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True journey is return

To be whole is to be part; true journey is return.
-Ursula K. LeGuin, The Dispossessed

(Previous posts from this trip: Black Earth energy receptor fields, The Wisconsin desert, Mother of Waters)

The silence of a country road in the Driftless Area at dawn Sunday morning is deep, though not uninterrupted: it was broken by the odd rooster, a dog here and there, the siren of a single Crawford County Sheriff’s Department car blasting down the lane on its way to some rural emergency, and me getting short of breath and cursing Google Maps for its propensity to direct me down hilly back-roads instead of flatter if busier main arteries.

In about an hour I reached US-18 and from there things were smoother: rolling, but without so many bastards of hills. For several miles I kept passing Mennonites in carriages; the driver would lift a dignified hand in greeting, which I would attempt to return. I think I got the lifting part down. At any rate, it was another hour and a half or so of that to Fennimore, where I stopped for two breakfasts – again featuring blueberry pancakes exceeding my head in diameter, and if you haven’t seen my head it’s one of those long, lantern-jawed Irish deals, I have a hard time finding hats that fit – and then another couple of hours to the city of Dodgeville.

My initial plan had been to roll into Governor Dodge State Park, do a little hiking there, camp, and head home; but once I reached Dodgeville and the head of the Military Ridge trail, it struck me that it was only 1 in the afternoon, and the rest of the way was mostly downhill on trails, with a couple of possible spots to break for the day if I really couldn’t push on. So I kept on going, and ended up home at around twilight: a distance of about 107 miles. That’s my first century, though I feel it was so lackadaisical that it’s hardly worthy of the name.

And so there ended up being no natural history to speak of on that leg of the trip, though the highway did pass through some striking rock-cuts, and there were plenty of butterflies along the trail. I put in my headphones and enjoyed just being out there. When the going got difficult in the last dozen miles or so, I did switch my listening to the heavy inspiration guns: “Northwest Passage”, and the main theme from Pacific Rim. And then I was home, ready to shower, eat, and collapse, in no particular order.

I’ll close out with some of the pictures I didn’t find a place for earlier, and some random thoughts. From Cross Plains, the first morning, this delightful mammoth sculpture at the Ice Age Trail office:
Mammoth sculpture at Ice Age Trail Alliance HQ in Cross Plains WI

A ladybird pupa clinging to a blade of grass, right by my front wheel, at Tower Hill:
Ladybird pupa with bike, Tower Hill State Park

A rock-cut just past the river crossing at Boscobel:
Roadcut on Hwy 60 just outside Boscobel WI

A view towards the lip of Pictured Rock Cave at Wyalusing:
Above Pictured Rock Cave, Wyalusing State Park

and a plaque commemorating the entry of Père Marquette and Louis Joliet – and 5 Métis voyageurs, who are generally not named and not even mentioned by this inscription, but who doubtless did the heavy lifting and navigating – into the Mississippi from the Wisconsin, 300 years and a few weeks before I was born:
Marquette and Joliet commemorated, Wyalusing State Park

All in all, despite some tough bits, it was an excellent trip. If anything went less well than hoped, it’s that really clear nights have been in short supply this summer, meaning that even though I was in fairly dark-sky locations there wasn’t much by way of stargazing to be had. Which is especially sad, given that Wyalusing State Park has its own observatory! But otherwise the weather co-operated, and even the bugs weren’t too bad.

One thing I noticed, though, is that after 2 days of serious riding (60-70 miles), my appetite for adventure on the third day is greatly lessened. Next time I do this, I’ll plan on following every 2 days of hard riding with a down day, probably of 25 miles or less, to relax and recuperate. On that plan, I’m thinking a 350-mile roundtrip over a week, though probably not until next year. Still contemplating possible destinations; possibly the complement to this year’s trip, following the Fox River to Lake Michigan at Green Bay.

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Mother of Waters

(Previously: Black Earth energy receptor fields, The Wisconsin desert)

O it’s fine to get up all in the morning
With the lark flying high in the sky,
And pack up all your belongings …
-John Tams

July 19th; second day of the Mississippi trip. In a way it wasn’t until I was packing up to head westward that I was really conscious of having an adventure: rather than turning around to go back home as I usually do on weekend trips, I was pressing on to fresh fields and pastures new.

I picked up the bike trail for a few miles to the very small village of Gotham – pronounced “Goe-tham” – where I joined Highway 60, which winds along with the Wisconsin River. Wooded bluffs rose on my right hand:

Highway 60, west of Gotham WI

and the river with its many islands shimmered on my left:

Wisconsin River from Hwy. 60, between Gotham and Orion

and for the first hour or so, traffic was almost non-existent.

One of the bluffs that I passed bears the curious name of Bogus Bluff. In his book, The Wisconsin: River of a Thousand Isles, August Derleth has the following to say:

Around Bogus Bluff in the town of Orion has sprung up a really remarkable rigmarole of legend and fact. There is, for instance, the account which is purported to have appeared in print in the Vienna (Austria) Courier of a cave near the bluff in which abounded the bones of prehistoric animals, and the skeletons of a vanished race. One S. von W., supposedly the author of the account, wrote: “Fragments of rock were everywhere, amongst them the bones of prehistoric animals. Here and there were also fragments and antlers of deer and elk … I cannot describe the horror I felt. The bottom of the cave was covered with skeletons of a vanished race. Skulls were everywhere…”

But it is the counterfeiters who lend something of authority to the fascination of Bogus Bluff. There were counterfeiters, apparently…[t]he variety of the stories handed down is infinite.

Orion is a ghost-town now, but just across the river is Muscoda, Morel Mushroom Capital of Wisconsin. Though alive and well, Muscoda was not yet really awake. I stopped for a rest at a park with a war memorial and an appropriately-decorated Little Free Library:

Little Free Library and war memorial, Muscoda WI

which contained a copy of Susan Cooper’s Silver on the Tree, the final book in the Dark is Rising sequence.

From Muscoda westward again, on a path running through Big Cat Slough, and then onto Highway 133 and through Blue River. It was getting on towards mid-morning, and people were out and about as they hadn’t been in Gotham or Muscoda; people sitting out on their stoop waved to me. Looking south from the main drag of Blue River you could see a striking series of high, isolated bluffs rising out of the floodplain, with the sun shining on their tops, so I can well imagine that sitting outside is popular.

And beyond Blue River is Boscobel. Notable in trivia as the birthplace of the Gideons, and home town of Senator Blaine, the architect of the repeal of Prohibition, it was of interest to me in that moment largely as the location of the Unique Café, a popular little spot where I wolfed down two breakfasts in one sitting.

With that ballast, I crossed the river once more. The remaining 25 miles of riding, and particularly the last 10, were a heck of a slog which I won’t go into great detail about; except to note that the precipitous hill climb on the way into Wyalusing State Park was beyond grueling, and in fact for a substantial chunk of it I gave up and walked my bike, and for a percentage of that chunk I just flopped on a bank of grass and got my breath back.

Not far past the top of the hill is a little store selling odds and ends just outside the park entrance, where I stopped for a cold Coke and chatted with the woman who ran it. When I explained that I’d come from Madison on my bike – though, you know, not all that day – and climbed that freaking hill, her reasonable question was “What on Earth possessed you to do that?” The park ranger who checked me in asked more or less the same question.

Inevitably, there was another climb to get to my campsite, but after a couple of litres of water I was able to face that and make camp. I just rested my noodly legs for about a half hour, but then pulled up the trail map and went for a hike.

Sugar Maple Trail, Wyalusing State Park

This trail wound past Pictured Rock Cave:

Pictured Rock Cave, Wyalusing State Park

and down, across a road, across train tracks, to the waters of the Mississippi, where I took off my shoes and waded in the cool shallows:

Wading in the Mississippi, Wyalusing State Park

Just a couple of hundred feet from the water’s edge the Sentinel Ridge trail begins. This climbs fairly steeply up the ridge in several stages, eventually taking you a few hundred feet above the water. It was steep enough that I kept worrying my legs, given all they’d already been through that day, would just give up. But apparently they were willing to do pretty much anything, as long as it wasn’t getting a bike up that damn hill on County Road C. I had to stop and catch my breath several times, but even before reaching the heights there were significant rewards. The constant reader will not be surprised that by “rewards”, I mean “ferns”; lip-ferns (Cheilanthes) to be specific:

Fern (Cheilanthes sp.), Sentinel Ridge Trail, Wyalusing State Park

This is my first Cheilanthes in Wisconsin, though I saw several in Yosemite.

At that point I thought I was close to the top of the ridge, but no – there were yet more steep pathways and steps to traverse. Finally I emerged onto a grassy swathe which ended in a parapet overlooking the river. Set into the bricks was a monument to the last Wisconsin passenger pigeon:

Passenger Pigeon Memorial, Wyalusing State Park

and spread out far below was the delta where the Wisconsin flows into the Mississippi:

View of confluence of Wisconsin and Mississippi Rivers, Point Lookout, Wyalusing State Park

It was an amazing sight that brought tears to my eyes. I don’t know that it entirely makes sense, but something about having reached that point under my own steam, having bicycled and camped and walked and climbed from my front door, was an answer to those questions from earlier: why I had undertaken the whole weird journey in the first place. Whenever a freight train passed over the tracks, the sound would carry across the water and upward, reaching the ear as a distant, muted and evocative clatter.

About the rest of the evening there is not much to tell, except that a little farther on, at the north end of the park, was a small concession-stand operated by the Friends of Wyalusing State Park, whose primary dinner offering was microwaved cheeseburger. I ate one, and then sheepishly went back for two more. It had been a good seven hours since breakfast in Baraboo, and those cheeseburgers tasted ambrosial. I wandered downhill and back to my camp-site, and read until I started to doze off, which did not, unsurprisingly, take long at all.

Concluded in Part 4: True journey is return.

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A topographic anomaly

Despite falling in the middle of a spell of humid and stormy weather, the Fourth of July this year dawned with almost perfect weather, and I took advantage of it by heading to Blue Mound State Park for the day.

Last fall I posted a view of West Blue Mound, seen through mists from the trail winding past its foot:
Blue Mound in mist, 9/8/2013

And this summer, the view from the top, in sunshine:
View from West Observation Tower, Blue Mound State Park, 7/4/14

That’s from the top of one of the observation towers helpfully provided, since in summertime the view would otherwise be confined to what you could see through the trees. The tower is not incredibly high, all things considered – just enough to be over the treetops – but it was an epic enough climb for me, given my lack of head for heights, that getting to the top without a panic attack felt like a considerable achievement. The view (as you can see) really was worth it.

When I reached the ground again, I was met by a bedraggled but still striking Eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilio glaucus):
Blue Mound State Park, 7/4/14
I often see butterflies gamely continuing on with very torn-up wings, and I’m sure it’s anthropomorphizing but I always find it moving. Particularly those last few tatters of iridescent blue that you can see in the tail there.

The Flintrock Trail runs down from the Tower and around through the northwest section of the park; as the name suggests there are many boulders and outcroppings of chert along the route. Apart from being visually striking, the masses of chert on West Blue Mound are a strong going explanation for why it has stayed a high point:

Blue Mound State Park, located in the state of Wisconsin (USA), is host to a topographic anomaly known as Blue Mound. This mound is the western of the two mounds that make up the park, and it marks the highest elevation in southern Wisconsin. Unlike its eastern sibling, Blue Mound possesses an unusual chert cap that may have protected it from erosion, thus preserving its stratigraphic integrity. Although Blue Mound’s unique chert armor was noted in 1927 by the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey, no published work has satisfactorily explained its origin.

The plentiful chert outcroppings and boulders also support a variety of plant-life, from mosses and liverworts, to rock polypody:
Blue Mound State Park, 7/4/14
and even flowering plants, such as these tenacious harebells:
Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia), Blue Mound State Park, 7/4/14

Perching on a rotten log was an ichneumon wasp with an ovipositor as long again as the rest of its body:
Blue Mound State Park, 7/4/14

Mourning-cloaks flitted around like little scraps of shadow:
Blue Mound State Park, 7/4/14

The cooperation of the weather with the holiday really was striking; the day before and day after were both dismal. The bison statues next to the bike path in the Midvale Heights neighbourhood of southwest Madison were decorated for the occasion:
Bison of Liberty, Midvale Heights, Madison

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The year’s midday, Part 2: Down the rushy glen

(Part 1: Up the airy mountain)

Parfrey’s Glen enjoys the distinction of being Wisconsin State Natural Area #1, of more than 650 at time of writing. (And, indeed, there is a #666, Swan Lake Tamaracks.)

To get there from Gibraltar Rock was not exactly a hop, skip, and a jump, but close enough: following the road a few miles ’round to the Merrimac ferry-dock:
Solstice bike trip (Gibraltar Rock & Parfrey's Glen), 6/14
…across the river, and then another few miles up Bluff Road to County Road DL – someday I will learn why Wisconsin county roads have these double- and triple-barreled monikers – to the parking lot. I will complain briefly that this is yet another SNA with car parking but no bike rack, and reiterate my willingness to pay higher trail-pass fees, or contribute to a crowdfunding campaign, or whatever it takes to avoid the perennial Hobson’s choice of “tree in a stand of poison ivy” vs. “park sign that people need to use”, and leave it there. For now.

Just past the parking lot is a mown picnic area, with washrooms and picnic-tables. This area was thick with white-tailed skimmers (Plathemis lydia), which I didn’t see at any point beyond; they were skittish, but at one point I saw no less than 4 resting on a table. The trail led from there through some savannah-ish landscape; here the dragonflies were not to be seen anymore, but, constantly flitting in the peripheral vision, there were an equal number of hackberry emperor butterflies (Asterocampa celtis):
Asterocampa sp., Parfrey's Glen
Now I know what you are probably about to say. “Hey, isn’t that poop in the shot with that beautiful, delicate butterfly? What’s that doing there?” I hate to, Swift-like, burst anybody’s bubble, but:

The adults do not visit flowers, but feed on rotting fruit, tree sap, dung, and animal carcasses.

So, there you have it.

A little farther on the tree-cover deepens and the sound of the glen’s stream, running over rocks, immediately becomes loud in the ears. The trail gets sketchier and sketchier and you start having to cross the stream on rocks, or, if you are cavalier about wet feet – which fortunately have never bothered me much – just by wading up to the ankles. You begin to see more and more of the Cambrian quartzite that the stream has cut through:
Waterfall, Parfrey's Glen
The walls grow higher on either side, deepening the shadow; as you push on, the sense of entering a different world grows. I was reminded of Ryhope Wood from Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood: an old-growth woodland where the lines between myth and reality are blurred, and by taking the right paths you may end up in a landscape predating the Ice Age.

Tree-roots and cave, Parfrey's Glen

The Baraboo Hills of Wisconsin – of which Parfrey’s Glen marks a southeastern outpost – are what’s called an exhumed mountain-range. In Precambrian times they would have rivalled today’s Rockies; later, about 500 million years ago, they sank down and were buried under sediment; it is this sediment which became sandstone and then the “plum-pudding” quartzite of the glen, conglomerated with larger stones, as seen here:
Plum-pudding quartzite, Parfrey's Glen
In the past few million years the land around the range has lowered once more and the Baraboo Hills, though a shadow of their former eminence, are estimated to stand once again at about the height they last reached in the Late Cambrian, when trilobites lurked on the sea-bed. There doesn’t appear to be a consensus on when, exactly, Parfrey’s Glen was cut into the rock; it could be as recent as the Pleistocene, 3 million to 10,000 or so years ago.

After leading you to clamber up some very damp boulders, the ghost of a path reaches a waterfall, a good place to sit and rest: Waterfall at far end of Parfrey's Glen

And then, retracing your steps, you finally emerge blinking into daylight, feeling like a month or a century might have passed. Sitting on the top tube of my bike was another hackberry emperor, calmly wandering around the Ruby sticker, proboscis coiling and uncoiling, undisturbed by my proximity:
Asterocampa sp., Parfrey's Glen

Given the aforementioned about the emperor’s feeding habits, I could have chosen to take some offence – my beloved bike in no way resembles rotten fruit, carrion, or poop – but I decided to view it as a benediction instead.

Once it flew off I unlocked, remounted, and headed back homeward.

(Part 3: Afterword)

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The year’s midday, Part 1: Up the airy mountain

Though campsites proved impossible to find, I was determined this year (weather permitting), to at least go for a good long ride on the Summer Solstice and see some new natural places. Gibraltar Rock State Natural Area was on the list, and is under 30 miles away, so I planned to go there for sure; and if I was tired after that to just meander back home, otherwise press on to Parfrey’s Glen, just across the Wisconsin River.

The longest day of the year began in considerable fog; so much so that “dawned” doesn’t seem the correct verb. The fog shrouded everything and, given the near-absence of traffic, seemed to muffle sound, making my breath loud in my ears as I pedaled northwards out of town. What features could be seen in the near distance appeared strange and desolate:
Solstice bike trip (Gibraltar Rock & Parfrey's Glen), 6/14
After a couple of hours’ riding I stopped in Lodi, where blue sky and sunshine were beginning to show themselves, for a revitalizing espresso. And then out of town again, passing Lake Wisconsin to my right:
Solstice bike trip (Gibraltar Rock & Parfrey's Glen), 6/14
… and on to Gibraltar Rock State Natural Area.

The eponymous rock is an outcropping of the Lower Magnesian escarpment, which I talked about in my account of visiting Lodi Marsh last fall, rising some 200 feet above the surroundings. There is a gravel trail that leads straight up, and a path that meanders through forest for awhile before climbing sharply to the top; that was the one I took up. In the shadows there were a considerable number of ferns; on one of them I spotted this striking little membracid:

Bug (leafhopper?), Gibraltar Rock SNA
… and also, in part thanks to the recent spate of rains, there were a couple of new (to me) slime-molds! Firstly, white-coral slime (Ceratiomyxa fruticulosa):
Solstice bike trip (Gibraltar Rock & Parfrey's Glen), 6/14
(Apologies – the picture is a little bit washed-out by the flash. The non-flash pictures just came out too blurry.) Secondly, a patch of charmingly-named dog-vomit slime (Fuligo septica):
Solstice bike trip (Gibraltar Rock & Parfrey's Glen), 6/14
If Wikipedia say true, Scandinavian folklore has it that dog-vomit slime mold is actually the vomit of troll cats, which are apparently also a thing in Scandinavian folklore. There’s a citation, for a University of Minnesota press book entitled Scandinavian Folk Belief and Legend. To no one’s surprise, the Stoughton Public Library has this book, so I’m ILL-ing it as we speak and will keep you posted. (ETA: more details in Part 3.)

From the shadowy forest, a sudden steep scramble up a rocky path and you are at the cliff-top, with a fine sunny view, even for those who – like me – will not go within four feet of the drop:
Solstice bike trip (Gibraltar Rock & Parfrey's Glen), 6/14
Birds of prey could be seen riding the thermals, and from far below drifted up the sounds of a rooster crowing and a tractor starting up. I took the short route back down. By the trailside I spotted an old friend, the assassin bug Zelus luridus:
Solstice bike trip (Gibraltar Rock & Parfrey's Glen), 6/14
There was a couple who had passed me on their way to the top coming back down when I took that picture, and wanted to know what it was of. So I explained, briefly; managing to stop myself before I could launch into the bug’s gloriously icky method of feeding, or the Canadian stamp that features it.

I was already on my bike and rolling out of the parking lot when I spotted, but could not get a close-up, of this butterfly – a red-spotted purple (Limenitis arthemis), I’m fairly sure:
Solstice bike trip (Gibraltar Rock & Parfrey's Glen), 6/14

This was the point in my day-trip where I’d planned to decide whether to push on to Parfrey’s Glen or slope back into town. It was not quite 10AM, and it was neither too hot nor threatening rain, and so taking a poll of my energy levels I decided to head on; so, rather than rightward to retrace my path, leftward to take the road to the Merrimac Ferry.

(Part 2: Down the rushy glen)
(Part 3: Afterword)

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The stone centipede

In late March I went to the Lakeshore Preserve, on a quest for spring ephemerals. Despite the warm air, the trails still had a layer of snow on them, and though new shoots were poking their way up through the leaf-litter, nothing was in bloom and little living was to be seen out in the open.

But in the shelter of fallen and decaying trees there were definitely signs of activity. In particular, curled on the underside of a loose sheet of bark propped against a log was this splendid – and very calm – stone centipede (order Lithobiomorpha, class Chilopoda – the centipedes – and sub-phylum Myriapoda, the centipedes and millipedes):
Stone centipede, Lakeshore Preserve

The order takes its name from the genus Lithobius, a classification due to William Elford Leach, FRS, assistant keeper of the British Museum’s natural history department in the early 19th century. Leach’s Wikipedia biography states delicately “Leach’s nomenclature was a little eccentric”. The linked article gives a little more detail:

A Leach legend arose about a beloved Caroline (wife, sister, or friend?) who was immortalized in the mostly acronymic isopod genera Anilocra, Canolira, Cirolana, Conilera, Nelocira, Nerocila, Olencira, and Rocinela.

In the first episode of the rebooted Cosmos, you may recall seeing Tiktaalik, the renowned intermediate between fish and tetrapods, crawling up out of the surf at Neil deGrasse Tyson’s feet. Another scientific Neil – Neil Shubin – led the team that found Tiktaalik after several arduous expeditions to Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic; the Inuktitut name pays a courtesy to the team’s Inuit hosts. As it happens, this Neil can also be seen on television, in a three-part adaptation of his book Your Inner Fish, on PBS; and you can stream it, if like me you don’t have actual television. As with Cosmos, by the bye, I can’t guarantee that the network is going to leave those streamable episodes up, so, apologies if you arrive here and they’re already gone. It’s great stuff, though, so if that’s the case I’d still urge you to seek out a DVD or find it on Netflix or Amazon or wherever it happens to land.

Tiktaalik is pretty ancient; but when that first Tiktaalik stuck its head out of shallow water to have a look at the land, it might well have seen a myriapod already quite at home. By that time, myriapods had already been on the land for some fifty million years; nearly as much time as separates us from the end of the dinosaurs. In fact, the oldest known fossil of a land animal is a myriapod, found in Scotland ten years ago by bus driver and amateur palaeontologist Mike Newman.

They’ve lived on the land through all but one of the great extinctions, without needing to change too radically in form or habits of life. That’s worth taking your hat off to.

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Where his sea of flowers began

The Westport Drumlin Natural Area is a tiny remnant of the Empire Prairie which – true to its name – once covered a large swath of Dane and Columbia Counties in southern Wisconsin. It also went by the more prosaic name of the Arlington Prairie. To get there from Madison, you ride northward out of town; in fact, the transition from urban to rural in this direction is amazingly abrupt, and in the blink of an eye you pass from subdivisions and Skipper Bud’s boat store to farmhouses and to fields luminous and pastel-coloured in early morning summer sunlight:
Early morning, River Road, Westport, WI
and you meander up and down along River Road, then finally turn off to climb the steep bank of the drumlin itself. The view from the top of the drumlin compensates for the effort of the climb:
View from Westport Drumlin
Wandering through the Area itself was actually somewhat humbling, because my untrained eye wasn’t really able to tell this relict prairie from the restored ones that are much more common. At times, evidently, there are guided walks, and someday I must show up for one. I did see a very attractive little grasshopper:
Grasshopper, Westport Drumlin
but didn’t see Westport Drumlin’s most interesting insect resident: the red-tailed prairie leafhopper, Aflexia rubranura. If you follow the link you’ll see that it’s not the most spectacular sight in the world, but it’s still pretty interesting; in large part because it sheds light on the history of the landscape. And not only on the landscape I’m living in now, but the one that I grew up in.

Both of which are connected by something I hadn’t heard of before starting to write this post – the prairie peninsula. Most of the North American prairie lies on the Great Plains, west of the Mississippi – at the hundredth meridian, as the song goes. However, there’s a sizable piece of it that pushes eastward, through southern Wisconsin, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, and Ohio, which have increasingly infrequent patches of remnant prairie, even to southwestern Ontario. This piece was called the “prairie peninsula” by Ohio biologist Edgar Transeau. Now, if you find a fragment of tallgrass prairie within the city limits of Windsor, Ontario, you may (a) be as surprised to learn it as I was, despite having grown up only a couple of hours away, and (b) ask the natural question of how it got to be there. Did it come into existence independently, due to changes in the local climate and migrations, or did much more prairie once come a lot farther to the east than it does now?

So it seems like the evidence points, in some though not all cases, to the latter answer, and a good part of that evidence is due to that nondescript little leafhopper and its relations. The story’s not simple; not even completely settled. It seems fairly certain that between 9,000 and 5,000 years ago there was an episode called variously the Xerothermic, the Hypsithermal, or the Holocene Climate Optimum, when summer temperatures in North America were some 1-2C higher, enough to make the area around the Great Lakes dry enough to favour prairie over forest. There may have, also, been episodes during the last Ice Age that favoured prairies to the east – and during one of those periods, Aflexia rubranura may have made its way to Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron, another place it can still be found. (Another Ohio biologist, E. Lucy Braun, thought there must have an another period of eastward prairie expansion before the last glacial period, so, more than 85,000 years ago. I don’t know what the current thinking on this idea is.) The leafhopper way of life makes it unusual for them to get picked up and carried long distances by winds, so if they’re found someplace, chances are they arrived there the slow way, following their food from point A to point B. Since as a rule they only eat one or a few kinds of plant, communities containing that plaint – prairie dropseed, in the case of Aflexia – must have existed all along the route at some point in time.

The prairie is so congenial to leafhoppers, in fact, that they have evolved whole new genera in it; there are more than 600 species of leafhopper which exist only within the North American prairie. I don’t know that this approaches the diversity of form and habitat of, say, the cichlids of Lake Victoria; but it seems very rich for the temperate zone. Despite their shy and retiring nature, though, there are some vivid-looking leafhoppers, such as this Graphocephala coccinea:
Candy-striped leafhopper
… which is not, in fact, endemic to the prairie, but can be seen even in urban neighbourhoods, as this one was.

In sum, though, the difference between what I could see and what was there to be seen is a reminder that, as far as nature goes, I’ve maybe progressed from looking at the pretty pictures to being able to tell (some of the time) what the illuminated letter at the top of the page is. That’s still a long way from reading the text.

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