Tag Archives: wildflowers

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.

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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.

Purple Prairie Haze

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

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

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And its close kin, prairie violet.

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Go plum crazy over fragile blue toadflax.

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Do some whoopin’ over purple prairie lupine…

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

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

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

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

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

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

An hour that is always well-spent.

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

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

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

A Prairie Kaleidoscope

“Life would be dull if we had to look up at cloudless monotony day after day.” –-Gavin Pretor-Pinney
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If April showers bring May flowers, my little corner of Illinois is going to be a blaze of blooms next month. So much rain! The skies have been gray more than blue.

The western chorus frogs at Nachusa Grasslands are one of my favorite soundtracks to gray, drizzly days like these. Can you see the bison in the distance in the video  above? They don’t mind the rain much. And look! Scattered among the bison dung are…

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…pasque flowers! Wildflowers are beginning to pop up on the prairie, creating pastel spots of color.

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When you think of a prairie, you may imagine colorful flowers like these, tallgrass, and perhaps a herd of bison grazing.

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Bison and wildflowers are two prairie showstoppers. But what you may not think about is this. Look at the photo above again. One of the joys of a prairie is the seemingly unlimited view overhead. The prairie sky! It’s a kaleidoscope; a constant amazement of color, motion, sound, and of course—clouds.

Sometimes the sky seems dabbed with cotton batting.

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Contrails made by jets are teased out into thumbprinted fuzzy ribbons.

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Other afternoons, the sky is scoured clean of clouds and contrails and burnished to an achingly bright blue.

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You can’t help but think of the color of old pots and pans when the clouds boil over in a summer storm.

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Look up! The prairie sky is full of wonders. Scrawls of sandhill cranes by day…

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… the moon by turns a silver scimitar or golden globe at night.

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You may catch amazing light shows like sun haloes…

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Or sun dogs…

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The changeable prairie sky offers something new to view each moment.

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Will you be there to see what happens next?

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Gavin Pretor-Pinney, whose quote opens this blog post, is the  author of The Cloudspotter’s Guide and The Cloud Collector’s Handbook. He writes with wry British humor and a love for all things cloud-like.  In 2004, Pretor-Pinney founded “The Cloud Appreciation Society” (https://cloudappreciationsociety.org/) to “fight the banality of blue sky thinking.”

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): western chorus frogs singing (Pseudacris triseriata) with bison (Bison bison) in the distance, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens) and bison (Bison bison) dung, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; cloudy with a chance of bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Fame Flower Knob, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Fermilab prairie, Batavia, IL; summer storm, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) over author’s backyard prairie; full moon over author’s backyard prairie; sun halo and sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) over author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL;  sundog over Lake Michigan, Benton Harbor, MI; Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.  

The Grassy Sea

“This dewdrop world  is a dewdrop world. And yet. And yet.” –Kobayashi Issa

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September draws to a close. The prairie dreams;  wakens later each morning.

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You gaze at the grass, all waves, and wind, and water. A grassy sea.

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Foam is kicked up by the churning of the grasses.

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The clouds become the prows of ships, tossing on the tumultuous air…

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And you realize fences, no matter how strong, can never contain the tallgrass, washing up against the wires.

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Fungi cling like barnacles to dropped limbs on the edges of the grasses…

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You reflect on how, after almost being obliterated, the tallgrass prairie has hung on to life; survival by  a thread.

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It was a close call. Even today, prairie clings to old, unsprayed railroad right-of-ways in the center of industrial areas and landscaped lawns.

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Little patches of prairie, scrabbling for life, show up in unlikely places.

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Although the prairie’s former grandeur is only dimly remembered…

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…and in many places, the tallgrass prairie seems utterly obliterated from memory, gone with the wind…

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…the  prairie has put down roots again. You can see it coming into focus in vibrant, growing restorations, with dazzling autumn wildflowers…

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…and diverse tiny creatures.

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There is hope, glimpsed just over the horizon…IMG_8579.jpg

The dawn of a future filled with promise for a grassy sea.

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Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828), whose haiku opens this essay, was a Japanese poet regarded as one of the top four haiku masters of all time. He wrote this particular haiku after suffering tremendous personal loss.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): mist rising over prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; autumn at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Conrad Savanna, The Nature Conservancy and Indiana DNR, Newton County, IN; Nachusa Grasslands in September, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; purple love grass (Eragrostis spectabilis) and sweet everlasting (Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium), Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Newton County, IN; unknown fungi, Brown County State Park, Nashville, IN; marbled orb weaver in the grasses (Araneus marmoreus), Brown County State Park, Nashville, IN; big bluestem  (Andropogon gerardii) and other prairie plants along a railroad right-of-way, Kirkland, IN; prairie plants along an overpass, Bloomington, IN; thistles and grasses, Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Newton County, IN; wind farm, Benton County, IN; great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Newton County, IN;  Eastern-tailed blue (Cupido comyntas), Brown County State Park, Nashville,  Indiana; Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.