Atop a bicycle you can mostly ignore mosquitoes and other small flying annoyances. It’s a bit of a mystery to me, actually, that mosquitoes are able to ignore bucketing rain, wind, and thunder to harass you the instant you leave your tent, while moving at a mere 12 miles an hour baffles them entirely; but I’m not going to look too closely into any fact so convenient. All the same, much as I love riding, when I take my bike out it’s usually with the goal of going somewhere and seeing something, so eventually I am going to have to dismount and move slow enough to register in the mosquito sensorium.
I don’t mind the biting too much, unless they pick a sensitive spot, like the back of my elbow which of late seems to have become irresistible, I don’t know what’s up with that. What I really can’t stand is the buzzing in the years. In mid-July of this year, just when mosquito season was hitting its height, I cycled out to Indian Lake Park, right where the Eastern lowlands give way to the Driftless, one perfect morning. And I was barely out of the parking lot and on the trail – not even in the trees – before my ears were full of little buzzers. Rather than give up or go mad, I improvised an ear-cover out of a handkerchief. I am pretty sure this looked weird. One couple gave me some very suspicious sidelong looks. But it worked! Mostly. Enough to spend an hour and a half hiking.
The trail runs parallel to the shore of the lake itself, gradually climbing, and then leaves the woods to wind through a sunlit, buzzing prairie:
There is something very fractal about prairie – within a space that, top to bottom, is only a little taller than me, there are so many habitats: places to hide and places to hunt, light, darkness, heat, shade, moisture. In fact it seems, at least to me (no trained ecologist), to do much the same work as a forest, but on a different scale, and of necessity with different forms. Clinging to stems were beetles and grasshoppers:
while basking on the gravel path were a considerable number of common white-tail dragonflies (Libellula lydia):
doubtless a terror to the smaller insects, when not busy with the serious business of soaking up heat and chasing mates.
It’s all very well for them, but being an endotherm myself, I found it a relief to approach the eaves of the cool, dappled woods again. Right on the margin was some beautiful maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum):
and, head down in a mullein flower – and so completely oblivious to the near approach of an annoying Homo sapiens with a camera – a striking longhorn beetle:
A kind person on iNaturalist identified it as genus Strangalia – which has no vernacular name, apparently.
Down by the lake itself, it was also cooler even in full sun. A shorter, moister prairie sloped gradually up from the lakeshore to the main entrance; down close to the ground I found these very odd-looking little plants growing:
They turned out to be rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium Michx.) – I’ve remarked before on wildflower names that sound like hobbits, but I think this is the first that sounds more like a wuxia movie.
Behind those little author tags at the ends of binomials I always suspect some story lurking. Not always true, or at least not always evident, but in this case “Michx.” belongs to André Michaux, whose Wikipedia entry sketches an adventurous life:
In 1779 he spent time studying botany in England, and in 1780 he explored Auvergne, the Pyrenees and northern Spain. In 1782 he was sent by the French government, as secretary to the French consul on a botanical mission to Persia. His journey began unfavourably, as he was robbed of all his equipment except his books; but he gained influential support in Persia after curing the shah of a dangerous illness… brought back from his eastern trip the boundary stone or kudurru… He traveled with his son Francois André (1770–1855) through Canada, Nova Scotia and the United States… introduced many species to America from various parts of the world, including Camellia sasanqua, tea-olive, crepe myrtle, and ginkgo… After the collapse of the French monarchy, André Michaux, who was a royal botanist, lost his source of income… Thomas Jefferson asked him to undertake an expedition of westward exploration… George Rogers Clark offered to organize and lead a militia to take over Louisiana territory from the Spanish. Michaux’s mission was to evaluate Clark’s plan and coordinate between Clark’s actions and Genet’s. Michaux went to Kentucky… On his return to France in 1796 he was shipwrecked… Australia.. Mauritius.. Madagascar .. died there of a tropical fever.
Now there is a life. Tl;dr : North Americans, if you enjoy the sight and shade of a ginkgo tree in the city, thank André Michaux.
Before riding one of western Dane County’s rollercoaster-ish sideroads back to the trail, I did hike up a hill to see one more sight, a human one: the shrine of St. Mary of the Oaks, a tiny stone shrine built by a local mason in the 19th century, in gratitude for his family being spared in a diphtheria epidemic:
Here was yet another boundary stone; a reminder of how little separates life from death.