“When despair for the world grows in me… .” — Wendell Berry
It’s tough to find words this morning. So—let’s go for a walk.
There is solace in watching damselflies. They flaunt and flirt and flutter in the cool July streams…
Their cares are so different than my own. What do they worry about, I wonder?
Perhaps they keep an eye out for darting tree swallows, or a floating frog.
Maybe they watch for a ravenous fish, lurking just beneath the stream’s surface. Or even a hungry dragonfly.
As I walk and look around the prairie, I feel myself become calmer. The bumblebees and honeybees and native bees go about their life’s work of visiting flowers. Not a bad way to live.
The poet Mary Oliver writes in her poem, “Invitation”: “It is a serious thing/ just to be alive/ on this fresh morning/ in this broken world.”
I wade into the stream and watch the damselflies. Some scout for insects. Others perch silently along the shoreline.
Others are busy dancing a tango with a partner…
…laying groundwork for the future.
Today, all I can do is walk in this world. All I can do is look.
I don’t want to stop feeling. Or stop caring.
I never want to be numb to the grief in this world, even when it feels overwhelming.
But it feels like too much sometimes.
And even though the world seems broken beyond repair right now, when I look around me….
… I’m reminded of how beautiful it can be.
What will it take for things to change?
Never give up. We need to leave this world a better place than we found it. Even when putting the pieces back together feels impossible.
I need that reminder today.
Wendell Berry (1934-) is a writer, environmental activist, novelist, essayist, and farmer. The beginning of his poem, “The Peace of Wild Things,” opens this blog. You can read the complete poem here. It’s a good one.
Upcoming Classes and Programs
Learn more about dragonflies and damselflies in Beginning Dragonfly and Damselfly ID, a two-part class online and in-person. Join Cindy on Thursday, July 14, for a two-hour Zoom then Friday, July 15 for three hours in the field at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL. Register here.
“Oh, do you have time to linger for just a little while out of your busy and very important day…?” — Mary Oliver
Come linger with me for a few moments in my backyard.
Let’s see what the last week of July is up to.
Now, the heat rises from the ground; the air like a warm, soggy blanket out of the dryer that could have used an extra ten minutes. Dew beads the grass blades.
I hear a buzz-whirr in my ear as a ruby-throated hummingbird zings by me, heading for sugar water. Ruby-throated hummingbirds appreciate my nectar feeder—-and they love the wildflowers in my garden.
I planted scarlet runner beans, just for them.
I delight in that kiss of red! More of this color is coming in the backyard. The hummingbirds will be glad when the cardinal flowers open. Almost there.
Hummingbirds, butterflies, and bees enjoy the bee balm—-or if you prefer, wild bergamot—which blooms in wispy drifts across the garden.
Myriad pollinators also visit the zinnias, which I have an abiding affection for, although zinnias aren’t native here in my corner of suburban Chicago.
Other flowers wrap up the business of blooming and begin moving toward seed production. Culver’s root candles are almost burned out. Only a few sparks remain.
The bird-sown asparagus has a single seed.
Other flowers are just beginning their cycle of bud, bloom, go to seed. Obedient plant’s green spike is a promise of pretty pinky-purple flowers to come.
I enjoy the July transitions.
A giant sunflower is a magnet for the squirrels and chipmunks. They assess. Climb. Nibble. Any day now, I expect to find the stalk snapped.
Skipper butterflies patrol the garden, ready to plunder the flowers.
Black swallowtail caterpiIlars munch on the parsley. I don’t begrudge them a few plants when I know how lovely the butterflies will be. I watch for monarch caterpillars without luck on my butterfly milkweed and common milkweed plants. Where are they this year? What I do see are hordes of oleander aphids that gang up on my whorled milkweed.
I don’t control these non-native aphids. I let them be. If I did try to get rid of them, it would be with a strong spray of water rather than a pesticide. Whorled milkweed is a host for monarch butterfly caterpillars, just like its better-known milkweed kin in Illinois. The leaves are un-milkweed-ish, but the flowers are a give-away.
In my larger prairie planting, tiny eastern forktail damselflies chase even tinier insects for their breakfast. The damselflies’ bright green heads and neon blue abdominal tips help me track them through the grasses. I’m reminded of a morning last week when I waded through Willoway Brook on the prairie, and oh! The abundance of damselflies that I found. So many damselflies! American rubyspots. Stream bluets. Ebony jewelwings.
I stood in my hip waders, knee-deep, for about ten minutes, watching a variable dancer damselfly toy with a small bubble of dew.
Damselflies don’t play with dew drops. Do they? Perhaps not. But it was difficult to characterize the damselfly’s actions as anything other than playful as it batted the droplet back and forth along the grass blade. Think of all these wonders happening every second of every hour of every day.
If only we could be present to them all.
In the backyard, a low thrumming of insects pulses through the prairie patch. Uh, oh. It looks like Queen Anne’s lace has infiltrated part of the prairie planting. I need to pay attention before it takes over.
The cup plants—topping six feet now—are awash with lemon-colored blooms. Each flower is a platform for jostling insects, from honeybees to … well… tiny bees I can’t identify. I try checking them my phone app, iNaturalist, which seems as perplexed about them as I am.
So many insects! So many different bees. How will I ever learn them all? A lifetime isn’t long enough, and following my birthday last week, one of the big ones, I’m aware of the window of time closing.
It’s a reminder that each walk in the garden—each hike on the prairie—is time worth savoring.
I want to look back on my life and remember that I paid attention.
The opening lines are from the poem “Invitation” by the late poet Mary Oliver (1935-2019), part of a collection from her book Devotions. Listen to her read one of my favorite poems, “The Wild Geese,” here.
Join Cindy for a class or program this summer!
Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online: Work through online materials and post your stories about prairie to the discussion boards beginning August 2; learn from other prairie stewards and volunteers about their challenges and success stories. Join a Live Zoom with Cindy on Wednesday, August 11, from noon-1 p.m. CDT. The coursework is available for 60 days. Learn more and register here.
August 17, 7-8:30 pm —in person —“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Bloomingdale Garden Club, Bloomingdale, IL. Please visit http://www.bloomingdalegardenclub.org/events-new/ for more information and Covid safety protocol for the event.
Cindy’s book, Chasing Dragonflies, is on sale at Northwestern University Press for 40% off the cover price until July 31! Click here to order — be sure and use Code SUN40 at checkout. Limit 5. See website for full details!
Cindy Crosby is the author, compiler, or contributor to more than 20 books. Her most recent is "Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History" (Northwestern University Press, 2020). She teaches prairie ecology, nature writing, and natural history classes, and is a prairie steward who has volunteered countless hours in prairie restoration. See Cindy's upcoming online speaking events and classes at www.cindycrosby.com.