Tag Archives: pearl crescent butterfly

August on the Prairie

“Perhaps by learning more about the native plants that surround us and about their use and history, we can begin to develop our own conservation ethic, which will bring us into harmony with our environment.” — Dr. Kelly Kindscher

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August exhales. Hot. Steamy. The prairie crackles.

All day Sunday, we waited for rain. As I worked in my backyard prairie patch that evening, dark clouds rumbled to the north and the east. Occasionally, thunder growled.

On the radar, you could see the clouds kiss the edges of my suburban town. Not a drop of rain fell.

My head tells me that prairies are built for this. The long roots of some prairie plants reach down to 15 feet or more into the recesses of the soil. It’s an insurance policy they pay into, year after year, that keeps them alive through severe shifts of weather. Yet, as I watch my queen of the prairie plants crisp and fade away…

…and the obedient plant flowers wilt and fade to the color of pale burnt sienna.

…I can’t resist turning the sprinkler on and watering the prairie for a good hour. We put a lot of money and love into those prairie plants, and it breaks my heart to see them crumple like brown paper bags.

I console myself with these words from Minnesota author Paul Gruchow about the deep prairie roots: “The work that matters doesn’t always show.” Next year, I’ll know if the plants’ hard work tunneling roots into the soil was enough to keep them alive. I’ll be watching. And waiting.

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At Nachusa Grasslands this week, dust billowed around our Subaru as we bounced along an overgrown two-track road to my dragonfly routes. On the prairie, the small pools had long vanished. Cavernous fissures gaped in bare areas. Because of the lack of spring fire, combined with the need for rain, perhaps, some waterways were down to a trickle, choked with growth.

A few dragonflies went about their business; 12-spotted skimmers, blue dashers, common whitetails. Green darners patrolled the ponds.

In Chicago region this week, common green darners gather, preparing for migration. Friends text me with news of their backyard darner swarms. Social media boards light up with numbers. I get texts from my friends who love and observe dragonflies. Thirty in the backyard. Fifty this evening, a few miles east. Soon, the green darners and other migrating species in Illinois—black saddlebags, variegated meadowhawks, wandering gliders—will mass in the hundreds and begin the long journey south.

It’s a poignant time of year, especially, perhaps, this particular year. The dragonflies have been a passionate distraction from so much that is distressing in the world. Don’t go! Stay longer. Please. Of course, they will go… drawn by an evolutionary survival mechanism that tells them to ensure their progeny continue on. The prairie will seem empty without them.

Thinking of this, I look around the prairie. It’s quiet. The bison at Nachusa Grasslands, so rambunctious only a week ago, are hiding, likely somewhere shady and cool. I miss their snorts and sparring today.

And yet, there are signs of life everywhere. The common eastern-tailed blue butterfly teases me, fanning its wings open for few seconds—oh wow, that blue!—then snapping them shut.

Nearby, a chickweed geometer moth shows off his colors. I learn later that the antennae are “bipectinate” —feathery, or “toothed like a comb.” These bipectinate antennae are a male feature that has to do with detecting pheremones; the female’s antennae are more “threadlike.”

A common moth—with such a complex design. Truly we are surrounded by wonders.

I watch the eastern tiger swallowtails nectar on thistle for a while. They’ve been all over my backyard and the prairies I frequent this week, but they never fail to give me pause. And delight. About the time I take them for granted, they’ll be gone for the year.

Even the ubiquitous pearl crescent butterfly stops me for a second look.

In contrast, ghostly cabbage butterflies puddle in the salts and minerals along the stream. In the afternoon sun, they look almost pale green.

All around me—despite the need for rain—the prairie pushes out color. Black-eyed susans.

Great blue lobelia.

As I hike toward the car, I pinch off a leaf of mountain mint; hot and cool and refreshing—all at the same time. I chew it for a bit, then spit it out. My mouth tingles.

August is drawing to a close.

Why wait? Now is the time to go and see.

The prairie is waiting.

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Dr. Kelly Kindscher, whose quote opens this post, is a senior scientist with the Kansas biological survey and a professor of environmental studies at the University of Kansas. Kindscher authored two of my favorite books on prairie ethnobotany: Edible Wild Plants of the Prairie and Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie (both from University Press of Kansas). In 1984, Kindscher supplemented his diet with prairie plants as he walked almost 700 miles from Kansas City to Denver.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at Nachusa Grasslands, unless otherwise noted (top to bottom): August at Nachusa Grasslands; cumulonimbus cloud over author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra) and ironweed (Vernonia fasciculata), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; overgrowth in the sand boil stream, sedge meadow fen; common green darner dragonfly male (Ajax junius); black saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata) (2018); Nachusa Grasslands in August; wildflowers and sky at Nachusa Grasslands; eastern-tailed blue butterfly (Cupido comyntas); chickweed geometer moth (Haematopis grataria); eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) with unknown thistles (possibly Cirsium discolor); pearl crescent butterfly (Phyciodes tharos); cabbage white butterflies (Pieris rapae) puddling; black-eyed susans (probably Rudbeckia subomentosa); great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica); common mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum); sedge meadow fen; Franklin Creek Prairie, Franklin Grove, IL.

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Join Cindy for an Online Class this Autumn! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for details.
“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online”
Begin a new session September 2 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. Classes are limited to 50. 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 online 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.

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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 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. 

Six Reasons to Hike the July Prairie

“The prairie is bountifully utilitarian.  But it is lovely too, in a hundred thousand ways and in a million details, many of them so finely wrought that one must drop to one’s knees to appreciate them.”– Paul Gruchow

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Yes, it’s hot. Okay, more than hot. It’s downright scorching. Hike the prairie? You’ve got to be kidding.

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I kid you not. Let’s go! Why? Here are half a dozen reasons to hike the tallgrass prairie in July. Go ahead–dress light, hydrate, slather on that bug spray and sunscreen—and let’s go.

#1. Oh those butterflies! Big ones, like this common but yet oh-so-uncommonly-beautiful Spangled Meadow Fritillary, nectaring at false sunflower in the prairie savanna.

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Or the tiny ones, like this Eastern Tailed Blue, barely visible in the tallgrass.

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You might see the Pearl Crescent, fluttering ahead on the path.

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Wait! I think it is a pearl crescent, but I’m not completely sure. Evidently they are almost indistinguishable from the Northern Crescents. Some folks say they are both the same species, rather than two distinct ones. Ah, well. At least I know for sure when I see a Monarch, like this one nectaring on butterfly weed, one of our native milkweeds in Illinois.

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Not into butterflies? Consider hiking to admire the wildflowers. Why?

#2. July’s prairie wildflowers are show-stoppers. Wow-oh-wow. So much orange. There’s the native Turk’s Cap Lily, just coming into bloom.

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Not to be confused with the invasive daylilies, escaped from tamer plantings in gardens and along roadsides.

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Although they often find a seat in our gardens, we weed them out of prairie restorations when they show up. Otherwise, they’d take over the prairie.

More orange: The aforementioned butterfly weed screams its hues in infinite color variations of  neon orange across the prairie.butterflyweedJuly52020SPMAWM

Other native milkweeds are more nuanced, like this swamp milkweed.

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Even the much-maligned common milkweed, which is—well, weedy,—has a scent that has to be sniffed to be believed. Some sprang up in my clematis just off the back patio. When my husband Jeff passed it the first time it opened this summer, he stopped in his tracks. What’s that great smell?

Mountain mint is in bloom, barely visible in the tallgrass unless you know where to look. A chewed leaf is a guaranteed breath freshener on a hot day.

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Glade mallow, the only member of its genus that occurs in Illinois, is in full bloom.

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It’s difficult to miss, towering over my head. Much easier to walk by without noticing is the fringed loosestrife, a modest little plant with its flowers pointing downward.

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Not to be confused with purple loosestrife,a rampant invasive, fringed loosestrife is a desirable native. Gerould Wilhelm and Laura Rericha’s Flora of the Chicago Region gives it a “7” for its coefficient of conservatism. Its anther surface “fluoresces brightly” (or glows) when seen under long-wave ultraviolet light, Wilhelm writes, and it appears “otherworldly.” I’d love to see this for myself.

Nearby is white wild indigo; some plants still emerging, other bloom stalks mature and withering in the heat. A male red-winged blackbird finds indigo the perfect perch to warn me off its nest.

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I also love the wild petunia for its seeming tenacity, although its coefficient of conservatism is an “8”.  It pops up every year in the same general location on the mowed prairie paths.

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Buckeye butterfly caterpillars are big fans of this wildflower. It’s also attractive to numerous pollinators, especially different bee species.

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You might know many of the wildflower names. But do you know their stories?

3. Got ethnobotany? Got—what? Ethnobotany is just a term we use to talk about how humans have used plants throughout history (and today!). The prairie is full of plants that are both beautiful and utilitarian, and as the wonderful prairie writer Paul Gruchow once said in a chapter from his book: Grass Roots: The Universe of Home, there need not be any contradiction between the two. A good example is Wild Quinine, in full bloom now.

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Some people know it as “feverfew,” which tells you how confusing common names can be (there are several other plants with this nickname). That’s why it’s always good to look at the scientific name, in this case, Parthenium integrifolium. Daniel Moerman, in his amazing book, Native American Ethnobotany, tells us that one Native American tribe used a poultice of fresh leaves of this plant to dress burns. Another tribe believed the leave’s ashes were a veterinary treatment for sore backs in horses.

And look at its value for insects! Wavy-lined emerald moth larvae occur in the inflorescences, according to Wilhelm and Rericha. Butterflies such as the American Lady, Pearl Crescent, and Common Wood-Nymph visit the flowers, they tell us. As I read, I learn that bees that visit the flowerheads when the staminate florets are blooming become coated with white pollen and “resemble little ghosts.” I’ve not seen this! Obviously, I need to sit for a while with this plant and pay more attention.

Another plant in bloom is Elderberry, which Illinois Wildflowers tells us occurs in every county of Illinois. Its small, edible fruits—somewhat poisonous when raw—have none-the-less been used (when cooked correctly) in jellies, wine, and pies, and are often used in homeopathic remedies for flu and colds. Native Americans used plants in the same genus for everything from making whistles to using infusions of the blossoms for upset stomachs, Moerman writes in Native American Ethnobotany.

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I particularly love New Jersey Tea, a prairie shrub whose blooms cover parts of the prairie like a foamy cappuccino in July. The Dakota used the leaves to make a tea-like beverage, although as I understand it, there is no caffeine. I have a small New Jersey tea plant growing in my prairie garden this season, and although it didn’t bloom this summer, I have high hopes for next year.

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Each prairie plant has an ethnobotanical story to tell us. All we have to do is invest a little time into learning that story, and then, share it with others. It’s a non-stop adventure! I particularly love Daniel Moerman’s Native American Ethobotany as a venue to discover some of these stories. Check it out, if you love stories as I do! Although many of the plant remedies and uses are not considered valid today, your prairie hikes will open you up to these stories that will fill you with gratitude for the utility of these beautiful plants over time, and the place they earned in the lives of people who depended on the prairie as their pharmacy, grocery store, and craft shop.

Still need more reasons?

#4. Find a respite from the news.  Tuck your phone away where you can’t reach it easily, put all thoughts of politics and pandemics away, and let the tallgrass prairie clear the cobwebs from your mind. Admire the tall bellflowers that edge the tallgrass.

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Soak up the sunshine of false sunflowers, having a banner season despite the blistering heat.

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Marvel over the smooth phlox with its hairless stems and vivid color. Moths, bees, and butterflies all love this plant, a harbinger of summer.

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And then, look deeper into the tallgrass. So dainty and silent, you’ll see these… .

#5. Learn the names of some damselflies. Aren’t they beautiful creatures worth your time and attention? Their very names seem to sing.

Variable dancer.

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Ebony jewelwing.

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Powdered dancer.

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The American Rubyspot can be found along the river and stream edges in the Chicago Region. Their bright wing spots make them unmistakable.

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One of the most common damselflies in the Chicago region is the blue-fronted dancer. Last season, at Nachusa Grasslands, it was our most numerous damselfly.

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And once you see the damselflies, consider…

#6. Dragonflies, too! While you’re learning damselflies, why not discover a few names for dragonflies?

Male eastern amberwings.

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And their counterparts, the female eastern amberwings.

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The female calico pennants are charming, no matter what angle you see them at.

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These are only half a dozen reasons to hike the tallgrass prairie this week. Grab your water bottle, swipe on some sunscreen…

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…and why not go see?

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Paul Gruchow (1947-2004) was a Minnesota writer who loved the Boundary Waters and tallgrass prairies. If you haven’t read his writing, try Journal of a Prairie Year, or Grass Roots: The Universe of Home.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby, and taken on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL this week (top to bottom): bridge over Willoway Brook; great spangled fritillary (Speyeria cybele); eastern-tailed blue butterfly (Cupido comyntas);  possibly pearl crescent butterfly (Phyciodes tharos); monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus); turk’s cap lily (Lilium superbum) with fleabane (Erigeron); common daylily (Hemerocallis fulva); butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa); swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata); common mountain mint  (Pycnanthemum virginianum); glade mallow (Napaea dioica); prairie loosestrife (Lysimachia quadriflora); red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) on white wild indigo (Baptisia ); trail with wild petunias (Ruellia humilis); wild petunia (Ruellia humilis) with unidentified bee; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium); elderberry ((Sambucus nigra canadensis)); New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus); tall bellflower (Campanula americana); false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides); smooth phlox (Phlox glaberrima interior); variable dancer damselfly (Argia fumipennis); ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata); powdered dancer damselfly (Argia moesta); American rubyspot damselfly (Hetaerina americana); blue-fronted dancer (Argia apicalis); male eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera); female eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera); female calico pennant dragonfly (Celithemis elisa); one of the rudbeckias, still working on this ID. It was part of a planting into our prairie display strip with a commercial “native” mix–or it has escaped into it. Pretty! But is it one of our natives? Still working on that. What do you think? (Rudbeckia spps.).

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Join Cindy for online dragonfly classes and online prairie ecology and ethnobotany classes this summer:

REGISTER BEFORE MIDNIGHT TONIGHT! “Dragonfly and Damselfly Beginning ID Online” through The Morton Arboretum. July 8 and July 10 –two morning classes online, with a day in between for you to work independently in the field, then bring your questions back for help. Register here.

“Prairie Ethnobotany Online” –through The Morton Arboretum. July 31 and August 7, 9-11 a.m. with a week  in between to enjoy your knowledge in the field. Learn about how people have used and enjoyed prairie plants through history. Register here.

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” begins 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.  

Tallgrass Prairie Adventures

 “Let us go on, and take the adventure that shall fall to us.” — C.S. Lewis

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If there’s one phrase my family knows I can’t stand, it’s this one: “Killing time.” Why? Time is precious. It’s irreplaceable. Each day is an adventure, if you let it be so. Why waste a moment?

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I think of this as I walk my dragonfly monitoring routes on the prairie this week. The wind has come up. Instead of gazing over my head for patrolling green darners and black saddlebags, I’m looking lower, in the grasses and prairie wildflowers. There, many of the regular high flying dragonflies hunker down, sheltering from the breezy heat.

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Each season, dragonfly monitors—people like you and me—go to a city park, prairie restoration, forest preserve pond, or local wetland with the intention of regularly collecting data about Odonates. Monitors—dragonfly chasers—spend a good chunk of their summer hours in mosquito-filled areas, counting dragonflies and damselflies and making hash marks on a clipboard. We note what species we see, and how many of each species appears on a certain day in a particular place.

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It sounds a little nutty, perhaps, to spend our days counting insects. But dragonflies and damselflies are a good thermometer for the state of our waterways. Their numbers and species diversity have messages for us about the health of our natural world. All we have to do is listen. Pay attention. Show up.

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Speaking of thermometers: It’s hot. Sweat trickles between my shoulder blades. I check my phone and see the temperature is 88 degrees. The relative humidity of the Midwest makes it seem even hotter, keeping most visitors off of the prairie trails.

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The dragonflies, which maintain body temperature through thermoregulatory behavior, have various gymnastics to help them stay cool.  This female eastern amberwing dragonfly below is obelisking.

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By positioning her abdomen straight up, she reduces some of the direct summer heat hitting her body. Sometimes, you’ll see dragonflies point their abdomens downward for the same reason. Or, if it’s cooler, they’ll use their wings as solar collectors, like this 12-spotted skimmer below. Gathering sunshine.

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This season, I find the blue-fronted dancer damselfly population has erupted out of all imagining. I walk, and I look, and I try to keep track of what I’m seeing. Hash mark, hash mark, hash mark… . I can barely keep track of them, emerging from the grasses on both sides of the prairie trail; a virtual ambush of bright blue insects. Under my feet. Hovering knee high. Blue-fronted dancer damselflies everywhere! Hash mark. Hash mark. I finally quit tallying them at 88 individuals.

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So much dazzling blue! The danger is that as I see so many of one species, I overlook some of the other species that aren’t as prolific. Like this violet dancer, mixed in with the blue-fronteds.

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Or an American rubyspot damselfly, hanging out by the stream.

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Damselflies are so darn tiny. Part of the day’s adventure is to slow down and really look. Carefully. Closely. But I’m always aware of what I’m missing, even as I see so much. All these incredible dragonflies and damselflies! But–that bee over there. What species is it? And what about that butterfly? What’s moving in the grass by the stream? The July prairie explodes with wildflowers all around me as I hike. How can I focus?

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It’s easy to be diverted. On one route,  I narrowly avoid stepping on a bee fly sunning itself on the gravel two-track.

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On another trail, I kick up little puffs of butterflies—maybe pearl crescents? Tough to ID. They rise, then settle back into the clover as I pass.

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I stop to watch a ruby-throated hummingbird swoop across the trail, then hover, sipping nectar from the dark reddish-brown flowers of a tall late figwort plant, towering over my head.  I didn’t know hummingbirds visit these tiny blooms! In the gusty breeze, the oddball flowers rocket wildly back and forth, but the hummingbird maneuvers right along with them. Later, I visit the Prairie Moon Nursery website and read more about this wildflower’s value to butterflies, bees, and—yes—hummingbirds. Who knew?

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There’s always something different and exciting to learn as I walk my dragonfly monitoring routes on the prairie. Always a small adventure of some sort, waiting to happen.

In rain-rutted puddles, bullfrogs leap across the water with an EEK!”

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The common yellowthroat sings his wichety-wichety-wichety from the walnut tree by the wooden bridge over Willoway Brook. I inhale the scent of a hundred thousand wildflowers and grasses; the smell of prairie soil that’s alternately been baked in a hot summer oven and soaked with rain.

As I finish my route near the stream, a red-winged blackbird hovers menacingly over my head, daring me to come closer. Are they still nesting? Must be! He shrieks loudly as I cover my head with my clipboard—just in case—and hurry a bit toward the path leading to the parking lot.

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So much to think about. The writer Paul Gruchow once observed, “Curiosity, imagination, inventiveness expand with use, like muscles, and atrophy with neglect.” One of the pleasures of dragonfly monitoring is the practice of paying close attention to everything on the July prairie. Flexing the muscles of my imagination. Resisting the urge to become jaded and cynical—all too easy in the world we find ourselves in today. Trying to choose where I focus.

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Even a simple hike on the prairie, counting dragonflies, can be an adventure. The writer Annie Dillard penned one of my favorite quotes: How we spend our days, is, of course, how we spend our lives.  I think of this as I watch a black saddlebag dragonfly cruise over my backyard prairie patch, or admire the way the cup plants cradle water in their joined leaves after a torrential downpour, inviting goldfinches to take a drink. I try to ask myself regularly: How am I spending my hours? How am I spending my life?

Every day I struggle to be intentional. To make room for curiosity. Imagination. The life of the spirit. The poet Mary Oliver wrote, When it’s over, I want to say: all my life/ I was a bride married to amazement/ I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

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Instead of “killing time,” I want to cultivate a sense of wonder. To look at every moment as an adventure. To make room for reflection. To walk, and always—always! —be astonished at what I see.

And how can we not be astonished? Look at those dragonflies, those wildflowers!  Listen to that birdsong. Watch the tallgrass ripple in the breeze.

What a beautiful world.

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British writer C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) penned the opening words in this blog from The Chronicles of Narnia, a series of classic children’s books. My favorite book in the series (although it is tough to choose!) is Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Lewis was a contemporary and friend of J.R.R. Tolkien, and part of a writers group known as The Inklings. The books are great for read-aloud, if you have children or grandchildren elementary age and up.

Minnesota writer Paul Gruchow (1947-2004) who wrote one of the quotes that appears in this post, is one of my favorite writers about the natural world. If you haven’t read Gruchow, try Journal of a Prairie Year, or Grass Roots: The Universe of Home. Both terrific reads. I also love his Boundary Waters: The Grace of the Wild.

The late poet Mary Oliver (1935-2019) penned the beautiful poem, When Death Comes, quoted at the end of this post.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): bridge over Willoway Brook at the end of July, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata) with unknown grass, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; rattlesnake master (Eyrngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; female blue dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis) on rough blazing star (Liatris aspera), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; female eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; 12-spotted skimmer (Libellula pulchella) on prairie blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya), author’s backyard and prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL;  blue-fronted dancer damselfly (Argia apicalis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; violet (or variable) dancer damselfly (Argia fumipennis  var. violacea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; American rubyspot (Hetaerina americana), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Nachusa Grasslands in July, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bee fly (possibly Bombylius major), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; tough to ID, but possibly pearl crescent butterfly (Phyciodes tharos), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; American bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus or Rana catesbeiana), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Culver’s root in mid July (Veronicastrum virginicum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; looking back at a dragonfly monitoring route at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

More about Cindy’s speaking and classes at www.cindycrosby.com 

Living the (Prairie) Questions at Horicon Marsh

“And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”–Rainer Maria Rilke

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Who is conservation for? I’m turning this question over in my mind as I paddle Horicon Marsh in Wisconsin this weekend, with its 33,000 acres of cattail marsh and prairies. It’s Jeff and my 36th anniversary celebration; spent in one of the ways we love the best—immersed in the natural world.

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As I paddle, I think about an upcoming lunch and discussion this week, scheduled after our prairie workday. My prairie volunteers and I will consider the question: “Conservation: What Does it Mean Today—and In the Future?” It’s a complex question, this dive into nature-centered and people-centered ways of caring for the Earth. We’ve been reading different articles and books in preparations for our conversation (full list at the end). Perhaps getting outside and paddling for the morning is the best place to clear my head and help me think through the questions and prepare. Perhaps getting outside is the only place to “live the questions.”

And what a place Horicon Marsh is to “get outside!” Everywhere I look are unusual birds, familiar dragonflies; a muskrat here, a fish leaping out of the water over there.

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The success of Horicon Marsh is evident in the diversity of its birds. A least bittern flies over our kayaks. Marsh wrens frantically type staccato memos from deep within the cattails. Great white pelicans soar on thermals. Sandhill cranes pick their way through the muck.

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One question for our prairie volunteers’ conservation discussion is this: Is diversity important for its own sake? It’s difficult to believe otherwise when immersed in it at the marsh. I am steeped in Aldo Leopold’s ethics: “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” But I’ve learned through my reading that not everyone agrees.

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The wind gusts make paddling a challenge. But there are rewards in the stretch of muscle, the pull of the kayak through the water, the sense of accomplishment you feel as you battle a headwind and make slow progress. More rewards: Overhead, a bald eagle’s nest looms, loosely constructed and precarious—so it seems anyway, to me, paddling underneath it. A young eagle perches nearby.

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A thriving heron rookery is visible in the distance.  Listen! The sounds of blue heron chicks and their parents punctuate the quiet.

On one side of my kayak, a teneral—newly emerged—damselfly is struggling in the water, barely hanging on to a curl of aquatic vegetation. I carefully pluck the damselfly out of the water and place it on my knee.  Insect blood—hemolymph— pumps into its wings, which harden and grow strong.

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The life of a damselfly is one fraught with peril, especially in this vulnerable teneral stage. In my kayak, it’s sheltered from the strong winds which have blown all morning, It rests and dries out in the sunshine.

Tinkering with Mother Nature? Well, yes– I guess I am. The damselfly rides along with me for a few miles, cleaning its face with its bristly legs as its body straightens and some of its coloration comes into focus. After an hour or so, with a flutter of wings, the damselfly lifts off. My kayak feels emptier without it.

I think again about my conservation questions as it disappears into the cattails. Does this damselfly have intrinsic value? Or is its value the moment of beauty it offers people like myself? Can we put a price tag on it as ecosystem services; perhaps as a mosquito-eating machine? What about these grasses, these wildflowers? Is there a dollar value we can put on them?

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Who is conservation for? People are a part of the marsh, just as the cattails and chorus frogs and damselflies are. Today, we’re kayaking as part of a planned paddling event. Along this stretch of the water, there are opportunities to hear from DNR staff stationed in different boats along the cattails about the history of the marsh and its wildlife. It’s a chance to ask questions. A helpful way to understand what conservation means at this place directly from those who love and care for it.

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As we paddle the waterways, others occasionally pass us, canoeing and pleasure boating.  Country music blares from one colorful motorboat painted in full camouflage. A family with a dog and young kids are enjoying the trip so much they’ve pulled their canoe over to extend their time on the river.  This portion of the refuge is also managed for hunting and fishing; the revenue pours dollars into conservation efforts. People and nature. Both are considered here, when decisions are made. Both coexist at the marsh.

Later, we stop by the Visitor Center where I hope to think more deeply about my conservation questions as I continue to learn about the marsh. Outside the Visitor Center front doors, I admire the prairie plantings. Curtains of white wild indigo.

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Spiderwort, with its leaf ribbons and alienesque buds.

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Meadow anemone, cupped toward the sunshine.

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As a prairie steward, I and others like me invest hundreds of hours ensuring these plant species and others like them continue to survive and thrive on Midwestern tallgrass prairie restorations and remnants. We like to tinker; adding a plant here, removing invasive plants in other areas. We ask a lot of questions to try to understand the genius of a place, and how to keep it healthy.

I admire the common milkweed, complete with red milkweed beetle.

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With a bit of luck, the beetle will be joined by monarch caterpillars, munching and growing on milkweed leaves; their increased numbers a reflection of the recent conservation mandate: “Plant milkweed!”

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Monarch butterflies have the best press agents in the insect world. Once, we destroyed milkweed because we saw it as…well…a “weed.” Now we plant acres of it for conservation. We tinker. And perhaps —just perhaps—we’re seeing more monarchs because of it.

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But sometimes we tinker with good intentions that may not actually help the very species we try and save. I’ve hand-raised a few monarch caterpillars to release in the wild to the joy of my grandkids, and so have many of my conservation friends and students. This week, an article in the Atlantic tells me that raising and releasing monarchs may interfere with monarch’s migratory instincts. Perhaps my best intentions are sometimes harmful to the very species—and places–I love.

How do we make decisions about conservation, knowing we’ll make mistakes? Perhaps all we can do is keep asking the questions. Take our best shots at caring for the world we love. Making peace with our errors. Growing through them.

Here at the marsh, tinkering with Mother Nature is part of what keeps it healthy. A trip through the Visitor Center’s “Exploratorium” gives me a chance to see the way water levels are managed at the marsh: increased or lowered during different seasons.

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The success of these water management efforts are reflected in the rich numbers of plants, birds, insects, mammals and other wildlife.

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It’s important work, this “tinkering with nature.” It’s also an ongoing dilemma, and sometimes, problematic. But what would the cost to us be if there were no sandhill cranes in the world, no heron rookery with its young chicks, no eagles nesting along this stretch of the wetlands?  How do we balance the needs of people and the wildlife communities that inhabit these places? When is what we do not enough? When is what we do for conservation too much?

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Who is conservation for? I ask myself again. Something to think about as we read, listen to each other’s ideas, trying to understand. We know the answers are important. For the health of our little corner of the world. For our children, and their children. For wildlife. But the answers aren’t always easy.

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Conservation is for places like Horicon Marsh.  It’s for the eagles nesting, brought back to larger numbers because Rachel Carson asked some questions 50 years ago. It’s for the little damselfly emerging from the water. It’s for the marsh wren singing in the cattails.

It’s also for the families cruising in their canoe with their kids and dog.  For the guy blaring country music; for those who pull a bluegill out of the water and fry it up at home. It’s for the prairies with their vulnerable plants. It’s for the nature in my backyard, and the nature in your yard. For the urban park. For the milkweed and prairie plantings along the interstates; or the birds nesting on skyscrapers on Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago.

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There’s a lot I don’t know about how to balance people and nature. There’s much I don’t understand about the future of conservation. But this much I do know: Learning how to manage and protect the natural world is an ongoing conversation, with plenty of room for joy and error along the way. Let’s keep talking to each other, even when we disagree about the way to care for this beautiful place we call home. Let’s immerse ourselves in the natural world and listen to what it has to tell us, as well as listening to scientists and decision makers. Let’s make a point to get outside and be there, experiencing what we love, as well as talking about it. To know first-hand why the questions matter. To give voice to a natural community that otherwise has no voice. Keeping the conversation alive.

Because these questions—and how we answer them—will make all the difference. Let’s live the questions.

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Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) was a German poet who is probably best known for this quote that kicks off the blogpost. It’s been used on everything from mugs to t-shirts; and as epigrams to blogposts like this one.  The work of conservation is always one part science, one part art, one part mystery. Haven’t read Rilke? Try Letters to a Young Poet.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at Horicon Marsh in Horicon, Wisconsin, and the surrounding area unless otherwise noted: view of Horicon Marsh; 12-spotted skimmer (Libellula pulchella); sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis); Visitor Center dragonfly and mosquito blocks; bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) and nest; unknown damselfly; foxglove beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis), Horicon Marsh region; waterway at Horicon Marsh; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba); spiderwort (Transcendia ohiensis); meadow anemone (Anemone canadensis); red milkweed beetle (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus) on common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca); monarch butterfly caterpillar (Danaus plexippus) on common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca); monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccafolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Exploratorium at the Horicon Marsh Visitor Center, Taylor Studios; blue dasher dragonfly (‎Pachydiplax longipennis); possibly a pearl crescent butterfly (Phyciodes tharos) on white clover (Trifolium repens); June wildflowers and grasses at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; kayaking at Horicon Marsh. Special thanks to Mary, Jeff, Paul, and Rachel for their hospitality, and for making our Horican paddling adventure a delight.

Conservation articles and book readings for the Tuesdays in the Tallgrass prairie lunch referenced in the article include: Who is Conservation For? —Paul Voosen; The Idea of a Garden–Michael Pollan; Rambunctious Garden–Emma Marris; The New Conservation–Michael Soule; The Trouble with Wilderness–William Cronon; Sand County Almanac–Aldo Leopold.

Cindy’s Speaking and Classes

Wednesday, June 26 —Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online —offered through The Morton Arboretum. This class can be taken at home or anywhere! 60 days to complete from start date. Details and registeration here.

Thursday, June 27:  2-4 p.m.–Dragonfly and Damselfly ID at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (closed class for staff).

Friday, June 28: 8-11:30 a.m.–Dragonfly and Damselfly ID at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Register here.

Special Note: August  19-22–Certified Interpretive Guide training. Earn your CIG certificate as a naturalist or cultural history interpreter through this class! Meet other professionals from around the country. Limit 15. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. Registration and Details here.

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

Prairie Walking

“The path is made in the walking of it.” — Zhuangzi

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On one side of my desk are precarious stacks of hiking books. Next to them is a list of more books on walking that I’ve lost or loaned out over the years, and now need to beg, borrow, or buy. As I prep for a talk on “Great Hikes in Literature” in a few weeks I already feel a bit overwhelmed by the amount of books on this topic. Books on the Appalachian Trail. Books on the Pacific Crest Trail. Tomes on hiking through America, Alaska, Great Britain, Australia. Fictional quests by the hobbit Frodo for the “one ring to rule them all. ” Children on walking adventures in “The Chronicles of Narnia.” Not to mention all the one-off essays compiled in outdoorsy collections.

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At the core of these books are central themes: We hike to try to understand something about ourselves. We hike to work through grief, loss, or pain. We hike to make a statement or protest. We hike to find a spiritual dimension in our lives. We hike to challenge our idea of what our limits are. We hike to understand more about the world around us. We go on quests! We hike when we’ve lost our way.

When life falls apart, we go for a walk.

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And sometimes, we just feel the urge to put one foot in front of the other. For as long as it takes. For as far as we can go.

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When my two kids were teenagers and I was cranky and out of sorts, they’d look at each other knowingly. “Mom, did you go for your walk on the prairie today?” Often the answer was “no!” They could see the difference that a simple hike made.

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Now, my children are grown and have children of their own. But I still find that hiking is as necessary to me as breathing.  There is something about walking that stimulates creativity, lowers stress levels, and opens us to different perspectives. Besides, going for a walk is a time honored tradition!  You can’t help but think of that oft-quoted line from John Muir: “I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”

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My first big solo hike was 30-plus miles. As I prepared to leave, a friend told me—“I could never do that! How can you be alone with your thoughts for so long?” True words. The greatest enemy of a long solo hike is not fear. It’s listening to your life, without the distractions and white noise that our everyday work pressures and social life mask.

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Today, I’m hiking the prairie as an observer. Not much of a personal agenda. For those who love wildflowers, I would argue that there is no better month than July to see a wash of electric color across the tallgrass prairies. Lately, drenching rains have alternated with baking heat. It’s brought forth a bevvy of blooms.

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Few people visit the prairie this month because of the high temperatures, humidity, and bugs. It’s true these are issues. Whenever I check the weather report before I go for a walk, I get the same posting. “EXTREME MOSQUITO ACTIVITY.” Well, whatever. That’s what mosquito headnets are for, right?

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The dragonflies, like this widow skimmer below, appreciate the clouds of mosquitoes in a way I never will. Probably much as we enjoy a mecca of restaurants spread out along the freeway to choose from on our travels.

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These past few weeks, me and my prairie volunteers are busy collecting seeds. Many of the early spring blooming plants have seeds that are ripe and ready. It’s not easy to find the shooting star seed capsules or cream wild indigo pods under the burgeoning grasses. So green, lush, and high! At the end of a work morning, our backs ache from stooping and searching. Today,  I spot some prairie parsley seeds. I pull some, and leave the ones that aren’t quite ready.

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I pop the ripe seeds into my shirt pocket. Later I’ll put them in a brown paper bag, label it, and leave it in the cool, dark tool room for our staff. Ready to reseed a new prairie restoration. The dry seeds rattling around in my pocket feel like hope for the future.

Our pasque flower seeds, collected earlier this season, are in the greenhouse now. We cross our fingers and hope that these notoriously difficult to grow seeds will germinate. If they do, we’ll plant them on the prairie next spring. It’s difficult to remember the joy I felt at the pasque flower’s pale lavender blooms back in April. The first of its delicate color on the prairie. Now, in July, the prairie is profligate with pops of purple. I appreciate this haze of bright color in a different way than I did the pasque flower’s more subtle hues earlier in the season.

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Walking the tallgrass trails in the high humidity, I notice that the air is saturated with the smell of common milkweed. Surely one of the most underrated fragrances in the natural world! A little prairie aromatherapy.

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The pink of the common milkweed is more pastel and subdued than the July sunsets, which lean toward the color of neon flamingo yard ornaments. These sunsets grow more brilliant each evening.

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The crickets and cicadas tune up in the dwindling light as I finish my hike. The temperature drops. I think of the sunset to come and feel peaceful. Quiet.

My prairie walks this week aren’t anything epic. They are over in an hour or so, unlike the quests and hundreds-of-miles hikes I’ll be teaching about in a few weeks. I’m not counting my steps, nor am I challenging myself to see how far I can go, or grieving anything particular. But these short hikes are a good reminder of some of the many reasons why we walk.

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To try and know ourselves. To pay attention. To look for signs of hope. And to continue to marvel at the delights and complexity of the natural world.

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Zhuangzi is an ancient Chinese writer, who is credited with many parables and sayings. “Zhuangzi” also refers to Chinese text by the same name (476-221 BC) which contains fables and quotes such as the one opening this blog post. The idea of spontaneous, carefree walking is a common theme among these writings.

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Love to hike? Or do you enjoy reading about epic walks from the comfort of your easy chair? I’ll be leading a lecture and discussion called “Great Hikes in Literature” at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL on Sunday afternoon, August 5, 2018. Click here to register: Great Hikes in Literature. Hope to see you there!

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): stack of “great walks” books, author’s desk, Glen Ellyn, IL; rocky knob, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) bloom, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera) on Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bottlebrush grass (Elymus hystrix), Schulenberg Prairie savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; the Schulenberg Prairie in mid-July, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie cinquefoil (Drymocallis arguta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea) with widow skimmer (Libellula luctuosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie parsley (Polytaenia nuttallii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunset, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; pearl crescent butterfly (Phyciodes tharos), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.