Tag Archives: variable dancer damselfly

Six Reasons to Hike the July Prairie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still need more reasons?

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

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

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

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

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

Variable dancer.

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Ebony jewelwing.

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Powdered dancer.

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

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

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And once you see the damselflies, consider…

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

Male eastern amberwings.

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And their counterparts, the female eastern amberwings.

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

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

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…and why not go see?

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

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

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

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

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

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” begins a new session in September! Work from home at your own pace (with suggested assignment deadlines) for 60 days to complete the material, and meet other prairie volunteers and stewards on the discussion boards and in the optional ZOOM session. Register here.

Just released! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History. Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Morton Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org and other book venues. Order direct through Northwestern University Press and receive 40% off this new book and/or “The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction”— use coupon code SUN40. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during this chaotic time.

Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction.  

Summer on the Tallgrass Prairie

“Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass on a summer day listening to the murmur of water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is hardly a waste of time.” —John Lubbock

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When the pale purple coneflowers bloom on the prairie,  you know summer has arrived.

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With the blooming of the prairie wildflowers comes their tiny pollinators, dusted in pollen, intent on finding the best nectar sources.

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Everywhere, sheets of wildflowers open under the prairie sky. Purple-blue scurfy pea and the non-native but exuberant ox-eye daisies crowd together, a delightful pairing.

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Black-eyed susans are suddenly noticeable, in all different stages of flowering. From bud…

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To barely open…

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…to just opening…

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…and finally,  a full “open-house” for pollinators.

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Purple milkweed, just about to bloom, waits for monarch caterpillars.

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Non-native nodding thistle—or musk thistle as it is sometimes called—blooms in startling pink, abuzz with a bee or two. It’s almost five feet tall! A show-stopper.

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I’ve not seen this thistle before, and wonder how difficult it is to manage. I read that its seeds may remain in the soil for up to ten years. Even in bud, it is so unusual!

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Prairie sundrops, Oenothera pilosella, are having the best year on the prairie that I’ve seen in more than two decades. Is it the lack of fire this season? Or the wet spring? I’d love to know what conditions have brought it to this state of profusion and perfection. Wilhelm’s Flora ranks its coefficient of conservatism as a “10.”

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Wild coffee—sometimes called “late horse gentian”—offers up its odd flowers to anyone with the patience to look closely. Snowberry clearwing moth caterpillars (commonly called “hummingbird moths”) use wild coffee as a host plant.

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Later, the each of the plant’s orange fruits—called “drupes”—will have three black nutlets resembling coffee beans. 

Prairie-loving creatures are everywhere. The ubiquitous silver-spotted skippers nectar on white wild indigo.

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Damselflies, like this variable dancer, float dreamlike through the tallgrass.

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This has also been a week of dragonflies, perching on old grass stalks and patrolling the prairie airspace. June is a big month for meadowhawk dragonfly emergence.

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So many 12-spotted skimmers! They bask in the sunshine.

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The butterflies are out on sunny days, brightening the prairies. Monarchs. Cabbage whites. And swallowtails. An eastern black swallowtail butterfly, flapping madly, is intent on finding non-native red clover, a good nectar plant. I’ve tasted red clover myself — so sweet! The butterfly is ragged and tattered. A survivor.

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In the savannas near the prairies, the bluebirds rest in the shade. They are year-round residents on the prairie here, but I never fail to be astonished by their color. They may raise two broods each season. The young from the later brood will stay with the parents during the winter.

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I’m grateful for their bright flash of blue glimpsed in any season.

In a woodland close to the prairies, the wood thrush sings its singular tune. It’s my favorite bird song, but a melancholy one, as I know the species is in decline. Read more about its amazing song patterns here.

The bees bump from bloom to bloom, drunk with the possibilities of June.

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Summer on the prairie is just beginning.

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Why not go see?

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John Lubbock (1834-1913) was an amateur biologist, with an interest in evolutionary theory and archeology. He and Charles Darwin exchanged correspondence. Lubbock is also thought to be the source for the quote, “We may sit in our library and yet be in all quarters of the earth.” Not a bad way to travel.

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All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (from top to bottom): pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; mixed wildflowers, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; black-eyed susan (Rudbeckia hirta, unknown insect), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; purple milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens), Schulenberg prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; musk thistle (Carduus nutans) with honeybee (Apis sp.), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; musk thistle (Carduus nutans), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; prairie sundrops (Oenothera pilosella), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild coffee or late horse gentian (Triosteum perfoliatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; silver-spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; variable (or violet) dancer (Argia fumipennis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown female meadowhawk (Sympetrum spp.); Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL;  12-spotted skimmer dragonfly (Libellula pulchella), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; eastern black swallowtail butterfly (Papilio polyxenes asterius), Dick Young Forest Preserve prairie, Forest Preserve District of Kane County, Batavia, IL; eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wood thrush (Hylocichla mustelina) at Bliss Woods, Forest Preserve District of Kane County, Sugar Grove, IL; carpenter bee (Xylocopa sp.) on scurfy pea (Psoralidium tenuiflorum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve skies and prairie in June, Downer’s Grove, IL.

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Join Cindy for her upcoming online book event, online dragonfly classes, and online prairie ecology classes:

“Chasing Dragonflies in Literature, Life, and Art” Now Online! Saturday, June 27 10-11:30 a.m. Celebrate the release of author Cindy Crosby’s newest book, Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History through The Morton Arboretum. Cindy will be joined by the book’s award-winning illustrator, Peggy MacNamara,  artist in residence at the Field Museum. Enjoy a talk from the author and illustrator about the book, interspersed with short readings and insights on what it means for us as humans to be at home in the natural world. A Q&A session follows. Register here.

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

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” begins a new session in September! Work from home at your own pace (with suggested assignment deadlines) for 60 days to complete the material, and meet other prairie volunteers and stewards on the discussion boards and in the optional ZOOM session. Register here.

Just released! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History. Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Morton Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org and other book venues. Order direct through Northwestern University Press and receive 25% off — use coupon code NUP2020 and see the information below. Thank you for supporting small presses and writers during this chaotic time.Preorder Savings Chasing Dragonflies (1)

Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction.  

Tallgrass Prairie Adventures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What a beautiful world.

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

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

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

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

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

July’s Prairie Patterns

“The world is a confusing and turbulent place, but we make sense of it by finding order… . This makes us all pattern seekers. “– Philip Ball

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High heat and cool breezes; thunderstorms and calm mornings. From my hammock overlooking the backyard prairie patch, I’m astonished at the rapid growth of plants under the hot sun, watered by frequent rain showers. I swear I saw cup plants grow an inch right before my eyes! Anything seems possible in the bright light and blue skies of July.

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As I swing in my hammock, I’m reading a new book from University of Chicago Press: Patterns in Nature.  It’s a revelation. As an art and journalism student in my undergrad years, I avoided math as much as possible. Now, I’m discovering the beauty of mathematics on the prairie. Symmetry. Fractals. Surface tension.

So many different combinations of patterns in July! I’ve always been intrigued by patterns in nature. But I didn’t understand much about what I saw.

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Paging through Philip Ball’s book, I begin with symmetry, which Ball says, is at the root of understanding how patterns in nature appear.

It’s an eye-opener.

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Ball notes that “Bilateral symmetry seems almost to be the default for animals. Fish,  mammals, insects, and birds all share this attribute.” I see this in the blue-fronted damselfly above; in the mirror-image wings of a skipper butterfly below. Divide them in half and each side is essentially identical.

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It’s evinced in the reversed haploa moth, barely visible, deep in the tallgrass.

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There is bilateral symmetry in a bison’s skull, with a few imperfections.

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Or a monarch’s wings, even when tattered and worn.

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Who wouldn’t marvel at the folded, paired symmetrical wings of the male violet dancer damselfly?

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Once you begin looking for patterns in the natural world…

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…you see them everywhere.

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Fractal geometry, Ball writes, is said to be “the geometry of nature.” Fractals? What’s a fractal?  “Don’t know much algebra…,” sang Sam Cooke in his classic, “(What a) Wonderful World.” Yup. But I want to know more.

Ball boils it down to this: Look at a tree. A part of the tree, he writes, can resemble the whole, as the “tree algorithm” keeps making the same kind of structure repeatedly. As I hike the prairie one afternoon, I look up and all of the sudden it makes sense—once I understand what I’m looking at.

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“Growing fractals”  are a type of fractal found in the network of arteries, veins, and capillaries in the vascular system—another “branching” effect, Ball tells me. I think of the “arteries” running across prairie dock leaves, so pronounced in the autumn.

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I reflect on these concepts and my head aches. Fractals. Symmetry. So fascinating. So…complex. I regret now my ability to dodge everything math-related in college except for a course called “Cardinal Numbers.” A sort of 101 math for art majors. But maybe it’s not too late?

Early one morning, wading Clear Creek at Nachusa Grasslands, I admire the dew drops. I remember reading in Ball’s book that beads of water are driven by surface tension. Simply put, he says, surface tension pulls dew and rain into these “droplet” shapes, and gravity helps flatten the droplets. Ahhh. Look at that. Yes.

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A different sort of pattern. I search for water droplets: on leaves, spiderwebs, even dragonfly wings. Each dewdrop has heightened meaning.

As I continue reading, chapter after chapter, then go for hikes to explore the different patterns in Ball’s book, his simple explanations for a non-scientist open up a new world for me. A world where math seems a little more applicable. A little more accessible. A little more…meaningful. Perhaps, though, the best moment in Ball’s book  is when he writes that the law of pattern formation is driven by wonder.

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“We need to marvel and admire as well as to analyze and calculate,” Ball writes. Oh, yes. I’ve always been attuned to wonder; marveling comes without effort for me. Now, I’m learning the other side of the equation. Such an astonishing world!

So many “patterns” to marvel at and admire in the month of July on the prairie. Why not go see?

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Philip Ball is the former editor for Nature. The quotes in this post are from his book, Patterns in Nature: Why the Natural World Looks the Way it Does (University of Chicago Press, 2016). Check it out here.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): July on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; monarch caterpillar (Danaus plexippus) on butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blue-fronted dancer damselfly (Argia apicalis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; silver-spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; reversed haploa moth (Haploa reversa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bison (Bison bison) skull, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; violet dancer (sometimes called variable dancer) (Argia fumipennis violacea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) seedhead, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; orb weaver (family Araneidae) spider web, Brown County State Park, Nashville, IN; tree leafing out on the edge of the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; water droplets along Clear Creek, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; glade mallow (Napaea dioica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Cindy’s Classes and Speaking

August 2, 8-11:30 a.m., Prairie Ethnobotany: How People Have Used Prairie Plants Throughout History, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Register here.

August 12, 7-8:30 p.m., Dragonflies and Damselflies: The Garden’s Frequent Fliers, Fox Valley Garden Club, Aurora, IL. Free and open to the Public. Details here.

August 19-22, 8-5 p.m. daily, National Association for Interpretation Certified Interpretive Guide Training, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Register here.

August 29, 7-8:30 p.m., Summer Literary Series: Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit. Hope aboard the Morton Arboretum’s tram and enjoy a cool beverage, then listen to Cindy talk about the “prairie spirit” on the beautiful Schulenberg Prairie, the fourth oldest prairie restoration in the world. Register here.

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