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.

Spring is Sprung

It seemed like forever since I’d been out to Midewin. How thrilling it was to be back among so many good friends, themselves absent (or slumbering or merely unseen) for so long.

May apples, wake robin and toothwort
May apples, wake robin and toothwort

Where to begin? Let’s start with spring ephemerals since, as their name implies, they are with us but a very short time. Each spring, I make a beeline to Prairie Creek Woods, a remnant oak woodland alongside its namesake creek. The more restoration, the more woodland wildflowers. Spring beauties, smooth yellow violets, common phlox, wake robin and May apples to name a few.


But there is a secret place in the woods, beside the creek, to which I return like a faithful lover. Waiting for me there is a cloistered stand of bluebells. Just for me. And every year, I return their love by searching among the blossoms for sprigs of garlic mustard and yank them out, to ensure the bluebells do not become overrun  with this highly invasive weed; to ensure that bluebells return healthy each and every spring.

Rattlesnake master emergent in South Patrol Road Prairie
Rattlesnake master emergent in South Patrol Road Prairie

To ensure that the recovering prairie returns each and every spring, the US Forest Service’s Hot Shot Team conducts controlled burns. This year was a record setter for the number of acres cleared by fire, returning vital nutrients to the soil. Man, I do loves me some reemergent prairie vegetation following a burn. Nothing makes me so happy as to spy intensely spring green shoots rising up out of the rich, blackened soils.

Everything is protected at Midewin, including the archaeological elements
Everything is protected at Midewin, including the archaeological elements

The cleansing nature of fire reveals, too, some hidden secrets. Cleared of vegetation, the foundations of old farm buildings, shards of pottery and glass, homestead walls comprised of glacial erratics cleared from the surrounding fields, are stark reminders of Midewin’s agricultural past, when pioneer farmers first cleared the land of its prairie vegetation.

And, of course, the birds. My lovely birds. Blue-winged teals and hooded mergansers. Kildeers and snipes. White-throated sparrows and the first palm warbler of the season. Blue-grey gnat catchers and red-headed woodpeckers. Forty species in all. Apologies for the lack of bird pictures – sometimes I need to leave the camera at home and just relish them through the binocs. But I did manage to snap a cellphone pic of the sandhill crane.

It’s no accident, of course, that the name of my blog is A Midewin Almanac, an homage to Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac. And for me the sight and sound of that crane crystalizes that connection. It calls instantly to mind a passage from his Marshland Elegy: “When we hear [the crane’s] call we hear no mere bird. We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution. He is the symbol of our unatamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men. Their annual return is the ticking of the geological clock. Upon the place of their return they confer a peculiar distinction. Amid the endless mediocrity of the commonplace, a crane marsh holds a paleontological patent of nobility, won in the march of aeons, and revocable only by shotgun.”

Midewin is – for cranes, for all prairie plants and creatures, for me – a safe harbor. A sanctuary in every sense of the word. It is, in short, home.I loves me some fire



Midewin at Home

Midewin measures about 20,000 acres. My backyard garden measures .010330 of an acre. But there’s a lot in my postage stamp-sized private refuge that keeps me connected to the largest prairie recreation effort in the country.

My backyard boasts about 30 of the nearly 200 native prairies species found at Midewin. Here’s a few that are currently in bloom.

120617 spiderwort

Common throughout much of the eastern half of North America, Ohio spiderwort sports clusters of three-leaved flowers the colors of the Swedish flag. Each blossom lasts only a day; often times only a morning. Purportedly, spiderwort got its name from its sticky sap, which, when dabbed, stretches into long, thin, spider silk-like strands. This same quality lends spiderwort an alternative and decidedly less poetic nickname: cow slobber.

120617 butterfly weed

True to its name, butterfly weed is a magnet for several butterfly species. But Native Americans prized chewing its tough roots as a cure for pleurisy and other pulmonary ailments, giving it the name, Pleurisy Root.

120617 prickly pear cactus

Eastern prickly pear cactus. Cactus in Illinois? Yep. In about half its 102 counties, including both Cook (where I live) and Will (where Midewin is located.) It has fewer thorns (or, technically, spines) than most western species of cactus. But they are more than sufficient to protect waxy sunshine yellow blossoms.

120617 leadplant

Lead plant is aptly named for the lead-like color its leaves. But when in flower, its “pubescent spikes” of purple are all the more dramatic for the conspicuous reproductive parts: reddish stamens and bright yellow anthers.

120617 rattlesnake master

Rattlesnake master. This alien-looking member of the carrot family bears an equally curious name. Early pioneers erroneously thought the root of this native prairie plant would cure rattlesnake bites.

Beyond their beauty, beyond keeping me connected to Midewin, these and other native plants help make my garden truly green. Uniquely adapted to the Midwestern prairies, they require little to no maintenance. No fertilizers. No pesticides. And no watering.

This season, for instance, has been exceptionally dry. Many of my neighbors have had to water their lawns and keep their annuals well watered to keep them from dying. Me? Aside from a few basil and tomato plants I keep in pots, I haven’t had to water my garden once. And everything is healthy and robust, largely due to equally healthy and robust root systems. The roots of leadplant, for instance, can extend 15 feet into the soil, ensuring that it can withstand drought conditions.

120617 backyard garden


111008 corn harvest

All across Illinois, on a perfect Indian summer day, farmers become ship captains – piloting massive, half million dollar combines across their ocean-sized fields. At Midewin, we, too, are farmers, but of a more antiquarian nature.

We reap what we have sown by hand. And we may gather far less in volume than our big ag counterparts, but we leave them in the dust when it comes to sheer biodiversity.

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Prior to settlement, there were at least 851 different species of plants native to Illinois. Today, 80 percent of the Prairie State is blanketed largely by only two plant species: soybeans and corn. In 2008, Illinois farmers produced 428 million bushels of soybeans and 1.5 billion bushels of corn, generating nearly $7 billion in revenues.

Compared to that, what value is there in the few dozen bags of native prairie seed we managed to collect today?

Well, for all practical purposes, corn and soybean fields are ecological deserts. They may appear green and lush. But due to a lethal combination of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, nothing much lives on 80 percent of Illinois land except corn and soybeans. That’s it. No bugs. No other plants. Corn fields represent “the poorest bird habitat in the state” according to Illinois Birds: A Century of Change and soybean fields aren’t much better.

111008 praying mantis

Don’t get me wrong – I love a good ear of corn and soy milk is my beverage of choice for my morning oatmeal. But what I love more is the expanding number of acres under active restoration at Midewin. Two thousand acres and counting. That’s more tallgrass prairie than you’ll find in any one place in the Prairie State. In any one place practically anywhere. And with those recovering acres are more insects, herps, mammals and birds – especially rare grassland birds – than you can count. (Although we do count them to carefully monitor the progress of our restorations.)

111008 stiff goldenrodIn order to restore the rest of Midewin’s 20,000 total acres, we collect seed. Dozens of different kinds today. More than a hundred different kinds over the course of the season. Some seeds – like stiff goldenrod – strip off in your hand like “buddah.” Others – like compass plant – are buried deep within protective husks and require clipping clusters of entire stems.

111008 compass plant 1

After the weather turns cold, we’ll head indoors and clean the seed, removing all the husks and fluff and duff and whatnot. But today, we are deeply content to be outdoors among friends. In the cool air and warm sun. Humble farmers for a future filled with wildflowers, wild birds and all the bounty of the tallgrass prairie.

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Oh, What a Mi-DAY-win

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From foggy dawn through full moon dusk, a perfect day at Midewin.

At 6 a.m., the skies above Pullman (where I live) are clear. A half hour later, as I exit I-80 onto historic Route 66 (53 South) toward Midewin, I’m driving through pea soup fog. While the suspended moisture obscures much from view, it brings into high relief literally zillions of spider webs. Midewin looks as if staff has tricked out the entire site for Halloween.

110910 bird app

The fog makes for a challenging start to the scheduled bird tour, the grey haze draining even bluebirds of their telltale color. But as the fog lifts, our identification challenges return to normal: is that a mature northern rough winged swallow or a juvenile tree swallow? Sometimes, even checking the Sibley Guide smart phone app can’t settle the question.

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To celebrate this National Day of Service, in the afternoon I join a bunch of fellow volunteers at the River Road Seed Beds. All morning, they planted more seedling plugs. In the afternoon, I help them collect seed. Purple prairie clover. White prairie clover. Cream white indigo. And others. All from plants hand planted by volunteers and staff, grown from seed hand collected by the volunteer-staff team. One day – after hand cleaning by the team – to be hand sown in the growing number of restoration areas throughout Midewin.

As the sun bends toward the treeline of Prairie Creek Woods, it’s time for a saunter though one of those restoration areas. South Patrol Road Prairie. On such a late summer day, it’s hard not to think of Sting’s “Fields of Gold” as a love song for the very land itself.

110910 sprp in gold

110910 bike tour

I’m not the only one enjoying nature’s gold. Connie and Jerry Heinrich – the first couple of Midewin’s volunteer program – are leading one of their popular bike tours along a new path through the prairie.

And long after the bikers are gone, long after the sun has fled and a Brigadoon mist begins to creep back over the prairie, the coyotes cut loose with a chilling banshee cry and a harvest moon rises so big in the sky you could almost reach out and touch it…

Arthur Melville Pearson w/ moon


Scurfy Peas and Prairie Violets

scurfy pea

Scurfy pea. Sounds like a character right out of Sponge Bob Square Pants. Actually, it’s a native prairie plant. Uncommon in Illinois, its growth and development are slow. Which is why we’re planting it in new raised seed beds today.

110901 river road seed beds 2

Midewin currently cultivates about 120 different native prairie plant species in three seed bed areas. A few days ago, I joined a Cub Scout troop and a handful of other volunteers planting purple prairie clover and marsh goldenrod in the River Road Seed Beds.

Some species, however, don’t fare well in these locations. The soil is too rich, or the competition from weeds and even other prairie plants is too fierce.

110901 raised beds 1

And so it is with scurfy pea, which we interplant with little bluestem in a lighter, sandier soil mix. Little bluestem will help keep weeds at bay and also provide fuel for a future controlled burn; scurfy pea being a species that responds particularly well to fire.

In the middle of the bed we plant prairie violet. Hang around Midewin long enough and you get to touch different species at different points in their life cycles. Earlier this year, out in the field, I helped gather a little seed from this even more rare native species. Others cleaned and planted the seeds in trays. Today, we’re planting the seedling plugs. Maybe next year, I’ll be able to gather prairie violet seed out of the raised beds and start the process all over. Ditto the next year and the year after that.

Because we need lots of prairie violets in our prairie restorations at Midewin. LOTS. Once we have LOTS, we may have the chance to reintroduce the regal fritillary butterfly, whose caterpillars feed exclusively on violets.

And because prairie violets are such a diminutive plant – topping out at three to six inches – they can be dwarfed and overrun by other species. And so, to give them a leg up, we’ve raised them up into these new seed beds.

110901 scurfy pea

Staring down at the seedlings we’d just spent a few hours planting under an unforgiving sun,  it can be hard to imagine a prairie. Especially when you glance up at the hundreds upon hundreds of acres awaiting restoration.

110901 prairie violet


But this is how it begins. A few volunteers. A few dedicated staff. A handful of fragile seedlings. Add sunshine and rain. Repeat as needed. And eventually…

110731 iron bridge prairie


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.

110731 iron bridge prairie
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.

110731 queen annes lace

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.”

110731 unhealthy habitat

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.

110301 overseeding

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

110731 sprp

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.

110731 cup plant 2

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.

110731 prairie dock

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.

110731 big bluestem

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

110731 liatris

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.

110731 butterfly

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

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Prairie Skyscrapers

110716 plant plugs

This morning, I helped plant 3,000 prairie plant plugs, courtesy of a grant from the US Forest Foundation. Each plant plug stood no more than six inches high. It often takes plants a few years to reach their full height, because much of their initial energy goes into developing their extensive root systems, which can reach depths of 15 feet.

Just across the road where we’re planting plugs lies South Patrol Road Prairie – the largest and oldest restoration area at Midewin. Among the nearly 200 native prairie species now flourishing there are some of the skyscraper species that put the “tall” in the “tallgrass prairie.” For a taste…

Here are rattlesnake master and compass plant seedlings.

110716 seedlings

Here is rattlesnake master full grown. I can look its clusters of prickly flowers right in the eye.

110716 rattlesnake master

Here’scompass plant, its rays of yellow blossoms like little suns atop a stalk rising to a height of 12 feet.

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Common milkweed is not among the tallest prairie plants, but from the right angle it looks as if it may have been designed by the architect of modernist, mid-rise skyscrapers.

Yellow coneflowers rise to a height of only four feet, but who can resist their petals fluttering in the summer wind like Native American prayer ties.

110716 yellow coneflower



About this time last year, I came across a newborn fawn at Midewin. Perhaps only a few hours old, it was nestled in tall grasses alongside Turtle Pond; too new in this world to be afraid of the large, two-legged creature staring down at it from three feet away. Wondering if lightning might strike twice, I retuned to Turtle Pond this year in the hope of glimpsing another fresh fawn.

110625 fawn

Not a hundred feet down Chicago Road, which leads to Turtle Pond, I hear a rustle in the roadside grass. A few seconds later, a spotted fawn appears. A little older, but still lovely. Intoxicatingly cute. Truly, you just can’t help but grin like a child.

For me, such chance encounters are the true treasures of life. Chicken soup for the soul. Call them what you will, I wouldn’t trade a single one of them for all the world. Even as I wrestle with the fact that as adults, deer are highly destructive.

Deer are voracious. They eat five to nine pounds of vegetation a day. Nearly hunted to extinction in Illinois in the 1800s, there are now more white-tailed deer in our state than at any time in history. To make matters worse, they are concentrated in our remaining natural areas, which amount to but a fraction of their original territory. As a result, many of our natural areas are virtually devoid of vegetation up to the height a deer can reach with its sharp incisors.

110625 seed beds

At Midewin, the native plant seed beds – like those next to Turtle Pond – must be fenced off from deer, which would eat virtually every plant in sight.

So, where I see cute in a fawn, natural area land managers tend to see a future pest to be controlled. And so they turn to hunters, who are just as likely to see a future trophy. Or meat.

hunter safety card

This past January, I passed my hunter safety training toward the goal of going on my first deer hunt. I don’t need the meat. And I certainly don’t want the trophy. But I realize that we, as a people, have created the conditions that allow deer populations to explode. Left uncontrolled, deer will effectively undo all the dollars and hard work invested at places like Midewin to make them havens for a full spectrum of living creatures, both plant and animal.

And so the herd must be culled. And while some might view the opportunity to do so as sport, and others as an ecological necessity, to me the need to do so presents more of an ethical and emotional challenge. And so, later this fall, while sitting cold and silent in a deer blind, hours before the dawn, waiting for my prey, I’m sure I’ll spend no small amount of time thinking back to a warm summer day and the large, liquid eyes of an exquisite creature.

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