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Prairie Streams of Consciousness

“Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.” — Pema Chödrön.

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If you want to get a fresh perspective on life, jump into the water.  That’s where I find myself this week, monitoring dragonflies and damselflies on the prairie. So much of insect life on the prairie is virtually invisible. To really see some of the damselflies requires full immersion.

It’s sunny—one of the few dry days this week.  Out on the prairie, the white wild indigo is in full celebration mode.

spma6918wm.jpgThe bumblebees are making the most of bloom time.

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Honeybees busily buzz around the wild asparagus blossoms.

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The gorgeous prairie wildflowers are offering a show in early June that would put Las Vegas to shame. Scurfy pea (what a great name!) throws purple all over its silvery tumbleweeds.

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Prairie sundrops earn their name, splashing light where they lie knee-high, barely keeping up with the grasses and wildflowers growing lushly all around.

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There’s plenty of dragonfly action on the prairie trails. Calico pennant dragonflies—red males, yellow females—might be mistaken for butterflies by the non-initiated.

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And who could blame someone for thinking so? Each year the pennants’ fluttering appearance seems magical. I could get easily get distracted from the morning’s task at hand.

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But today is for the prairie stream. I pull on my hip waders and get down to business. It’s a bit windier than I’d like for dragonfly monitoring, but the brook is nestled into a low spot on the prairie and there, the breeze doesn’t do as much as ruffle my hair. However, getting into a stream in waders is a challenge. Especially when the sides of the bank are steep and your knees aren’t what they used to be.  I sit and clumsily scoot-slide down the steep sides of the bank.

It’s a different world, down in the stream. The prairie above recedes from my view and my thoughts. All that exists is the water. It’s surprisingly high, well up to my hips.  I cautiously test my footing. Streams are always dicey; sometimes the bottom muck sucks your boots into it unexpectedly, leaving yourself in a bad predicament. Other times an unexpected hole opens up as you take a step and you lose your footing. I’ve never fallen—yet—but I fully expect that is in the cards at some point.

All it takes is a glint of color or motion out of the corner of your eye to distract you. You glance up. Ebony jewelwings! The white spots tell me this one’s a female.

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The males aren’t far off; spaced evenly along the stream. Perched on the grasses.

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Look down, and there’s a violet dancer damselfly in all its shocking variations of purple.

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Just to the side is a newly-emerged American rubyspot damselfly in the teneral stage, abdomen drooping, its colors in the process of brightening. Its wings look newly-minted.  I’ve been watching for this species, which hasn’t appeared along my stream-side route this month. Like clockwork, they knew when it was time to emerge.

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There you are.  I’ve been wondering when you’d show up.

Picking my way down the stream, I test each step. The process gives “mindfullness” fresh meaning.  I stumble at one point, where a drop-off is invisible in the murky water, and grab at the closest vegetation. For the first time in my life as a prairie steward, I’m grateful for the invasive reed canary grass lining the shore.

As I regain my sense of balance, I notice a new form of a blue-fronted dancer damselfly—a blue morph female, rather than the more common orangey-tan— enjoying a protein-packed lunch of unknown bug. I’ve seen plenty of blue-fronteds over the course of my monitoring, but not this variation. Cool! I thought I knew this species. It’s another reminder that there is so much I don’t know.

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The stream is the romantic hot spot of the prairie for dragons and damsels.  All around me are various stages of damselfly mating in progress.  In the early stages, the male (like this blue male stream bluet, below) grabs a likely-looking female behind the head…

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…and the two dragons or damsels form  “the wheel,” which often looks like a heart. Two ebony jewelwings make a beautiful one, don’t they?

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The male guards the female (either by hovering in the air, or continuing his death-grip behind her head) until her eggs are safely deposited in floating mats of vegetation, grasses, old wood, or directly into the water. Take a look below as a pondhawk female (green) dragonfly taps her eggs into the surface of the water, while the male (powdery blue) hover guards just above.

 

The whole process of ovipositing—egg laying—moves fast, doesn’t it? But a dragonfly or damselfly’s life is a matter of weeks, sometimes days, or even hours. To keep life moving forward, they don’t mess around.

Unlike the dragonflies, there’s nothing fast about my work today. The rewards of stream wading are these: Reminding myself how it feels to move quietly and slowly. Learning that what I think I know isn’t always the whole story.  Finding new perspectives on places I thought I knew well. Surprises at every bend of the brook. Realizing that when I don’t jump in I miss so much. And most of all, perhaps, the mind-clearing effort of paying attention to every step, punctuated by new delights all around.

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When I’ve finished wading my short stretch of stream, I’m exhausted.  The  careful focus on footing. The watchful parsing of shoreline vegetation for a flash of color, a glimmer of motion. The sheer energy exerted to get from point A to point Z in the water that is getting to be more of a challenge each season.

But the bombardment of marvels all around me in the stream fills up my “inner well.” You know that “well;” the one that is depleted by meetings and noise and front-page news and angry drivers and toxic people.  I always leave the stream feeling more at peace. Like the world is a beautiful place.

I don’t wade every pond and stream where I dragonfly monitor; it takes too much time. But there’s not a day when I don’t wish I could.  There are joys and revelations I’m missing because I stay high and dry on the shore, counting dragonflies where it’s easier. But I’ll always see less than I would from the sidelines than if I fully commit myself to the water.

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Think about it. Every pond, every lake, every stream is filled with rhythmic dances of   life going on each moment. So many amazing things happening in the world!

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All we have to do is look. And keep our sense of wonder.

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The opening quote is by Pema Chödrön (1936-), an American Tibetan Buddhist nun. Her books include,  When Things Fall Apart and Start Where You Are.

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla) with unknown bumblebee, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) with an unknown honeybee, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; scurfy pea (Psoralidium tenuiflorum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie sundrops (Oenothera pilosella) , Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; calico pennant dragonfly male (Celithemis elisa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; calico pennant dragonfly female (Celithemis elisa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata), female, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata), male, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; violet dancer damselfly (Argia fumipennis violacea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; American rubyspot damselfly (Hetaerina americana), teneral, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blue-fronted dancer damselfly (Argia apicalis) (female, blue morph), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; stream bluets (Enallagma exsulans), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ebony jewelwing damselflies (Calopteryx maculata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pondhawk dragonflies (Erythemis simplicicollis)  as seen from my kayak in Busse Woods, Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Schaumberg, IL; green frog (Lithobates clamitans), Nachusa Grasslands Beaver Pond Stream, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  pond at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; pond at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

Finding our Story on the Prairie

“Stories are compasses and architecture; …to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions. Place is a story, and stories are geography….” -Rebecca Solnit ***

It’s spring.  The geography of the early spring prairie is an unfolding story. It’s a good place to think about where you’ve been and where you are at now.  Where you’re headed next.

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There’s  evidence of what has passed on the March prairie. Bison tracks, filled with ice, glitter under the cold, clear sky.

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You may find an icy stream rearranging itself in the sunshine. Change.

 

The last — or will it be the last? –snowfall melts under the focused blaze of the sun.

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Old attitudes begin to thaw along with the snow and the ice. You feel pliable, flexible, more comfortable with ambiguity.

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There’s still plenty of the old prairie grasses, untouched by fire, to remind us of last season.

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On other prairies, the newly-scorched earth is witness to how life can drastically change within moments.

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In early March, the remains of last year’s prairie seem fragile; transient. Poised on the edge of something new.

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On the first day of spring, a thunderstorm rumbles through. Hail taps against the tallgrass. Who knows what the week ahead will bring? Sunshine or snowflakes; sleet or heat, mud or slush. Then, rewind to winter again. Anything is possible.

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Despite the calendar’s confirmation of spring, on long strings of gray days, it’s easy to feel stuck. Mired in the old.

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But the return of migrating birds; the heightened colors of our regular year-round visitors at the backyard feeders and on the prairie, are a reassurance that something new is coming. Another chapter in the prairie story is beginning. How will our own story be different this time around?

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Spring, with its wildflowers and floods of green, slowly moves onstage; a series of stops and starts.

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We’re impatient to embrace it all. This season, we vow, we’ll be more intentional. Risk  a little, love more, adventure out where we’re uncomfortable. Speak up instead of be silent. Pay attention.

In her book, The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit offers this thought: Will your story be largely an account of what has happened to you? Or will it be an account of what you did?  It’s so easy to stay with what works. Go with the flow. Let the days pass as they always have.

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Take a long hike on the prairie. Think about its story of growth, of testing by fire, of resurrection. Reflect on what you really want to do with the time you have just ahead.

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How will you be intentional about your story this season? What will your story be?

Go, and find out.

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The opening quote is from The Faraway Nearby, by Rebecca Solnit (1961-), who has written more than a dozen books about the nature of place,  and our place in the world. Another good book from Solnit is Wanderlust: A History of Walking. She is a winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): wetland, Prairie Walk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL: iced bison (Bison bison) track, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; ice melt video, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; beaver (Castor canadensis) dam on the prairie wetlands, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bison (Bison bison) tracks in the mud, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; tallgrass, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; prescribed burn, local prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Prairie Walk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL; iced bison (Bison bison) track, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) in a willow (Salix viminalis), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; moon over author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; wildflower street sign, Rochelle, IL; deer (Odocoileus virginianus) at The Morton Arboretum oak savanna, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.