Tag Archives: the nature conservancy

A Thousand Prairie Details

” …few (if any) details are individually essential, while the details collectively are absolutely essential. What to include, what to leave out. Those thoughts are with you from the start.” –John McPhee

***

“What to include, what to leave out?” How do you decide—when you try to describe September on the prairie?

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Look through the tallgrass kaleidoscope. Details change. From hour to hour; moment to moment.

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The prairie is a shape-shifter.

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Color and pattern maker.

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Each insect and plant outlined and highlighted.

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A few shocks of color. Burnt cherry.

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Pure purple.

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Other details, less colorful, still dazzle. Fizzy whites, knitted together by spiders; pearled by dew.

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Sheer numbers sometime disguise the finer elements.

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The particulars lost in a tangle. Taken out of context.

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The familiar becomes unfamiliar.

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The tiniest details create the sum of the whole. The autumn prairie.

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Dreamlike.

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Almost invisible at times. Camouflaged. But unforgettable.

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The magic of a thousand prairie details.

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They all add up to something extraordinary.

***

The opening quote is from John McPhee’s Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process.  McPhee (1931-) is the author of more than 30 books, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999 for Annals of the Former World.

***

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) at the end of a trail, Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN;  white wild indigo leaves with spider silk, Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN; September in the tallgrass, Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN; three butterflies puddling (two male clouded sulphurs (Colias philodice) and an orange sulphur (Colias eurytheme)), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) with morning dew, Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN;  yellow legged or autumn meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum vicinum), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN;  unseasonal bloom on white wild indigo in September (Baptisia leucantha), Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN;  nodding bur marigold (Bidens cernua), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  bison (Bison bison) hair on the trail, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) with dewdrops, Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN; early morning on the prairie, Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN; fog over Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN; eastern tailed blue butterfly (Cupido comyentas), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Taltree Arboretum prairie, Valparaiso, IN.

Oh Beautiful, For Spacious (Prairie) Skies

“…there don’t seem to be words, let alone colors, to do justice to the land and sky-scape that surrounds me.” — Kathleen Norris

***

In the prairie state of Illinois, the talk this week of August revolves around the solar eclipse.

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It may take an epic solar event  to turn Americans’ eyes skyward. Yet, truth be told, there are wonders above the prairie 24/7. If only we would take time to look.

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Sunsets are an easy sell. Who doesn’t love one?

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But how about the way the clouds float in August, when the tall pink gaura casts silhouettes against the sky?

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Or the building cumulonimbus clouds, with big bluestem’s turkey-footed trinity of seed heads against it?

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Consider the contrast and play of milky cirrus clouds with a few low cloud puffs.  They show us that the harsh mid-day light has its own enchantment.

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Sure, sometimes the prairie skies just seem like a foil for the landscape…

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…or even a backdrop for birds like this dickcissel.

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But without the 360-degree, horizon-to-horizon, ever-changing kaleidoscope of vast prairie sky, the tallgrass wouldn’t seem nearly so rich and intriguing.

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Why not go out right now and take a look at the sky, wherever you find yourself?

And the next time you take a hike in the tallgrass, don’t forget. Look up.

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You might be surprised at what you see.

***

The opening quote is from Kathleen Norris’ introduction to On the Plains by Peter Brown. Norris (1947-) is a poet and essayist who writes compellingly about a sense of place. If you haven’t read her books, try Dakota: A Spiritual Geography.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom) moonrise over author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; sunset over farms and prairies near Shabbona Lake State Park, Shabbona, IL;  sunset over prairie in Shabbona Lake State Park, Shabbona, IL; sunset behind big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL; gaura (Gaura biennis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; mid-day sun on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: road across Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; dickcissel (Spiza americana), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; sunset, Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL;  sunset, Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The Perils of Prairie ID

“I’d like to be sure of something—even if it is just going to sleep.” — Theodore Roethke

***

What’s in a name? Lately, I’ve been stressing the importance of learning scientific names  for plants, animals, and insects in my prairie classes and with my prairie workday volunteers. In doing so, I’ve found renewed appreciation for the simple ones.

The best: Bison bison.

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Easy, right? If only the rest of them were!

I mostly love the scientific names. They keep everyone on the same page about what is being discussed regardless of region, and they often tell me something about a prairie plant, animal, or insect. Like the pale purple coneflower, Echinacea pallida, whose genus Echinacea means—from the ancient Greek—“hedgehog.”

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Quite the resemblance!

But as steward and prairie instructor, staying a step ahead of my students and smart workday volunteers is tough. I was trained in art and journalism, not botany. Species identification makes me painfully aware of my botanical inadequacies.

At Nachusa Grasslands, with more than 700 plant species, the likelihood of stumbling over something I don’t know is certain. On the Schulenberg Prairie, we have 500 kinds of plants on 100 acres. And that’s just the plants! There are myriad opportunities to dub plants, birds, insects, and other members of the prairie community with the wrong name.

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I’m also a dragonfly monitor at both prairies, and I like to think I know most of what’s flying on my sites. Ha! As I waded a stream at the Schulenberg Prairie last week, these two elegant damselflies, finding romance alongside Willoway Brook, were a cinch to name.

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Ebony jewelwings! No trouble there. I dutifully noted them on my data sheet. But  I also found this pretty little damselfly.

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Hmmmm. I was certain it was something I hadn’t seen before. My field guides were in the car and I was thigh-deep in the stream.  I scribbled some guesses on my clipboard data sheet. “Rainbow bluet?” “Variable dancer?” Later, flipping through the field guide, it turned out this was one of the most common damselflies of all; an eastern forktail that had a different variation of coloring—nothing earth shattering, just not a variation I’d  previously seen.

Well then. Another reason to use pencil on the data sheet.

Makes me grateful for the simple damselflies, like the American rubyspot—nothing else in my region looks like them. And isn’t it nice when the common name speaks to the actual appearance of the species? Ruby…

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Check. Spot?

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Double check.

One of the joys of looking for dragonflies is stumbling across another insect, animal, or plant species I wasn’t expecting to see. While looking for midland clubtail dragonflies at Nachusa Grasslands, I found this pretty little plant.

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“Sedge” was not on the tip of my tongue. But a sedge it was, and after asking a friend who is a whiz at plant ID for input; poring over my new copy of Flora of the Chicago Region;  and crowdsourcing a confirmation from the good folks at Facebook’s “Illinois Botany” page, it was determined to be narrow-leaved cottongrass. Yes, cottongrass! You heard that name right.  And it’s a sedge, not a grass, despite the name.

And people wonder why identifying plants is confusing!

Try explaining blue-eyed grass. Neither blue-eyed. Nor a grass.

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Or late horse gentian, which is not—you guessed it —a gentian nor anything remotely equestrian. Maybe that’s why I prefer the common name, “wild coffee.”

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My most recent ID discussion was over this pretty little wildflower below. Native? Or non-native? Cinquefoil for sure. But which one?

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And what species of bee is nectaring here? At Nachusa Grasslands, we have at least 75 different bee species. Good luck to me keying that bee out. I had more success with the cinquefoil (see ID at the end).

At some point, taxonomists begin to tinker and soon, you discover the names you put so much sweat equity into learning have been changed. And that’s more of a problem if you don’t get the name right in the first place.

This little grass that I thought was white-haired panic grass…

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…turned out to be the woolly panic grass. So my initial ID was incorrect. Then, I learned the panic grasses—a favorite!—have been reclassified and renamed. The new scientific name Dichanthelium acuminatum  has the common name: “tapered rosette grass.” Definitely does not have the charm of “woolly panic grass,” which conjures up delightful images of sheep bouncing around a field. “Tapered rosette” seems quite buttoned up.  

Darn taxonomists.

Meanwhile, I console myself by noting my ID percentages are still better than the Chicago Cubs’ win-loss percentage this season (.500 at this writing). I continue to work on identification in consultation with smarter friends, pore over excellent books, and plug along the best I can. Knowing that my skills will improve. Prodding myself to be willing to be wrong in pursuit of learning new things. Reminding myself how much I’ve learned since I saw my first tallgrass prairie almost 20 years ago.

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Isn’t that the way of the natural world? The more you know, the more you discover you don’t know. The more you see, the more you realize you aren’t seeing.

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And yet. I might get all the scientific names correct—learn grasses and sedges; figure out the different colors of the eastern forktail at its various life stages—and still not “know” a species. “Knowing” comes through building a relationship with a place, and the community that inhabits it.  Seeing it in all weather, at many times of the day, in all four seasons. Getting hot, sweaty, dirty, buggy, and wet. Watching the damselflies form their heart-shaped wheel. Listening to the dickcissel sing. Touching the prickly center of a pale purple coneflower. Then, the identifications–those crazy names– become a part of my story and the story of that place.

And if I get a plant name wrong or forget which dragonfly is which?

Tomorrow’s another day.

***

The opening quote in this post is from Straw for the Fire, an edited collection from the poet Theodore Roethke’s (1908-1963) notebooks by another amazing poet, David Wagoner (read Wagoner’s poem Lost.) Roethke’s father ran a 25-acre greenhouse in Saginaw, MI, where he grew up. A difficult childhood (his father died when he was 14; an uncle committed suicide); a battle with manic depression, numerous breakdowns, his mysticism, and a feeling of alienation were foils for some tremendous poetry about the natural world and the inner self. Roethke won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry (1954) and the National Book Award for Poetry twice (1959 and 1965, posthumously). He was also a revered professor at Michigan State University.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby except for the hedgehog: (top to bottom) bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Franklin Grove, IL; hedgehog (Atelerix albiventris); summer at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; ebony jewelwing damselflies (Calopteryx maculata) mating, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; immature eastern forktail (Ischnura verticalis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; American rubyspot (Hetaerina americana), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Franklin Grove, IL; American rubyspot (Hetaerina americana), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Franklin Grove, IL; narrow-leaved cottongrass (Eriophorum angustifolium) , Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium albidum), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; late horse gentian, wild coffee, or tinker’s weed (Triosteum perfoliatum) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; rough-fruited cinquefoil (Potentilla recta) with unknown bee, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; tapered rosette grass (Dichanthelium acuminatum)  formerly woolly panic grass, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; pale purple coneflower  (Echinacea pallida) opening, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; dickcissel (Spiza americana), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

Hedgehog (“Butterfinger”) photo courtesy of Kim Engels White. Thanks Kim!

Thanks to Susan Kleiman, Bernie Buchholz, and the good folks on the Illinois Botany and Odonata of the Eastern United States Facebook pages for their ID help.

Prairie Bloom, Doom, and Zoom

“All things seem possible in May.” –-Edwin Way Teale

The dickcissels sing a coda for spring; on its way out. But so much more is on the way in.

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Something big has been set in motion. No stopping the cycle now.   Even as the first spring blossoms wither, something new opens each day to take their place. The prairie overflows with wildflowers.

Wild columbine hangs its blooms wherever it can find an open spot.

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Insects emerge. Bumblebees zip and zoom. Close up, the wild columbine serves as a landing strip for hover flies.

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The genus name for columbine is Aquilegia from the Latin Aquila which means “eagle.” Named for the talon-like petal spurs on the flower. It does seem to embody flight, doesn’t it?

Panic grass—an awesome name!–staccatos itself across the prairie.

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Zoom in a little closer and—hoverflies again! They find the panic grass a great place for a romantic tryst.

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Shooting stars fizzle and form seeds.

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Prairie smoke signals the end of its bloom time with a Fourth of July-ish fireworks finale.

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Common valerian finishes fuzzy, sparking seeds. Its stems gradually turn bright pink, making it more noticeable a month after flowering than during its bloom time.

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Meadow rue loosens its grip on its tight-fisted buds, ready to throw out its tasseled blooms.

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The first flush of prairie phlox whirligigs across the prairie…

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…and deep in the leaves, the odd little flowers of wild coffee open. Some call it “tinker’s weed, “feverwort,” or “horse gentian.” Which nickname do you prefer?

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The beautifully-named springwater dancer damselflies emerge.

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While the more plain-Jane-named prairie ragwort begins to bloom.

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Beardtongue dazzles. Hirsute-ly hipster.

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May is over. Finished. Done. Kaput.

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June is ready to launch, full of surprises.

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Will you be there to see them?

***

Edwin (Arthur) Way Teale (1899-1980), whose quote opens this essay, was born in Joliet, IL, not far from where these photos were taken. He was a naturalist, photographer, and staff writer for Popular Science for many years. Teale’s book, “Near Horizons,” won the John Burroughs Medal (1943) for distinguished nature writing. One of his non-fiction books,  “Wandering Through Winter,” won the Pulitzer Prize in 1966.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): dickcissel (Spiza americana), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), Prairiewalk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle Park District, Lisle, IL; wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) with hoverfly (Toxomerus spp.), Prairiewalk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle Park District, Lisle, IL; panic grass (Dichanthelium spp.), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; panic grass (Dichanthelium spp.) with hoverflies (Toxomerus spp.), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie smoke (Geum triflorum), Prairiewalk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle Park District, Lisle, IL; common valerian (Valeriana ciliata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; purple meadow rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum) , Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie phlox (Phlox pilosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild coffee, feverwort, horse gentian, or tinker’s weed (Triosteum perfoliatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: springwater dancer damselfly (Argia plana), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;   prairie ragwort (Packera plattensis), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; hairy beardtongue (Penstemon hirsutus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunset, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: sunset, Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL.

Prairie Endings and Beginnings

“Each moment is a place you’ve never been.” — Mark Strand

****

May slides toward its inevitable conclusion. New wildflowers open each day. Grasses concentrate on becoming fuller, lusher.

Golden Alexanders, looking other-worldly, finishes a spectacular bloom season. Bravo!

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The first flowers of prairie smoke open.

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The remains of last year’s grasses and dry seedheads still patch the unburned prairie in places.

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Just as the native dwarf dandelions begin to bloom…

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…the small white lady’s slipper orchids wither; ghosts of their once bright selves.

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Damselflies emerge.

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Fringed puccoon blooms, low in the grasses.

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Nibbled by insects and small animals; ragged and worn by temperamental spring weather, the last prairie violets contemplate setting seed.

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A female orchard oriole arrives. She’s looking for a mate; ready to raise a brood. She’ll weave a grassy pouch, sling it onto a forked branch, then fill it with half a dozen blue-gray, splotchy eggs.

She seems pretty calm about the hard work ahead.

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Wild hyacinth flowers open from bottom to top. The seeds, like crazy punctuation marks, form close behind.

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Beginnings and endings on the prairie. Every spring day brings more.

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They’re worth watching for.

****

Mark Strand (1934-2014), whose quote from “Black Maps”  (Collected Poems) opens this post, was a Poet Laureate of the United States (1990). He won many awards for his writing, including a Pulitzer Prize for his poetry collection, “Blizzard of One.”

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): golden Alexanders (Zizea aurea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie smoke (Geum triflorum), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; sunset, Kent Fuller Air Station Prairie, Glenview, IL;  dwarf dandelion (Krigia virginica), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; small white lady’s slipper (Cypripedium candidum), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; male mimic female eastern forktail (Ischnura verticalis ), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; fringed puccoon (Lithospermum incisum), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; prairie violet (Viola peditifida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; female orchard oriole (Icterus spurius), Schulenberg Prairie Visitor Station, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild hyacinth (Camassia scilloides), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunset, Kent Fuller Air Station Prairie, Glenview, IL.

Purple Prairie Haze

“No matter how chaotic it is, wildflowers will still spring up in the middle of nowhere.” — Sheryl Crow
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There’s a plethora of prairie purple right now. (Say it three times, very fast.) The pinky purple of wild geraniums color the prairie edges.

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Here and there–but much more rare–the bird’s foot violet.

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And its close kin, prairie violet.

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Go plum crazy over fragile blue toadflax.

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Do some whoopin’ over purple prairie lupine…

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Seek out the violet wood sorrel, dabbed here and there across the prairie.

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Look up! May skies are often the purple-blue of a storm.

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After the rain, amethyst-colored long-leaved bluets are splattered with grit.

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The rain encourages wild hyacinth’s lavender blues to open. Inhale their fragrance. Wow!

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Sunset prairie purples close many May days on the prairie. Not fiery. Not spectacular. But in true purple form…peaceful.

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No matter how chaotic the world seems at any given time, an hour on the May prairie–with its purple moments–puts things into perspective again.

An hour that is always well-spent.

***

Sheryl Crow (1962-), whose quote opens this blogpost, is an American recording artist perhaps best known for her hits, “Every Day is  a Winding Road,” and “All I Wanna Do.”  She has won nine Grammy Awards, and been nominated for a Grammy 32 times. Her album, Wildflower, has sold almost a million copies.

***

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): wild geraniums (Geranium maculatum) East Woods area, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bird’s foot violet (Viola pedata), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; prairie violet (Viola pedatifida), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; blue toadflax (Nuttallanthus canadensis), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; lupine (Lupinus perennis), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; violet wood sorrel (Oxalis violacea), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; storm over Fame Flower Knob, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; long-leaved bluets after the storm (Houstonia longifolia var.longifolia), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; wild hyacinths (Camassia scilloides), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunset over Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Special thanks to Bernie Buchholz for his restoration work, and for introducing me to several new wildflowers at Nachusa Grasslands.

Spring’s Contrasts on the Prairie

“April golden, April cloudy, Gracious, cruel, tender, rowdy...”–Ogden Nash.

***

Spring on the prairie is a showcase of contrasts at the end of April.

Jacob’s ladder.

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Sand phlox. So small! Like a paper snowflake carefully cut out with scissors.

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Tiny blooms. Balanced by rough-and-tumble bison, the heavyweight champs of the prairie.

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Delicate spreadwing damselflies emerge from ponds to tremble in the sun.

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Furry beavers coast by, on their way to ongoing construction projects.

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There’s evidence of egrets. Their pale feathers a contrast to…

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…the bright buttery sunshine of marsh marigolds, with a lipstick red beetle.

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The beetle seems minuscule until a spider wanders into the scene. The line it throws is deceptively fragile looking. Yet, it’s strong enough to capture supper.

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There is life high above, in the flight of a blue heron scared up from the fen.

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While below, tossed carelessly in the grasses, are souvenirs of death.

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Life cut short.

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Beauty and terror co-exist, side-by-side.

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But the stars still come out –shooting stars! Make a wish.

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Life, death, rebirth. It’s all here…

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…at the end of April on the prairie.

***

The opening quote is from the poet (Frederic) Ogden Nash (1902-71) and his poem, “Always Marry an April Girl.” Nash is known for his humorous rhyming verse, and his nonsensical words. An example: “If called by a panther/don’t anther.”

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL (top to bottom): Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptans), sand phlox (Phlox bifida bifida); bison (Bison bison); possibly sweetflag spreadwing (Lestes forcipatus) (ID uncertain); beaver (Castor canadensis); egret feather (Ardea alba); marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris) with an unknown beetle;  unknown spider; blue heron (Ardea herodias); bones in the grasses;  possibly red-winged blackbird egg (Agelaius phoeniceus) in nest; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia) with nest; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia); violet sorrel (Oxalis violacea) with an unknown pollinator. Thanks to Bernie Buchholz for showing me the sand phlox, and John Heneghan, for help with the nest ID.