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A September Prairie Soaking

“Life is one big transition.”– Willie Stargell

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Thunder rattles the windows. Up north, tornado warning sirens blare. The news broadcasts footage of holiday passengers wading across flooded roads to get to O’Hare Airport, thinking only of returning home.

The deluge continues.

At last, in the early evening, a short break in the precipitation gives me time to go for a walk. I head to the prairie to check conditions.

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Trail puddles are necklaced with black walnut leaves, pulled loose from their tentative moorings by the pounding rain.

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A ruby-throated hummingbird shelters from the weather in an oak along the path. Just like the passengers at O’Hare, the thunderstorms have put a crimp in this bird’s travel plans.

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The hummingbirds are migrating. In my backyard, they wage fierce battles over the single feeder filled with sugar water, placed tantalizingly over the butterfly weed and little bluestem. The hummers are driven by instinct. Powered by nectar—or in the case of my backyard birds—faux nectar. In a few weeks, they’ll disappear completely; their entertaining antics only a memory.

On the prairie, the sun breaks through the clouds. The tall Indian grasses, with their lingering raindrops, become crystal-hung chandeliers.

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For a moment. Despite the glitter and bling of raindrops catching sunlight, the prairie still seems dark. Subdued.  The beginning of September is always a bit melancholy.  Perhaps it’s the lowering slant of light; shorter days, longer nights. Just some of the many signals Mother Nature sends her creatures that colder weather is on the way.

For migrating dragonflies—green darners, black saddlebags, wandering gliders, and others—those signals mean GO! GO! GO! They’ve massed together, then zipped away to warmer climes this past week. Their remaining kin, bedraggled and shopworn, are left to face the coming cold.

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The end-of-the-season butterflies I’ve seen this week are a study in contrasts. A few are bright and freshly emerged. Like this newly-minted American painted lady. Crisply colored, with unblemished wings, she’s probably the Midwest’s late season generation of her species.

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Oddly enough, according to University of Florida, instead of making a southward journey, American painted ladies, or “American ladies” as they are sometimes called, “overwinter in the southern U.S. and repopulate more northern areas each spring.” The report tells us the northern limit of their overwintering is unknown. Is Illinois too cold? Probably. Apparently, “in north central Florida, American ladies migrate northward during the spring, but there is no significant southward migration in the fall.” Why not, I wonder?

So much mystery!

This great spangled fritillary butterfly is only a bit worse for wear after the summer’s adventures.

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Perhaps it doesn’t have the worries of a cross-continental trip on its mind. Just nectaring, nectaring, nectaring until the cold weather sets in. That’s what thistles are for, right?

But this evening, on the rain-drenched prairie, there isn’t much butterfly—or dragonfly—movement. Both likely shelter in the rain-glazed trees…

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…or nestle deep in the big bluestem and grasses.

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Thunder rumbles. The clouds sweep in.

It’s Mother Nature’s signal to me! Go!

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The first raindrops splatter the trail. Tonight, the local news broadcast will tell us this was the Chicago region’s wettest Labor Day on record.  But the September rain, no matter flooding and postponed picnics, has its purpose.  It nourishes the prairie and its creatures for the last months of the prairie season.  Gives a last boost to the goldenrods and asters, needed by monarchs on their long migratory journey south to Mexico. Coaxes the gentians to open, fresh and vibrant in the grasses.

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The passage from summer to autumn is bittersweet. But the prairie knows how to ease the transition. Butterflies. Gentians. The daily surprises of migration.

Even thunderstorms.

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The opening quote is from Baseball Hall of Famer, Wilver “Willie” Stargell (1940-2001), who played his entire 21-year professional baseball career for the Pittsburgh Pirates (1962-82). During his farm club years, he was harassed, threatened at gunpoint, and denied lodging because of his race in many of the towns where he played. Stargell, an African-American, was tempted to quit. He persevered to become one of the most beloved players in the game. Stargell is one of only five players to hit a home run out of Dodger Stadium, and is known for his long-distance home runs. Said Cincinnati Reds second baseman Joe Morgan upon Stargell’s death, “He never made anyone look bad, and he never said anything bad about anybody.” A good way to be remembered.

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All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): video clip of rainfall, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; thunderstorm approaching the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  rain-drenched path, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) in the rain, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Halloween pennant dragonfly (Celithemis eponina) at the end of the season, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; American painted lady (Vanessa virginiensis), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; great spangled fritillary (Speyeria cybele) on pasture thistle, (Cirsium discolor), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; trees on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) with raindrops, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: bridge to the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie gentians (Gentiana puberulenta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Thinking in “Prairie Time”

“The strongest of all warriors are these two — Time and Patience.” — Leo Tolstoy

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It’s a hot day for our prairie team to clear the main visitor trail.  The 90-plus humid mornings and torrential rains have resulted in lush vegetation. The path? Forbidding, overgrown. Visitors walk up to the trail entrance and turn away, put off by the idea of bushwhacking. Who would blame them? Trail clearing is overdue.

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For hours, volunteers work at a snail’s pace, bent over, carefully clipping back wildflowers and grasses to make an accessible path. At the end of the muggy, hot morning, it’s finally time to quit.

“Gosh, that was fun!” said one volunteer, cheerfully, drenched with sweat. Fun? 

She must have seen the look on my face, because she added, “Every week, when we pull weeds, I feel like I don’t see any results.  Sometimes, it seems like years on the prairie pass before we see any progress at all! But when we clear the trail, it’s instant gratification.”

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It’s true.  Instant gratification is unusual in the tallgrass. Sure, once in a while, a brush cutting day or big garlic mustard pull can yield tangible results. When we collect seeds of some prolific grasses or wildflowers, like pale purple coneflower, we have some momentary satisfaction. palepurpleconeflowerWM818

But the time it takes to develop a healthy, functioning prairie community—with all its associated insects, birds, and plants—is the work of decades, if not a lifetime.

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Thinking in “prairie time” requires recalibration of everything society primes us for. Post something on social media? Instantly, “Like! Like! Like!” follows. Too busy to cook? Drive-through restaurant windows put hot food in your hands in minutes. Not so on the prairie. On one tallgrass site where I am a steward supervisor, we battle an agricultural weed called sweet clover. I’ve pulled clover there for 15 years, and I’ve never seen an end to it. For the first time this season, the battle seems almost over. Because of this, our team was able to turn our attention to some other invaders. Giant ragweed. Curly dock. And lately, Japanese hedge parsley, which looks a lot like Queen Anne’s lace.

I’ve been pulling the Queen Anne’s lace from my backyard prairie this month as well, especially around a second-year planting that includes Kankakee mallow. For years, I’d admired it on the prairie….KankakeeMallowspma818wm copy

…and coveted it for my own backyard prairie plot. I found it at a local garden center specializing in natives. The first season, I had a few blooms. Beautiful!

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This year, the bunnies nipped it back until all I had were short, leafy stalks.

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Disappointing. But, as I often remind myself, thinking in “prairie time” is mostly about patience. Same with the cardinal flowers. That flaming color! I always anticipate it. Some summers, my pond and wet prairie has an abundance of screaming scarlet. The hummingbirds go wild! Then, thecardinalflowerCROSBYbackyard81318wm next season, the flowers disappear.

 

Ah, well. Wait until next year.

The prairie reminds me to think in terms of years, not just the immediate.  But, ironically, the prairie also reminds me that every moment is precious.  I know to stop and admire the wildflowers which change from day to day…

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… or pause in my work to marvel at a gathering of swallows, swooping and diving….

 

…or linger at Clear Creek to enjoy the bright blue of a springwater dancer damselfly.  If I rush off, thinking “I’ll look at that next time I’m here,” there is often no “next time.” I miss the moment.

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Then I think of “prairie time” as these moments; small snapshots of color and light and motion I can carry with me in my memory.

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How elastic time is! How odd it is, as well. Something we move through without conscious thought most days. Yet, how treasured time should be.  As I grow older, the idea of time has taken on new meaning. Want to aggravate me? Say you are “killing time!” Time is much too precious to waste.

The prairie teaches me different ways to think about time. It reminds me that the long-term results are worth forgoing instant gratification.  It also prompts me to remember the importance of paying attention to the moment—the fleeting nature of time. Two very different ways to understand the how I’m spending my life.

Two ways of thinking about living in “prairie time.”

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Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) is a Russian writer who is widely regarded as one of the finest to ever wield a pen. The opening quote is from his 1869 epic, War and Peace. He believed in passive resistance; his ideas were said to have influenced Martin Luther King Junior and Gandhi. War and Peace is thought to be one of the great novels in literature; its title has passed into colloquial use. Tolstoy had a rather tumultuous life; he was excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church, and his marriage to his wife, Sophia, was generally considered to be desperately unhappy. They had 13 children, only eight of which survived to adulthood. Tolstoy died of pneumonia at 82.

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL;  pale purple coneflower seedheads (Echinacea pallida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Kankakee mallow (Iliamna remota) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Kankakee mallow (Iliamna remota) author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; Kankakee mallow  (Iliamna remota) author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) and sweet Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; video of barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) congregating on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; springwater dancer damselfly, male (Argia plana), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Prairie All-Stars

“In baseball, you don’t know nothing’.” — Yogi Berra

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If there’s one thing you learn on a prairie, it’s that the more you begin to know about the bugs, blooms, and grasses, the less you realize you know. And the more you realize you don’t know, the more you want to know about what you don’t know.

Whew.

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Bees, for instance. They’ve always been flying around, sort buzzing in the background of the prairie. But not on my radar. Until I started paying attention to bees this season. This one turned up as I was wading a stream this week, looking for dragonflies. At least—I think this is a bee. Interesting “raft!”

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I looked up, hip-deep in creek water, hoping to see the former owner of the feather.  The only bird in sight was this kingfisher. Hmmm…doesn’t seem to match.

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Back to the bees. Or is this a bee look-alike? I look at the markings on the head, the tuft of fur behind the, um—neck? Is that the right term?—and the patterns as seen from topside. I still am unsure. So many native bees and non-native bees! So many bee look-alikes! The mind boggles.

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The sunflower this bee is busily investigating is the woodland sunflower, Helianthus divaricatus. At least, I think that’s what the flower is. Does anyone else find the sunflower family confusing? Later, I asked the bee researcher, who was shoulder-deep in the sunflowers, if he knew which species it was. He shrugged.

Made me feel better.

So many All-Star prairie wildflowers.

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And don’t get me started on the skippers. For my birthday this month, my wonderful husband gave me a terrific pair of close-focus binoculars and an out-of-print guide to Illinois skippers—all 59 local species. They’ve both helped. But even the skippers on the prairie seem astonished by their own complexity.

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Silver-spotted skipper? I think so. The field guide says they are pretty common. But it’s going to take me a while to get a handle on the skippers and butterflies in my little corner of the world. At least there is no “question” about the identity of this beautiful butterfly.

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This week, I’m teaching “Dragonfly and Damselfly ID.” It’s guaranteed to be an exercise in humility. No matter how many of the dragonfly and damselfly species that I know—and I’ve learned quite a few over the past 13 years as a monitor—it’s a good bet there will be some oddball that shows up and doesn’t fit any description of a damselfly I’ve seen before. The meadowhawks are particularly confusing at this time of year. This one below is likely an autumn meadowhawk because of the yellowish legs.

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Likely. I’m pretty sure—at least, I think that’s what she is. However, there are red meadowhawk dragonflies zipping all over the prairie, and their immature counterparts which are yellow-ish, and the females which are sort of gold, and it all begins to blend together. Their red counterparts are even more confusing. Cherry-faced meadowhawk? Ruby meadowhawk? White-faced?

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I think I see some reflected amber patches on the leaf. So I check the field guide— most of the red meadowhawks have them. My “unknown meadowhawk dragonfly” column on my data sheet is getting bigger each week.

For my class, I’ll hope for the old familiar favorites, like the male calico pennants with their row of luscious red “hearts” in a row down their abdomen.

Unmistakable.

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And back to those wildflowers. Wow! They keep me up at night, flipping through plant ID websites, dipping into Flora of the Chicago Region, trying to understand what it is that I’m seeing and how it fits into the community we call prairie. Nachusa Grasslands, where I’m a dragonfly monitor, has more than 700 plant species! How do you wrap your head around that?

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What a beautiful problem to have, isn’t it? So many “All-Stars” on the prairie. So much to discover. Whenever I get frustrated at all there is to learn about in the tallgrass—and marvel that I’ve learned anything at all—I take a moment to sit on the bridge over Willoway Brook and be quiet.  Clear my head.

As I reflect, I realize what I don’t know doesn’t matter as much as showing up. Listening. Thinking about what I see.

Being there.

*****

Lawrence Peter (Lorenzo Pietro) “Yogi Berra” (1925-2015) was an 18-time All-Star professional baseball catcher, coach, and manager. He was part of teams that won the World Series 10 times—more World Series wins than any other professional baseball player to date. Berra and his wife Carmen were married for 65 years which is another great record. He is known for his paradoxical sayings such as the one that begins this post. Check out more “Yogi Berra-isms” here, and find a smile for your day because, as he says, “It ain’t over until it’s over.” And, remember, Berra also told us, “I never said most of the things I said.”

All photos and video clip copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): July at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bee on a feather, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) over Clear Creek, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; unknown bee on woodland sunflower (Helianthus divaricatus), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; July wildflowers, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; silver-spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; question mark (Polygonia interrogationis), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; autumn meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum vicinum), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; unknown meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; calico pennant dragonfly (male) (Celithemis elisa) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Nachusa Grasslands in July, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; video clip of bridge over Willoway Brook in July, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Ten Reasons to Hike the July Prairie

“The article-as-numbered-list has several features that make it inherently captivating… there’s little that our brains crave more than effortlessly acquired data.”–Maria Konnikova

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Dishes are piled in the sink. Freelance work needs completed; evinced by piles of paper and notes everywhere. Unread library books, now overdue, rattle around in the back seat of my Honda. My to-do list now spans several pages.

What to tackle first? None of these. Time to go for a prairie hike. Here are 10 reasons why:

#10: July’s prairie bouquets. Combine gray-headed coneflower, wild bergamot, and the various white prairie wildflowers. Result? Spectacular.

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#9. The mesmerizing sounds of a prairie stream. This stream at Nachusa Grasslands was linked to a beaver pond until the beavers abandoned it last season. In only a year, the changes in the landscape are impressive.

 

 

 

#8. Unbelievably beautiful butterflies float the July prairie, like this black tiger swallowtail.

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Sometimes you get a bonus: a double dose of fritillaries.

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#7. Summer is all about springwater damselflies. This one’s a male.

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#6. July is a great time to see different species of blazing star wildflowers in bud…

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…and in bloom.

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#5. Compass plants send their profusion of periscope blooms across the prairie.

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#4. The delightful freckled wild horsemint is reason enough to hike the prairie right now. I think the flowers look like the circus came to town. What do they remind you of?

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#3. Those July blues…blue vervain, that is. Almost purple, isn’t it?

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#2. Signs of hope are everywhere. But especially here.

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#1. And everywhere you look on the July prairie is the promise of future adventures.

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My to-do list will still be there when I return home. But the July prairie won’t wait. Every day is different. Every day is full of surprises. When I look back on how I spent this day….

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…I won’t have any regrets.

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The opening quote is from Maria Konnikova, whose article “A List of Reasons our Brains Love Lists”  from The New Yorker explains these little scraps of paper I have laying around everywhere. Check it out.

All of the photos and the video clip this week are from Nachusa Grasslands, a Nature Conservancy site in Franklin Grove, IL, except the compass plants from Fermilab as noted (top to bottom): gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata), wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), and various white wildflowers; old beaver pond turned stream; black swallowtail butterfly (Papilio polyxenes);  two meadow fritillary butterflies (Boloria bellona)–thanks Doug Taron for ID help; springwater dancer damselfly (Argia plana); rough blazing star in bud (Liatris aspera) ; blazing star in bloom (Liatris spp.); compass plants (Silphium laciniatum) at Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; horsemint (Monarda punctata villicualis); blue vervain (Verbena hastata); monarch (Danaus plexippus) on swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata); gravel two-track through the July prairie; prairie in my Honda’s rear view mirror.

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.

A Vision for Prairie

“What are we made of? How did the universe begin? What secrets do the smallest, most elemental particles of matter hold, and how can they help us understand the intricacies of space and time?”–Fermilab

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I’m pondering some the above questions as I hike Fermilab’s prairies and natural areas. It’s 95 degrees with a heat index of about 110. Outside is not where the rational part of me wants to be. But today, I have a chance to explore some of the iconic prairie plantings at Fermilab. I don’t want to miss the opportunity.

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Fermilab is a 6,800 acre particle physics laboratory about an hour west of Chicago, established in 1967.  Their stated vision is to “solve the mysteries of matter, energy, space and time for the benefit of all.” I admire Fermilab’s drive to know. But as someone who barely passed physics in high school and dropped out of calculus, I’m not here for the  particle accelerators and neutrino science. I’m here for their prairie.

And what beautiful sweeps of tallgrass are all around me.

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The compass plant flowers (above) wave over my head, their periscope-like blooms splashing the prairie with yellow. Waist-high Culver’s root (below) is in the early stages of bloom. Its white candles are luminescent in the tallgrass.

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To restore prairie in this place is an act of creativity and the imagination, as well as an act of science. Biochemist Dr. Robert Betz had a vision for the vast acreage that surrounds Fermilab’s accelerator ring and the grounds around the various research labs and buildings. Today, the results of that vision and the tireless work of volunteers, with leadership by ecologist Ryan Campbell, are almost 1,000 acres of planted tallgrass prairie. The prairie, along with other natural areas, encompasses “high-quality aquatic habitats, rare orchids, and even nesting Osprey”.

All around me is evidence of a successful outcome. Butterflies are puddling along the two-track, including this pretty little tailed-blue. They’re attracted to the salts and minerals in the dirt.

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Impressive oak savannas edge the prairies. Their cool shade is a welcome contrast to the blazing heat. The wetlands along the two-track gravel road are home to myriad dragonflies, water birds, and other aquatic life. The wetlands are lush. Brimming with water after the rain of previous weeks.

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Speaking of dragonflies! They are out in full force on my hike, despite the fierce heat. As I walk,  at least half a dozen Halloween pennant dragonflies are stationed in the tallgrass at regular intervals. Although much about dragonfly body temperature regulation is unknown, we do know that when it is hot they use strategies to lower their body heat. This one has its abdomen pointed downward to cool off.

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Other times you’ll see dragonflies doing handstands across the prairie in hot weather, a thermoregulatory practice called obelisking that helps deflect heat.

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I need some strategies of my  own to get out of the hot, sticky weather—strategies that don’t involve standing on my head or other gymnastics. Time to find my air-conditioned car. Whew!

Each prairie has its own delights. On the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum where I’m a steward supervisor, bunchflower is in eye-popping bloom this week. BunchflowerSPMA7218CROSBYwm.jpg

The lilies make me want to sit for an hour and just look. (Mosquitoes quickly put an end to that notion.)

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Nachusa Grasslands, where I’m also a steward,  is carpeted with wildflowers of all descriptions this month. Like an impressionist painting, isn’t it?

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These two prairies both have some beautiful butterflies. Like this black swallowtail at the Schulenberg Prairie, which flew erratically across the flowers and led me on a merry chase for a closer view.

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Sometimes, as I’m busy tending to my responsibilities on these two sites, it’s easy to forget how many other astonishing prairies there are all around me.  The last time I hiked Fermilab this year, it had just been burned. Look at it now!

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There is joy in the familiar. But delight in new discoveries.  Although I’ve been coming to Fermilab Natural Areas off and on now for years, today’s short road trip is a mental post-it note reminder to myself to not get in a “prairie rut.” Visit new prairies.  Discover the delights of seeing prairie restoration in all its variations. Expand my perspective. Learn from what other stewards are doing. Hit the road and see what new tallgrass adventures await.

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Where will your next prairie adventure take you?

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The opening quote is from Fermilab’s website. If you want to learn more about Fermilabs Natural Areas, click here to read more about their work and volunteer program.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) with Wilson Hall in the background, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) bloom, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; Eastern tailed-blue (Cupido comyntas), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; wetlands at Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; Halloween pennant (Celithemis eponina), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL;  meadowhawk dragonfly–probably a white-faced  (Sympetrum obtrusum) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bunchflower (Melanthium virginicum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Michigan lily (Lilium michiganense) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; early summer at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) on rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  regal fritillary butterfly (Speyeria idalia), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; road through Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

Grateful thanks to art gallery curator Georgia Schwender who (despite ferocious heat) offered me a tour of some of Fermilab’s natural areas. Check out Fermilab’s Art Gallery on the second floor of the Wilson Building in all seasons. Look for Fermilab’s “Seeing the Prairie” exhibit July 27-September 28, 2018. 

Wings, Stings, and Prairie Things

“Every living creature on the earth is special.”–Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees
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So many flying creatures. So little time to learn them all.
That’s how I felt after US Fish & Wildlife trained us this week to monitor the rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis). This fuzzy bug’s presence has declined almost 90 percent in the Midwest in the past 20 years. As a result? It’s now federally endangered. As a prairie site steward—and someone who loves the natural world—I want to understand what I can do to help bring it back.
But the first step —learning bee ID—is a daunting proposition. So many color, size, and pattern variations in bees!  Who knew?
I have a few scraps of knowledge about honey bees after taking a bee-keeping class, and can usually ID a honey bee. The key word being “usually.” Like this one below.
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And, I like insect identification.  I’ve  been a dragonfly monitor for a baker’s dozen years or so—chasing dragonflies and damselflies, walking my routes on the prairie, collecting data. I marvel at every new species I find (Wow! Red damsel!). I also enjoy the regulars (another day, another widow skimmer) for their familiarity.  Like this blue dasher dragonfly.

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And I never get tired of the eastern amberwings, a dragonfly so tiny you barely see it in the tallgrass.
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Dragonflies usually get good press. Butterflies as well, and who can blame us for loving them? As I monitor dragonflies, I often see butterflies in the same areas. This regal fritillary, a threatened butterfly species (below), was puddling around in the mud on one of my regular dragonfly routes this week.
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But bees. Hmmm…..they haven’t been on my radar screen until lately. There are about 4,000 native bees in North America;  400-500 species of native bees in Illinois. Whew! That makes learning 99 or so species of dragonflies in Illinois seem like child’s play.
Honeybees, I learn, are not native to North America. They were brought here during European settlement. Guess what critters were here first? The native bees—sweat bees, bumble bees, cuckoo bees, mason bees. And other bees as well. But 50% of our Midwestern bees have disappeared from their historic ranges over the past 100 years, according to Wired Magazine.   This matters. Bees and other pollinators (birds, bats, butterflies, beetles, and more) are responsible for one out of every three bites of food you eat.  Imagine a world without bees! Tough to do.
With these sobering statistics in mind, I’ve been looking at bees differently. Trying to learn some of their names. Teaching myself some of their field marks.
These three bumblebees below look pretty similar, don’t they?
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But—yup, you guessed it—they are three different bumble bee species. From top to bottom: Bombus griseocollis–the brown-belted bumble bee; Bombus auricomus–the black and gold bumblebee; and the one directly above this paragraph, Bombus fervidus—the golden northern bumblebee. Aren’t they pretty?
I learned these bumble bees with an ID chart and initial help from the good folks at beespotter.org. If you haven’t checked out this site, take a look. It’s a great way to learn bee ID, and also to contribute to research on where bees still are, what flowers bees are using; which bees are in decline, and which bee species are thriving.
Just when I think I’m starting to get a handle on the bumble crowd, I see these pretty little metallic green sweat bees everywhere on the prairie. Oh boy.
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And so many other bees I’m puzzling over! Looks like a honey bee (below)…. I think. Still a lot of ID work ahead.
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Learning something new takes time and attention to details. Bee ID means re-learning patience.
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One of the first things we ask someone to tell us is their name. It helps us really see a person; it helps give that person greater meaning and significance. I want to do the same for the native bees. Learn a few names. Notice them. Pay attention.
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After all, it’s these bees that help make the prairie such a beautiful place! And all it takes is for me to make a little extra time to see them. And—the patience to realize there is going to be a lot that I won’t know. A lot.  I’ve always loved a good mystery! This bee ID challenge should be just that.
I’m going to make learning a few bee names a priority this summer. Get to know them. Then, try to make some changes in my backyard and on the prairie site I manage to help them thrive.
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How about you?
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The opening quote is from Sue Monk Kidd’s (1948–) novel, The Secret Life of Bees (2002).  This coming of age story, a book club favorite which takes place during the civil rights movement in 1964, was later adapted as a film.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): European honey bee (Apis mellifera) on white wild indigo (Baptisia alba), Schulenberg Prairie in late June, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; eastern amberwing dragonfly, male (Perithemis tenera), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blue dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis)), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; regal fritillary butterfly (Speyeria idalia), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; brown-belted bumble bee (Bombus griseocollis) on white wild indigo (Baptisia alba), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; black and gold bumble bee (Bombus auricomus) on Canada milkvetch (Astragalus canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; golden northern bumble bee (Bombus fervidus) on white wild indigo (Baptisia alba), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; halictid bee on lead plant (Amorpha canadensus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown bee on fringed yellow loosestrife (Lysimachia ciliata), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; unknown bee on black-eyed Susan, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; black and gold bumble bee (Bombus auricomus) on white wild indigo (Baptisia alba), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale purple coneflowers (Echinacea pallida) and white wild indigo (Baptisia alba) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.