“What are we made of? How did the universe begin? What secrets do the smallest, most elemental particles of matter hold, and how can they help us understand the intricacies of space and time?”–Fermilab
I’m pondering some the above questions as I hike Fermilab’s prairies and natural areas. It’s 95 degrees with a heat index of about 110. Outside is not where the rational part of me wants to be. But today, I have a chance to explore some of the iconic prairie plantings at Fermilab. I don’t want to miss the opportunity.
Fermilab is a 6,800 acre particle physics laboratory about an hour west of Chicago, established in 1967. Their stated vision is to “solve the mysteries of matter, energy, space and time for the benefit of all.” I admire Fermilab’s drive to know. But as someone who barely passed physics in high school and dropped out of calculus, I’m not here for the particle accelerators and neutrino science. I’m here for their prairie.
And what beautiful sweeps of tallgrass are all around me.
The compass plant flowers (above) wave over my head, their periscope-like blooms splashing the prairie with yellow. Waist-high Culver’s root (below) is in the early stages of bloom. Its white candles are luminescent in the tallgrass.
To restore prairie in this place is an act of creativity and the imagination, as well as an act of science. Biochemist Dr. Robert Betz had a vision for the vast acreage that surrounds Fermilab’s accelerator ring and the grounds around the various research labs and buildings. Today, the results of that vision and the tireless work of volunteers, with leadership by ecologist Ryan Campbell, are almost 1,000 acres of planted tallgrass prairie. The prairie, along with other natural areas, encompasses “high-quality aquatic habitats, rare orchids, and even nesting Osprey”.
All around me is evidence of a successful outcome. Butterflies are puddling along the two-track, including this pretty little tailed-blue. They’re attracted to the salts and minerals in the dirt.
Impressive oak savannas edge the prairies. Their cool shade is a welcome contrast to the blazing heat. The wetlands along the two-track gravel road are home to myriad dragonflies, water birds, and other aquatic life. The wetlands are lush. Brimming with water after the rain of previous weeks.
Speaking of dragonflies! They are out in full force on my hike, despite the fierce heat. As I walk, at least half a dozen Halloween pennant dragonflies are stationed in the tallgrass at regular intervals. Although much about dragonfly body temperature regulation is unknown, we do know that when it is hot they use strategies to lower their body heat. This one has its abdomen pointed downward to cool off.
Other times you’ll see dragonflies doing handstands across the prairie in hot weather, a thermoregulatory practice called obelisking that helps deflect heat.
I need some strategies of my own to get out of the hot, sticky weather—strategies that don’t involve standing on my head or other gymnastics. Time to find my air-conditioned car. Whew!
Each prairie has its own delights. On the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum where I’m a steward supervisor, bunchflower is in eye-popping bloom this week.
The lilies make me want to sit for an hour and just look. (Mosquitoes quickly put an end to that notion.)
Nachusa Grasslands, where I’m also a steward, is carpeted with wildflowers of all descriptions this month. Like an impressionist painting, isn’t it?
These two prairies both have some beautiful butterflies. Like this black swallowtail at the Schulenberg Prairie, which flew erratically across the flowers and led me on a merry chase for a closer view.
Or this regal fritillary at Nachusa Grasslands, quietly puddling in the mud.
Sometimes, as I’m busy tending to my responsibilities on these two sites, it’s easy to forget how many other astonishing prairies there are all around me. The last time I hiked Fermilab this year, it had just been burned. Look at it now!
There is joy in the familiar. But delight in new discoveries. Although I’ve been coming to Fermilab Natural Areas off and on now for years, today’s short road trip is a mental post-it note reminder to myself to not get in a “prairie rut.” Visit new prairies. Discover the delights of seeing prairie restoration in all its variations. Expand my perspective. Learn from what other stewards are doing. Hit the road and see what new tallgrass adventures await.
Where will your next prairie adventure take you?
The opening quote is from Fermilab’s website. If you want to learn more about Fermilabs Natural Areas, click here to read more about their work and volunteer program.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) with Wilson Hall in the background, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) bloom, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; Eastern tailed-blue (Cupido comyntas), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; wetlands at Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; Halloween pennant (Celithemis eponina), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; meadowhawk dragonfly–probably a white-faced (Sympetrum obtrusum) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bunchflower (Melanthium virginicum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Michigan lily (Lilium michiganense) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; early summer at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) on rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; regal fritillary butterfly (Speyeria idalia), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; road through Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.
Grateful thanks to art gallery curator Georgia Schwender who (despite ferocious heat) offered me a tour of some of Fermilab’s natural areas. Check out Fermilab’s Art Gallery on the second floor of the Wilson Building in all seasons. Look for Fermilab’s “Seeing the Prairie” exhibit July 27-September 28, 2018.