Prairie Orrery

Arthur Melville Pearson w/ moon

Ever gaze skyward and wonder how the solar system works? Of course you could go to the Adler Planetarium to ponder North America’s largest collection of astrobales, armillary spheres and other devices built throughout the centuries to help explain how the stars and planets wheel about the heavens.

Or you could head out to Midewin to gaze up at prairie dock – a living orrery of the prairie.

An orrery is a mechanical model of our solar system. It demonstrates how the planets move about the sun. The oldest known such model is of Greek origin and dates from about 150 B.C.E. The first “modern” orrery was built in 1704 in England and presented to Charles Boyle, Fourth Earl of Orrery, hence the name.

Prairie dock, on the other hand, is the largest member of the tallgrass prairie family Silphium. At its base are rough, elephant ear-like leaves from which rise a bare, slender stalk up to 10 feet in height. Atop the stalk are several branches, each terminating in a green bud the size of a melon ball.

Once the first bud bursts forth in a dazzling yellow flower, it takes little imagination to see it as the sun and the remaining buds as planets. Certainly this botanical orrery lacks the clockwork precision of its mechanical counterparts. But stare up at it long enough and you can’t help but see our entire solar system in a single Silphium terebinthinaceum.

Stare a little longer and you can’t help but notice that there are countless prairie docks and related family members of Silphium in bloom. Just as there are countless solar systems and galaxies beyond our own. The infinite wonder of our universe reflected in the recovering prairie lands of Midewin.

All this would be more than a little mind blowing were it not for the humble bumble bee. Collecting nectar and pollen from the prairie dock blossom in front of you, he brings you back to earth. To the here and now.

Another magic moment at Midewin.

A Thousand Suns

The last time I hiked the several miles from Iron Bridge Trailhead to South Patrol Road Prairie was back in early March. It was a little cooler then. My guess is because the landscape lacked the thousand suns that rise up out of the prairie every summer.

Back in March, Midewin was a lifeless, barren brown.

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Today, the second-year Iron Bridge Prairie is ablaze with color.

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Midewin in ecstatic summer bloom

In the miles between these two (of several) prairie restorations at Midewin, there remain vast swaths of pasture grasses and a bumper crop of non-native Queen Anne’s lace. Until such areas may be re-born as prairie, they are managed as vital grassland bird habitat.

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Because Midewin is so big and resources not unlimited, some areas are less well managed at the moment. But even these are instructive. The dense tangle of invasive plants, trees and shrubs is a living argument against “letting nature take its course.”

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A little further on lies South Patrol Road Prairie. About a decade old, it is  the living counter-argument for recovering the health of our native plant communities. Back in March, a bunch of volunteers hand-broadcast native wetland seed throughout the low-lying areas in the prairie.

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Later that month, the Forest Service broadcast additional native seed throughout the upland areas.

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Today, these kinds of on-going management activities make for increasingly perfect pictures of ecological health.

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Cup plant earns its name from its leaves, which capture dew and rainwater. But it’s the dozen suns atop 10-foot stalks that most capture my imagination.

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Prairie dock might well have been called elephant ears for the large, leathery leaves at the base of the plant. But rivaling cup plants in height, this prairie dock specimen boasts several planet-like buds surrounding its own flowering sun.

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Both prairie dock and cup plant, however, look up to compass plant, which can top out at 12 feet tall.

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Other joys in the summer prairie universe include the dangling, multi-hued flowers of big bluestem.

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And prairie blazing star rising, rocket-like, from a  cosmos of yellow coneflowers.

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So, whether it’s all the blossoming suns or that other sun that makes for such a hot, sweaty walk, I don’t much care. A few months ago, I was freezing my butt off out here sowing wet prairie seed. And too soon, all the prairie suns will fade and die back to the earth. And all the birds and butterflies will leave us.

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And I’ll miss the all the color and heat of this fleeting summer season.

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