Tag Archives: white wild indigo

Prairie Fireworks

“It seems to me that the natural world is the greatest source of excitement; the greatest source of visual beauty; the greatest source of intellectual interest. It is the greatest source of so much in life that makes life worth living.”–David Attenborough

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It’s summer in the tallgrass; almost the Fourth of July. The bison go about their business of raising young calves.

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White wild indigo continues its magical year. I’ve never seen anything like the profusion of this wildflower on the prairie in the past two decades I’ve been hiking the tallgrass.

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And those pale purple coneflowers! Unbelievable.

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Anecdotally, the most beautiful time on the prairie is supposedly the Fourth of July.  I love all four seasons in the tallgrass: the blue and black palette of winter, the golds and rusts of autumn, the first green shoots needling up through the ash of a prescribed burn in spring. But this year, from the white wild indigo and coneflowers, to the prairie lilies…

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….to the black-eyed Susans…

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…it’s easy to make a case for this as the most lovely season of all.

It’s not only the plants that are striking. Deep in the prairie wetlands, a calligrapher’s fly hangs out in the big bur reeds. The blooms it explores seem a foreshadowing of fireworks later this week.

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Soft spiky explosions of foxtail barley grass line the prairie trails. I read up on it, and discover it’s also called squirrel-tail grass. What great names!  I love this silky grass, even though it is a bit on the weedy side. More “fireworks” to enjoy.

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The leaves of mountain mint and bee balm, crushed between my fingers, envelope me in their sharp fragrance as I hike.  I chew a few of the leaves, enjoying the taste. While admiring the wildflowers and prairie grasses this summer, I also monitor dragonflies and damseflies—counting the different species and their numbers on the prairies and in the wetlands.

Ethereal damselflies have shown up. New ones I’ve not seen before like the one below. Sweetflag spreadwing? I’m not sure. I pore over my field guides, looking at photos and parsing through identification marks.

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This lyre-tipped spreadwing, with its metallic body sizzling in the sunlight, stopped me in my tracks.

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Both spreadwings are new to me this summer, after chasing dragonflies for more than a dozen years.  Cascades of wildflowers, a profusion of spreadwing species…perhaps the rainy deluge the past three months has brought these about? It’s nice to think so.

There are many different bluets on the prairie, but this azure bluet damselfly in the prairie savanna grasses is a new discovery for me, and for our site.

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Marla Garrison’s wonderful Damselflies of the Chicago Region taught me to look for the “bat” image on the lower part of the azure bluet’s abdomen (most people call it “the tail”). Can you see it? Right above the blue segments.

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More familiar dragonflies are also out and about. Eastern amberwing dragonflies, like this female, do handstands to try and cool off in the sweltering heat.

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I never tire of the widow skimmer dragonflies, even though they are ubiquitous in my region.

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Ebony jewelwings, like this pair (the female with a white dot on her wings) are the essence of summer. They fly loops in and out of the reed canary grass along Willoway Brook, snatching insects and looking for mates.

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I’m looking forward to celebrating the Fourth of July with my family this week. But the best fireworks happen all summer long on the prairie. Explosions of wildflowers. The pop of color from a new dragonfly or damselfly. Unusual insects to discover.

So many new adventures to anticipate.

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So much to be grateful for.

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David Attenborough is the narrator for the original episodes of Planet Earth, which I have had the joy to watch with four of my little grandkids, Ellie, Jack, Anna, and Margaret. If you haven’t checked out this award-winning series of documentaries about life on our planet, take a look here at Planet Earth II.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): bison (Bison bison) and wildflowers, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisa alba), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale purple coneflowers (Echinacea pallida), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; prairie lilies (Lilium philadelphicum andinum) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; calligrapher’s fly (Toxomerus  — either the marginatus or geminatus) on big bur reed (Sparganium eurycarpum), prairie planting and pond, Lisle, IL; foxtail barley grass or squirrel-tail grass (Hordeum jubatum) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; possibly sweetflag spreadwing damselfly (Lestes forcipatus) although it may also be slender spreadwing (Lestes rectangularis)–and so I continue learning!; prairie planting and pond, Lisle, IL;  lyre-tipped spreadwing (Lestes unguiculatus), prairie planting and pond, Lisle, IL; azure bluet (Enallagma aspersum), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; azure bluet (Enallagma aspersum), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; female eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; widow skimmer dragonfly (Libellula luctuosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ebony jewelwing damselflies (Calopteryx maculata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; dragonfly monitoring at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Thanks to Odonata of the Eastern United States FB group and Joyce Gibbons for help on damselfly ID this week! Grateful.

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Cindy’s Upcoming Classes and Events

Friday, August 2, 8-11:30am — Prairie Ethnobotany at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Discover how people have used prairie plants throughout history. Register here.

Monday, August 12, 7-8 p.m., Fox Valley Garden Club –The Garden’s Frequent Fliers: Dragonflies and Damselflies –Aurora, IL. Free and open to the public. For details and directions, click here.

August 10-13, online and in-person: Intensive Master Naturalist Training at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (sold out).

August 19-22, 8am-5pm daily, M-TH — Certified Interpretive Guide training with National Association for Interpretation at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Earn your credential as a naturalist or cultural history interpreter! Details and registration here.

Thursday, August 29, 7-8:30 p.m.—Summer Literary Series: On the Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL– Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit, book signing, drinks, and tram ride with a lecture on the Schulenberg Prairie, the fourth oldest planted restoration in the world. Register here. 

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

Living the (Prairie) Questions at Horicon Marsh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Spiderwort, with its leaf ribbons and alienesque buds.

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Meadow anemone, cupped toward the sunshine.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cindy’s Speaking and Classes

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

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

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

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

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

Bringing Prairie Home

“Your garden will reveal yourself.” — Henry Mitchell

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I’m humming Neil Young’s rowdy “Are You Ready for the Country” under my breath, and occasionally breaking out in song with the few lyrics I remember. Happy music, for a happy morning.  Why? I’m ready to plant some pasque flower seedlings into their new home on the prairie. We collected the seeds last spring, and after a long winter indoors, they’re ready.

As a steward, I look at the tiny wildflowers, so vulnerable in their seed tray, and imagine them  repopulating the prairie.

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I try to imagine them in bloom after a few seasons…

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…and then going to seed, completing the cycle.

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Hope for the future.

The seedlings we’re planting into the larger prairie inspire me each spring to try and improve the little prairie patch in my backyard. The first native plant sales have been in full swing this month. My checkbook has taken a hit!  On the porch are the results: plastic pots of small prairie plants.

The tiny white wild indigo…

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…soon to be as large as a bushel basket. Its white spikes will brighten my backyard, just as it inspires delight on the prairies where I’m a steward.

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A wisp of Indian grass looks like nothing much now….

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…but I have a vision of what it might be, waving over my head in a slant of autumn light.

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I compare my flat of plants against my order list. White prairie clover. Check. Purple prairie clover. Check.

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Then, I close my eyes and think about the future.

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Queen of the prairie, with its signature green leaves…

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…holding the promise of cotton candy color in my backyard prairie patch.

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Rattlesnake master, diminutive in its plastic pot…

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…will someday throw its summer globes of greenish white into my backyard prairie.

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In the biggest pot is my prize prairie shrub; New Jersey tea. Sure, it doesn’t look like much now, sitting in a sheltered spot on my front porch…

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…but I can already see its foamy flowers frothing like a cappuccino, planted next to the patio where I’ll sip my first cup of coffee each morning and admire it.

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The prairies I steward are works in progress. So is my backyard.  Right now, there is standing water. Mud. A whole lot of emerald green growth; some of it not the welcome kind.

But mixed among the weeds in my backyard—and on the prairies where I hike and volunteer—are a kaleidoscope of prairie plant leaf shapes and blooms. The shell-like leaves of alum root. Fuzzy prairie dock leaf paddles. Heart-leaved golden Alexanders.

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In my imagination, I see these prairies as they could be: five, ten, fifteen years from now. So much of the joy is in the planning and the dreaming.  Sure, rabbits and deer will munch on some seedlings. Weather may not cooperate. Voles may demolish this wildflower, or an errant step in the wrong place may flatten one of the grass seedlings. With a bit of luck, and some coddling, I know many of them will make it.

Seeing these vulnerable plants succeed against the odds always offers hope for my own year ahead, with all of its unknown challenges and potential delights. Watching these plants complete the seasonal cycle never fails to comfort me in some small way. The prairie, vulnerable as it is, always moves forward. It’s always growing. Always changing. Always beautiful in new and different ways.

So much is represented in these flats. So many possibilities in small plastic pots.

Little prairie plants. Big dreams.

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Now that’s something to sing about.

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The opening quote is from the charmingly cynical writing of the late garden columnist Henry Mitchell (1924-1993). You can read more about Mitchell here. If you haven’t read Mitchell before, I’d begin with The Essential Earthman, a collection of his columns for the Washington Post.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens) seedlings, DuPage County, IL; pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens) in bloom, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens) in seed, DuPage County, IL;  white wild indigo (Baptisia alba), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba) and other wildflowers, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), author’s porch, Glen Ellyn, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), Schulenberg Prairie, the Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra) seedling, author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) seedling, author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus) ready for planting, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; heart-leaved golden Alexanders (Zizia apta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

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Cindy’s Upcoming Classes and Speaking Events:

Thursday, May 16 & Thursday, May 23: A Cultural History of the Tallgrass Prairie, two evenings on the Schulenberg Prairie and in the classroom. The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: register by clicking here.

Tuesday, May 21–7-8 p.m.Dragonflies and Damselflies: The Garden’s Frequent Flyers, Bloomingdale Garden Club, St. Paul Evangelical Church, 118 First Street, Bloomingdale, IL. Free and Open to the Public

Saturday, June 1: The Tallgrass Prairie: A Conversation, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. Bison tour with book purchase; lecture is free! You must preregister here by May 25 as seating is limited.

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

Tallgrass Thank You Notes

“…I hear a sound, sometimes a little more than a whisper, of something falling, arriving, fallen, a seed …there is no trace of regret in the sound or in the stillness after the falling, no sound of hesitation on the way, no question and no doubt.” M.S. Merwin

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I’ve been catching up on my thank-you notes this week, nudged by the upcoming holiday that reminds me to be grateful. Ironic, isn’t it? A week in the Midwest in which we dedicate ourselves to be thankful falls in one of the gloomiest seasons of the year.

What if Thanksgiving fell in July? Easy to get in a thankful mood.

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Or May, when shooting star blooms carpet the prairie after a long, cold winter; everything seems bathed in joy and delight. Do I feel thankful then? You bet!shootingstarSPMA51918wm

But November! Well, she makes no apologies for who she is.  November’s given me a lot to be grateful for. So, as I write my thank-you notes to people in my life this week, I figure I should write a few to November as well.

Here goes…

Thanks, November–your gray days are a foil for aspects of the prairie I’d otherwise overlook.  Would I notice the dangling seedpods of white wild indigo if they appeared this way in sunny July? Perhaps not. They seem to take on added charisma on gray, snow-spitting days.  “Prairie bling” of a certain kind.

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I appreciate how some of the less exciting plants get their moment in the spotlight this month, November. Late figwort isn’t a particularly glamorous plant, but this month, it gets a makeover. Without the pops of bright July wildflower color or distractions of butterflies and bees, the eye is drawn to figwort’s kitschy structure. Looks a bit like some management diagrams I’ve seen,  or maybe an organizational flow chart.

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Other flora and fauna of the prairie are worth a second look in November. Carrion flower, which twines its way through the prairie grasses without a lot of fanfare during the warm weather, is a show-stopper this month. (Nope, it’s not edible—unless you’re a bird or a mammal).

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November even gives the humble bison track some seasonal flair. Glitzy!

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Thanks for the unexpected, November. The rhythm of sandhill crane migration through prairie skies is an expected pleasure this month. But November bird life holds some surprises.

John Heneghen's Varied ThrushWM2 111918 Like this little guy, above. Our friends, John and Trisha, had a varied thrush show up this week in their backyard, not far from their prairie patch. The varied thrush is an erratic migrant from the West Coast not normally seen in the Midwest. Its arrival here in the Chicago region is a November serendipity. People drove from around the Midwest to see and add this colorful thrush to their life lists. Who knows what other avian surprises might appear this month?

Hey, November, thanks for teaching me about adapting and surviving.

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The hairs of the compass plant above speak of hard times. Each hair catches moisture and helps retain water, which keeps the compass plant alive through brutal Midwestern droughts. November peels away all the color and glam of a compass plant, and reminds me of how tough some of our prairie plants are. It’s a memo to myself, as well; a reminder that I have cultivated ways to navigate the difficult times of my life.  Survival skills. Adaptations.

November reminds me, “You’ve got this.” 

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Thanks, November for the transition. Change is good, right? Well, maybe. But change is usually difficult. As much as I enjoy the change of seasons, I also have trouble letting go of whatever season I’m in. As I get older, it seems time moves more quickly, with less time to adjust. November, with its segue from autumn into meteorological winter, helps make the transition to the end of the year a little easier.

willowaybrookSPMA118The photo above of Willoway Brook on the Schulenberg Prairie is a study in transitions. Snow has settled around the stream, which is just a breath away from freezing but still runs free and clear. High quality prairie on the left is juxtaposed with invasive reed canary grass along the shoreline, which prairie volunteers battled to a hard-fought draw this season. The partly-dead reed canary grass hangs over the brook, admiring its reflection, perhaps, and—in my mind—thumbing its proverbial nose at us. We’ve decided to let a certain amount of reed canary grass colonize the streambanks as we focus on other restoration activities on the prairie, a decision made simply from a time-management standpoint. The above photo tells many stories about persistence and patience; resistance and acceptance.

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Which reminds me…

Thanks, November, for the people who care for prairie. People like the site managers and volunteers and stewards. People like the prairie donors and environmental activists who make a difference. Those who take a child out to see the prairie. The person who shares a photo of the tallgrass with a friend. People like you—who care about the natural world.

The curtain is coming down on another year in the tallgrass. As it does…

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…I want to say thank you for reading. Thank you for being a part of the work that keeps the tallgrass prairie alive and thriving. Thank you for sharing your love of prairie with others. And, thank you for your part in keeping the tallgrass prairie visible, both in our communities and in people’s hearts and minds.

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What about you? Is there a thank-you note you’d like to write to November? Leave it in the comments section below as a reminder of what we have to be thankful for this month.

Thank you.

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The opening quote is from the poem, Garden Notes, from William Stanley “W.S.” Merwin’s collection, The Moon Before Morning (Copper Canyon Press). Twice a Pulitzer Prize winner, Merwin (1927-) was our 2010-11 United States Poet Laureate, and is known for writing his grief over our destruction of the natural world. Discover more about him at the Poetry Foundation. Click here to listen to him read his powerful and moving poem, Rain Light.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom) except for varied thrush as noted: monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), Nomia Meadow Farms prairie, Franklin Grove, IL; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia), Schulenberg Prairie in May, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla) with snowcap, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica) in November, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, carrion flower (probably Smilax lasioneura) in November, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  icy bison (Bison bison) track, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; varied thrush (Ixoreus naevius), photo courtesy John Heneghan, Kane County, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) seedhead, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale Indian plantain seeds (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; snowmelt on Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) in November, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; bench on the Schulenberg Prairie in November, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

With grateful thanks to John Heneghen, who shared his varied thrush photo and story with me for this post, and reminded me of another reason to be thankful for the unexpected serendipities of November.

Wings, Stings, and Prairie Things

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

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

Prairie Streams of Consciousness

“Nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.” — Pema Chödrön.

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If you want to get a fresh perspective on life, jump into the water.  That’s where I find myself this week, monitoring dragonflies and damselflies on the prairie. So much of insect life on the prairie is virtually invisible. To really see some of the damselflies requires full immersion.

It’s sunny—one of the few dry days this week.  Out on the prairie, the white wild indigo is in full celebration mode.

spma6918wm.jpgThe bumblebees are making the most of bloom time.

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Honeybees busily buzz around the wild asparagus blossoms.

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The gorgeous prairie wildflowers are offering a show in early June that would put Las Vegas to shame. Scurfy pea (what a great name!) throws purple all over its silvery tumbleweeds.

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Prairie sundrops earn their name, splashing light where they lie knee-high, barely keeping up with the grasses and wildflowers growing lushly all around.

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There’s plenty of dragonfly action on the prairie trails. Calico pennant dragonflies—red males, yellow females—might be mistaken for butterflies by the non-initiated.

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And who could blame someone for thinking so? Each year the pennants’ fluttering appearance seems magical. I could get easily get distracted from the morning’s task at hand.

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But today is for the prairie stream. I pull on my hip waders and get down to business. It’s a bit windier than I’d like for dragonfly monitoring, but the brook is nestled into a low spot on the prairie and there, the breeze doesn’t do as much as ruffle my hair. However, getting into a stream in waders is a challenge. Especially when the sides of the bank are steep and your knees aren’t what they used to be.  I sit and clumsily scoot-slide down the steep sides of the bank.

It’s a different world, down in the stream. The prairie above recedes from my view and my thoughts. All that exists is the water. It’s surprisingly high, well up to my hips.  I cautiously test my footing. Streams are always dicey; sometimes the bottom muck sucks your boots into it unexpectedly, leaving yourself in a bad predicament. Other times an unexpected hole opens up as you take a step and you lose your footing. I’ve never fallen—yet—but I fully expect that is in the cards at some point.

All it takes is a glint of color or motion out of the corner of your eye to distract you. You glance up. Ebony jewelwings! The white spots tell me this one’s a female.

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The males aren’t far off; spaced evenly along the stream. Perched on the grasses.

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Look down, and there’s a violet dancer damselfly in all its shocking variations of purple.

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Just to the side is a newly-emerged American rubyspot damselfly in the teneral stage, abdomen drooping, its colors in the process of brightening. Its wings look newly-minted.  I’ve been watching for this species, which hasn’t appeared along my stream-side route this month. Like clockwork, they knew when it was time to emerge.

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There you are.  I’ve been wondering when you’d show up.

Picking my way down the stream, I test each step. The process gives “mindfullness” fresh meaning.  I stumble at one point, where a drop-off is invisible in the murky water, and grab at the closest vegetation. For the first time in my life as a prairie steward, I’m grateful for the invasive reed canary grass lining the shore.

As I regain my sense of balance, I notice a new form of a blue-fronted dancer damselfly—a blue morph female, rather than the more common orangey-tan— enjoying a protein-packed lunch of unknown bug. I’ve seen plenty of blue-fronteds over the course of my monitoring, but not this variation. Cool! I thought I knew this species. It’s another reminder that there is so much I don’t know.

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The stream is the romantic hot spot of the prairie for dragons and damsels.  All around me are various stages of damselfly mating in progress.  In the early stages, the male (like this blue male stream bluet, below) grabs a likely-looking female behind the head…

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…and the two dragons or damsels form  “the wheel,” which often looks like a heart. Two ebony jewelwings make a beautiful one, don’t they?

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The male guards the female (either by hovering in the air, or continuing his death-grip behind her head) until her eggs are safely deposited in floating mats of vegetation, grasses, old wood, or directly into the water. Take a look below as a pondhawk female (green) dragonfly taps her eggs into the surface of the water, while the male (powdery blue) hover guards just above.

 

The whole process of ovipositing—egg laying—moves fast, doesn’t it? But a dragonfly or damselfly’s life is a matter of weeks, sometimes days, or even hours. To keep life moving forward, they don’t mess around.

Unlike the dragonflies, there’s nothing fast about my work today. The rewards of stream wading are these: Reminding myself how it feels to move quietly and slowly. Learning that what I think I know isn’t always the whole story.  Finding new perspectives on places I thought I knew well. Surprises at every bend of the brook. Realizing that when I don’t jump in I miss so much. And most of all, perhaps, the mind-clearing effort of paying attention to every step, punctuated by new delights all around.

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When I’ve finished wading my short stretch of stream, I’m exhausted.  The  careful focus on footing. The watchful parsing of shoreline vegetation for a flash of color, a glimmer of motion. The sheer energy exerted to get from point A to point Z in the water that is getting to be more of a challenge each season.

But the bombardment of marvels all around me in the stream fills up my “inner well.” You know that “well;” the one that is depleted by meetings and noise and front-page news and angry drivers and toxic people.  I always leave the stream feeling more at peace. Like the world is a beautiful place.

I don’t wade every pond and stream where I dragonfly monitor; it takes too much time. But there’s not a day when I don’t wish I could.  There are joys and revelations I’m missing because I stay high and dry on the shore, counting dragonflies where it’s easier. But I’ll always see less than I would from the sidelines than if I fully commit myself to the water.

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Think about it. Every pond, every lake, every stream is filled with rhythmic dances of   life going on each moment. So many amazing things happening in the world!

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All we have to do is look. And keep our sense of wonder.

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The opening quote is by Pema Chödrön (1936-), an American Tibetan Buddhist nun. Her books include,  When Things Fall Apart and Start Where You Are.

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla) with unknown bumblebee, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) with an unknown honeybee, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; scurfy pea (Psoralidium tenuiflorum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie sundrops (Oenothera pilosella) , Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; calico pennant dragonfly male (Celithemis elisa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; calico pennant dragonfly female (Celithemis elisa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata), female, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata), male, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; violet dancer damselfly (Argia fumipennis violacea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; American rubyspot damselfly (Hetaerina americana), teneral, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blue-fronted dancer damselfly (Argia apicalis) (female, blue morph), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; stream bluets (Enallagma exsulans), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ebony jewelwing damselflies (Calopteryx maculata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pondhawk dragonflies (Erythemis simplicicollis)  as seen from my kayak in Busse Woods, Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Schaumberg, IL; green frog (Lithobates clamitans), Nachusa Grasslands Beaver Pond Stream, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  pond at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; pond at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

Walt Whitman’s Prairie

“…While I know the standard claim is that Yosemite, Niagara Falls, the upper Yellowstone and the like, afford the greatest natural shows, I am not so sure but the Prairies and the Plains, while less stunning at first sight, last longer, fill the esthetic sense fuller, precede all the rest, and make North America’s characteristic landscape.”–Walt Whitman

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Spring merges into meteorological summer on the prairie. The days yo-yo between cloudless humid afternoons in the 90s and beautiful breezy days in the 70s.  It’s a deceptively cool morning. None-the-less, it promises heat as I set out on my hike. I leave my old blue Honda on the two-track and make my way up a rocky hilltop.

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The prairie puts on growth right now like a toddler outgrowing clothes. You feel as if  sitting and watching the grass grow is a literal possibility.

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Pale purple coneflowers press in on all sides in every possible stage of bloom. Fibonacci, anyone?

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The prairie offers us the most when we offer it our time and our presence. Sit. Look. Look some more. Not everything has as much pizzazz as the coneflowers. The downy yellow painted cup makes up for what it lacks in vibrant color with originality.

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It rubs shoulders with the uncommon short green milkweed, one of more than a dozen native milkweed species in Illinois—and a perfect “10” in Flora of the Chicago Region. 

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Homely, you say? No glamour other than its conservation value? Perhaps. Yet this milkweed is as welcome to a weary monarch butterfly looking to lay its eggs as its flashier counterpart, the orange butterfly weed, just about ready to bloom on the prairie.

Sure, the prairie has its share of eye-popping color right now.

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But that’s not what necessarily draws us to it. The prairie satisfies us for the long haul with its interplay of wind and weather, pollinator and patterns. Grasses and gradients of color, birdsong and blooms.HenslowssparrowNG53118wm.jpg

It is deceptively simple.

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As you spend time with the prairie, you begin to understand just how very complex it is.

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Other stunning landscapes may wow you for a short while, but quickly lose their appeal. The prairie moves into your soul over time, sets up housekeeping, and endlessly satisfies you with its nuances. Look again. Listen.

As many have observed, the prairie doesn’t shout. But listen closely. It whispers.

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And a whisper can be a powerful thing.

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Walt Whitman (1819-1892) delivered the opening quote in this blogpost in a speech he prepared (but never gave) for a speaking engagement in Kansas on a trip out west in 1879-80. You can read more of his essay in “America’s Characteristic Landscape,” included in John T. Price’s edited collection of nature writing, The Tallgrass Prairie Reader (2014, University of Iowa Press, Bur Oak Books). 

All photographs and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) with Halictidae (sweat bee) (Agapostemon splendens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; downy yellow painted cup (Castilleja sessiliflora), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; short green milkweed (Aslepias viridiflora) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis) Henslow’s sparrow (Passerculus henslowii), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; familiar bluet damselfly, male (Enallagma civile), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; video of prairie ponds with dragonflies and birdsong, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; trail through Clear Creek Unit, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

Grateful thanks to Susan Kleiman, Nachusa Grasslands, who generously gave me the gift of her time.