Tag Archives: milkweed

A Prairie Fall Equinox

“It’s the first day of autumn! A time of hot chocolatey mornings, and toasty marshmallow evenings, and, best of all, leaping into leaves!”—Winnie the Pooh

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Happy autumnal equinox! It’s the first day of astronomical fall. Daylight hours shorten. The air looks a little pixeled, a little grainy. Soon, we’ll eat dinner in the dark, sleep, and rise in the mornings to more darkness. Some of us will embrace this change, in love with the season. Others will count the days until December 21, the winter solstice, to see the daylight hours lengthen again.

Wait, you might ask. Cindy—didn’t you say it was the first day of fall back on September 1? Yes indeed, I did—the first day of meteorological fall! There are two ways of calculating when the seasons begin. Meteorological fall begins on the first of September each year. Astronomical fall begins on the fall equinox. Read more about the way scientists calculate the seasons here.

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The knowledge that these warm days full of light are fleeting sends Jeff and me to hike Belmont Prairie in Downers Grove, Illinois. The parking lot is full, but the prairie is mostly empty. We love this prairie remnant for its solitude; its timeless grace in the midst of suburbia.

The prairie is dusty. Crisp. Once again, we need a good, steady rain, with none in the forecast for the next ten days. Overhead it’s cloudless; a blank blue slate. I was scrolling through paint samples online this week, and came across the exact color of the sky: “Fond Farewell.” Exactly.

Although the prairie is awash in golds, it won’t be long until the flowers fade and the brightness dims. I remind myself to take joy in the moment.

Big bluestem, blighted by drought, still flashes its gorgeous colors. I love its jointed stems. No wonder it is Illinois’ state grass!

The brushed silver joints are not the only silver on the prairie. Along the trail are the skeletal remains of plants, perhaps in the Brassica family. What species are they? I’m not sure. Whatever these were, they are now ghosts of their former selves.

Gold dominates.

The flowers of showy goldenrod are busy with pollinators, such as this paper wasp (below). The wasps don’t have the smart publicity agents and good press of monarchs and bees, so are often overlooked as a positive presence in the garden.

Then again, if you’ve ever been chased by wasps as I have after disturbing a nest —and been painfully stung—you’ll give them a respectful distance.

Tall coreopsis is almost finished for the season, but a few sunshiny blooms remain.

Sawtooth sunflowers, goldenrod, and tall boneset wash together in a celebration of autumn, now at crescendo.

So much yellow! Sumac splashes scarlet across the tallgrass, adding a dash of red. As a prairie steward on other tallgrass sites, I find this native sumac a nuisance. It stealthily infiltrates the prairie and displaces some of the other species I want to thrive. However, toward the end of September, I feel more generous of spirit. Who can resist those leaves, backlit by the low slant of sun, that echo a stained glass window?

The withering summer prairie blooms are now upstaged by the stars of autumn: asters in white and multiple hues of pink, lavender and violet. New England aster provides the best bang for the buck. That purple! It’s a challenge to remember its updated scientific name: Symphyotrichum novae-angliae. Try saying that three times quickly! A real tongue twister. I miss the simpler name, Aster novae-angliae. So easy to remember. But everything changes as science discovers more about the world. It’s up to us to choose to listen, learn, and adapt rather than just doing what is easy.

The periwinkle hues of the smooth blue aster are unlike any other color on the prairie. I stop to caress its trademark smooth, cool leaves.

Every time I look closely at the asters, I see pollinators. And more pollinators. From little flying insects I can’t identify to the ubiquitous cabbage white butterflies and bumblebees, heavy with pollen. And, yes—those ever-present wasps.

Delicate pale pink biennial gaura, with its own tiny pollinators, is easily overlooked, out-glitzed by the prairie’s golds and purples, but worth discovering. Flies, like this one below stopping by the gaura, are also pollinators, but like the wasps they get little respect for the important work they do.

Soon, the glory of the prairie will be in scaffolding and bone: the structure of the plants, the diversity of shape. You can see the prairie begin its shift from bloom to seed, although blooms still predominate.

Breathe in. September is the fragrance of gray-headed coneflower seeds, crushed between your fingers.

September is the pungent thymol of wild bergamot, released by rubbing a leaf or a dry seedhead.

Inhale the prairie air; a mixture of old grass, wood smoke, with a crisp cold top note, even on a warm day. Chew on a mountain mint leaf, tough from the long season, and you’ll get a zing of pleasure. Listen to the geese, honking their way across the sky, or the insects humming in the grass.

Then, find a milkweed pod cracked open, with its pappus —- silks—just waiting to be released. Go ahead. Pull out a few of these parachute seeds. Feel their softness. Imagine what one seed may do next season! I try to think like a milkweed seed. Take flight. Explore. Plant yourself in new places. Nourish monarch butterflies. Offer nectar to bumblebees. Lend beauty wherever you find yourself.

Close your eyes. Make a wish.

Now, release it to the wind.

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The opening quote is from Pooh’s Grand Adventure by A.A. Milne. Before he penned the popular children’s book series about a bear named Winnie the Pooh, Milne was known as a playwright and wrote several mystery novels and poems.

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All photos are from Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve in Downers Grove, IL, this week unless otherwise noted (top to bottom): bee or common drone fly (tough to tell apart) on panicled aster (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; Belmont Prairie sign; wildflowers and grasses in September; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); something from the Brassica family maybe? Genus and species unknown; Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis); and other goldenrods; dark paper wasp (Polistes fuscates) on showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa); tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); wildflowers of Belmont Prairie in September; staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina); new england aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae); smooth blue aster (Symphyotrichum laeve); dark paper wasp (Polistes fuscates) on panicled aster (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; biennial gaura (Gaura biennis); blazing star (Liatris sp.); gray-headed coneflower seedheads (Ratibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (2019); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (2018); common mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum), Afton Prairie, DeKalb, IL (2017); butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa).

Join Cindy for a class—or ask her to speak virtually for your organization this autumn!

“Nature Writing Online” begins Monday, October 5, through The Morton Arboretum. Want to commit to improving and fine-tuning your writing for six weeks? This is a great opportunity to jump start your blog, your book, or your journal writing while working online from home, supplemented with three evenings of live evening Zoom classes on alternate weeks. Class size is limited; register here.

Just released in June! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History.

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Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Morton Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org, direct from Northwestern University Press (use coupon code NUP2020 for 25% off), or other book venues. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during these unusual times.

Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction. 

Five Reasons to Hike the August Prairie

“No story lives unless someone wants to listen.”– J.K. Rowling

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Each year, I see the prairie as having a certain personality. Sparkling! Energetic. Another year it might be tranquil. Welcoming. I know this is an overlay of my personal feelings about the year, unrelated to the prairie itself. The prairie is utterly indifferent to my mood. Indeed, the prairie has many moods of its own, which change from minute to minute.

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2020 on the prairie has been colored by COVID: from the lack of prescribed burns (all that old standing plant matter!), to the increased traffic on the trails, to the nervousness I feel when I see lots of hikers on a narrow path. When I begin a hike, mask at the ready, it’s a far different experience than it was in August of 2019.

It would be easier than I’d like to admit to let that tension keep me at home, or spoil the joy I usually feel in hiking the tallgrass.

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I go out anyway. I mask up when I need to; then find times (early and late) and spots on the prairie where I can be alone. And each time I go on a prairie hike, I don’t regret it.

There’s always a new discovery.  Shifts of weather. A different slant…

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…on what is pretty familiar after hiking this prairie for 22 years. There are always new ways of seeing things.

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Sometimes, when you’ve walked the same trails for years, you have a preconceived idea of what you’ll find. The danger is this: when you think you already know what you’ll see, you may overlook something special.

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I try to remember to keep my eyes open. My mind open. And my heart open to what I might experience each time I walk in the tallgrass.

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You, too?

With that in mind, let’s explore the tallgrass together and discover five reasons to hike the prairie in August.

#1. Plants Have Stories. This Friday I’m teaching the second half of a class called Prairie Ethnobotany; the big “e” word simply means the study of how people interact with plants throughout history. Each prairie plant has a story to tell. Each “story” has as many “pages” to it as we are willing to read. Prairie plants have so many fascinating ethnobotanical tales to tell.

Think of big bluestem. Did you know that big bluestem is Illinois’ state grass? Or that its nickname is “turkey foot?” bigbluestemhorizontalfogSPMA11020WM.jpg

It was once considered a good substitute for knitting needles—not difficult to imagine, when you look at its jointed stems.

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Big bluestem was known as the ice cream of the prairie for livestock—it was that delicious to cows and horses! Ironically, early settlers knew that where big bluestem grew, the land was suitable for farming.

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I love to hear the stories that my students tell me about their ethnobotanic relationships with plants. Check out Larry and Arlene Dunn’s terrific story here in their blog post from “Acornometrics” about rattlesnake master, one of the stars of the August prairie.

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Maybe, as you walk the prairie in August, you’ll want to write a haiku about a plant, as Larry did in this blog, and for one of our assignments. Share your haiku with me in the comments, if you do write one.

#2. Insects have stories, too! As I walk the prairie, I discover stories about the insects that inhabit it. Some insect stories are cheerful; the business of butterflies and beetles and bees, nectaring and pollinating.

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Other insect stories may be a bit frightening. This black horsefly feeds on blood—any blood—wherever she may find it. Her mouth parts cut open flesh, leaving a painful sore behind. Ouch! I move past quickly. Nothing to see here, Miz Blackfly.

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Beauty and grace, as well as a strong instinct for survival, are what I read in the dragonfly stories. Like this widow skimmer. Fierce. And exquisite. What a powerful combination!

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However, not all insect stories have a happily-ever-after ending.

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But each story tells us something important about the life of the August prairie community.

#3. Take a Hitchhiker Home. No, we’re not talking ticks here. Well, maybe we are. Sort of. Tick trefoil is another star of the August prairie. Many plants have strategies to help them disperse to new locations to diversify their gene pool. One of these strategies is to attach themselves to our shirts or socks and hitch a ride. Tick trefoil is one of my favorite hitchhikers. Those lovely lavender blooms!

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Those intriguing seed pods. Brush against them, and you’ll arrive home, covered with enough tick trefoil seeds to plant a monoculture in your yard. I’ve spent hours pulling the seeds off of my clothes, only to find the seed pods I miss show up in the lint trap of my dryer.

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Pick a tick trefoil leaf and you can also paste it, corsage-like, to your lapel. And look at those flowers. The unmistakable blooms of a legume. They remind me of my sugar snap pea flowers and green bean flowers in the garden, only in stunning violet.

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When I see Illinois tick trefoil in flower and in seed, I know the prairie has begun its slide toward autumn. It’s a bittersweet feeling. The summer of 2020 has been oh-so-short. Or so it seems. What other plants hitch a ride home with you in August?  (Hint: Check your dryer’s lint trap for clues after a hike.)

 #4. Enjoy the Play of Light and Shade. As you hike, see what your eyes are drawn to. Contemplate how plants stand out as individuals, or blend in as an aggregate of masses of color and hue to create a mood. Watch how the light shifts, and blends and changes the prairie palette. Some areas look impressionistic, then a shaft of light throws a particular plant into sharp relief.

In this early August prairie mix….

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…blue vervain takes the spotlight.BlueVervainSPMA8220WM.jpg

In supporting roles are the wispy Canada wild rye…

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…and bee balm and bottlebrush grass.

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Not far off, black-eyed susans and the festive gray-headed coneflowers (below) mix into the prairie edges, adding their yellows as foil to the blues and purples.

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As an art major for a few years in college, I remember learning that yellow and purple are complementary colors on the color wheel. Later, when I took a quilting class, I realized how striking purple and yellow are in combination. The prairie doesn’t need a lesson in color theory to know. It pours out colors and shades of color in an ever-moving kaleidoscope, changing its appearance throughout the day as the sun moves across the sky.  All we have to do to see it is show up.

#5. The Prairie Skies in August have stories to tell. How different the plants look up close…

Ironweed8220SPMAWM.jpg …from when you change  your perspective, and see them against the backdrop of cumulus clouds and blue skies.

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Some plants, like this pale indian plantain, stand out.

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Even the creatures of the prairie community, like this dickcissel, appear in a new light.

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An approaching storm throws the prairie and prairie savanna into a different mood. The bloom colors subtly shift; even the smell of the rain on the way tickles your nose and sharpens your senses. The sounds of the prairie change, from the rumbles of thunder in the distance to the ominous rustling of switchgrass and big bluestem.

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Later in the season, deep fog on the prairie mists it in magic. Serene. Soothing.

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Whether it is hiking the prairie by day…

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…or strolling it in the evening and marveling at another glorious prairie sunset, you’ll know…

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…this hour you set aside to hike the August prairie was time well spent.

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The quote which opens this post is from J.K. Rowling (1965-), author of the Harry Potter series. The series has sold more than 500 million copies, and is considered the best-selling series in history.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby from the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unless otherwise noted (top to bottom): bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (file photo); compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) with sunflower head clipping beetles (Haplorhynchites aeneus); slanted trail; male eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemus tenera), Arbor Lake, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; praying mantis (Mantid, unknown species–one of the natives? or not? Unsure!), Cindy’s backyard prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL; butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) with big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii);  big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) (file photo); big bluestem (Andropogen gerardii) (file photo); big bluestem (Andropogen gerardii), College of DuPage Russell Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL (file photo); rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) (file photo); showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) with unknown beetles; black horse fly (Tabanus atratus); widow skimmer dragonfly (Libellula luctuosa) (file photo); widow skimmer dragonfly wings (Libellula luctuosa); Illinois tick trefoil (Desmodium Illinoense); Illinois tick trefoil (Desmodium Illinoense); Illinois tick trefoil Desmodium Illinoense);  light and shade through the Schulenberg Prairie Savanna; blue vervain (Verbena hastata); Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis); bottlebrush grass (Elymus hystrix) and bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata); smooth tall ironweed (Vernonia gigantea);smooth tall ironweed (Vernonia gigantea); pale indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium);  dickcissel (Spiza americana) on great angelica (Angelica atropurpurea), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (file photo); fog on the prairie (file photo, unsure of month); sun and clouds on the prairie; sunset over Cindy’s prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

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Join Cindy for an Online Class this Fall!

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” Begin a new session in September through The Morton Arboretum! Work from home at your own pace (with suggested assignment deadlines) for 60 days to complete the material, and meet other prairie volunteers and stewards on the discussion boards and in the optional Zoom session. Register here.

“Nature Writing Online” Begins Monday, October 5, through The Morton Arboretum. Want to commit to improving and fine-tuning your writing for six weeks? This is a great opportunity to jump start your blog, your book, or your journal writing while working from home, supplemented with three evenings of live evening Zoom classes on alternate weeks. Watch for registration information coming soon.

Just released! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History. Read a review from Kim Smith here. (And check out her blog, “Nature is My Therapy” — you’ll love it!

Chasing Dragonflies Final Cover 620.jpg

Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Morton Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org and other book venues. Order direct through Northwestern University Press and receive 40% off this new book and/or “The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction”— use coupon code SUN40 through August 6. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during this chaotic time.

Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction.  

Bringing Prairie Home

“But now, for the first time in its history, gardening has taken on a role that transcends the needs of the gardener.” — Doug Tallamy

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I’ve always been glad I planted prairie in my backyard. But perhaps never so much as this summer, when I, like other Illinois residents, am spending a lot more time at home.

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My suburban backyard 20 miles west of Chicago is less than a quarter of an acre, and bordered closely on all sides by some of the 300-plus homes in our subdivision. Our yard lies downslope of two others, and is often wet—if not downright swampy. When Jeff and I moved here, there were giant arborvitae, a few yews, and not much else. Gardening was difficult. After removing most of the Arborvitae and all the yews, we planted a border of prairie plants across the backyard. Their deep roots helped absorb some of the water.

Over the years, we’ve added numerous raised beds for vegetable gardening…

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…a small pond, and a mixture of native plants and favorite non-natives. I confess to a passion for zinnias; the butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds go crazy over them.

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Our goal has become one suggested by University of Delaware Professor of Entomology Doug Tallamy: plant at least 70% of your yard (by biomass) with trees, shrubs, flowers, and grasses native to your area. Why? It will nourish wildlife. When we plant, we try to keep insects and wildlife in mind. What plants are good nectar sources? How might we attract more butterflies? Which plants have good seeds for birds? Which plants are host plants for moth caterpillars?

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Diversity. We try to think about different plant heights, bloom times, and mixing a kaleidoscope of colors and shapes and bloom sizes in the yard. July is a good month to step outside and sit on the patio for a while. Observe. See what is working. What’s not working. Let’s take a look.

Currently, queen of the prairie at the back of the yard is a showstopper. That pink! And so tall—over six feet. Although the flowers have no nectar, they offer pollen to flies and beetles.QueenofthePrairieGEBackyardBestWM71920

A pawpaw tree behind the prairie patch is a host plant for zebra swallowtail butterflies and the pawpaw sphinx moth.

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I’ve not observed either of these in our yard, but I’m on the lookout! Meanwhile, it’s the eastern black swallowtails I see, drawn to the blazing star blooms by the patio.

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Culver’s root lights its flower candles in the prairie patch each July—the white so bright against the green! Bees of all kinds love it, as do moths, wasps, and butterflies.

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Nearby are the velvet flame-petals of cardinal flowers. Their bright scarlet screams across the yard.  Look at us! We can’t tear our eyes away. Red is an unusual color for prairie plants, and I watch for these in July, fingers crossed.  Sometimes they jump from place to place in the yard. Some years they’ve disappeared altogether. A few weeks ago I wondered if they were still around. And then—here they are.

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The hummingbirds love cardinal flowers. So do the swallowtails. And, when the cardinal flowers bloom, I begin anticipating the great blue lobelia, another favorite, which blooms a few weeks later.

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Each lobelia, a close relative of cardinal flower, is a magnet for hummingbirds and butterflies. They mingle together along the edges of my small pond.

Cupplant just popped into bloom this week; sunny yellow flowers towering over my head. The plants’ joined leaves hold moisture and create a favorite watering hole for goldfinches after a rain or a particularly dewy morning.

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We have a saying in our prairie group: “Friends don’t give friends cup plant!” It’s such an aggressive plant in the right garden conditions, spreading every which way and dominating the prairie patch. Then, I see a bright goldfinch drinking from the cupped leaves in the summer or enjoying the seeds in the fall. It quenches my resolve to dig them up.

Today, I spy a monarch, nectaring on the blooms. Yes. I think I’ll keep cup plants around.

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Near the cup plants are masses of joe pye weed, which hint at the promise of a flower show in August. The blooms will be a big draw for the yellow tiger swallowtails that wing their way through our backyard.

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Wild bergamot—both the native Monarda fistulosa in lavender….

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…and an unknown species — likely a close relative of Monarda didyma--given to me by a friend, lure the hummingbird moths at dusk.

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Bees love both species. Me too.

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By the patio, the gray-headed coneflowers mingle with a wild asparagus plant, the ferny leaves shooting over my head.

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The asparagus came up wild; likely from a seed dropped by the birds at our eight bird feeding stations.  Or maybe we should call them squirrel feeding stations? These bird feeders, plus the native plants with their maturing seedheads in the fall, the water in our small pond, and heated birdbath in winter are a big draw for birds.

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The pond is a magnet for dragonflies and damselflies, including this great spreadwing damselfly sighted last season. I’d never seen it on the larger prairies where I monitor dragonflies, so what a delight to find it—right here, in my own small backyard.

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I’m on the lookout for it this month, but so far, it has eluded me. I commit to spending more time, sitting by the pond, just quietly looking.

Along the edges of the patio, well-behaved prairie dropseed forms beautiful clumps next to the second-year new jersey tea shrub. In August, the prairie dropseed sends up sprays of seeds that smell of buttered popcorn. It’s not a smell to everyone’s taste, but I love it.

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You can see my backyard is a little bit messy, a jumble of natives and non-natives, lawn and prairie. Weeds? You bet. Our lawn is a mix of species, from clover to violets to oregono and wild strawberries. The rabbits approve. But not everyone in my neighborhood understands.

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It’s important to me that my neighbors see our intentions for the yard—and not just see it as a jumble of plants. I want to woo them away from their drug rugs (as conservationists like my neighbor Jerry Wilhelm calls chemically treated lawns) and toward a more healthy yard. For this reason, we have several signs, including a Monarch Way Station from Monarch Watch and a Conservation at Home sign from The Conservation Foundation. I hope when they see the signs, and the butterflies, birds, and blooms, they’ll be a little curious. What’s going on over there?

I want them to know: Prairies are one of the most fragile, nuanced, and diverse places on earth. Full of amazing creatures and interesting plants.

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Every year, our yard moves a little closer to being more healthy. We’ve still got a long way to go. But the journey of bringing prairie home is a marvelous adventure, full of beautiful surprises.

It all starts with a single plant.

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The opening quote is from Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants by Doug Tallamy. Wild Ones Native Landscapers recently put on a webinar with Tallamy that emphasized the need for at least 70% biomass of native plants in yards in order to sustain insects, birds, and the natural world. We’re still working on our yard—and we still have a long way to go. You, too?

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken this week at her backyard in Glen Ellyn, IL , unless designated otherwise (top to bottom):  red-spotted purple butterfly (Limenitis arthemis astyanax ), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; raised garden beds (thanks to John Heneghan, carpenter extraordinaire!); ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) on zinnias (Zinniz elegans) (photo from 2019); backyard planting mix of natives and non-natives; queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra); queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra) with a pawpaw tree (Asimina triloba) behind it;  eastern black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes asterius) on blazing star (Liatris spp.); Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum); cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis); great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) with Peck’s skipper (Polites peckius) (photo from August 2019);  cup plants (Silphium perfoliatum); cup plants (Silphium perfoliatum) with monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus);  Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum);  mixed natives and non-natives; unknown monarda, received as a gift (possibly Monarda didyma?) with hummingbird clearwing moth (Hemaris thysbe); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) and unknown bumblebee (Bombus spp.); grayheaded coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) and wild asparagus (Asparagus officinalis); author’s backyard pond; great spreadwing damselfly (Archilestes grandis), photo from 2019); prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) and New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus); nodding wild onions (Allium cernuum); July on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

I’m grateful to the Wild Ones Native Landscapers for their work with homeowners and native plant gardening in suburban yards, and The Conservation Foundation for helping gardeners  make our yards healthier and more wildlife-friendly. Thanks also to John Ayres for the cardinal flower seeds that helped me increase my population. Thank you to Tricia Lowery for the liatris and unknown monarda. Both are pollinator magnets!

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Discover “Tallgrass Prairie Ethnobotany Online” –through The Morton Arboretum! Did you know the prairie was once the source of groceries, medicine, and love charms? Join Cindy for two Friday mornings online, July 31 and August 7, (9-11 a.m.) and learn how people have used and enjoyed prairie plants through history — and today! Spend the week in between on your own, exploring and identifying plants on the prairies of your choice. Register here.

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” –begin a new session in September! Work from home at your own pace (with suggested assignment deadlines) for 60 days to complete the material, and meet other prairie volunteers and stewards on the discussion boards and in the optional Zoom session. Register here.

Just released! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History. Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Morton Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org and other book venues. Order direct through Northwestern University Press and receive 40% off this new book and/or “The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction”— use coupon code SUN40. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during this chaotic time.

Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction.  

Appreciating Prairie

“The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.” — Rachel Carson

*****

There’s a lot to be said for intentional displacement; changing one place for another that is completely opposite. I’ve found this as I’ve traveled to two “islands” over the past week. One, in Madison, Wisconsin…

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…the other a tropical island 1,500 miles south—Captiva Island, Florida.

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The Wisconsin “island” is a restored tallgrass prairie, marooned between neighborhoods and the busy Beltline highway that ferries people through this marvelous city.

uwmadisonarboretumcurtisprairie12920WM.jpgDubbed the “Curtis Prairie” at University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum, it’s the mother of all prairie restorations (or “reconstructions” or “prairie plantings” if you’d rather use that terminology). Touted as “the worlds oldest ecologically restored prairie”, the 71 acre prairie was planted in an old horse field in 1936.

UWMadArbCurtisPrairieMountainMintWM12920.jpgLast Thursday,  I had a lively discussion about prairie here with 150 passionate people who love and care for the natural world.  When I left, after two-and-a-half hours, I felt inspired and hopeful. Hearing their questions and learning about their work was a reminder to me that there are good people in the world, willing to encourage each other and put love, sweat, and energy into restoring tallgrass prairie.

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The other “island” I’ve traveled to this week is more known for pirates than prairie; surf and seashells instead of Silphiums.  To travel 1,500 miles from Madison, Wisconsin, to Captiva Island, Florida, is to be intentionally displaced.

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I appreciate displacement—not only because it puts me on a sunny beach in early February (after months of gray days in Illinois this season)—but also because it shakes me out of my routine. From prairie walks one day to beach walks the next is jarring. I went from admiring the scoured felted-looking milkweed pods on Curtis Prairie one day…

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…to picking up cat’s paw and olive seashells under the watchful gaze of a seagull on the beach a few days later.

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As I hike Captiva’s beaches, scolded by seagulls for not having scraps to toss, I miss the bluebirds that brighten the prairies with their blazes of color in February.

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But I marvel at the osprey nests high in their man-made platforms. This one had an  osprey standing guard, looking over the Gulf of Mexico.

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So  much larger than the abandoned nests I find on my prairie hikes!

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Curtis Prairie has its share of bird life. Those wild turkeys! They always make me smile.

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So comical and ungainly. Different than the shorebirds I see on the beach, but really, just  variations on a theme.

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Unlike the wild turkeys, the Gulf Coast birds are graceful in flight. I watch them for hours from my beach chair, putting down my paperback, shading my eyes against the sun.

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Each new bird in Florida gives me pause. There’s so much to learn! The trees and plants here are also alien, from the lush emerald and lime colored palms….

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…to the wind-stripped plants.

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Naming any of them is challenging. But puzzling over identifications is nothing new to me. Anytime I walk the winter prairie in an unfamiliar place, I find something I’m unsure about. On Curtis Prairie, I struggle to identify some of the plants in their winter forms, like these below. Sunflowers? Perhaps. Which species? Maximilian sunflowers, maybe? I’m not completely sure.

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Here on sun-washed Captiva Island, I miss my butterfly field guide at home on the shelf. My iNaturalist app helps, and later, returning to my hotel room, so does my butterfly facebook group. Gradually, I’m learning the names of a few of the unfamiliar tropical butterflies, like this white peacock.

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And the gulf fritillary butterfly.

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The butterflies nectar on brightly-colored blossoms, most of whose names are unknown to me. I do know the hibiscus, in its screaming reds, oranges, and pinks.

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But other flowers send me back to my iNaturalist app, puzzled and curious.

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As I walk the beach, admiring the butterflies and unfamiliar blooms, I think of my recent hikes on Wisconsin’s Curtis Prairie.

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Full of color in its own wintry way. Full of life and beauty, even under leaden skies. My winter hikes here and at my home prairies in Illinois are usually finger-numbing and sometimes, treacherous in ice and snow.  My beach hikes in flip-flops and shorts are a study in contrast.

Soon, I’ll leave this tropical island for home in Illinois. Back to the familiar. Back to hiking the “islands” of tallgrass that have been preserved or reconstructed, from a few acres to thousands of acres. Curtis Prairie Madison UW Arboretum Trails 12920WM.jpg

Hiking in Florida has been fun—and worthwhile. Intentional displacement always sharpens my attention; makes me aware of what I’ve left behind and perhaps, taken for granted. Displacement reminds me of the contrasts in the natural world that can be found, just a few hours plane ride away. This displacement broadens my perspective. Jolts me out of my complacency. Helps me become more flexible, more open to change.

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But lovely as Florida is, it’s not my “natural habitat.” Instead, it gives me a new appreciation for my landscape of home.

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The tallgrass prairie.

*****

The opening quote is from Rachel Carson (1907-64), whose words and wisdom live on in her books. Although her most famous (and earth-changing) book was Silent Spring (1962), my favorite is The Sense of Wonder (1965) published after her death. She also wrote compellingly of the sea in Under the Sea-Wind (1941); The Sea Around Us (1951); and The Edge of the Sea (1955).

*****

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby –prairie photos this week are from University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum, Madison, WI; all other photos this week are from Captiva Island, FL (top to bottom): path through the Curtis Prairie; Captiva Island beach trail; Visitor Center at UW-Madison Arboretum; mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum);  Curtis Prairie; beach scene; common milkweed pods (Asclepias syriaca); beach with seagull (probably a herring gull, Larus argentatus); bluebird house on the prairie; osprey (Pandion haliaetus); unknown nest; wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) (photo taken this spring at UW-Madison Arboretum’s Curtis Prairie; shorebird, possibly a sanderling? (Calidris alba); unknown shorebird in flight; probably the royal palm (Roystonea regia); possibly American century plant (Agave americana); corrected to sawtooth sunflower (Helianthus grosseserratus)–thank you, UW-Madison Arb!; white peacock butterfly (Anartia jatrophae); gulf fritillary butterfly (Agraulis vanillae);  pink hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis); possibly southern swamp crinum (Crinum americanum); Curtis Prairie winter colors; Curtis Prairie trails; shorebird, possibly a sanderling (Calidris alba); Curtis Prairie in winter.

Thanks to the Butterflies of the Eastern United State Facebook group for their help with my Florida butterfly ID! Grateful. Florida friends: I welcome corrections of my Florida flora and fauna identifications. I’m still learning!

Thank you to Gail and Jennifer for their hospitality and the wonderful folks of the Winter Enrichment Series at University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum this past week. Grateful.

*****

Please join Cindy at an upcoming event or class this winter:

The Tallgrass Prairie: Grocery Store, Apothecary, and Love Shop: February 13 (Thursday) 8-9 p.m., Park Ridge Garden Club, Centennial Activity Center 100 South Western Avenue Park Ridge, IL. Free and Open to the Public! Book signing follows.

Nature Writing and Art Retreat, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, February 22 (Saturday) 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Cindy will be facilitating the writing portion. Sold Out. Waiting list –register here.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online begins March 26.  Details and registration here.

Nature Writing Workshop (a blended online and in-person course, three Tuesday evenings in-person) begins March 3 at The Morton Arboretum. For details and registration, click here.  

See more at http://www.cindycrosby.com  

July’s Prairie Patterns

“The world is a confusing and turbulent place, but we make sense of it by finding order… . This makes us all pattern seekers. “– Philip Ball

*****

High heat and cool breezes; thunderstorms and calm mornings. From my hammock overlooking the backyard prairie patch, I’m astonished at the rapid growth of plants under the hot sun, watered by frequent rain showers. I swear I saw cup plants grow an inch right before my eyes! Anything seems possible in the bright light and blue skies of July.

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As I swing in my hammock, I’m reading a new book from University of Chicago Press: Patterns in Nature.  It’s a revelation. As an art and journalism student in my undergrad years, I avoided math as much as possible. Now, I’m discovering the beauty of mathematics on the prairie. Symmetry. Fractals. Surface tension.

So many different combinations of patterns in July! I’ve always been intrigued by patterns in nature. But I didn’t understand much about what I saw.

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Paging through Philip Ball’s book, I begin with symmetry, which Ball says, is at the root of understanding how patterns in nature appear.

It’s an eye-opener.

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Ball notes that “Bilateral symmetry seems almost to be the default for animals. Fish,  mammals, insects, and birds all share this attribute.” I see this in the blue-fronted damselfly above; in the mirror-image wings of a skipper butterfly below. Divide them in half and each side is essentially identical.

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It’s evinced in the reversed haploa moth, barely visible, deep in the tallgrass.

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There is bilateral symmetry in a bison’s skull, with a few imperfections.

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Or a monarch’s wings, even when tattered and worn.

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Who wouldn’t marvel at the folded, paired symmetrical wings of the male violet dancer damselfly?

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Once you begin looking for patterns in the natural world…

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…you see them everywhere.

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Fractal geometry, Ball writes, is said to be “the geometry of nature.” Fractals? What’s a fractal?  “Don’t know much algebra…,” sang Sam Cooke in his classic, “(What a) Wonderful World.” Yup. But I want to know more.

Ball boils it down to this: Look at a tree. A part of the tree, he writes, can resemble the whole, as the “tree algorithm” keeps making the same kind of structure repeatedly. As I hike the prairie one afternoon, I look up and all of the sudden it makes sense—once I understand what I’m looking at.

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“Growing fractals”  are a type of fractal found in the network of arteries, veins, and capillaries in the vascular system—another “branching” effect, Ball tells me. I think of the “arteries” running across prairie dock leaves, so pronounced in the autumn.

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I reflect on these concepts and my head aches. Fractals. Symmetry. So fascinating. So…complex. I regret now my ability to dodge everything math-related in college except for a course called “Cardinal Numbers.” A sort of 101 math for art majors. But maybe it’s not too late?

Early one morning, wading Clear Creek at Nachusa Grasslands, I admire the dew drops. I remember reading in Ball’s book that beads of water are driven by surface tension. Simply put, he says, surface tension pulls dew and rain into these “droplet” shapes, and gravity helps flatten the droplets. Ahhh. Look at that. Yes.

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A different sort of pattern. I search for water droplets: on leaves, spiderwebs, even dragonfly wings. Each dewdrop has heightened meaning.

As I continue reading, chapter after chapter, then go for hikes to explore the different patterns in Ball’s book, his simple explanations for a non-scientist open up a new world for me. A world where math seems a little more applicable. A little more accessible. A little more…meaningful. Perhaps, though, the best moment in Ball’s book  is when he writes that the law of pattern formation is driven by wonder.

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“We need to marvel and admire as well as to analyze and calculate,” Ball writes. Oh, yes. I’ve always been attuned to wonder; marveling comes without effort for me. Now, I’m learning the other side of the equation. Such an astonishing world!

So many “patterns” to marvel at and admire in the month of July on the prairie. Why not go see?

******

Philip Ball is the former editor for Nature. The quotes in this post are from his book, Patterns in Nature: Why the Natural World Looks the Way it Does (University of Chicago Press, 2016). Check it out here.

****

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): July on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; monarch caterpillar (Danaus plexippus) on butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blue-fronted dancer damselfly (Argia apicalis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; silver-spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; reversed haploa moth (Haploa reversa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bison (Bison bison) skull, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; violet dancer (sometimes called variable dancer) (Argia fumipennis violacea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) seedhead, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; orb weaver (family Araneidae) spider web, Brown County State Park, Nashville, IN; tree leafing out on the edge of the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; water droplets along Clear Creek, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; glade mallow (Napaea dioica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Cindy’s Classes and Speaking

August 2, 8-11:30 a.m., Prairie Ethnobotany: How People Have Used Prairie Plants Throughout History, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Register here.

August 12, 7-8:30 p.m., Dragonflies and Damselflies: The Garden’s Frequent Fliers, Fox Valley Garden Club, Aurora, IL. Free and open to the Public. Details here.

August 19-22, 8-5 p.m. daily, National Association for Interpretation Certified Interpretive Guide Training, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Register here.

August 29, 7-8:30 p.m., Summer Literary Series: Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit. Hope aboard the Morton Arboretum’s tram and enjoy a cool beverage, then listen to Cindy talk about the “prairie spirit” on the beautiful Schulenberg Prairie, the fourth oldest prairie restoration in the world. Register here.

See more at http://www.cindycrosby.com

A Prairie Wish and a Prayer

 “Labor brings a thing nearer the heart’s core.” –Mary Webb

***

For prairie volunteers, it’s impossible to walk the tallgrass in December and not think of endings. This month is the symbolic culmination of a year’s worth of stewardship; the grand finale of planning, sweat, risk, small successes and—sometimes—epic failures. Three steps forward, two steps back.

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Take a deep breath. Look around you. Everything that can go to seed has flossed out; emptied itself into the wind and soil. Wade into the tallgrass. Bits of seed silk fly out in  pieces all around, a little prairie mock snowstorm.

Sun slants through seedheads; sparks stalks and stems into silver and gold.

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Hike the trails and mull over the season that has passed. Muse on the new season still to come. 

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In the distance, smoke hazes the prairie, tumbles above the treeline. 

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Natural resource managers, taking advantage of the warm, dry conditions, lay down prescribed burns in the nearby woodlands and wetlands. But not yet on the prairie. Soon, we tell the tallgrass. Very soon. Your turn will come.

December has been, by turns, warm and balmy; all sunshine then thunder; bitter and breezy.

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Listen closely as you hike the prairie trails and you’ll hear the tell-tale sounds of the end of juice and sap. The rustle of switchgrass. The brittle rattle of white wild indigo seed pods.

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The indigo stems snap off in 50 mph winds then roll, tumbleweed-like, across the prairie, scattering their progeny.

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Broken—but accomplishing their evolutionary task of moving around their DNA. In years to come, we’ll see the results: those incomparable white wild indigo blooms. Close your eyes. Imagine.

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But for now, look closely.  Who knows what you’ll see? A heightening of intense rusts and coppers, right before the final brutal bleaching freezes of January and February.

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Keep looking. You may see the occasional fluke or strange oddity as nature deals the tallgrass a wild card.

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Admire the blown-out stars of asters, spent for this season. Think of the seeds they’ve dropped in the rich black prairie soil, which now harbors a constellation of future blooms for the coming summer.

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New beginnings. They’re all here. Think of what weeding, a bit of planting, and a little dreaming might help this prairie become.
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So much possibility.
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Make a wish. Say a prayer.
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Your hard work may be mostly done for this season. But it has brought this little patch of tallgrass very close to your heart. Let your imagination run wild for what this prairie might become.

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Because on the prairie in December, anything for the coming year seems possible.

***

Mary Webb (1881-1927), who penned the opening quote, was an award-winning English poet and romantic novelist. Her health ultimately failed from Grave’s Disease; her marriage failed as well and she died alone and with her last novel unfinished at age 46. Her writing reflects her fatalism and compassion for suffering. Gone to Earth (1917) expresses her horror of war; Precious Bane (1924), whose heroine has a disfiguring impairment, received the Prix Femina Vie Heureuse Anglais award, a French literary prize. She is known for her intense creativity, mysticism, and her love for the natural world.

***

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Schulenberg Prairie in December, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; cream wild indigo (Baptisia leucampha), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  unknown brome (Bromus spp.), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL; prescribed burn, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla) seed pods, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla) upside down stalks, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie in December, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata) with mutation because of fasciation (viral, genetic, chemical), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL; unknown aster, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias  syriaca) pods, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) pappus, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; hand with common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) pappus, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Nomia Meadows Farm Prairie, Franklin Grove, IL.

Thanks to Illinois Botany FB page for their help with my question about fasciation and the round-headed bush clover, especially Paul Marcum. 

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.

A “Prairie Love” Shack

“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” –Aldo Leopold

***

Some people swear they need to see Bob Dylan in concert before they die. Others vow they’ll climb Mt. Everest. Or aspire to drive the length of historic Route 66.

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But for many of the almost 200 people who gathered for The Aldo Leopold Foundation‘s  “Building a Land Ethic” Conference in Baraboo, Wisconsin, this past week, their goal was  this:

To see “The Shack.”

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No, not the “Love shack, baby,” (with apologies to the B-52s). Although this shack is “set way back in the middle of the field” as the song says.

“The Shack” is a remodeled chicken coop and iconic Wisconsin weekend retreat that provided inspiration for conservationist Aldo Leopold’s book, A Sand County Almanac, published in 1949.

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In his series of essays, Leopold eloquently writes about the tension between humans and nature. He was inspired by the prairies, marshes and woodlands that surrounded The Shack, as well as other places he had worked at or traveled to. Leopold’s words are an eloquent plea to change the way we think about–and care for—our world.

 

In the 1940s, not every publisher thought people were ready to hear this University of Wisconsin professor’s conservation ideas. Look at this letter Leopold received from a publisher considering his manuscript:

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Thank goodness Leopold persisted in keeping his “monotonous” ecological theories in the book!  Although he died before A Sand County Almanac went to print—with a different publisher—he had the joy of knowing his conservation ethics would be shared with a larger audience.

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What Leopold couldn’t know was that his ideas would become the foundation upon which we build many of our conservation ethics today.

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For those who care for prairies, woodlands or other natural areas, it is difficult to choose a favorite Leopold quote. One of his most famous is this: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

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A favorite of mine: “We shall never achieve harmony with the land, anymore than we shall achieve absolute justice or liberty for people. In these higher aspirations the important thing is not to achieve, but to strive.”

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Or this quote, which is frequently circulated in prairie restoration circles: “What a thousand acres of Silphiums looked like when they tickled the bellies of the buffalo is a question never again to be answered, and perhaps not even asked.” A bit depressing, isn’t it?

The Silphiums refer to four prairie plants:

Compass plant, which blooms right around the summer solstice, sending periscopes of yellow flowers across the sea of grasses.

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Cup plant, whose opposite leaves join around the stem to “cup” water after a rain. The perfect goldfinch drinking fountain.

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Rosin weed and prairie dock complete the quartet.

I think Leopold would be happy to know that today, almost 70 years later, many of us are restoring tallgrass prairie.

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We won’t reclaim all that was lost, but perhaps we are following his direction: “To keep every cog and wheel is the first rule of intelligent tinkering.”

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The Silphiums are just four of those many critical “cogs” and “wheels” we plant, tend, and celebrate. Today,  at larger prairie restorations in the Midwest, it’s possible to see a thousand acres of prairie—with Silphiums–“tickling the bellies of bison” again.

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Leopold’s love for prairies, woodlands, marshes, and the natural world continues to influence and inspire those of us who volunteer and work in restoration today.

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Visiting “The Shack” reminds us of the power of words. They can change the world.

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Which of Leopold’s words resonates with you?

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The opening quote is from the foreword to A Sand County Almanac (1949) by Aldo Leopold (1887–1948). His groundbreaking ideas continue to influence the way we care for the natural world today. If you haven’t read A Sand County Almanac (And Sketches Here and There), consider beginning with one of these essays: “Thinking Like a Mountain,”  “A Marshland Elegy,” or “Good Oak.” To discover more about Leopold and his conservation ethics, you might also read Curt Meine’s excellent book, Aldo Leopold: His Life and Work.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): monarch (Danaus plexippus) on butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), International Crane Foundation prairie, Baraboo, WI; outside “The Shack” with daylilies (Hemerocallis fulva), Aldo Leopold Shack and Farm, Baraboo, WI; outside Aldo Leopold’s Shack, Aldo Leopold Shack and Farm, Baraboo, WI;  inside looking out a window of “The Shack”, Aldo Leopold Shack and Farm, Baraboo, WI; yellow hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens), Aldo Leopold Shack and Farm prairie, Baraboo, WI; letter,  Leopold Center, Baraboo, WI: black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Aldo Leopold Shack and Farm prairie, Baraboo, WI: foundation with prairie planting,  Leopold Center, Baraboo, WI; leadplant (Amorpha canescens), International Crane Foundation prairie, Baraboo, WI;  spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis), Leopold Center, Baraboo, WI: compass plant (Silphium lacinatum), The International Crane Foundation prairie, Baraboo, WI; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), Aldo Leopold Shack and Farm prairie, Baraboo, WI;  pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Leopold Center, Baraboo, WI; widow skimmer dragonfly (Libellula luctuosa), International Crane Foundation prairie, Baraboo, WI; bison (Bison bison) with their ten offspring, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; goat’s rue–also called “the devil’s shoestrings” (Tephrosia virginiana) Leopold Center, Baraboo, Wisconsin; hairy beardtongue (Penstemen hirsutus), International Crane Foundation prairie, Baraboo, WI. 

How to Speak Fluent Prairie

“Although place-words are being lost, they are also being created. Nature is dynamic, and so is language.” –Robert Macfarlane

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What’s in a name? The Oxford Junior Dictionary has eliminated some words from its children’s dictionary that name things.  Acorn. Willow. Buttercup. Kingfisher–and, other words that are about nature. Adults I encounter no longer seem to have a reference point for common names of plants and other members of the natural world.

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In an adult prairie ethnobotany class I taught this July, I casually mentioned the silky fluff or pappus of milkweed seeds in a pod. Several of my students exchanged blank looks. “You know,” I said, pointing to the milkweed plant in bloom. “The seed pod that comes after the flower.”

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A few people smiled and shook their heads.  I asked for a show of hands. “How many of you know what a milkweed pod is?” There were a few nods. But, almost one third of my class did not know what a milkweed pod was. Nor had they cracked one open to sail the canoe-like pod shells on a creek. They hadn’t blown the silky seeds into the wind and watched them float off toward the horizon. The words, “milkweed pod,” and “milkweed seeds” had no meaning for them.

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It got me thinking — if words  like “kingfisher”  are disappearing from our vocabulary in dictionaries and “milkweed pod” no longer conjures up a visual memory or experience for people, how can we return these words to use? Perhaps learning more specific words for the inhabitants of the natural world and sharing them with others in ordinary conversation is one way to keep our landscape full of rich and beautiful names.

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But –are there other words we need to imagine and create for the natural world?  Surely there are names we haven’t yet thought of yet. Can we meet this hemorrhage of word loss by contributing our own new words for things on the prairie –descriptions, perhaps, that have not been invented yet? Let’s try a few.

Is there a name for the sandpapered curve of a compass plant leaf in winter, dry and brittle?

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Or a term for the color of pink that flushes the sky in a frigid, December sunrise?  IMG_9021 (2).jpg

What might we call the sound of white wild indigo seed pods, rattling in the wind?

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Is there a name for the flotsam and jetsam that blows into a coneflower seed head in winter?

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Does the voice of a prairie stream, rushing through the ice and snow, beg for a new word to describe it?

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A group of coyotes is called a pack. But is there a name to describe a pair of them, picking their way through the snow and ice, moving toward me? Perhaps better yet — a word to describe how I feel at that moment?

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What do you call a clump of snow, caught in the stems of the figwort plant?

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“Arch” seems like the wrong word to describe the Canada wild rye seeds against a winter sky. An “apostrophe of rye seed”? An “eyebrow” of wild rye? A “bristle” of rye? Or?

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When wild quinine turns silver in the frost, but still emits its clean, fresh scent, what word describes it?

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What do you call the sun, when it attempts to break through the wintry sky? And –is there a word for the green of plants persisting under snow? Or for a single tree, punctuating a prairie landscape?

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What do you think?

To express the beauty of the prairie–and the natural world– in all its sensory appeal, we may require a new vocabulary. Let’s put one together. I have my words for all of the above. What are yours?  Think of compiling this list as a good occupation for a cold winter’s afternoon. Or try this — the next time you hike the prairie, what new word descriptions would you add to the prairie’s dictionary and thesaurus?

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Learn some new names for plants, birds, insects, and animals on the prairie. Keep names from becoming lost. Make up your own descriptions for specific things when you can’t find them. Use them. We need these new words –and–we need the existing words we are losing. They help us notice the details. They remind us of the splendor of the natural world. When we use specific words and names, we invite others to appreciate the rich diversity found in tallgrass prairie.

Ready? Let’s get started.

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British writer Robert Macfarlane’s (1976-) opening quote in this essay is from  Landmarks, in which he seeks to re-wild language with specific names for what we discover in the natural world. MacFarlane’s work can be dense, but like all good things, benefits from a second look and a close paying of attention. He believes that if we lose the names for things in the natural world, we may also lose those very places and plants, critters, and landscapes that are named through a gradual lack of interest and care. Worth thinking about.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Nachusa Grasslands in December (Thelma Carpenter Unit), The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; common milkweed pod (Asclepias syriaca);  white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis), author’s birdfeeders by her prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; compass plant (Silphium lacinatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; December sunrise, author’s prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla) seed pods, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) , Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; two coyotes (Canis latrans), Hidden Lake, Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL figwort (Scrophularia marilandica) with snow, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; December at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  Thelma Carpenter Unit, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

Seeds of Hope in an Uncertain World

“Where there is hatred, let me sow love.” — from the Prayer of St. Francis

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So much hate. How did we come to this?

The tallgrass offers solace, if only for a few hours. Come hike with me.  See what the prairie has to say about it all. Gain some perspective.

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It’s good to be reminded that there is beauty in the world, even if it is sometimes fleeting.

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There are small creatures who keep singing, no matter what the headlines say.

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Little winged ones who bathe themselves in light.

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Comical critters who make us smile, even when world events and politics seem grim.

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The tallgrass reminds us that the cycle of the seasons will continue.

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The prairie ripens its fruits, as it has each autumn for time past remembering.

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The grasses and wildflowers foam with seeds.

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The seed fluff puffs like fireworks…

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…catches the wind, and sails aloft.

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Landing in unlikely places.

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Other seeds are plucked from thistle plants to line a goldfinch’s nest, and help nurture a new generation.

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Each fruit, each seed is a promise. Although the road ahead is fraught with uncertainty…

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…we will soon find ourselves at the beginning of a new season.

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Every day, beautiful things are unfolding.

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The prairie reminds us that the issues that consume our attention are only a blink in the immensity of time.

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How will we spend our days this week? Let the seeds we sow for the future be ones that lighten the darkness.

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When so many around us speak hate, let’s sow love. Let’s make a difference.

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The opening quote is widely attributed to St. Francis of Assisi (1181-2 to 1226). He was known for his simplicity and a love for nature and animals, and often portrayed with a bird in his hand.

All photos above copyright Cindy Crosby at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL (except where noted): view from Fame Flower Knob in October; two cabbage white butterflies (Pieris rapae), an orange sulphur butterfly (Colias eurytheme)and two clouded sulphur butterflies (Colias philodice) puddling by Clear Creek; red-legged grasshopper (Melanoplus femurrubrum); field sparrow (Spizella pusilla) bathing in Clear Creek;  American bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus) ; fiery skipper (Hylephila phyleus), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; Nachusa Grasslands in October; ground cherries (Physalis spp.); little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) with sweet everlasting (Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium); virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana);  unknown seed; unknown seed in spider web at Clear Creek; goldfinch (Spinus tristis) on pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor); road through Nachusa Grasslands; common buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia) on white clover (Trifolium repens);  eastern comma butterfly (Polygonia comma) at bison watering area;  grasses on Fame Flower Knob with St. Peter’s sandstone; whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata) seed pods.