Tag Archives: the nature conservancy

Weathering the February Prairie

“You know what they say about Chicago. If you don’t like the weather, wait fifteen minutes.”– Ralph Kiner

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Pick a card. Any card. The weather on the February prairie is as random as a shuffle of the deck. Who knows what each day will bring?

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This past week in the Midwest illustrates it. First, a glittering frost.

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Then snow, falling an inch an hour.

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Fog.

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Followed by floods of rain.

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Yo-yo weather. Keeping things interesting.

Brittle and weather-beaten; stripped of their leaves, seeds, and flowers,  prairie plants take on an unfamiliar look.

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Their identities keep you guessing; turning back for a second glance. Touching the plant, sniffing it for a sensory clue. Hmmmmm. 

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As the weather zigzags between snow and rain, freeze and thaw…

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…the last seedheads stand out on the prairie.

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Some of the seeds are whittled away by wind, weather, and critters.

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Others have stems which are completely bare.

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Changes in weather give the prairie plants one more chance to shine.

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Highlighted by sun, snow, and ice.

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As rain and flooding melt all the white stuff, and mud sucks our hiking boots at every step, you know the prairie is ready for change. You can hear the word whispered in the wind.

Fire. 

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In only days or weeks, we’ll light a match. What we see now will soon be archived as our memory of what once was. The scorched prairie will be ready for us—site managers and volunteers and stewards— to paint our hopes and dreams upon it. In our imagination, it will be a masterpiece of restoration. This will be the year.

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We study the forecasts, anticipating just the right weather conditions—humidity, temperature, wind direction— to set the prairie ablaze. Each day we shuffle the deck. Cut the cards. Turn one over. Rain. Snow. Fog. Ice.

We’re waiting for just the right card. The one that says Go!

I heard a cardinal sing his spring song this week, despite the heavy snows and other crazy weather changes.

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It won’t be long.

*****

The opening quote is by Ralph Kiner (1922-2014), a major league baseball player and outfielder with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Chicago Cubs, and Cleveland Indians. Kiner was an announcer for the New York Mets until his passing. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1975, and known as one of baseballs “most charming gentlemen.”

***

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Illinois DRN, Downer’s Grove, IL; frost at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; frost at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; snowy day, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Illinois DNR, Downer’s Grove, IL;  foggy morning near Danada Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Wheaton, IL; late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; compass plant (Silphium lacinatum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Illinois DNR, Downer’s Grove, IL; wild quinine (Parthenium integrafolium), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Illinois DNR, Downer’s Grove, IL;  stream through Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Illinois DNR, Downer’s Grove, IL; prairie cinquefoil (Drymocallis arguta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white vervain (Verbena urticifolia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Illinois DNR, Downer’s Grove, IL; rattlesnake master  (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Illinois DNR, Downer’s Grove, IL; prescribed burn sign, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; monarch (Danaus plexippus) on butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis ), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL. 

Why (Prairie) Words Matter

“‘Remember, the firemen are rarely necessary. The public itself stopped reading of its own accord.’”– from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, on burning books.

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While hiking an unfamiliar prairie this past weekend, I came to a stream, limned with ice.

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The bridge spanning the waterway was gone. Hmmm. My choices were simple. I could turn back. Hop from slick rock to slick rock. Or, wade the shallows to the other side, and get my feet wet. Reluctantly, I chose the path of least resistance and retraced my path. The rest of the prairie would have to wait for another day’s exploration, better footwear, or the bridge repair.

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As one who seeks to know new places more intimately, I’m reminded that the loss of bridges—connecting points—-matter.

As a writer, I get that as well. Words are bridges. They have the capability to connect us to places—and to dynamic ideas. They elicit memory. They provoke action. They stimulate emotion. They are a springboard for the imagination.

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How many times has a parent told you, “Her first word was—-.”  Or a grieving person: “His last words were—–.” Words are significant! Our ancestors also knew the importance of words. The First Amendment notes, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press… .” Words matter. Losing words matters.

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When we lose particular words about place, we lose part of the collective memory of our people. These words comprise a slice of our identity. They are the language of the place in which we live. More specifically, when we lose prairie-related vocabulary, we break links that join us to the tallgrass; specific identifiers that bind us to a place.

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Words are one way we give human voice to a land that speaks in prairie dropseed, bobolinks, and dung beetles. Naming things brings them to our attention, just as learning the name of someone we meet makes them more memorable, more “real” to us.

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When we learn the name for a particular sedge or a specific bee, we can visualize it, even when it isn’t in front of us.  In a time when tallgrass prairie is dubbed one of the most threatened natural areas on earth, to lose any of these names is to lose some of our momentum in cherishing and caring for it.

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We’re lazy.  We don’t have enough time, do we? It’s easier to use non-descriptive, bland words that trip easily off the tongue. Ecosystem. Landscape. Grasses. Plants. Bugs. Use generalities and the prairie becomes a blur, a non-entity.

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There is rhythm and motion in the prairie vocabulary; joy in the particulars. Delight in the common names: Canada wild rye. Regal fritillary. Hoary puccoon. Cream wild indigo. Try saying some of the scientific names out loudBison bison. (That double whammy! Like a drumbeat.) Or, Monarda fistulosa. Spiza americana. Let these descriptive words roll off your tongue: Mesic. MollisolsLoess.

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Speak the words. Keep them in front of people.

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It’s a fragile hold we have on these words.  Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

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As we draw toward the winter solstice on Thursday—the shortest, darkest day of the year—remember the light that words can bring into the world. Words of color and sound. Words of hope. Words of restoration. Words of promise.

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Specific words matter.

Let’s use them.

*****

Ray Bradbury’s (1920-2012) short, powerful book Fahrenheit 451, written in 1953 about a post-literate society, seems almost prophetic more than six decades later. Bradbury’s writing spanned many genres, from science fiction to fantasy, as well as a terrific book, Zen in the Art of Writing on the craft of putting words together well. My favorite is Dandelion Wine, his fictional memoir of growing up in Illinois.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blown-out Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota) seedheads on Afton Prairie, Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb County Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL;  Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Afton Prairie, Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb County Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL;  mixed grasses with smartweed (Polygonum spp.)  around the pond at Afton Prairie, Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb County Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL; mountain mint (probably Pycnanthemum virginianum), Afton Prairie, Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb County Forest Preserve DeKalb, IL;  mixed grasses including Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) on Afton Prairie, Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb County Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL; mixed grasses with little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) on Afton Prairie, Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb County Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL; Canada wild rye, Afton Prairie, Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb County Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL; unknown sunflower seedheads (Helianthus spp.) with Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis) Afton PrairieAfton Forest Preserve, DeKalb County Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL; wild cucumber (Echinocystis lobata), Afton Prairie, Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb County Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL; sunset, Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Thanks to John Heneghan and Tricia Lowery for taking us to Afton Prairie for our first visit there. And thanks to Joshua Clark and the good folks at DeKalb County Forest Preserve who care for Afton Prairie and its associated beautiful natural areas. Once again, a big shout-out to Paul Marcum and the ID gurus at Illinois Botany Facebook page for help with wild cucumber.

Space and Place on the Prairie

 

“How long does it take to know a place?…Abstract knowledge about a place can be acquired in short order if one is diligent. The visual quality of an environment is quickly tallied if one has the artist’s eye. But the ‘feel’ of a place takes longer to acquire. It is made up of experiences, mostly fleeting and undramatic, repeated day after day and over the span of years. It is a unique blend of sights, sounds, and smells, a unique harmony of natural and artificial rhythms such as times of sunrise and sunset, of work and play. The feel of a place is registered in one’s muscles and bones… . Knowing a place, in the above senses, clearly takes time. It is a subconscious kind of knowing.”– Yi-Fu Tuan

****

I have the good fortune to live next to a respected taxonomist, whose suburban yard overflows with hundreds of native plants. Once, I asked him the best way to go about increasing my own knowledge of the natural world. He thought for a moment, then said, “Look at your backyard, Cindy. Each day, learn a different plant you find there.”

Such simple advice. So difficult to take. Because of course, it requires…time.

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Dr. Yi-Fu Tuan, University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of geography emeritus,  writes, “How long does it take to know a place? Modern man, he says, is so mobile “that he has not the time to establish roots; his experience and appreciation of place is superficial.”

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Time. We race around, doing things, going other places. Knowing where we live is one of the the casualties.  How often I have heard people say, “I wish I had more time… ” “I just don’t have enough time… ” “If only I had time to… ” “There aren’t enough hours in a day… ” “If only I didn’t have to sleep… .”  I’ve said most of the same things myself. With hours in such short supply, should we despair of ever finding time to really “know” where we live? Much less, even something as seemingly simple as the names of the plants in our backyards?

Yes, it takes time to know a place. But, as Tuan also writes, even “an intense experience of short duration…can alter our lives.”

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All of us may attest to the power of short but memorable outdoor experiences that helped us know a place. My list of those experiences might include memories as simple as a childhood playspace under a forsythia bush.

A particular sunset.

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The coyote on a prairie trail in the rain, going about her business, oblivious to me sitting a few feet away. Sandhill cranes unexpectedly landing all around me in a field. An unexpected cloud of ebony jewelwing damselflies arising from a stream bank. Finding a fawn.

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You soak these moments into your bones; they permeate your subconscious mind, they echo through your dreams. These intense experiences inform the way you feel about a place. You don’t forget.

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But, you have to be there to have the experiences.  You have to show up. Even if it is only to sit in your backyard to key out plants, a field guide in one hand, the unknown green leaf in the other. You set aside time to let those moments happen. Or, at the very least, you cultivate an awareness that allows you to be awake to those moments when they do happen. To stop and pay attention to the moment.

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These moments are often unscripted. One evening, more than a dozen years ago, I sat in my car in the high school parking lot, waiting for my children’s band lessons to end.  I turned the ignition off and rolled down the window. The parking lot was unusually quiet. I watched geese lift off the football field and pull together the scarf of the sunset with their black, bowling pin shaped bodies, on their way to Hidden Lake nearby.  A few clouds scrolled across the sky. The hot asphalt, the tic-tic-tic of the car cooling down, and drift of music from the band room were unlikely elements of anything special. The high school parking lot is a bland spot to have any intense experiences about place. But I can still frame that sky, those geese, that place in my memory, more than a decade later. There was an intensity of that moment, and one that was unplanned. It helped wake me up to where I lived at a time when I was struggling to pay attention to my life.

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Now, when I become cynical or jaded about the natural world, I’ll go looking for those moments intentionally. Usually, I head to my favorite prairie trail nearby, and take a walk.  If this fails to wake me up, I’ve found seeing the prairie with a child often often opens it to me in a new way again.

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If you’ve walked with a child, you know they don’t feel the press of time as we do. In summer, they are perfectly content to stop and watch bees work flowers for a good long while, or in winter, explore the holes prairie voles make in snow—look for the entrance and exit spots, mark them with sticks. A child thinks nothing of taking a net outside to catch butterflies in November. And why not? To a child, nothing is yet impossible.

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I need these reminders to slow down. To pay attention. To remember what it was like to be a child, to not use a calendar, to not have a to-do list. To feel time in the way a child does. Recapture that feeling that nothing is impossible, even in November.

I walk the prairie alone today—in November, yes, when much of what is going on in my life does seem impossible and completely unsolvable. This place, this prairie where I walk, is woven into my muscles and bones; it runs in my blood. I’ve walked it almost 20 years now. In my memory are the fires of prescribed burns I’ve helped set that have kept the tallgrass alive and vibrant.

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Ahead months away, in my imagination, are the blooms and grasses of summer, those rather iconic stereotypical pale purple coneflowers and Culver’s root; bright orange butterfly weed and yellow coreopsis; all the colors and pageantry of a landscape gone wild and rich with buzz and bloom; diversity and joy.

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Today, in real time, I hike a more subdued November prairie, its life ebbing; someone seemingly stepping on the brakes; the winds tinted with chill; the sun slanted toward the horizon; blackened stalks stark against the color-drained grasses. And yes. Seedheads shattering into the promise of something new. At least I tell myself this. I believe it because I’ve been on this trail at this time in this place before. And I’ve seen the cycle happen, again and again.

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Time well spent.

****

The opening quote is taken from Dr. Yi-Fu Tuan’s (1930-) Space and Place: The Perspective of Experiencewhich offers fascinating glimpses into our relationship with both the natural and built environment. His book never fails to provoke me to thinking more deeply about the places where I spend my time and how and why I spend it as I do.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): white wild indigo (Baptisia alba), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; two-track in spring, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; tall coreopsis (Coreposis tripteris), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunset, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white-tailed fawn (Odocoileus virginianus) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; little wood duck (Aix sponsa), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; smooth sumac (Rhus glabra), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; netting butterflies in the off season, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prescribed burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; summer on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunset, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Rainy Day on the Prairie

“To one unaccustomed to it, there is something inexpressibly lonely in the solitude of a prairie.” — Washington Irving

***

October crayons its changes on the prairie.

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Rain moves in. The colors seem to wash from the trees…

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…into the tallgrass.

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The trees seem vulnerable; stressed by drought, their leaves shattered by wind and hard rain.

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The showers intensify grass colors.

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Everything looks pixelled, a little grainy, under lead skies.

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Brittle prairie plants are bright with raindrops. A contradiction of sorts.

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Fields of corn and soybeans press into the prairie on all sides. Trees and shrubs, waiting for their chance to take over, crowd the edges.

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Once shorn of their crops, it’s not difficult to imagine these vast agricultural spaces covered with tallgrass as they were hundreds of years ago.

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There is a sense of melancholy for what has passed—and what can’t easily be undone.

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An appreciation for what this rainy day on the prairie has to offer. Solitude. A different perspective on something familiar.

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Gratefulness for how the season opens us to new ways of seeing and thinking.

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An appreciation for what is happening now, in this moment.

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And the beginnings of acceptance of the bigger changes of a new season, still ahead.

***

Washington Irving (1783-1859), whose quote begins this essay, is sometimes called “the first American to make a living as a writer.” He is best known for his short Halloween-esque stories, Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow from his book, The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.   A Tour on the Prairies, published in 1835 and from which the opening quote is taken, has never been out of print. Read more about Irving’s tallgrass travels here.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): late October landscape, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; late October landscape, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; late October landscape, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; late October landscape, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; view of the visitor center, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; raindrop on cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) leaf, author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; corn, trees, and prairie, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; harvested field, somewhere between Franklin Grove and Rochelle, IL; unknown plant, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; late October landscape, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; late October landscape, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Carthage Road, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL 

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

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“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.