Millstone Bluff – Shawnee National Forest

At the end of our November Shawnee National Forest Meetup (Day1, Day2), we visited a fascinating Archeological site, Millstone Bluff. Our June River to River plans included visiting Millstone Bluff because of the petroglyphs there, but it was far off trail and we had other plans that day to see Trigg Tower and the bleeding buffalo pictograph. Archeology views human culture through the artifacts left behind, and this site includes 3 human civilizations, all within the Common Era (all within the last 1200 years) impacting the land. We were privileged to share it with our Meetup friend John, who studied and worked on Illinois Archeological digs, when he was younger.

From its recent past, this place is named after a stone quarry at the base of the bluff, used for making round millstones by European settlers back in the 1800’s.

This surface-level quarry edges the parking lot as you drive in, and was abandoned, long before archeologists found the rich history on top of the bluff, just 20 years ago.

Six centuries earlier (in the 1200’s) a Mississippian settlement sat atop the bluff. Mississippians formed a large complex hierarchical culture covering most of our lower 48; a northeastern counterpart to the Mayan culture thriving further south. 

We saw rectangular indentations where homes and larger community buildings stood, a cemetery where graves were built as stone boxes.

There was also a collection of sacred petroglyphs, including an impressive thunderbird. As we looked over this small community we imagined what a lovely place it would have been to live, with grand views looking out over the nearby landscape.

Before that, maybe the 800’s, a tribe of Late Woodland people built up stone walls along the upper edge of this bluff, fortifying this dependable location, like a natural castle, against other tribes that may have passed by. Though Mississippians may not have had use for the walls themselves, they left them in place as artifacts for us to find now, in modern day.


Master Naturalist Ethics & Graduation

Before graduating as Master Naturalist interns, we had one last subject to ponder: what’s the best way to promote environmental stewardship and influence conservation ethics in the world and society we live in? Eric Freyfogle is a law professor, author, and expert in environmental land use and conservation economics; he shared ideas with our class about the challenges we all face together.

A major cause of ethical gridlock in America is the misunderstanding that all problems can be solved though innovation or that social decisions can be made using scientific data alone. Science can only determine the way things are but it has no tools for choosing what changes should occur, what the best results are, or what direction we should go in. Being a Naturalist is about becoming an observer, admirer, and participant in the natural world, but it takes an active citizen with ideas for promoting a healthier world, participating in an ethical social debate, so we can decide together what should be done, what standards to set, and where to focus our efforts.

As an individual you may choose to be vegetarian or I may have a favorite bird or flower I’d like to see more of, but since we are interacting regularly with each other and are in constant contact with our environment, conservation ethics needs to be about how to solve problems as a society, both globally and locally. We do this by setting standards, crafting effective laws and regulation, limiting the destruction of valuable natural resources, and promoting healthy diversity in our world. Through policy, we decide together how to interact with all the factors, whether they are: wolves, wild turkeys, homes, pipelines, air pollution, fragile wetlands, capitalist corporations, or creeping spiders … they are all important parts of the whole and should be considered in how we choose to care for our world and each other.

Dr. Freyfogle leads a yearly lecture series, with the Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment, at the U of I. Since we had so much fun learning together at the weekly Master Naturalist classes, we may pick a year to learn more about environmental ethics and how to convince our representatives and the businesses we frequent to help us keep our planet and community healthy.

After that last classroom lecture, we donned our bug-adorned mortar board caps and lined up for the graduation precession ceremony. It was entirely adorable, there were bubbles and noise makers and people with funny nature hats. We were handed our certificates and I was really proud of what we had undertaken all of these weeks.

I had gone into the course thinking it would answer so many questions about what we had experienced out on the trail, but it really just opened up an entire world of more questions and areas to learn about in depth. That’s pretty great, and I am so looking forward to all the new things on our horizon.

As a group we then enjoyed a bountiful potluck with amazing treats and sat around to socialize while we still had the opportunity. We were seated with our friend Anne who had been hearing about our hikes and wanted to join us on our local outings. We arranged a time, and she popped up and announced to the room that if anyone wanted to join us to just email me! And that is officially how the Master Naturalist Hiking Club began. A small group of us hike together every Wednesday morning and it has been magnificent. If you follow Arbor’s and my Instagram accounts, you’ve probably seen photos from those excursions already.

Between our volunteering, our hiking club and Master Naturalist continuing education, we won’t be deprived of any new friends or learning opportunities! ~Tau

Master Naturalist – Rain Gardens and Archeology

photo source and more info here

We learned about urban systems and agriculture during class. I was particularly interested in hearing about rain gardens, that are designed to capture and utilize rainwater runoff. Surprisingly storm water runoff is currently the largest threat to water pollution. We hear all about the oil spill disasters in the ocean, but neglect the consistent downpour of chemicals coming off of our roof shingles, driveways and hard surfaces areas into storm drains. Rain gardens are a perfect way to impede and filter that water – and it beautifies our communities at the same time. They are great at the city level, but can also be employed at home. Many communities have incentive programs to offset the costs of building the garden. Our city offers up to $1000!

Our rain gutters are currently a disaster, and we are looking at replacing them in the very near future. We are already plotting our own rain garden as part of the new project and will share our progress with you in future posts.

There are even permeable pavement options. This is particularly great for large city areas where so much of the soil is covered by concrete, and storm water is a serious issue. Permeable pavement comes in all sorts of designs and types, but the concept allows for rain water to filter through the surface and into the soil below, limiting the amount that is shed off into storm drains. We are excited about the possibilities with this and will be replacing our crumbling driveway with something permeable in the coming years.

We aren’t farmers, but are surrounded by farmland in our central Illinois community. We were fascinated to learn about similar runoff concerns with cropland. There is a large push by water conservation groups for farmers to move to low till and no till practices. Instead of cutting down crops all the way to the ground, farmers leave just the base or the full plant where they stand. This helps absorb water and nutrients into the soil and vastly improves erosion. (and thereby helping to prevent another dust bowl) There is a larger upfront investment for the farmer, but the long term benefits are terrific and no till practices are on the rise! You can read more about the rise of no till farming in this article from the Wall Street Journal.

For the second portion of the day, we learned about archeology and the significant sites here in Illinois. We even got to experience a mock process of archeology detective work. We split into groups and used our objects to determine what period our people were from and what they did. Our group was from the middle woodland period!

I love putting things into proper context, so when our teacher had us stand up and hold the timeline of ancient peoples around the room, it really got to me. The human race is both incredibly short lived – but expansive all at the same time. Its amazing what we have accomplished over these years, and who we have become.

At the end of the day, for the sheer joy of it, we got to try our hands at a Native American atlatl and dart. There were many noble throws, but only one in our class hit the target. 😉 (and it wasn’t Arbor or me)

Seed collecting on the prairie

Indian Grass

Volunteering is one of the important components of being a Master Naturalist. We need to complete 60 hours of volunteer work to move from interns to full Master Naturalists, and then log 30 hours annually to keep our certification. We have fallen in love with volunteering. It’s a great format for socializing with others who are passionate about nature, and we really get to participate in making our natural areas better than we found them. Its an amazing feeling!

One of our favorite activities is seed collecting. There can be little better than tramping through the prairie, looking for grasses and forbes (prairie flowers) to collect their fall bounty. It gets you off the trail and into the heart of things to view the landscape a whole new way. There is also no better way to learn to ID and differentiate plant species than going on a giant treasure hunt for your assigned seed.


We collected Boneset, Rosinweed, Big Blue Stem grass, Coneflowers and more. It was surprisingly exhilarating and we went out multiple times as the fall progressed.


Sometimes while you’re out there, you get a real treat. The above photo is of a native Illinois orchid, Nodding Lady Tresses! I didn’t even know that the plains states had their own orchids.

Now that the cold weather is setting in, we get together to clean the seed so we can rebroadcast it next spring in the areas needing further development.

We worked on Rattlesnake Master, which is a cool plant but has strong prickly seeds. We had to wear gloves to protect our skin while we removed the seed from the seedhead, but made quick work of the project.

We’re supposed to remove the seed from the chaff, but its not an exact science amongst our group and its all going to go back to the ground anyway. I have a new found respect for small scale seed companies! I have no idea how they get them so clean.

It was a fun day. We got the chance to reconnect with our old Master Naturalist classmates, and meet new folks from previous classes. Everyone brought food to share and there was a post seed feast to enjoy among friends. Its the very best kind of volunteering!

Master Naturalist – Forest Ecology & Climate

We learned all about forest systems this week. We live in a deciduous forest biome, which represent only 14% of the world’s forests. Because Illinois extends so far north and south, we comprise 5 hardiness zones and 3 seed zones. I thought the seed zones were particularly interesting. If you took a seed from a plant more than one seed zone from your home, it will be unlikely to thrive if you planted it in your yard. I thought temperature ranges were really the only key!

We got a chance to go outside and learn how to measure a tree’s height using a special yard stick and to recognize different tree types.

There is even an Illinois website to report on big trees. They often represent the oldest native trees in the state and getting people involved can go a long way in preserving these natural treasures.

The climate and weather portion of the day was pretty neat. Arbor and I do a lot of road trips because of our kids and we see some really incredible skies along the way. I should have known the cloud types by now, but I never learned them and was glad to start figuring them out. Its still quite complicated, since you have your basic cloud types (cirro, alto, strato, nimbo & cumulo) – but nothing is that direct, and so you have the cirrocumulous and the nimbostratus and even further derivations. It will take a while before I can point at the sky and identify what I see. Its a fun project though.

I learned that CO2 accumulates in the atmosphere and then takes hundreds of years to diffuse & that crops change the atmosphere by taking in water and then offgassing seasonally. (which is a big deal as we live surrounded by corn and soybean!)

Master Naturalist – Grasslands & Insects

Living in a prairie state, we spend a lot of education hours on it. Having lived here most of my life, its an easy thing to take for granted. But as we delve further into the details and its importance, I am growing to appreciate it more and more. I often joke about living in the flatlands of Illinois, and in fact it was the glaciers that shaped our landscape and our midwest climate that allowed the prairie to flourish here. Most of our precipitation comes from the gulf and we average 36 inches of rain a year. This makes our land really fertile stuff.

Its not just the rain that keeps a prairie healthy though, regular burns were vital to keeping invasives and trees from encroaching. For so long, land management has tried to avoid fire. Just remember all those Smokey the Bear campaigns! Now its an important tool that has helped restoration projects breath new life into the prairie preserves scattered throughout the state.

We got to go outside and participate in a scavenger hunt of sorts, where we tested our knowledge of prairie plants. It was terrific fun, and I’m super proud to say that we got all 35 plants right!

The second part of the day was devoted to insects and their amazing adaptability. Its incredible to realize that they first graced our planet 350 million years ago. Dinosaurs didn’t show up until 265 million years ago!

We learned about both the complete and incomplete life cycles. The dragonfly nymph I showed you last week has an incomplete life cycle. They metamorphose from egg, to nymph, to adult. A butterfly however phases through the egg, the larva, the pupa and then adult stages in a complete life cycle.

We spent a lot of time on spiders which was pretty neat. I had no idea that spiders generally eat their old web before building new ones. Its made from a protein, so ingesting their work saves them energy plus it gives them other nutrients from the pollen their webs pick up! I thought that was incredibly cool.

The Argiope spider pictured above was found in our garden as soon as we got home from class. We learned that they have a particularly unique mating cycle. Our spider is a female, and is sitting on her web eating as much as she can so that she can generate enough energy to make her eggs. Males are a lot smaller, and will roam all over in order to mate with the females. The problem is that with the size difference, the female sees the diminutive male as nothing more than the next meal. In order to get around this problem, the male will sit at the edge of the web and tap a rhythm to coax the female to hold still. If shes feeling ‘in the mood’, the male will tap tap away as he moves closer. While shes still in her tapping trance, he will quickly tie her legs to the web! He does this because as soon as mating concludes, she will snap out of her trance and eat the poor guy. He can usually get away in the time it takes her to free herself. Whew – spider relationships squarely fall under the “it’s complicated” category.

Master Naturalist – Acquatics

I loved this class far more than I expected to. Our teacher was an expert on mussels – those freshwater bivalves that aren’t “clams”. I had no idea just how fascinating they could be.

Mussels can live up to 200 years and were once so plentiful in our rivers and streams that an entire industry was built up around them. Unfortunately, between the pearl button trade, pollution and invasive mussels, their population has been dramatically reduced. We are seeing a bit of a resurgence since the clean water act.

We learned about some other freshwater creatures, and before we knew it we were headed outside to get our hands dirty!

We caught crayfish and learned how to sex them and examined them up close. The highlight of my day was learning how to hold them myself, without getting pinched. Its really cool how they arch back and show you all their glorious parts once you get a good grip.

This is a dragonfly nymph! This incredible water creature will metamorphosize into the adult winged dragonfly we all know and love. Its incredible that they are even related.

We dug into the water bottom and scanned for mussels. We found several invasive zebra mussels, but did manage to find one live tiny mussel! We did find shells of both an old and a fresh small spectaclecase mussel – a mussel that is on the endangered list. Its an encouraging sign that we found them there.

After class broke up, we hiked the Middle Fork Preserve, taking a different route than the last time. We enjoyed hiking through forest and prairie and worked up a good sweat for the next 90 minutes.

The colors are changing, seeds are setting and the air is getting cooler. All signs that fall is certainly upon us.