’s (1948–) novel, The Secret Life of Bees (2002).  This coming of age story, a book club favorite which takes place during the civil rights movement in 1964, was later adapted as a film.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): European honey bee (Apis mellifera) on white wild indigo (Baptisia alba), Schulenberg Prairie in late June, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; eastern amberwing dragonfly, male (Perithemis tenera), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blue dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis)), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; regal fritillary butterfly (Speyeria idalia), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; brown-belted bumble bee (Bombus griseocollis) on white wild indigo (Baptisia alba), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; black and gold bumble bee (Bombus auricomus) on Canada milkvetch (Astragalus canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; golden northern bumble bee (Bombus fervidus) on white wild indigo (Baptisia alba), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; halictid bee on lead plant (Amorpha canadensus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown bee on fringed yellow loosestrife (Lysimachia ciliata), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; unknown bee on black-eyed Susan, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; black and gold bumble bee (Bombus auricomus) on white wild indigo (Baptisia alba), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale purple coneflowers (Echinacea pallida) and white wild indigo (Baptisia alba) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Prairie Dragonfly Mysteries

“Instinct is a marvelous thing. It can neither be explained nor ignored.” ― Agatha Christie

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I’m a big fan of mysteries. As a teenager, I burned through all of Agatha Christie’s classics, and I still love to pick up an occasional thriller that keeps me guessing. As a naturalist, part of my attraction to the outdoors revolves around a different sort of mystery. Science has a lot of answers. But there are many unsolved questions out there.

I like that. Perhaps nowhere is mystery so evident as when I try to understand dragonfly migration.

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This week, I’m prepping training workshops for two groups of dragonfly and damselfly monitors at the prairies where I’m a steward. We’re all volunteers, all citizen scientists collecting data that we hope will help future researchers learn more about these incredible insects.

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During the workshops, we’ll discuss the life cycle of the dragonfly. It begins with a little rough and tumble dragonfly romance and then, ovipositing or egg laying.

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Ouch! That’s got to hurt.

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At the two workshops, we’ll share ID tips for differentiating among the 100 or so dragonfly species in Illinois and the almost 50 damselfly species, plus the various variations among male, female, and immature individuals. Pretty straightforward stuff, for the most part.

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We’ll touch on the cultural history of dragonflies as well; their use in cuisine, art, and literature. I like this haiku by Basho: “Crimson pepper pod/add two pairs of wings and look/darting dragonfly.” You can see why he was inspired!

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Dragonfly cultural history and much of dragonfly natural history is explainable, at least to some degree. But dragonfly migration! That’s where it gets difficult.

Dragonfly migration is less understood than that of the monarch butterfly, whose travel habits have been exhaustively studied, immortalized in novels, and  whose migration journey continues to fascinate the general public.

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Or consider bird migration, the topic of many books like Scott Weidensaul’s excellent Living on the Wind, and the subject of countless research projects. Sure, there’s still mystery in avian migration. But plenty of information out there.

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Dragonfly migration? Not so much. The process remains veiled in mystery.  We do know a few things: at least four dragonfly species in Illinois (green darner, black saddlebags, wandering glider, and variegated meadowhawk) head south for the winter, and probably some damselfly species as well.

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But why these species? Why not others? Where do they go? What tells them to mass at the end of summer and fly, often in large swarms, to another place?

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The Xerxes Society is a wonderful place to discover what we do know about the science of dragonfly migration. As an organization dedicated to protect invertebrates and their habitats, they are a good clearing house for insect migration information. Got some extra time? Click through the link here and read more about how citizen science volunteers are contributing to our understanding about dragonfly migration.

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We do know that some dragonflies in North America may travel almost 2,000 miles south in the late summer and early fall. They often join raptors migrating south. Dragonfly offspring will travel the same distances, often with raptors, back north in the spring. Look around in science journals and on dragonfly websites and you’ll find comical images of green darners wearing tiny transmitters to track their movements; or complex studies of isotopes in dragonfly wings which help researchers determine their general place of emergence.

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But once you start reading, you realize just how little we know about these dazzling creatures. You get to the end of the dragonfly migration studies pretty fast. It’s a good PhD project for some future researcher! Learning more about what makes some dragonfly species born with an itch to travel.

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In April, we’ll begin to see the first battered and worn out dragonflies head north and arrive in the Midwest, heirs of those stalwart flyers who fled south last year. As dragonfly monitors, we’ll scribble about these early arrivals—and later, summer flyers and dragonfly departures—as hash marks on our data sheets. We’ll report the information to staff at our local prairies and natural areas. Then, in Illinois, we’ll upload it to www.illinoisodes.com, our state repository for this information. All very logical and linear isn’t it?

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At some point in the season, most of us will put our pencils down and pause for a moment. Overcome with wonder. How amazing that this tiny creature logged those miles and survived birds, weather, and traffic to be here, on this prairie! How incredible that we can bear witness to this phenomenon, even for a moment.  How satisfying to be a small cog in the wheel of the research that is being done for the future!

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And most of us will acknowledge this: Despite the data we’ll collect, despite all the facts we know, it’s that unknown that makes it so exciting to be a part of this citizen science project. The quest is part of the fun.

And we’ll marvel, in awe of the mystery of dragonfly migration.

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Agatha Christie (1890), whose quote opens this post, is the author of 66 mystery novels and 14 short story collections. Her books have sold more than a billion copies in the English language, and just as many in translation. My favorite quote of Christie’s: “The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes.”

Scott Weidensaul (1959-), who is mentioned in this post, is a Pennsylvania naturalist and writer. My favorite of his books, Living on the Wind,  examines the amazing world of bird migration. It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2000.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): black saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ebony jewelwing damselflies (Calopteryx maculata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; damselflies in tandem, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; violet dancer damselflies (Argia fumipennis violacea), ovipositing in Willoway Brook, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; calico pennant dragonfly, male (Celithemis elisa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; meadowhawk (Sympetrum, unknown species), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), International Crane Foundation, Baraboo, WI; great egret (Ardea alba) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; wandering glider dragonfly (Pantala flavescens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; slender spreadwing (Lestes rectangularis), Nomia Meadows Farm Prairie and wetlands, Franklin Grove, IL; American rubyspot damselfly (Hetaerina americana), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; river bluet damselfly (Enallagma anna), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; blue dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; raw data sheet, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Carolina saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea carolina), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

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If you enjoyed this blogpost, check out some other dragonfly resources at the links referenced above and this excellent blog post from a few year’s ago: Cool Green Science’s “Dragonfly Migration: A Mystery Citizen Scientists Can Help Solve.” 

Local friends: If you’re interested in exploring more about dragonflies, join me at Nachusa Grasslands in Franklin Grove, IL,  Friday, March 30, 2018 for a dragonfly workshop. Register by e-mailing me at phrelanzer@aol.com.

A Prairie Pause

“Every day I see or hear something that more or less kills me with delight…it is what I was born for—to look, to listen… .” — Mary Oliver

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First-timers to the prairie in December may be underwhelmed. The grass colors are draining away; plants are nibbled and ragged. Shopworn.

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But, as the opening lines of the Mary Oliver poem above suggest, for those who hike and look during these gray days, December has its rewards.  Kaleidoscope skies delight us in the afternoons, straight out of a Van Gogh painting.

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Slow-burning sunsets, trailing scarves of fire, deliver quiet satisfaction. They end  some of the shortest days of the year.

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As a prairie steward at two different sites, I find December is a good time to reflect on the coming season. At home, I scribble in my notebook. RCG? means, “What will I do about the reed canary grass we can’t get rid of that’s infesting a high-quality area of the prairie?”  That caricature of a flower next to it is purple loosestrife, which consistently mounts a stealth operation into the west end of the stream from a subdivision across the road. A reminder that constant vigilance is the price of an invasive-free waterway.

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All of these invasive plants will be put on an “alert” list and dealt with in 2018. But for now, they are just words on paper. Something to think about in the abstract.

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And then, there is my prairie “wish list.” Oh, such possibilities! Maybe, adding a little cardinal flower in the wetter areas.

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Along the streambank, where the native Illinois bundleflower has become an aggressive bully,…

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…I can proactively place great blue lobelia. These “blues” may take root, and chase some of my problem plants away. Or, so I hope.

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I digitally page through online native plant nursery catalog offerings, make notes, calculate costs. Wonder what the possibilities might be. I pore over my prairie plant inventory list, made this season. What plants have gone missing this year? Who is new that showed up to the party, uninvited? Which species is getting a little aggressive, a little too territory-hungry? A little less monarda—a little more pasqueflower? 

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In my faith tradition, December is a time of waiting. A time of anticipation. Preparation. On the prairie, as a steward, I find the month of December to be much the same.

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A rest from herbicide management, writing workday summaries, or thinking about dragonfly populations in the creeks and ponds of the prairie wetlands.

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I like this rhythm of the seasons. I need a pause, one in which I’m not pulling weeds; collecting seeds. Sure, there are tasks that can be done—I’m still trying to wrap up some spreadsheets, finish some year-end reports—but let’s be clear. Nothing is screaming “spray me now!” No seeds I need are being eaten by birds, or explosively shooting off into the grasses before they can be collected.

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There is time to catch up on unread piles of articles; to thumb leisurely through a book or two on prairies that I’ve been meaning to read. Find journal essays online about dragonflies. Set workshop dates to train new monitors. Compare notes with other stewards. There is time—precious time—to untangle my thoughts.

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With gray skies wrapped around our days like a smothering cloak, the impulse to be indoors, instead of out, is strong.  No warm breezes beckon. I don’t wonder if I’m missing a new dragonfly species when I curl up on the couch with a mug of hot tea.  I don’t worry that the sweet clover has, seemingly overnight, overrun a new portion of the tallgrass. I can take a break, guilt-free. December is a simpler month; a welcome interlude in the busyness of the life of the prairie.

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I don’t know what the new year holds. I prepare as best I can. Scribble lists. Reflect. Dream a little. Prepare. Anticipate. Scribble some more.

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When I’m out hiking the trails, I imagine the prairies as they will be, vibrant and blooming in the spring. I look at them now, clear-eyed. Yes, they are brittle, a little shaggy. Ragged under their sprinkle of new snow. Different. But no less beautiful. Then I retreat back home to make a few more lists.

And I savor the pause.

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The opening verse is from Mary Oliver’s poem, “Mindful.” If you haven’t read the whole poem, and you love volunteering or caring for the tallgrass prairie in some way throughout the year, this poem is for you. Read it here.  It’s beautiful. Oliver (1935-) won the Pulitzer Prize in 1984. Her newest poetry collection is Devotions.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): prairie dock leaf (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; cloudy December skies over the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Gensburg-Markham Prairie Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, and Northeastern Illinois University, Markham, IL:  vigilant bullfrogs (Lithobates catesbeianus)  Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; ice in Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), Nomia Meadows Farm prairie and wetlands, Franklin Grove, IL; Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), author’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, Il; pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; path through Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL; eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera), female, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ball gall at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunset at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL. 

Space and Place on the Prairie

 

“How long does it take to know a place?…Abstract knowledge about a place can be acquired in short order if one is diligent. The visual quality of an environment is quickly tallied if one has the artist’s eye. But the ‘feel’ of a place takes longer to acquire. It is made up of experiences, mostly fleeting and undramatic, repeated day after day and over the span of years. It is a unique blend of sights, sounds, and smells, a unique harmony of natural and artificial rhythms such as times of sunrise and sunset, of work and play. The feel of a place is registered in one’s muscles and bones… . Knowing a place, in the above senses, clearly takes time. It is a subconscious kind of knowing.”– Yi-Fu Tuan

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I have the good fortune to live next to a respected taxonomist, whose suburban yard overflows with hundreds of native plants. Once, I asked him the best way to go about increasing my own knowledge of the natural world. He thought for a moment, then said, “Look at your backyard, Cindy. Each day, learn a different plant you find there.”

Such simple advice. So difficult to take. Because of course, it requires…time.

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Dr. Yi-Fu Tuan, University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of geography emeritus,  writes, “How long does it take to know a place? Modern man, he says, is so mobile “that he has not the time to establish roots; his experience and appreciation of place is superficial.”

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Time. We race around, doing things, going other places. Knowing where we live is one of the the casualties.  How often I have heard people say, “I wish I had more time… ” “I just don’t have enough time… ” “If only I had time to… ” “There aren’t enough hours in a day… ” “If only I didn’t have to sleep… .”  I’ve said most of the same things myself. With hours in such short supply, should we despair of ever finding time to really “know” where we live? Much less, even something as seemingly simple as the names of the plants in our backyards?

Yes, it takes time to know a place. But, as Tuan also writes, even “an intense experience of short duration…can alter our lives.”

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All of us may attest to the power of short but memorable outdoor experiences that helped us know a place. My list of those experiences might include memories as simple as a childhood playspace under a forsythia bush.

A particular sunset.

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The coyote on a prairie trail in the rain, going about her business, oblivious to me sitting a few feet away. Sandhill cranes unexpectedly landing all around me in a field. An unexpected cloud of ebony jewelwing damselflies arising from a stream bank. Finding a fawn.

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You soak these moments into your bones; they permeate your subconscious mind, they echo through your dreams. These intense experiences inform the way you feel about a place. You don’t forget.

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But, you have to be there to have the experiences.  You have to show up. Even if it is only to sit in your backyard to key out plants, a field guide in one hand, the unknown green leaf in the other. You set aside time to let those moments happen. Or, at the very least, you cultivate an awareness that allows you to be awake to those moments when they do happen. To stop and pay attention to the moment.

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These moments are often unscripted. One evening, more than a dozen years ago, I sat in my car in the high school parking lot, waiting for my children’s band lessons to end.  I turned the ignition off and rolled down the window. The parking lot was unusually quiet. I watched geese lift off the football field and pull together the scarf of the sunset with their black, bowling pin shaped bodies, on their way to Hidden Lake nearby.  A few clouds scrolled across the sky. The hot asphalt, the tic-tic-tic of the car cooling down, and drift of music from the band room were unlikely elements of anything special. The high school parking lot is a bland spot to have any intense experiences about place. But I can still frame that sky, those geese, that place in my memory, more than a decade later. There was an intensity of that moment, and one that was unplanned. It helped wake me up to where I lived at a time when I was struggling to pay attention to my life.

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Now, when I become cynical or jaded about the natural world, I’ll go looking for those moments intentionally. Usually, I head to my favorite prairie trail nearby, and take a walk.  If this fails to wake me up, I’ve found seeing the prairie with a child often often opens it to me in a new way again.

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If you’ve walked with a child, you know they don’t feel the press of time as we do. In summer, they are perfectly content to stop and watch bees work flowers for a good long while, or in winter, explore the holes prairie voles make in snow—look for the entrance and exit spots, mark them with sticks. A child thinks nothing of taking a net outside to catch butterflies in November. And why not? To a child, nothing is yet impossible.

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I need these reminders to slow down. To pay attention. To remember what it was like to be a child, to not use a calendar, to not have a to-do list. To feel time in the way a child does. Recapture that feeling that nothing is impossible, even in November.

I walk the prairie alone today—in November, yes, when much of what is going on in my life does seem impossible and completely unsolvable. This place, this prairie where I walk, is woven into my muscles and bones; it runs in my blood. I’ve walked it almost 20 years now. In my memory are the fires of prescribed burns I’ve helped set that have kept the tallgrass alive and vibrant.

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Ahead months away, in my imagination, are the blooms and grasses of summer, those rather iconic stereotypical pale purple coneflowers and Culver’s root; bright orange butterfly weed and yellow coreopsis; all the colors and pageantry of a landscape gone wild and rich with buzz and bloom; diversity and joy.

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Today, in real time, I hike a more subdued November prairie, its life ebbing; someone seemingly stepping on the brakes; the winds tinted with chill; the sun slanted toward the horizon; blackened stalks stark against the color-drained grasses. And yes. Seedheads shattering into the promise of something new. At least I tell myself this. I believe it because I’ve been on this trail at this time in this place before. And I’ve seen the cycle happen, again and again.

SPMA-11-17.jpg I’m content knowing I’m storing this walk, this sunset, this experience away in my memory. Building my relationship with the land. Continuing to develop a “feel” for a place I’ve loved for a long time, and still want to know better.

Time well spent.

****

The opening quote is taken from Dr. Yi-Fu Tuan’s (1930-) Space and Place: The Perspective of Experiencewhich offers fascinating glimpses into our relationship with both the natural and built environment. His book never fails to provoke me to thinking more deeply about the places where I spend my time and how and why I spend it as I do.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): white wild indigo (Baptisia alba), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; two-track in spring, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; tall coreopsis (Coreposis tripteris), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunset, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white-tailed fawn (Odocoileus virginianus) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; little wood duck (Aix sponsa), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; smooth sumac (Rhus glabra), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; netting butterflies in the off season, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prescribed burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; summer on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunset, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

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.

Prairie Fireworks

“Everything is blooming most recklessly… .” — Rainer Maria Rilke

***

It’s been said that the most beautiful day for prairie wildflowers is the Fourth of July. True? Take a look.

The purple prairie clover blooms are alive with insect scurry and motion.

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Dragonflies are zipping around the ponds! The bullfrogs call, creating a soundtrack to a muggy July morning.

 

These four froggies keep an eye on any dragonfly that gets within tongue-zapping distance.

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Nearby, a tiny eastern amberwing dragonfly is laying her eggs. She taps her abdomen into the pond vegetation, ensuring a future generation.

 

 

 

Close up, you can see how intentional her motions are.

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Deep in the grasses, her mate’s wings glint gold in the sunshine.

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Such an explosion of gold on the prairie in July!

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Interesting insects float and perch on the blooms and in the tallgrass.

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A silver spotted skipper sips nectar from a common milkweed flower.

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An American painted lady, interrupted in her search for nectar, gives me the eye.

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The vervain flowers remind me of a lavender sparkler. The butterfly’s outer wing’s painted “eyes” don’t dispel my feeling of being watched, so I move on and leave her in peace.

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Bursts of pink and purple are part of the prairie palette in early July. But if you’re in the mood for some flag-waving colors on the Fourth, you can find red in the tiny bugs…

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…white in the thimbleweed blossoms…

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…blue? A blue grosbeak is a rare treat. Perfect for the holiday.

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The tallgrass explodes with color; dazzles with motion.

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No doubt about it. Even on the Fourth…

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The prairie has the best fireworks of all.

***

The opening quote is from Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), a mystical poet and novelist. Letters to a Young Poet is among his best-known works, which includes these famous lines: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

 

All video clips and photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): unknown bee on purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; video clip of ponds, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; four American bullfrogs (Lithobates catesbeianus), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; video clip of female eastern amberwing (Perithemis tenera) dragonfly laying eggs, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; female eastern amberwing (Perithemis tenera) dragonfly, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; male eastern amberwing (Perithemis tenera) dragonfly, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Franklin Grove, IL; wildflower mix with black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  blue dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis) female, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; silver spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus) on common milkweed (Asclepia syriaca), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; American painted lady (Vanessa virginiensis) on blue vervain (Verbena hastata), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL (two images); unknown red insect on false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides), International Crane Foundation Prairie, Baraboo, WI; thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; blue grosbeak (Passerina caerulea), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; prairie wildflowers in July, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; great angelica (Angelica atropurpurea), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.