Tag Archives: Illinois

Spring Fever on the Prairie

“It’s spring fever. That is what the name of it is. And when you’ve got it, you want—oh, you don’t quite know what it is you do want— but it just fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so!” –Mark Twain

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Spring? It’s giving us the cold shoulder on the prairie.

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What a wacky, wicked April. Many prescribed burns were done late or not at all. Snowy days. Frigid nights. Wild winds. Plants stubbornly stay put under the blackened soil of the burned prairies. They know what’s good for them.

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On the edges of the prairie, the trees look dormant and colorless. What happened to the flush of green buds, the chatter of birds? Looking and listening, you’d think it was November instead of April.

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There’s hope.

Look carefully, under the fallen autumn leaves moldering in the woodlands and savannas surrounding the prairie. You’ll see the seasons are changing.  Spring beauties tentatively open in the infrequent sunny hours, pinstriped with pink. Euell Gibbons, best known for his books on wild food foraging and for appearing in  Grape-Nuts commercials, lauded the joys of the edible tubers, known as “fairy spuds.” He also cautioned that they were much too pretty to eat. I agree.

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Spring is in the half-dressed bloodroot blooms, unfurling cautiously, testing the air.

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If you look hard, you may find some blooms.  In the past, various concoctions of bloodroot have been used medicinally, including to control dental plaque, but today, those uses come with a lot of cautionary talk.

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Spring is in the hepatica blooming along the edges of the prairie, its persistent leaves worn and ragged after being nibbled during the winter. First the furry buds appear.

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And then…

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Wow, that color!

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We need hepatica in bloom this week! It’s a morale booster.

Spring is in the tender new leaves of Dutchman’s breeches.

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The fringed growth promises delicate flowers, just days away.

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Spring is in the pasque flowers which escaped the flames of a prescribed burn. The buds look furred against the cold.

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In my backyard prairie planting, shooting stars green up, ready to take off…

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…and skyrocket into bloom. Imagine that pink! Soon.

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Sure, the April skies are gloomy. And we’re winter-weary.

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Hang on to hope.  Look for the clues. Bright spots in the landscape—if you pay attention.

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Everything is about to change. Do you feel it? Spring is coming.

Believe it.

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Mark Twain (1835-1910), whose quote opens this post, is the pen name for Samuel Clemens, an American writer, riverboat pilot, failed gold prospector, and inventor.  He grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, on the Mississippi River, and his pen name, Mark Twain, is steamboat slang for “twelve feet of water.” One my favorite Twain quotes: “The secret to getting ahead is getting started.”

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Pasture thistles (Cirsium discolor) in the April snow, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; just-burned Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bare trees in April with an unknown hawk, Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN; spring beauties (Claytonia virginica), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot emerging, Schulenberg Prairie Visitor Station, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot in bloom, Schulenberg Prairie visitor Station, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; hepatica (Hepatica nobilis acuta) emerging, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; hepatica (Hepatica nobilis acuta) in bloom, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; hepatica (Hepatica nobilis acuta) in bloom, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) emerging, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) in bloom, Franklin Creek Natural Area, Franklin Grove, IL; pasque flowers (Pulsatilla pantens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia) emerging, author’s backyard prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia) in bloom, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Kankakee Sands in the middle of April, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN; goldfinch (Spinus tristis), Schulenberg Prairie, the Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.  Note: Please don’t pick, consume, or use wildflowers without permission and/or expert knowledge. Many are toxic and almost all are best left alone for us to conserve and enjoy. Happy spring! 

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.

Our Inland Prairie Sea

“The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears, or the sea.”—Isak Dinesen

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To refer to the tallgrass prairie as a “sea of grass” is almost cliché.

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And yet, when you juxtapose sea and prairie, you understand why the image comes so readily.

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Like many suburban Chicago prairie lovers, in the mud season of the year—late February to mid-March—I do my best to migrate south for a few days. Sunshine, salt water, and sandy beaches are restorative.

The sky over the Gulf of Mexico reminds me of the sky of the tallgrass prairie; open, limitless.

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The flattened waves of prairie grasses and wildflowers, weathered by wind and rain…

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…with blue-shadowed pockets of snow…

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…are in my mind as I watch waves slap the shore.

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Funny, isn’t it? Even when we leave the landscape we call home, it haunts us.

It’s not that everything is similar—far from it! The birds are different from those of the prairie in so many ways. The food they eat.

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The way they move.

 

 

Even their attitude.

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Many of the Gulf Coast birds I see are readying themselves for a long flight north. Soon, migration will bring them and others through the flyways of the Chicago region.

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No matter where I look in Florida, I find unexpected reminders of my life as a prairie steward.

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As much as I enjoy getting away from the Midwest in early March, my mind keeps wandering from the beach back to what’s going on in the tallgrass up north. Am I missing out on a prescribed burn? Has the skunk cabbage leafed out yet? What new birds are singing along Willoway Brook?

After five days in Florida, I’m ready to dive back into my prairie work.

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One great thing about traveling: At the end of the day…

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…sometimes a little displacement makes you appreciate the place you call home.

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Isak Dinesen (Baroness Karen Blixen) (1885-1962) authored Out of Africa and Babette’s Feast. Both were adapted as movies, and won Academy Awards.

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Captiva Island sunset, Florida; Captiva Island beach, Florida; Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie at the end of February, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  blue-shadowed pockets of snow, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; waves on the beach, Captiva Island, Florida; willet (Tringa semipalmataeating a crab (species unknown), Sanibel Island, Florida; video of sanderlings (Calidris albaand other shorebirds, Sanibel Island, Florida; great black-backed gull (Larus marinus), Sanibel Island, Florida; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Buckthorn Lane street sign, Sanibel Island, Florida; brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalisdiving for fish, Sanibel-Captiva causeway, Florida; sunset with birds, J. N. Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Sanibel Island, Florida. 

Gold Medal Prairie Snowfall

“The problem with winter sports is that —follow me closely here—they generally take place in winter.”–Dave Barry

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It’s been a few days since the snow-pocalypse here in the Chicago suburbs. Prairie streams and lakes exhale steamy clouds of change. The thermometer free-falls toward zero, then cycles back toward thaw. Everything is covered in white stuff.

Deep snow makes hiking the tallgrass trails more difficult. But worth the extra effort it takes.

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Snow plows fling impassible tall white palisades along the highways and streets. Those same snow plows caused me to mutter frustrated words as they passed my driveway this weekend, slushing it with a dirty wintry mix as I shoveled. I felt like Sisyphus. Shovel out. Snow falls. Shovel out. Snow plow goes by. Shovel out. More snow falls. Repeat.

If there was an Olympic gold medal for snow shoveling, I’d be a contender.

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And yet, how can I complain? At last! We have our necessary winter snow. We’ve been below our average snowfall all season. Made up for it in one glorious February weekend.

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Sure, it stings a little.

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But love it, hate it, we need it. Snow helps moderate the Earth’s temperature. It melts; adds much-needed water to reservoirs and lakes. If you brushed your teeth this morning, ate something grown by a farmer, drank a glass of water or made a pot of coffee, then snow matters to you.

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A substantial snowfall makes everything—including the prairie—a little brighter in February.

Here’s a fun word: albedo. It’s a measure of how much sunlight is reflected by snow back into the atmosphere.  According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center  (yes, there is such a center!),  snow reflects up to 90 percent of sunlight. Simply put, this reflected solar energy helps cool our planet.

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Snow insulates.  It conserves moisture in the prairie soil, then keeps that moisture from evaporating.

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Aesthetically, snow reminds us of the beauty of prairie plants. Provides a background for us to admire their architecture. Like this Joe Pye weed.

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Snow reminds us that the prairie is home to many seemingly invisible creatures who share the world with us. Their stamped luge chutes and prints deboss trails through the tallgrass and savanna.

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Here in the Chicago suburbs, weather forecasters say the piles of snow will melt by the end of the week. Difficult to believe today, looking at our world of icy white.

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Enjoy this event while it lasts. Even if the price of admission is some heavy shoveling.

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Miami journalist and humorist Dave Barry (1947-) received the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1988 for his “consistently effective use of humor as a device for presenting fresh insights into serious concerns.” Barry often chronicles the strangeness of the state of Florida and aging in his 30-plus books; many of which are good cures for winter doldrums. Take a look here.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Willoway Brook tributary, the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; East Side prairie planting along the Northern Europe Collection, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: probably late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bald-faced hornet (Dolichovespula maculata) nest, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; February on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; February on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) tracks through the snow, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; visitor (Homo sapiens) hiking the Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, 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.

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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.

Thorny Prairie Issues

“Our goals can only be reached through a vehicle of a plan, in which we must fervently believe, and upon which we must vigorously act. There is no other route to success.” –Pablo Picasso

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Although traditionally the New Year is when we set goals, October seems a good time to begin thinking about what’s next.

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This week finds me thinking about the management plan for the 100 acre prairie where I’m a steward supervisor. It’s a chance to work with the staff and consider what was accomplished or still needs finished as I wind things up in autumn.

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Much of the plan was made at the beginning of the year and concerns invasive plant removal—particularly, non-native plants. To name a few: sweet clover (Melilotus spp.), reed canary grass (Phalaris arundinacea), and garlic mustard (Alliara petiolata). There are others, of course.  But this trio comprises the chief invaders that threaten the diversity of this particular prairie.

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In the early years of stewarding, weeding out these three invaders pretty much comprised the whole of my management plan. But with the maturing of the prairie (55-plus years!) and the hard work over time by volunteers and staff, this season was different. No, we  didn’t conquer those three. But at last, they were knocked back enough that I could turn my eyes to some other problem plants that threatened the tallgrass.

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A “native plant” — one that evolved in Illinois—is usually thought of as a “good plant.” However, even good plants can go bad. Given our vigorous removal of non-natives over the years, a few native plants became bullies.  The extent of their rogue advancement across the prairie took me by surprise. It was so gradual, I hadn’t noticed.

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So. Out they came. Wild plum (Prunus americana).  Gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa). I discovered Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus Illinoensis) had conducted a stealth slide along the banks of Willoway Brook, then slithered across the stream. Once I noticed, I found a solid wave of ferny leaves. We attempted to slow this species down by defensive seed collection; stripping the plants so they couldn’t add to their numbers. We’ll find out next season just how successful our efforts were.

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Today, I’m wrestling with brambles. Wild raspberries and blackberries are native to this part of Illinois where I’m a prairie steward. Normally, they are not a big deal, just a prickly part of the prairie landscape. But in the past several years, they’ve sent cane tentacles across the tallgrass, spreading throughout an area previously full of diverse, high-quality plants and shading them out. In short, becoming undesirable.

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Removing native brambles is a difficult proposition. Because they are surrounded on this prairie by high-quality native prairie plants—butterflyweed, gentians, prairie sundrops— no collatoral damage is acceptable.

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So, our prairie volunteers cut each bramble cane by hand. An applicator then paints the raw cut on the cane with the minimum amount of herbicide to knock it back. Our goal is not to completely eliminate the brambles, rather, to halt their aggressive spread.

This opens up room for other prairie plants to grow.

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Work like this is always part of a bigger plan on a restored or reconstructed tallgrass prairie. Each season, stewards and staff evaluate the prairie community. Are we allowing a wide variety of plants to become established? How are our prescribed burns affecting the insect and bird community?

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Is there a particular invasive plant—native or non-native—on which we should focus our efforts? If so, can we accomplish its removal by hand weeding? Or do we need to consider other methods?

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These are the conundrums that will keep us flexible, constantly making adjustments in management as we care for a vanishing biological community. One that we hope to keep vigorous and healthy for future generations.

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Setting goals. Having a plan.

Reflecting on the past. Thinking about the future.

All good occupations for anyone in the month of October.

***

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), whose quote opens this blog essay,  was a writer and artist from Spain. One of his many notable works is The Old Guitarist from his Blue Period, owned by The Art Institute of Chicago:  “… the image reflects the struggling twenty-two-year-old Picasso’s sympathy for the plight of the downtrodden; he knew what it was like to be poor, having been nearly penniless during all of 1902. ”

This week’s photos copyright Cindy Crosby all taken on the Schulenberg Prairie at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL  (top to bottom): common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca); carrion flower (Smilax spp.) fruit; October on the Schulenberg Prairie; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); October on the Schulenberg Prairie; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) seedhead;  black raspberry cane (Rubus occindentalis); gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata); compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); white wild indigo seedpods (Baptisia alba macrophylla); two jagged assassin bugs (Phymata spp.) eating an unknown fly on a pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor); Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans);  little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium). 

To Understand a Prairie

“The prairie, in all its expressions, is a massive, subtle place, with a long history of contradiction and misunderstanding. But it is worth the effort at comprehension. It is, after all, at the center of our national identity.” — Wayne Fields

***

How do you begin to understand a prairie?  Start by walking the tallgrass trails on a breezy day in September. See the boneset flowers sway and bend in the wind?

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Count the number of bees you find nectaring in the flowers.  Then consider—this is only one small stand of blooms! Imagine what remains unseen. Suddenly, your eyes open to the buzzing and crawling; sipping and chewing insects all around you. You begin to understand. The prairie world is not static. It is a living, moving, humming community.

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From the blooms and bugs, you turn to the fall seed heads, in all their infinite variety. The spiky purple meadow rue.

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Soft Indian grass seed plumes, a few yellow petals decorating them like confetti.

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The parachute seeds of pale Indian plantain, ready for lift off.

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You marvel at the variety. A prairie, you think, is about diversity. And yes, you’re getting closer to knowing.

How do you begin to understand a prairie? You notice how the plants change with the September slant of sun; cool nights, shorter days. See the butterfly weed in its fall colors, just before the seed pod bursts open. This milkweed’s work nurturing monarch butterflies is finished for this year. Now it must send out  a new generation of plants to do the same next season.

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Those September colors! Flowering spurge foliage glows pink under the grasses.

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As you marvel at the pink, you catch your breath. Are those cream gentians you almost stepped on? Or wait—are they bottle gentians? The blooms seem to be both, yet neither. Perhaps this is the hybrid pale-blue gentian that you’ve heard about. You drop to your knees for a closer look.

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And what is this plant, waving over your head, and flowering so late in the season?

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You take photos, examine the leaves. It looks like one of the wild lettuces, but you can’t remember for sure.  And it seems…different, somehow. So you take another photo; carefully imprint the details of the plant on your mind. Vow to look it up later.

Understanding a prairie means knowing that the more you discover, the less you’ll realize you know. And the more you know, the more you’ll forget. (Sigh.) Even when you do remember, the taxonomists may rename the plants you once knew by heart.

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Perhaps this is what it means to understand a prairie. To look. To ask questions. To marvel. To imagine. To learn. To forget. To ask for help. To be humbled as you do, realizing there will always be more to comprehend. And to accept change.

Knowing you’ll never know or understand the prairie completely —isn’t that the best gift of all? Like a present you look forward to unwrapping… again and again.

***

Wayne Fields, whose quote opens this post, is the Lynne Cooper Harvey Chair Emeritus in English at Washington University in St. Louis, MO. As a child, he grew up in Missouri and Iowa before his family settled in Rock Island, IL. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Augustana College, then a masters and PhD at University of Chicago. Fields has been with Washington University since 1968. He lives in Iowa.

All photos in this week’s blog are from the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): tall boneset (Eupatorium altissimum); pasture thistle with insects (Cirsium discolor); purple meadow rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum); Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); pale Indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium);  butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata) foliage; possibly pale-blue gentian (Gentiana x pallidocyanea); rough white lettuce (Prenanthes aspera or Nabalus aspera)–a “10” in Gerould Wilhelm’s & Laura Rericha’s Flora of the Chicago Region— thanks Illinois Botany FB page for help on the ID! a new lettuce for me; New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) whose latest name from taxonomists is so difficult to remember and to say.