by Cheryl Rofer
Big grass. The seed stalks are at least a quarter inch in diameter, smooth as the leaves along them catch my skin. Seed heads wave far above me.
The grass is mostly big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii Vitman), but there are others I don’t know. Big bluestem is not like anything I’ve ever seen; my New Mexico yard contains little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium (Michx.) Nash), but that’s not remotely like big bluestem. Little bluestem is a grass. Big bluestem is an experience. Big bluestem teaches humans what a mouse’s world looks like.
Big bluestem is the largest part of the prairie; covered central North America before wheat, corn and soybeans took its place. But it is not all that is here, not by any means.
Late in the season, a few flowers still bloom at heights humans can look down on. Bright green carroty leaves prosper at the base of the bluestem, getting ready to bed down for the winter so they can sprout first in the spring. A compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) dries out, its leaf still aligned to catch the sun’s rays. I planted a compass plant at home this summer; it didn’t grow as much as I would have liked before it gave up for the season. Next spring will tell whether it survives.
Outside the prairie, ladybugs were the irritation of the weekend. They were flying everywhere in town, glinting in the sunlight. They land in hair, fall down shirt collars, come through open doors into the house, and occasionally administer a tiny nip, or something that feels like that. Those who dislike bugs swat at them. I was uneasy about the landings until I realized that they were ladybugs, although after a couple of nips, I brush them off gently as they land on skin. Those that land on my clothes are allowed to stay. They do not give off the unpleasant smell that some ladybugs do.
They do not come into the prairie. I see not a single one while I am in the grass.
The grass muffles sounds, too, although I am not near roads. The grass heads softly rustle in the light breeze, which barely reaches my altitude.
Another path crosses at right angles. I continue my direction, looking back to make sure the way out is obvious. I can see markers above the grass, trees and a radio tower. There is no way to miss the path, I tell myself, no way to get through the grass without effort, but the feeling of being lost grows.
The path ends in a place wide enough to sit and write notes or gaze at the sky. These paths have most likely been made by students doing research. I return and take the right-angle path. The variety of plants is enormous; most I don’t know, although goldenrod is obvious, and fall’s purple asters are here too. Wide leaves, probably another of the prairie’s many sunflowers.
A decade or so ago, Ripon College acquired some fields that had been used for growing corn and soybeans. Seeds collected from other prairies were planted, and the area has been burned now several times. The balance of the prairie is returning.
Outside the prairie, canary grass (Phalaris arundinacea) has taken over large swathes of land. It crowds out native plants. As I walk along the trail, prairie on one side and canary grass on the other*, I wonder if the prairie can take back the land from the canary grass. And I find one healthy big bluestem plant next to the trail on that side, then others.
Lower down, where it is wetter, milkweeds let their seeds fly. There are two kinds, one large-podded like I recall from my childhood, and a smaller one that is not familiar. The USDA web page tells me that they both belong to genus Asclepias, of which the USDA lists 76 species in the United States. Fifteen of them can be found in Wisconsin.
The one I don’t know has skinny leaves, which makes it either green milkweed (Asclepias hirtella (Pennell) Woodson) or whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata L.). I am inclined to believe it is the latter. I’m not at all sure of the other; most likely common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca L.), I suppose*. I had no idea that there were so many milkweeds, and the photos are mostly of blooming plants, not the drying-out seed pods, although part of my identification is from a sketch of the whorled milkweed seedpod.
Tiny frogs sing a high, tiny, permeating note. It changes as I walk, but I can’t tell if the song itself is changing, or if my changing angles from the singers change the way I hear it.
*Update: Whoops, looks like I get maybe a B- on my plant identification. Here's the word from Dr. Skip Wittler, who's in charge of Ripon's prairie.
- The first photo of your essay is of Indian Grass (Sorghastrum nutans); the fourth has big bluestem along with saw-toothed sunflower (Helianthus grosseserratus) in the background
- The milkweeds down near the wetland are purple-flowered and very beautiful. They are Asclepias incarnata but we do have Asclepias verticillata up on the prairie. Asclepias hirtella does not get this far north in Wisconsin – it prefers sandier soil than we have here in Ripon.
- You mention reed canary grass (Phalarus) but you have a photo of big bluestem among brome (Bromus) up near the prairie. The reed canary grass is found most abundantly in the wetland along with the cattails and jewelweed.
- The black-spotted orange beetles are the Asian beetle that has been replacing our own ladybugs (ladybird beetles). The ladybird beetles do not nip as the Asian beetles do.