Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

The Dead River

with 28 comments

Dead River Scene 6821

We’re not done with pictures from southwest Missouri, and I’ve already gone out photographing five times since my return to Austin, but let’s take a first look at the vegetation in northeastern Illinois. In particular, here are two scenes from along a trail in Illinois Beach State Park in Zion, on the shore of Lake Michigan. Our guide on June 6 was Melissa of Melissa Blue Fine Art, who draws inspiration for some of her paintings from the scenery and flora in Lake County, Illinois. Of the first image, which shows the Dead River, she later wrote that the plants include “yellow water lily, chairmaker’s rush and Anemone canadensis. We call the lily spatterdock here, Nuphar luteum. The rush is Scirpus americanus. Every year the river looks a little bit different, with different plants abundant some years and absent others. These 3 are always present, though.” For more on the sometimes deadly Dead River, you can read a brief but interesting article.

The second photograph, taken from a boardwalk, shows the fluffy seed heads of Eriophorum angustifolium, called cotton grass even though it’s a sedge and not a grass.

Feather Grass 6833

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

July 5, 2016 at 5:16 AM

28 Responses

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  1. That’s a very nice view of the river which looks anything but dead. How nice to have such an expert guide. I hope that we all get to meet some day.

    Steve Gingold

    July 5, 2016 at 5:32 AM

    • Melissa was the 6th blog friend I met in person. Gallivanta, whose comment followed yours by a minute, was the 4th. Linda at shoreacres was the 5th. May you join the queue.

      The river was anything but dead, happily for me as a photographer.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 5, 2016 at 6:03 AM

    • Me too!


      July 5, 2016 at 9:10 AM

  2. It’s a little concerning that there are no instructions on how to escape the deadly river hazard.


    July 5, 2016 at 5:33 AM

    • You raise a good point. A warning without a suggested plan of action gets you only so far. Maybe there’s nothing you can do once you’re being swept away by the rushing water, but at least you’d understand the cause of your demise—for whatever that’s worth.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 5, 2016 at 6:07 AM

    • Melissa has offered advice in her comment below.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 5, 2016 at 10:13 AM

  3. You had a good guide in Melissa.

    Jim Ruebush

    July 5, 2016 at 7:43 AM

  4. From what I know about rip tides, I believe what you do is ride it out best you can and then when the power dissipates somewhat you swim parallel to the shore until you are out of the tide. You cannot swim back to shore until you’ve gotten out of the powerful wave that is pushing you out into the Lake. The warnings are clearly marked, however, and people have no business getting into the river which is a dedicated nature preserve. You also are not allowed in the land across the river, so it is just best to stay out of it altogether.

    You’ve captured “my” beautiful river so well, Steve!


    July 5, 2016 at 9:15 AM

    • Your advice about what to do if swept away sounds like just the right thing, as does your counsel to stay out of the danger area in the first place.

      If I lived near there I might have to fight you for pronoun rights (which are like naming rights) to “my” river.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 5, 2016 at 10:13 AM

    • Not only that, Melissa, when I saw the photo of the river, I didn’t think of Cézanne or Corot or Monet — I thought about your paintings. Now that I’ve seen the river, I can see how beautifully you’ve captured it. I was reminded of a quotation from Joan Didion that I’ve always thought true: “A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.” I think you’re doing a fine job of just that.


      July 5, 2016 at 9:14 PM

      • If I can appropriate Joan Didion’s counsel (which is excellent), I’ll say that I’ve continued to think of myself as claiming certain spaces by photographing them in their natural state, in many cases not long before they get developed and are lost forever. Just yesterday I found that yet another familiar field has become a construction site. This was a piece of prairie where in years gone by I’d found swarms of monarch butterflies on colonies of tall goldenrod and Maximilian sunflowers.

        Steve Schwartzman

        July 5, 2016 at 9:30 PM

        • You’ve reminded me of the work of Charles Marville, who photographed Paris before and during the time that Haussman rolled through, destroying and creating at the same time as he reshaped the city. Leonard Pitt put together a fascinating book titled Walks Through Lost Paris, in which he presents the city section by section, comparing the Paris of today with the lost Paris shown in the photos of Marville and others.

          People were of a divided mind about Haussman’s work, as you no doubt know. In Pitt’s book, he quotes a contemporary of Haussman to the effect that, “It seems that we can respect the jewels while changing the string, and sweep up without destroying the pavement.” Part of the problem with today’s development is that we’re tossing out the jewels, and jack-hammering the pavement.

          I certainly see a parallel between what Pitt did with Marville’s work, and what you’re doing with your photography of natural beauties, pre-development. You know me — always an idea — but it certainly seems like fertile ground for a presentation, at least: if not a book. One of the most striking ways to show people what is happening is to put that before-and-after view in front of them. It would be a heck of a project, and you certainly have the resources.


          July 7, 2016 at 9:49 PM

          • You’ve read my mind. We went to Book People this evening for a talk by the two authors of The Texas Landscape Project. As I sat there waiting for the talk to begin I thought about all the losses of land this year, and I imagined the kind of presentation I could put together: one picture of each property after it got developed, followed by several or many pictures showing the plants and animals that I’d seen there.

            Steve Schwartzman

            July 7, 2016 at 10:20 PM

      • Wow~I can’t imagine a more wonderful comment on my work. Thank you so much!


        July 6, 2016 at 10:11 AM

    • In Susan Scheid’s first comment below, she also expressed appreciation for your art.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 14, 2016 at 3:11 PM

  5. If the river creates a rip current, Melissa’s advice is exactly right: swim parallel to the shore until you’re out of the current, and then come in. Rip tides are common here, but people still get in trouble — especially tourists who aren’t used to them, and who try to swim straight in.

    The first photo of the river resembles the coastal prairie at the San Bernard refuge early in the year. After some controlled burns, the grasses began coming back, but in multiple greens that looked like the banding on the right side of the photo. Each time I visited there was more growth and slightly different colors, but I’m not sure there was as much variety in species as at the river. That clear water is so appealing.

    Cotton grass may be a sedge, but it certainly looks like cotton. I was so taken with the plant, I missed the water at first glance. It certainly doesn’t mind getting its feet wet.


    July 5, 2016 at 9:08 PM

    • Hmm. I initially misread your second paragraph and thought you were talking about a controlled burn of aquatic plants like those in the Dead River. Burning a prairie is one thing, burning plants in a river another. Somehow I don’t think it would work well, although there are infamous accounts of places like the Cuyahoga River catching fire decades ago.

      The clear water of the river is appealing, true, but because the place is a nature preserve no swimming is allowed, even in parts of the river away from Lake Michigan. Likewise, I had to stay on the boardwalk for pictures of the cotton grass, and unfortunately no stalk was near enough for me to get a closeup of the “cotton.” I would like to have seen its texture.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 5, 2016 at 10:04 PM

      • When I looked up the genus, I was amazed to see that it grows in the Arctic and sub-Arctic. There was a note in the Wiki article that “In cold Arctic regions, these masses of translucent fibres also serve as ‘down’ – increasing the temperature of the reproductive organs during the Arctic summer by trapping solar radiation.” I swear, every time I turn around some plant is doing something unexpected.


        July 5, 2016 at 10:12 PM

  6. I enjoyed the introduction to Melissa Blue’s art, inspired by her local scenery (not so very far from where I grew up). I was fascinated to learn of the Dead River, and to learn that both the Chicago and Calumet Rivers had these characteristics, too. Those two rivers, and particularly the Calumet, are “home ground” for me, and I can certainly attest that they long ago lost their natural characteristics, to say the least!

    Susan Scheid

    July 14, 2016 at 1:29 PM

    • Last month, at Melissa’s suggestion, Eve and I took an architectural boat tour of the Chicago River. The tour guide mention how the people managed to revers the flow of the Chicago River. Until then the river had unfortunately served as a sewer emptying into Lake Michigan.

      I had no idea that your home ground was that part of the country, as I always associated you with the Hudson Valley and New York City. It was long overdue for us to tour the Chicago area, which we didn’t know (I’d spent a few hours driving through in the summer of 1967, and that was it). We spent more time doing cultural things than nature things: a day each at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Field Museum, plus various other institutions.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 14, 2016 at 1:48 PM

      • I seem to recall reading long ago about reversing flow of the Chicago River. Yes, I actually grew up in the Chicago area (suburbs, then University of Chicago), moved to NYC after UC with a detour to Iowa City on the way. I was just looking back on some information I’d gathered way back when on the Calumet River: it was once home to black-crowned night heron. Looks like there’s an effort afoot to bring them back:http://www.wetlands-initiative.org/featured-news/2016/2/1/twi-and-partners-plan-calumet-area-marsh-restoration

        Susan Scheid

        July 14, 2016 at 1:56 PM

        • On our way out of the Chicago area we spent a day at the Indiana Dunes, and on the highway to get there we crossed the Calumet River. I didn’t know about its history till your previous comment and the article you just linked to. It introduced me to the kind of environment it calls a hemi-marsh (and as familiar as the adjective interspersed is, I don’t think I’ve encountered the noun interspersion).

          Similarly, I don’t think I’ve seen a black-crowned night heron, but four years ago I came across a blue-crowned night heron in my neighborhood:


          Let’s hope the restoration of the Calumet area succeeds.

          Speaking of the University of Chicago, when I taught high school math a decade ago the best math student I’d ever had went on to pursue that subject in college there.

          Steve Schwartzman

          July 14, 2016 at 2:56 PM

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