Monday, October 04, 2010

Stalking the prairie gentian

Prairie gentians glow in the grass approximately eight and a half miles southwest of Chariton along the Cinder Path.

October in Iowa is the month of nature’s fireworks display, a final flourish of blazing color before she wraps the earth in the subtle hues of late fall and winter and settles down to rest. Among the prairie bloomers, sunflowers, goldenrod and a multitude of aster varieties blanket undisturbed roadsides and fields. Specimen hard maples and native sumac already have burst into full flame. Others deciduous trees and shrubs will follow rapidly now as autumn tracks from north to south.

Move beyond the spectacular displays, look down, focus on the details and you’ll discover small miracles ln the grass --- bottle gentians, prairie gentians and even, we discovered Sunday, a tiny perfect expression of the orchid variety Spiranthes, or lady’s tresses.

I crashed on Sunday afternoon an event sponsored by Region Six members of the Iowa Prairie Network --- the eighth annual Martha Skillman Birthday Hike and Pie Tasting. Martha, who lives not far north of here in Marion County, is a mother figure for prairie remnants in these southern hills. The network is a statewide organization dedicated to Iowa’s preservation, restoration and reconstruction efforts.

We began and ended with pie, as the event title suggests, at Pin Oak Lodge, but in between drove a couple of miles southwest to a spot near the Cinder Path’s eight-mile marker --- where it crosses the Derby Road just east of that tiny town --- and hiked south down the path to spots where prairie remnants of astonishing diversity climb gentle slopes on either side.

It is an amazing experience to walk for a while with people immersed in the prairie and skilled at spotting miracles in the grass --- and at naming nearly everything. Indira had the foresight to bring along a paper sack and collected a few seeds along the road. Ravi’s well-equipped cell phone included a compass ap so that we could check the compass plants for accuracy (they are accurate) and even position the tiny Spiranthes globally. We admired the autumn incarnations of plants now ending this season’s cycle in seed --- pale coneflowers, rattlesnake master, blazing star, Indian paintbrush and many more.

The forecast suggests we’ll have a continuing stretch of glorious early fall days this week. So for heaven’s sake throw off your burdens, get out from under those soul-deadening fluorescents, find a prairie patch or a timber path --- and take a walk, preferably several.

The Iowa Prairie Network group involved in Sunday afternoon's hike. Martha Stillman is second from right in the front row.

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