Tag Archives: wildflowers

Prairie Walking

“The path is made in the walking of it.” — Zhuangzi

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On one side of my desk are precarious stacks of hiking books. Next to them is a list of more books on walking that I’ve lost or loaned out over the years, and now need to beg, borrow, or buy. As I prep for a talk on “Great Hikes in Literature” in a few weeks I already feel a bit overwhelmed by the amount of books on this topic. Books on the Appalachian Trail. Books on the Pacific Crest Trail. Tomes on hiking through America, Alaska, Great Britain, Australia. Fictional quests by the hobbit Frodo for the “one ring to rule them all. ” Children on walking adventures in “The Chronicles of Narnia.” Not to mention all the one-off essays compiled in outdoorsy collections.

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At the core of these books are central themes: We hike to try to understand something about ourselves. We hike to work through grief, loss, or pain. We hike to make a statement or protest. We hike to find a spiritual dimension in our lives. We hike to challenge our idea of what our limits are. We hike to understand more about the world around us. We go on quests! We hike when we’ve lost our way.

When life falls apart, we go for a walk.

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And sometimes, we just feel the urge to put one foot in front of the other. For as long as it takes. For as far as we can go.

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When my two kids were teenagers and I was cranky and out of sorts, they’d look at each other knowingly. “Mom, did you go for your walk on the prairie today?” Often the answer was “no!” They could see the difference that a simple hike made.

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Now, my children are grown and have children of their own. But I still find that hiking is as necessary to me as breathing.  There is something about walking that stimulates creativity, lowers stress levels, and opens us to different perspectives. Besides, going for a walk is a time honored tradition!  You can’t help but think of that oft-quoted line from John Muir: “I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”

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My first big solo hike was 30-plus miles. As I prepared to leave, a friend told me—“I could never do that! How can you be alone with your thoughts for so long?” True words. The greatest enemy of a long solo hike is not fear. It’s listening to your life, without the distractions and white noise that our everyday work pressures and social life mask.

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Today, I’m hiking the prairie as an observer. Not much of a personal agenda. For those who love wildflowers, I would argue that there is no better month than July to see a wash of electric color across the tallgrass prairies. Lately, drenching rains have alternated with baking heat. It’s brought forth a bevvy of blooms.

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Few people visit the prairie this month because of the high temperatures, humidity, and bugs. It’s true these are issues. Whenever I check the weather report before I go for a walk, I get the same posting. “EXTREME MOSQUITO ACTIVITY.” Well, whatever. That’s what mosquito headnets are for, right?

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The dragonflies, like this widow skimmer below, appreciate the clouds of mosquitoes in a way I never will. Probably much as we enjoy a mecca of restaurants spread out along the freeway to choose from on our travels.

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These past few weeks, me and my prairie volunteers are busy collecting seeds. Many of the early spring blooming plants have seeds that are ripe and ready. It’s not easy to find the shooting star seed capsules or cream wild indigo pods under the burgeoning grasses. So green, lush, and high! At the end of a work morning, our backs ache from stooping and searching. Today,  I spot some prairie parsley seeds. I pull some, and leave the ones that aren’t quite ready.

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I pop the ripe seeds into my shirt pocket. Later I’ll put them in a brown paper bag, label it, and leave it in the cool, dark tool room for our staff. Ready to reseed a new prairie restoration. The dry seeds rattling around in my pocket feel like hope for the future.

Our pasque flower seeds, collected earlier this season, are in the greenhouse now. We cross our fingers and hope that these notoriously difficult to grow seeds will germinate. If they do, we’ll plant them on the prairie next spring. It’s difficult to remember the joy I felt at the pasque flower’s pale lavender blooms back in April. The first of its delicate color on the prairie. Now, in July, the prairie is profligate with pops of purple. I appreciate this haze of bright color in a different way than I did the pasque flower’s more subtle hues earlier in the season.

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Walking the tallgrass trails in the high humidity, I notice that the air is saturated with the smell of common milkweed. Surely one of the most underrated fragrances in the natural world! A little prairie aromatherapy.

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The pink of the common milkweed is more pastel and subdued than the July sunsets, which lean toward the color of neon flamingo yard ornaments. These sunsets grow more brilliant each evening.

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The crickets and cicadas tune up in the dwindling light as I finish my hike. The temperature drops. I think of the sunset to come and feel peaceful. Quiet.

My prairie walks this week aren’t anything epic. They are over in an hour or so, unlike the quests and hundreds-of-miles hikes I’ll be teaching about in a few weeks. I’m not counting my steps, nor am I challenging myself to see how far I can go, or grieving anything particular. But these short hikes are a good reminder of some of the many reasons why we walk.

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To try and know ourselves. To pay attention. To look for signs of hope. And to continue to marvel at the delights and complexity of the natural world.

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Zhuangzi is an ancient Chinese writer, who is credited with many parables and sayings. “Zhuangzi” also refers to Chinese text by the same name (476-221 BC) which contains fables and quotes such as the one opening this blog post. The idea of spontaneous, carefree walking is a common theme among these writings.

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Love to hike? Or do you enjoy reading about epic walks from the comfort of your easy chair? I’ll be leading a lecture and discussion called “Great Hikes in Literature” at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL on Sunday afternoon, August 5, 2018. Click here to register: Great Hikes in Literature. Hope to see you there!

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): stack of “great walks” books, author’s desk, Glen Ellyn, IL; rocky knob, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) bloom, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera) on Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bottlebrush grass (Elymus hystrix), Schulenberg Prairie savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; the Schulenberg Prairie in mid-July, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie cinquefoil (Drymocallis arguta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea) with widow skimmer (Libellula luctuosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie parsley (Polytaenia nuttallii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunset, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; pearl crescent butterfly (Phyciodes tharos), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Spring Fever on the Prairie

“It’s spring fever. That is what the name of it is. And when you’ve got it, you want—oh, you don’t quite know what it is you do want— but it just fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so!” –Mark Twain

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Spring? It’s giving us the cold shoulder on the prairie.

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What a wacky, wicked April. Many prescribed burns were done late or not at all. Snowy days. Frigid nights. Wild winds. Plants stubbornly stay put under the blackened soil of the burned prairies. They know what’s good for them.

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On the edges of the prairie, the trees look dormant and colorless. What happened to the flush of green buds, the chatter of birds? Looking and listening, you’d think it was November instead of April.

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There’s hope.

Look carefully, under the fallen autumn leaves moldering in the woodlands and savannas surrounding the prairie. You’ll see the seasons are changing.  Spring beauties tentatively open in the infrequent sunny hours, pinstriped with pink. Euell Gibbons, best known for his books on wild food foraging and for appearing in  Grape-Nuts commercials, lauded the joys of the edible tubers, known as “fairy spuds.” He also cautioned that they were much too pretty to eat. I agree.

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Spring is in the half-dressed bloodroot blooms, unfurling cautiously, testing the air.

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If you look hard, you may find some blooms.  In the past, various concoctions of bloodroot have been used medicinally, including to control dental plaque, but today, those uses come with a lot of cautionary talk.

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Spring is in the hepatica blooming along the edges of the prairie, its persistent leaves worn and ragged after being nibbled during the winter. First the furry buds appear.

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And then…

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Wow, that color!

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We need hepatica in bloom this week! It’s a morale booster.

Spring is in the tender new leaves of Dutchman’s breeches.

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The fringed growth promises delicate flowers, just days away.

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Spring is in the pasque flowers which escaped the flames of a prescribed burn. The buds look furred against the cold.

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In my backyard prairie planting, shooting stars green up, ready to take off…

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…and skyrocket into bloom. Imagine that pink! Soon.

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Sure, the April skies are gloomy. And we’re winter-weary.

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Hang on to hope.  Look for the clues. Bright spots in the landscape—if you pay attention.

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Everything is about to change. Do you feel it? Spring is coming.

Believe it.

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Mark Twain (1835-1910), whose quote opens this post, is the pen name for Samuel Clemens, an American writer, riverboat pilot, failed gold prospector, and inventor.  He grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, on the Mississippi River, and his pen name, Mark Twain, is steamboat slang for “twelve feet of water.” One my favorite Twain quotes: “The secret to getting ahead is getting started.”

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Pasture thistles (Cirsium discolor) in the April snow, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; just-burned Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bare trees in April with an unknown hawk, Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN; spring beauties (Claytonia virginica), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot emerging, Schulenberg Prairie Visitor Station, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot in bloom, Schulenberg Prairie visitor Station, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; hepatica (Hepatica nobilis acuta) emerging, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; hepatica (Hepatica nobilis acuta) in bloom, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; hepatica (Hepatica nobilis acuta) in bloom, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) emerging, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) in bloom, Franklin Creek Natural Area, Franklin Grove, IL; pasque flowers (Pulsatilla pantens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia) emerging, author’s backyard prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia) in bloom, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Kankakee Sands in the middle of April, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN; goldfinch (Spinus tristis), Schulenberg Prairie, the Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.  Note: Please don’t pick, consume, or use wildflowers without permission and/or expert knowledge. Many are toxic and almost all are best left alone for us to conserve and enjoy. Happy spring! 

August’s Opening Day on the Prairie

“The first week of August hangs at the very top of the summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning.” Natalie Babbitt

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You can feel summer pause for a moment, catch its breath.

July is over.

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August is here.

The fireflies wink their Morse Code at night. On. Off. On. Off. They’re abundant this summer. People talk about it, wonder out loud. Speculate: “I haven’t seen this many fireflies since I was a kid. Must have been the wet spring? Maybe all the rain?”

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The fireflies light up the yard, the old field by the railroad tracks, the parks after dark.  Listen! The soundtrack for the fireflies is the buzz saw and hum of the invisible cicadas, crickets, and other fiddling insects tuning up in the dark.

 

We sit on the back porch and watch the fireflies twinkle in the prairie patch. Remember catching them as kids? The mason jars with a bit of grass tucked in and holes punched in the lids. Fireflies. We’ll enjoy them while they last.

On the bigger prairies, the more delicate wildflowers back off a bit as the grasses push themselves skyward and elbow them out of the way.

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Some of the heavyweight bloomers are tough enough to compete with the grasses:  stocky cup plant, rough-and-tumble rosin weed,  bristly compass plant.

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The curiously smooth prairie dock stems throw periscopes of flowers across the prairie eight feet high.  Its fists of blooms uncurl at last. They vie with the compass plants for supremacy.

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If it wasn’t for its eye-popping purple color, you might miss the low-growing prairie poppy mallows.

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Also short but eye-catching is the bright white whorled milkweed. Doesn’t look much like milkweed at first glance, but check out the individual flowers. Yes! That’s milkweed, all right.

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The bison move slower in the heat, graze a little, then look for a shady spot to cool off. The spring babies are getting bigger. They seem to put on weight as you watch.

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The prairie ponds shimmer under the August sun. July rains have filled them to overflowing. Dragonflies fly across the water in a frenzy. It’s now or never for laying eggs to make future generations happen. Everywhere, it seems, there are insect hook ups; winged romance on the fly.

The purple and white prairie clover has gone to seed and created perches for the eastern amberwing dragonflies.

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Blue dashers, too.

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The wings and bodies of the widow skimmer dragonflies take on a blue-ish powdery look that indicates age, called “pruinosity.” Old age, for a dragonfly, is a matter of weeks. If they are lucky, a few months. And with age and pruinosity, the widow skimmers become more beautiful.

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Flowering spurge has gone crazy this summer.

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It fills in the spaces between the grasses like baby’s breath in an FTD floral arrangement.

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The first breath of silky prairie dropseed grass in bloom scents the air with the smell of buttered popcorn.

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Blazing stars spike across the prairie. With their flowers comes a sense of inevitability.  Asters and goldenrods will be right on their heels, and with them, the close of the warm weather season.

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Everything on the prairie is poised for the downward plunge into autumn. But for now, summer in the tallgrass reigns supreme.

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August’s opening day on the prairie is here.

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The opening quote is from “Tuck Everlasting,” a novel by Newbery Medal Award-winning children’s book writer and illustrator Natalie Babbitt (1932-2016). It’s worth reading the lines in context, reprinted here: “The first week of August hangs at the very top of the summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning. The weeks that come before are only a climb from balmy spring, and those that follow a drop to the chill of autumn, but the first week of August is motionless, and hot. It is curiously silent, too, with blank white dawns and glaring noons, and sunsets smeared with too much color.”

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All photographs and audio clip copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): sunset on Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL; flood debris on a tree by Clear Creek, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; crickets and other fiddling insects audio clip, author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL;  grasses, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL: purple poppy mallow (Callirhoe involucrata) , Kickapoo Nature Center, Oregon, IL: whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; herd of bison (Bison bison),  Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL: eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  blue dasher dragonfly (female) (Pachydiplax longipennis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  widow skimmer (Libellula luctuosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata) in the tallgrass, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blazing star (Liatris spp.), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; tallgrass prairie, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

Travels with Prairie

“I could not know it for sure then, but somehow I felt it, understood that this country was in my bones already and would remain so.” –Gary Holthaus

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Once the tallgrass prairie is part of you, it remains in your memory wherever you go.

As I travel through Sicily this week, all around me are natural wonders. The arid mountains…

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…the sky and sea.

 

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Yet, even as I appreciate and enjoy Italy, the Sicilian landscape reminds me of the tallgrass prairie back home.

The dragonflies of Sicily are all new to me, like this broad scarlet.

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I see it, and think of the American rubyspot. Is it is flying low over the prairie creeks and streams?

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The flowers of Sicily are blindingly colorful.
Hibiscus…

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Bougainvillea.

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Yet, I remember the prairie bunch flower that was blooming when I left on my travels. Almost colorless, but still compelling. Is it finished blooming? I wonder.

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The scarce swallowtail in Sicily…

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…causes me to become nostalgic for the monarchs of Illinois.

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The grasses, so different in Italy…

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…yet evocative of the bottle brush grasses of the prairie savanna.

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At sunset in Sicily….

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… I think of the tallgrass prairie. Wherever I go, no matter how beautiful….

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…the tallgrass prairie is my landscape of home.

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Gary Holthaus is the author of Wide Skies (1997) from which this quote is taken. He lives in Minnesota.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby. Because of limited internet in rural Sicily, locations and ID will be added at a later date.

A July Prairie Vocabulary

“I have come to understand that although place-words are being lost, they are also being created. Nature is dynamic, and so is language.” — Robert MacFarlane

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How can we fix a vanishing landscape like the tallgrass prairie in our minds and hearts?

It may start with words. Here are a few proposed vocabulary words for this hot July summer on the prairie.

Croakfloat:

A frog hanging out in a pond.

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Bumblebloom:

When two or more bees visit a flower.

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Petalrash: 

The splotches of color left behind when pale purple coneflower petals fade.

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Furflower:

What happens when a bison hybridizes with a compass plant.

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Powerpond:

When manmade meets prairie wetland.

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Monarchmagnet:

Any one of the native milkweeds (like this whorled milkweed) that provides life for monarch butterfly caterpillars.

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Bisondifference:

Being ignored by a small herd of bison.

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The July prairie season is in full swing.

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What new words will you add to our summer prairie vocabulary?

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Robert Macfarlane’s (1976-) opening quote is from his book Landmarks. In it he reminds us of the power of words, and lists many of the words that have been lost in describing the landscape of the British isles. Read what a New York Times reviewer said about it here.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): green frog (Lithobates clamitans), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; unknown bumblebees on white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) with bison (Bison bison) fur, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; pond at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Nachusa Grasslands in July, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.SaveSave

Prairie Fireworks

“Everything is blooming most recklessly… .” — Rainer Maria Rilke

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It’s been said that the most beautiful day for prairie wildflowers is the Fourth of July. True? Take a look.

The purple prairie clover blooms are alive with insect scurry and motion.

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Dragonflies are zipping around the ponds! The bullfrogs call, creating a soundtrack to a muggy July morning.

 

These four froggies keep an eye on any dragonfly that gets within tongue-zapping distance.

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Nearby, a tiny eastern amberwing dragonfly is laying her eggs. She taps her abdomen into the pond vegetation, ensuring a future generation.

 

 

 

Close up, you can see how intentional her motions are.

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Deep in the grasses, her mate’s wings glint gold in the sunshine.

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Such an explosion of gold on the prairie in July!

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Interesting insects float and perch on the blooms and in the tallgrass.

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A silver spotted skipper sips nectar from a common milkweed flower.

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An American painted lady, interrupted in her search for nectar, gives me the eye.

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The vervain flowers remind me of a lavender sparkler. The butterfly’s outer wing’s painted “eyes” don’t dispel my feeling of being watched, so I move on and leave her in peace.

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Bursts of pink and purple are part of the prairie palette in early July. But if you’re in the mood for some flag-waving colors on the Fourth, you can find red in the tiny bugs…

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…white in the thimbleweed blossoms…

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…blue? A blue grosbeak is a rare treat. Perfect for the holiday.

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The tallgrass explodes with color; dazzles with motion.

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No doubt about it. Even on the Fourth…

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The prairie has the best fireworks of all.

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The opening quote is from Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), a mystical poet and novelist. Letters to a Young Poet is among his best-known works, which includes these famous lines: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. 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.”

 

All video clips and photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): unknown bee on purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; video clip of ponds, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; four American bullfrogs (Lithobates catesbeianus), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; video clip of female eastern amberwing (Perithemis tenera) dragonfly laying eggs, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; female eastern amberwing (Perithemis tenera) dragonfly, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; male eastern amberwing (Perithemis tenera) dragonfly, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Franklin Grove, IL; wildflower mix with black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  blue dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis) female, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; silver spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus) on common milkweed (Asclepia syriaca), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; American painted lady (Vanessa virginiensis) on blue vervain (Verbena hastata), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL (two images); unknown red insect on false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides), International Crane Foundation Prairie, Baraboo, WI; thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; blue grosbeak (Passerina caerulea), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; prairie wildflowers in July, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; great angelica (Angelica atropurpurea), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

The Perils of Prairie ID

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

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

The best: Bison bison.

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

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

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Quite the resemblance!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Check. Spot?

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Double check.

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

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

And people wonder why identifying plants is confusing!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darn taxonomists.

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

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

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

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

Tomorrow’s another day.

***

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

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

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

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