“Those who contemplate the beauty of the Earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.” — Rachel Carson
Walk with me into the tallgrass.
Leave any worries you have at the gate.
Look around. It’s July on the prairie; one of the most beautiful months of the year for wildflowers and critters of all kinds. Can you feel the tensions of the day dissolving?
Consider how many almost-invisible creatures are all around you. Focus as you walk. A flash of color—a small movement. What joy when you discover the citrine forktail damselfly, so tiny in the grasses!
How could something so minuscule and colorful exist in this world, yet almost no one knows its name?
What other names do we not know? What else are we overlooking?
Walk the shoreline of the prairie pond, trampled by bison hooves. Notice a fleet of butterflies puddling, each only an about inch or less.
Pause to admire them. How many other unusual creatures do we miss each day?
Even common creatures are uncommonly exciting when you watch them for a while.
Open your eyes. Really pay attention.
It’s difficult to believe the range of hues spread across the insect world, much less the natural world.
Even a single feather is a piece of art.
There is so much beauty all around us.
The world can be a frightening place. It sometimes leaves us tattered and worn.
But if you look carefully enough…
…it keeps you hopeful.
Walk long enough, look closely enough, and you might begin to think that maybe….just maybe…change in the world is possible.
Rachel Carson (1907-64) was a true force of nature, writing bestselling books that changed the world (Consider Silent Spring published 1962, 60 years ago). I admire Carson for her resilience, her willingness to speak out, and her love and dedication to her family. She firmly believed in wonder, and its power to change us and to change the world. Read more about her life here. I’ve began this blog with her quote before, but in the times we find ourselves in, I felt a need to hear it again for myself. You, too?
Join Cindy for a Program in August!
West Cook Wild Ones presents:A Brief History of Trees in Americawith Cindy Crosby on Sunday, August 21, 2:30-4 p.m. on Zoom. From oaks to maples to elms: trees changed the course of American history. Native Americans knew trees provided the necessities of life, from food to transportation to shelter. Trees built America’s railroads, influenced our literature and poetry, and informed our music. Discover the roles of a few of our favorite trees in building our nation—and their symbolism and influence on the way we think—as you reflect on the trees most meaningful to you. Free and open to the public—join from anywhere in the world—but you must preregister. Register here.
“I love to roam over the prairies. There, I feel free and happy.”—Chief Satanta
It’s one of those picture-perfect days for a quick trip to Nachusa Grasslands. Sunny, cool; a few puffy cumulous floating in the sky. Bison graze around the corral area, or rest in the tallgrass.
I’m not looking for megafauna today, however. I’m looking for small stuff. My hope is to walk three of my dragonfly routes and see if anything is flying. Odonata season–the time of year I chase dragonflies—is winding down.
On one route, I see nary a damsel or dragon. There are plenty of wildflowers, like this Common Boneset.
Boneset was once used medicinally to reduce fevers, both by Native Americans and early European settlers. It’s nectar and pollen attract bees, butterflies, and other pollinators, and it serves as a host plant for several moth caterpillars, including the Ruby Tiger Moth.
Nearby, Ironweed laces the prairie with purple.
The crunch of plants under my feet are a reminder of the drought we’ve experienced in parts of Illinois this summer. Even when I strike out on seeing dragons and damsels, and my data sheet is empty, the hike is never wasted. There is so much to see!
Every route, every trail leads to new discoveries.
Still, I’m a bit discouraged by that blank data form. I head for the next route. The pond is almost empty…
…only a Common Green Darner and a pair of Twelve-Spotted dragonflies hanging around. A couple of Common Whitetails. A damselfly or two. And then—I spot it! This pretty little damselfly: the Citrine Forktail.
Look at those colors! Like a dish of sherbet ice cream. Later, at home, I read up on this species in my “Dragonflies and Damselflies of Northeastern Ohio” (a good field guide for Illinois!) and learn that the Citrine Forktail may be “irruptive” and “appear at newly mitigated wetland sites.” Notice the orange stigma, in a unique place for damselflies. At only .9 inches long, these tiny damsels blend in well with the rushes and sedges in our prairie wetlands.
I also read in Dennis Paulson’s “Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East” that there is a population of this damselfly in the Azores that consists only of females. They lay eggs which are all female! It is the only parthenogeneticOdonata population in the world. Cool! Supposedly, they can remain into November in the Midwest, if temperatures stay warm. I find two more as I hike. I hope they’ll hang out here for a while longer.
There are other treasures to be found today. Deep in the wetlands, as I search for damselflies, I find the tiny skullcap in bloom. There are three different species at Nachusa—I’m not sure which one this is.
I admire it for a bit, then continue my route. The American Cornmint, crushed under my rubber boots, sends out a delightful tang. The air is refreshed with the fragrance of menthol.
As I hike, I almost stumble over a monkeyflower.
I crouch to take a closer look. The bees are working it over.
Not far away are stands of Purple Love Grass. What a great name!
I scan around it for damselflies, but come up empty.
As the day gets hotter, and I continue walking my routes, my steps slow. The better to notice the hummingbird working the jewelweed.
Or the Springwater Dancer Damselflies in the mating wheel.
A Variegated Meadowhawk patrols a stream, moving at such a fast clip I can barely get the ID, much less a photo. These are one of Illinois’ migratory species, and also, as Kurt Mead notes in his field guide Dragonflies of the North Woods, one of the most difficult to net. I content myself with having a stare down with a male Springwater Dancer damselfly.
Along the shoreline, a cranefly sits motionless.
Sometimes, people mistake them for dragonflies. You can see why! But look closely. Nope.
The last portion of my final route involves climbing to a high overlook. Look at that view!
My legs ache, and I’m hot and sweaty despite the cooler temperatures. It’s been a good day. So much to see.
After a week of depressing headlines, a few frustrating work issues, and crazy heat and humidity, today has been a respite. I came to Nachusa feeling empty. I’m leaving with a sense of peace.
Thanks, Nachusa Grasslands.
The opening quote is from Chief Satanta, Kiowa Tribe (1820-1878). Read more about him here.
All photos in this week’s blog were taken at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.
Join Cindy for a class or program!
September 9, 9:30-11 am– in person–“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Oswego Hilltoppers Garden Club, Oswego Public Library. Please visit the club’s Facebook page for guest information, event updates pending Covid positivity in Illinois, and Covid protocol.
September 27, 7-8:30 p.m.–in person–“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Arlington Heights Garden Club. Please visit the club’s website here for guest information, event updates pending Covid positivity in Illinois, and Covid protocol.
If you enjoy this blog, please check out Cindy’s collection of essays with Thomas Dean, Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit. Order from your favorite indie bookseller, or direct from Ice Cube Press.
Cindy Crosby is the author, compiler, or contributor to more than 20 books. Her most recent is "Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History" (Northwestern University Press, 2020). She teaches prairie ecology, nature writing, and natural history classes, and is a prairie steward who has volunteered countless hours in prairie restoration. See Cindy's upcoming online speaking events and classes at www.cindycrosby.com.