“Never be in a hurry; do everything quietly and in a calm spirit. Do not lose your inner peace for anything whatsoever, even if your whole world seems upset.” — Francis de Sales
It’s mid-August on the prairie. Grasses push skyward, dominating the wildflowers that were so eye-catching in July. Switchgrass. Indian grass. Big bluestem.
Prairie dropseed has sent up its popcorn-scented grass sprays. When I smell its fragrance on the prairie, I feel nostalgic for movie theaters and baseball games. Some people think it smells like licorice, grapes, or cilantro.
So begins the inexorable slide toward autumn. Amid the greens of the bright prairie plants and late summer blooms…
…a few yellows and rusts stealthily mix in.
The grasses take on a chartreuse hue in certain lights. Against this backdrop, stark silhouettes of summer seedheads stand.
Galls appear, and other oddly-shaped growths on plants difficult to put a name to. This season, I’ve gotten more emails from my prairie students than ever before about prairie plants and their strange diseases, leaf malformations, and unusual wilting or die-offs. I keep The Morton Arboretum’s free Plant Clinic busy with my queries, and discover these issues are likely born out of insect damage, spring’s soaking rains, and summer’s dry spells of heat.
Other plants, like this great angelica, cast off their blooms. Only structure is left behind.
As I walk on the prairie, or work in my garden and backyard prairie patch, I find myself doing some mental doomscrolling. Each morning, I read the newspaper. The pandemic drags on. Bitter battles over school openings. Hand sanitizer recalls. Protests. Politics. Even the post office seems to be in turbulence—and isn’t it supposed to be the most reliable institution of all? Who would have thought, back in March, that the world would still be so full of turmoil?
If I dwell on these things for too long, it tilts me toward despair. It’s then that the natural world brings me back to center. I remind myself to focus on what’s in front of me.
Breathe in. Least skipper butterflies flutter through the tallgrass, the color of autumn leaves.
Over there: a Peck’s skipper nectaring on red clover.
Breathe out. Mellow eastern tiger swallowtails nectar at the zinnias in my backyard…
…jostling for position with the eastern black swallowtails nearby.
Immediately, I feel better. Butterflies are always a sure spirit-lifter.
As are the Odonates. As I wade the prairie creeks and streams in August, I have a ringside seat for dragonflies and damselflies. None I’ve seen this week are rarities. But all of them are wondrous. I love the fragile forktail damselfly’s exclamation marks on his thorax. Can you find them?vSomething to be excited about.
It’s worth stopping for a moment to watch the female ebony jeweling damselfly’s fluttering movements across the stream. (Look out behind you!)
Her mate is waiting, a little further up the shoreline.
Stream bluets fly in tandem; the first part of the mating ritual.
Willoway Brook runs low and clear, limned with damselflies on both sides.
Their brighter-hued cousins, the blue-fronted dancers.
Along this stream, I find the always-spectacular american rubyspot damselfly. He even makes his perch, the invasive reed canary grass, look good.
As I wade through Willoway Brook one afternoon, distracted by the sight of American Rubyspot tenerals—newly-emerged damselflies—all around, I find myself sticky with spiderwebs. The maker seems invisible. Then, I come face to face with a fishing spider.
She’s not happy with my mayhem. I apologize, then continue wading up the stream.
Most of the insects I pass stream-side and on the prairie ignore me, as this grasshopper does.
Unless I trouble them in some way—or get too close–they are busy with their personal lives: eating, mating, eating some more. Politics, personal anxieties, the postal service, protests—the prairie is oblivious to it all.
Instead, it goes about the business of emergence, growth, and reproduction, continuing a cycle that goes back thousands of years. It’s restful.
Many of these prairie insects I see on my hike are familiar, like this common pondhawk. Nothing too exciting.
But what extraordinary wonder there is in the ordinary.
And what comfort there is on the prairie, when it seems chaos is all around!
It’s a good reminder of what I already know, but sometimes forget. This week, I’ll spend a little less time with the news. More time on the prairie and in my backyard garden. Now, more than ever, we need the natural world.
Francis de Sales (1567-1622), whose quote begins this blog post, is the patron saint of the deaf. He was noted for his patience and gentleness.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby from the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, unless designated otherwise (top to bottom): Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) (2018); prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) (2018); obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana); prairie dock (Silphium lacinatum); the Schulenberg Prairie in mid-August; unknown growth on round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata); great angelica (Angelica atropurpurea); bottlebrush grass (Elymus hystrix); prairie skyline as viewed from Willoway Brook; Least Skipper butterfly (Ancyloxypha numitor); Peck’s Skipper butterfly (Polites peckius); eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly (Papilio glaucus), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; eastern black swallowtail butterfly (Papilio polyxenes), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; fragile forktail damselfly (Ishnura posita), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna; ebony jewelwing damselfly female (Calopteryx maculata); ebony jewelwing damselfly male (Calopteryx maculata); stream bluets (Enallagma exsulans); bridge over Willoway Brook; powdered dancer damselfly male (Argia moesta); Blue-Fronted Dancer damselfly male (Argia apicalis); American Rubyspot Damselfly male (Hetaerina americana); fishing spider (Dolomedes sp.); unknown grasshopper (iNat says it is Heperotettix viridis, the Snakeweed Grasshopper, but I am unsure); common pondhawk dragonfly male (Erythemis simplicicollis); American groundnut (Apios americana); trail on the Schulenberg Prairie.
Join Cindy for an Online Class this Autumn! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for all speaking and class announcements and details.
“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” Begin a new session in September through The Morton Arboretum! Work from home at your own pace (with suggested assignment deadlines) for 60 days to complete the material, and meet other prairie volunteers and stewards on the discussion boards and in the optional Zoom session. Classes are limited to 50. Register here.
“Nature Writing Online” Begins Monday, October 5, through The Morton Arboretum. Want to commit to improving and fine-tuning your writing for six weeks? This is a great opportunity to jump start your blog, your book, or your journal writing while working from home, supplemented with three evenings of live evening Zoom classes on alternate weeks. Watch for registration information coming soon.
Just released! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History. Read a review from Kim Smith here. (And check out her blog, “Nature is My Therapy” — you’ll love it!)
Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Morton Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org, direct from Northwestern University Press (use coupon code NUP2020 for 25% off), or other book venues. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during this chaotic time.
Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction.