Cindy Crosby is the author, compiler, or contributor to more than 20 books. Her most recent is "The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction," (2017 Northwestern University Press). Look for her new book, "Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit" in spring of 2019 (with Thomas Dean, Ice Cube Press). Her writing is also included in "The Tallgrass Prairie Reader" (2014, University of Iowa Press). She teaches prairie ecology, prairie literature, and prairie ethnobotany in the Chicago area, and is a prairie steward who has volunteered countless hours in prairie restoration. See Cindy's upcoming speaking and teaching events at www.CindyCrosby.com.
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Tag Archives: Fermilab Natural Areas
“Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns.”–George Eliot
The Canada geese are quarreling. I watch them elbow each other out of the way in mid-flight; honking and diving. Maybe they are arguing the mysteries of matter, or particle physics? After all, they’re at Fermilab, a government facility for particle physics and an accelerator laboratory just down the road from my house. The facility grounds are a mosaic of beautiful natural areas, including prairies and wetlands.
The bison grazing nearby on the grounds seem more placid than the geese, untroubled by neutrino experiments or accelerator science.
You can almost imagine their thoughts. Hey geese! Keep it down. What’s all the fuss about? At any rate, I’m not here to bison watch, and I have little patience for quarrels today, geese or otherwise. My destination is a prairie trail.
Approximately one thousand acres of Fermilab Natural Areas, surrounding the government world of equations and physics, promises endless adventures. And today, there’s not a soul on the prairie path. Although it’s obvious I’m not alone.
Overhead, green darner dragonflies hover high above the tallgrass. Are they migrating south? Or waiting out their lives here? Hard to tell. But this late in the season I suspect they’re on their way to warmer places. Lately, a black saddlebags dragonfly, also migratory, has hung around my backyard, slow and torpid in the colder weather. Imagine those wings taking it thousands of miles! Close up the wing veination reminds me of ferns.
I continue hiking, stepping in coyote scat on the trail. Oops! Better watch where I’m going. An insect sings a single note, as if struck from a tuning fork. Everywhere, there are tiny crackling sounds. Mice eating seeds? Birds rustling in the grasses? Leaves drying in the sun? Part of the prairie’s mystery.
The dogbane or Indian hemp, as it is sometimes called, is gone to seed in places. Its soft silks contrast with the crisp, browning leaves of neighboring prairie plants and their tinker-toy stems.
Wildflowers are mostly of the goldenrod and aster variety, with a few exceptions. Some mountain mint. A last pale prairie Indian plantain bloom or two.
The stiff gentians, those party girls of the fall, are out in full regalia. Looks like a weevil might be crashing the fun.
So many gentians! They are abundant here, like amethysts scattered deep in the tallgrass. Nearby, goldenrod galls create their own sort of green “flowers” everywhere I look. Sometimes called “bunch galls” or “rosette galls,” they are formed by insects. Check out more about goldenrod galls here.
You could enjoyably spend several hours searching for the different goldenrod galls (ellipse, ball, rosette, small bunch…), and reading up on their buggy creators. See one bunch gall, and suddenly the others come into focus.
The rosin weed blooms are past, but their seedheads look like floral bouquets, don’t they? As pretty in seed as in flower.
Everywhere there are riots of asters; including many species of white aster that I struggle to name. More easily ID’d is the ubiquitous New England aster, poised on the prairie like a satellite dish with fringe.
It’s not all prettiness and pleasantry. The tall coreopsis is in seed, towering over my head, and I can’t resist pulling down a seedhead and digging into it with my fingernail even though I know I’ll be repelled. And I am. It oozes a smelly, oily substance—and I quickly let the stem spring back. Of all the seeds we collect each fall on the prairie, this is my least favorite. So pretty in bloom! So stinky in your hands.
Rot and decay, the calling cards of October, are juxtaposed with these last flushes of bloom and seed. A giant puffball lies shattered and corrupt, broken up by small mammals and now fodder for insect life.
And in proportion to the slow decline of plants, the insects seemingly flourish. You don’t notice them so much at first, except for the mosquitoes who won’t be ignored. But take a moment and look—really look—at the grasses and flowers, and all at once, you realize they are teeming with insect life. So much diversity!
Decay can be beautiful. The turn of the prairie dock leaf…
The compass plant seedheads, dry and full of promise for new life.
Wild quinine, its silvered seeds perhaps more lovely than the flowers themselves were.
In autumn, the balance of light to dark shifts, tipping ever-so-slowly toward darkness as the days go by. Change is in the air. Bloom to seed. Flourishing to decline. All this change is in evidence here this morning.
So much to see in one short morning hike here! Who knows what other adventures will unfold this October on the prairie?
The opening quote about autumn is from Mary Ann Evans (1819-1880), a Victorian-era English novelist and poet who wrote under the pen name George Eliot. She chose a man’s name to escape being thought of as a romance writer. Among her books are Middlemarch, The Mill on the Floss, and Silas Marner.
All photos taken at Fermilab Natural Areas Interpretive Trail, Fermilab Accelerator Laboratory, Batavia, IL, unless otherwise indicated: Wilson Hall and prairie grasses; bison (Bison bison); prairie trail; black saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata), author’s backyard pond and prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; dogbane or Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum): stiff gentians (Gentianella quinquefolia); Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) with probable bunch gall midge (Rhopalomyia solidaginis); Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) with probable bunch gall midge (Rhopalomyia solidaginis); rosin weed (Silphium integrifolium) seedhead; New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae); tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris) seedheads; decayed puffball (possibly Calvatia gigantea); partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata) and an unknown species of ant; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceeum) leaf; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) seeds; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium); sky and grass in October.
“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
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.
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.
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.
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.
You can almost hear the plants whisper advice to each other. Conserve water. Adapt. Adapt.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
“To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” — Mary Oliver
Although the tallgrass prairie is striking in any season, there are at least seven specific reasons you’ll want to pay attention to it in September. And especially, today.
#7. Look up. The prairie skies are never more brilliant than in the slanting light of mid-September.
#6. Look down—and watch your step. The eastern prickly pear cactus, an unusual native of the tallgrass prairie, is in fruit. Look out for those bristles!
#5. Touch a few flowers. Obedient plant is an endlessly satisfying perennial native wildflower to fiddle with. Move its blooms around and they’ll stay put. Nice to see something you can have some control over, even for a moment.
#4. Pause for a moment, and enjoy the big bluestem extravaganza, going on at a prairie near you. Illinois gives big bluestem the nod as its state grass; the nickname “turkey-foot” makes it an easy plant for prairie beginners to ID.
#3. Eyes to the skies! Sure, monarchs steal the spotlight in September, migrating to Mexico in clouds of orange and black. But there’s a kaleidoscope of other butterflies on the wing this month. Check out the gorgeous red-spotted purple butterfly below. The red-spotted purple lay eggs on the tips of willow or cherry tree leaves, then its late-emerging caterpillars will likely spend the winter as hibernating caterpillars. Goldenrods and asters are big butterfly nectar magnets this time of year on the tallgrass prairie.
#2. Look at prairie plants closely. This Indian hemp below, or dogbane as it is sometimes called, is a contrast in flossed silks, tough fibers, and the Halloween colors of its insects, shown here in several stages of growth.
#1. Pay attention to the big picture, as well as the small things. There is astonishment in the particular; the smallest particles of matter. There is glory in broad sweeps of landscape and sky. Both feed our deepest longings for beauty.
Today, let the tallgrass prairie remind you of the astonishing complexity of the world all around us, available to us 24/7. All we have to do is choose to pay attention to it.
The poet Mary Oliver (1935-) grounds her words in a deep understanding of the natural world. Her poetry collections have won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and many other honors. Writers will find her “Rules for the Dance: A Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Verse;” and “A Poetry Handbook” inspiration for the writing journey.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): skies over the Interpretive Trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; Eastern prickly pear cactus (Opuntia humifusa), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; obedient plant ( Physostegia virginiana), Interpretive Trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Interpretive Trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; red-spotted purple butterfly (Limenitis arthemis astyanax), Interpretive Trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; bugs (possibly Oncopeltus fasciatus) on dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; prairie with Wilson Hall in the distance, Fermilab Accelerator Laboratory, Batavia, IL.
“The article-as-numbered-list has several features that make it inherently captivating… there’s little that our brains crave more than effortlessly acquired data.”–Maria Konnikova
Dishes are piled in the sink. Freelance work needs completed; evinced by piles of paper and notes everywhere. Unread library books, now overdue, rattle around in the back seat of my Honda. My to-do list now spans several pages.
What to tackle first? None of these. Time to go for a prairie hike. Here are 10 reasons why:
#10: July’s prairie bouquets. Combine gray-headed coneflower, wild bergamot, and the various white prairie wildflowers. Result? Spectacular.
#9. The mesmerizing sounds of a prairie stream. This stream at Nachusa Grasslands was linked to a beaver pond until the beavers abandoned it last season. In only a year, the changes in the landscape are impressive.
#8. Unbelievably beautiful butterflies float the July prairie, like this black tiger swallowtail.
Sometimes you get a bonus: a double dose of fritillaries.
#7. Summer is all about springwater damselflies. This one’s a male.
#6. July is a great time to see different species of blazing star wildflowers in bud…
…and in bloom.
#5. Compass plants send their profusion of periscope blooms across the prairie.
#4. The delightful freckled wild horsemint is reason enough to hike the prairie right now. I think the flowers look like the circus came to town. What do they remind you of?
#3. Those July blues…blue vervain, that is. Almost purple, isn’t it?
#2. Signs of hope are everywhere. But especially here.
#1. And everywhere you look on the July prairie is the promise of future adventures.
My to-do list will still be there when I return home. But the July prairie won’t wait. Every day is different. Every day is full of surprises. When I look back on how I spent this day….
…I won’t have any regrets.
The opening quote is from Maria Konnikova, whose article “A List of Reasons our Brains Love Lists” from The New Yorker explains these little scraps of paper I have laying around everywhere. Check it out.
All of the photos and the video clip this week are from Nachusa Grasslands, a Nature Conservancy site in Franklin Grove, IL, except the compass plants from Fermilab as noted (top to bottom): gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata), wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), and various white wildflowers; old beaver pond turned stream; black swallowtail butterfly (Papilio polyxenes); two meadow fritillary butterflies (Boloria bellona)–thanks Doug Taron for ID help; springwater dancer damselfly (Argia plana); rough blazing star in bud (Liatris aspera) ; blazing star in bloom (Liatris spp.); compass plants (Silphium laciniatum) at Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; horsemint (Monarda punctata villicualis); blue vervain (Verbena hastata); monarch (Danaus plexippus) on swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata); gravel two-track through the July prairie; prairie in my Honda’s rear view mirror.