I roamed Howes Prairie for six hours today. The sun was high and hot, the air was dank and everywhere, everywhere were swarms of mosquitos. I wore khakis and a long-sleeved, tight weave cotton shirt and a cap. I had anointed myself and my clothes with bug repellent.
A twenty-five pound summit pack rode on back -- field guides, a botany text, compass, hand lens, loupe, trail food, 1/2 gallon of heavily sugared, dilute iced tea, extra bug juice. I wore my binoculars around my neck to look at butterflies and migrating birds.
My friend and colleague Tom -- a photographer collaborating on a guidebook -- accompanied me. We spent hours shooting blazing star, coreopsis, St. John's-wort, sunflower, flowering spurge, false-foxglove, oxeye daisy, more wildflowers, tiger and spicebush swallowtail and monarch butterflies, skippers, tiger and iridescent beetles, syphrid flies, and -- yes -- prairie grasses.
I led us to the dune that is the northern border of Howes Prairie and shields it from Lake Michigan -- no dune, no prairie. We climbed a slide -- a steep, slippery trail of sand. No footing, labored breathing.
I immediately noticed several low, spreading, silver-white, homely, even ugly plants among the sparse grasses in that hostile, dry, hot sandy habitat. I thought no -- yes -- maybe -- God, could it be?
I asked Tom how many shots he had left, and he said four. I asked if this is what I think it is we will want to shoot it and could he please go back down and bring up another roll and the botany text?
Mind you I had never seen the plant I hoped this might be nor even an illustration or photograph. I opened "The Manual of Vascular Plants of Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada" by Gleason & Cronquist to the entry "cirsium pitcheri."
Trembling with excitement, I read: "Taprooted biennial or monocarpic perennial, 5-10 dm; stem and lower lf-surfaces densely and persistently white-tomentose...."
As my whole body -- like a tuning fork -- hummed a single note of joy, I crawled to the nearest plant and examined it with my loupe.
And then I knew, I knew we had attained a holy place. The plant was dune thistle, one of the rarest in the region, a plant listed by the federal government as a threatened species. It has adapted and survives in the dry, harsh environment of foredunes and blowouts.
Tom and I setup and burned a roll of film on several dune thistles. A month earlier I had taken Tom to another location in the national lakeshore where he photographed the Karner blue butterfly -- listed as an endangered species by the federal government. I told Tom that he and I were among a handful of people who had seen both pitcheri and Karner, for only here in the Indiana Dunes will you find the conjunction of dune and savanna.
I made Tom promise not tell the location of our cirsium pitcheri to a soul, not a single solitary person. For one person would tell another and soon fifty and then a hundred and then a thousand lovers of plants would come and trample the habitat.
I thought about this world where the knowledge of cirsium pitcheri -- a plant once common -- must be hidden away from those who would love it. There are special places that can only be visited through words and seen in photographs.
I would, I would take you to this holy ground, but I cannot.
Copyright 1996, Bud Polk