The Grassy Sea

“This dewdrop world  is a dewdrop world. And yet. And yet.” –Kobayashi Issa

****

September draws to a close. The prairie dreams;  wakens later each morning.

img_8600

You gaze at the grass, all waves, and wind, and water. A grassy sea.

P1000945.jpg

Foam is kicked up by the churning of the grasses.

P1010080.jpg

The clouds become the prows of ships, tossing on the tumultuous air…

P1000951.jpg

And you realize fences, no matter how strong, can never contain the tallgrass, washing up against the wires.

P1000981.jpg

Fungi cling like barnacles to dropped limbs on the edges of the grasses…

p1010016-copy

You reflect on how, after almost being obliterated, the tallgrass prairie has hung on to life; survival by  a thread.

P1010041 (1).jpg

It was a close call. Even today, prairie clings to old, unsprayed railroad right-of-ways in the center of industrial areas and landscaped lawns.

P1000987.jpg

Little patches of prairie, scrabbling for life, show up in unlikely places.

IMG_8700.jpg

Although the prairie’s former grandeur is only dimly remembered…

P1000971.jpg

…and in many places, the tallgrass prairie seems utterly obliterated from memory, gone with the wind…

IMG_8718 (1).jpg

…the  prairie has put down roots again. You can see it coming into focus in vibrant, growing restorations, with dazzling autumn wildflowers…

P1010067.jpg

…and diverse tiny creatures.

P1010044 (1).jpg

 

There is hope, glimpsed just over the horizon…IMG_8579.jpg

The dawn of a future filled with promise for a grassy sea.

*******

Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828), whose haiku opens this essay, was a Japanese poet regarded as one of the top four haiku masters of all time. He wrote this particular haiku after suffering tremendous personal loss.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): mist rising over prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; autumn at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Conrad Savanna, The Nature Conservancy and Indiana DNR, Newton County, IN; Nachusa Grasslands in September, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; purple love grass (Eragrostis spectabilis) and sweet everlasting (Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium), Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Newton County, IN; unknown fungi, Brown County State Park, Nashville, IN; marbled orb weaver in the grasses (Araneus marmoreus), Brown County State Park, Nashville, IN; big bluestem  (Andropogon gerardii) and other prairie plants along a railroad right-of-way, Kirkland, IN; prairie plants along an overpass, Bloomington, IN; thistles and grasses, Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Newton County, IN; wind farm, Benton County, IN; great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Newton County, IN;  Eastern-tailed blue (Cupido comyntas), Brown County State Park, Nashville,  Indiana; Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL. 

Prairie Passages

“The opposite of love is not hatred, but indifference.”–Paul Gruchow

The sun lobs her light into the early morning hours. Mist rises from the warmth of the tallgrass into the cool air. It’s quiet, except for the wake-up songs of a few migrating warblers, resting in the nearby trees.

IMG_8603.jpg

Dawn is later now. The autumn equinox is only days away. You feel the transition in the slant of the light, the scent of the breezes. The just-past-full harvest moon this week seemed to speak of the cold and dark to come.

almost-full-harvest-moon-916

The prairie  year rushes toward its inevitable conclusion.

img_8573

 

Drive by the prairie in late September. The impression is a sea of grasses. It’s easy to be indifferent to the seeming sameness, if you don’t take time to pay attention and look carefully.  

img_8562

So. Get out of your car. Sit. Look up at the sunflowers. See the migrating monarch nectaring?

img_8490

Celebrate the grasshopper, the bee, the cricket. Each one with plant associations; each irreplaceable in the prairie community.

img_8515

Applaud the profusion of asters, dabbing the prairie with purple.

img_8553-1

Watch as the prairie, under the lessening light, gently puts on the brakes. Seeds ripen and fall; some gathered by volunteers, others fuel for grassland birds or tiny mice and voles.  Bison thicken up their hairy chocolate-colored coats.

P1000664.jpg

Admire the boneset, one of the last flushes of extravagant flowers before the frosts touch the grasses. Boneset was once valued for its medicinal qualities; its ability to alleviate pain. Discomfort is part of change, but there is always solace in unexpected places. The clouds of pale boneset are one of the comforts of a prairie in transition.

img_8248

Inhale, smell the buttery prairie dropseed, the lemony scent of gray-headed coneflower seeds, the dusty mint of bee balm.

IMG_8602.jpg

Are transitions difficult for you, as they are for me? Are you watching and listening as the tallgrass moves from the warm season; melds into the coming cold?

img_8499

Let the prairie remind  you that there is always something amazing waiting, just around the corner. Love the transitions. Embrace what is bittersweet. Don’t be indifferent. Or afraid of change. Keep moving forward with anticipation to the new season ahead.

You’ll see.

******

The opening quote is from Grass Roots: The Universe of Home, by Minnesota writer Paul Gruchow (1947-2004). Gruchow grappled with depression throughout his writing life; he found solace in the solitude of wild places, especially prairie.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby: (top to bottom): Prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; just past full harvest moon seen from author’s prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL;  Clear Creek, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on Maximilian sunflowers (Helianthus maximiliani), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; red-legged grasshopper (Melanoplus femurrubrum) on Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; silky asters (Symphyotrichum sericeum), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; tall boneset (Eupatorium altissimum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; mist over prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; September on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. 

Leaving Home

“Migration is a blind leap of faith… .” Scott Weidensaul

*****

September.

In a prairie pond, a turtle and a few ducks snooze in the late afternoon sun.

turtles-and-mallards-916

A baby snapper ventures slowly out to explore the rocks.

IMG_8352.jpg

The last great blue lobelia flowers open and bloom amid the goldenrod. September’s colors.

goldenrod-and-great-blue-lobelia-tma-916

Deep in the tallgrass, a grasshopper takes a hopping hiatus from the heat.

ng-grasshopper-916

A cool breeze stirs. The tree leaves begin to rustle, then rattle. A sound like waves rushing to shore sweeps through the prairie. It ripples in the wind. Tall coreopsis sways.

glen-ellyn-library-prairie-916

The prairie whispers, Go.

The black saddlebags dragonfly feels restless, deep down in its DNA. Orienting south, it joins the green darners, variegated meadowhawks, and wandering gliders to swarm the skies. Go. Go.

blsaddletwo-jamespate815

The meadowhawk dragonfly hears, but doesn’t respond. It will be left behind. Only a few species of dragonflies answer the migration call. Why?

We don’t know. It’s a mystery.

p1000740

A flash of orange and black, and a monarch nectars at the zinnias that grow by my prairie patch.  Mexico seems a long way off for something so small. But this butterfly was born with a passport that includes a complimentary GPS system. This particular monarch will go. Just one more sip.

monarch-backyard-ge-916

A viceroy butterfly delicately tastes nectar from goldenrod. No epic trip for this look-alike. Although its days are numbered, the butterfly bursts with energy, zipping from prairie wildflower to wildflower. Go? I wish!

viceroy-91216

A turkey vulture lazily soars through the air, headed south.  These Chicago buzzards won’t drift far. Once they hit the sweet tea and BBQ states, they’ll stay put until spring.

turkey-vulture-ng-916

Go? The red-tailed hawk catches the whispered imperative. She stops her wheeling over the prairie for a moment and rests on top of a flagpole, disgruntled. Go? NO! So many birds heading for warmer climes! She ignores the command. She’ll winter here,  in the frigid Chicago temperatures. Wimps, she says, disdaining the pretty warblers, flocking south.

red-tailed-hawk-tma-916

Meanwhile, the last blast of hummingbirds dive-bomb my feeders, slugging it out for fuel. Think of the lines at the pump during the oil embargo crisis of the 1970s –that’s the scene. Destination? Central America. You can feel their desperation as they drink deeply, then buzz away.

hummingbird-backyard-ge-916

Saying goodbye is always the most difficult for those left behind. Seeing those we know and care about leave home is bittersweet, fraught with loss.

sneezeweed-ng-916

But, as the prairie brings one chapter to a close–with all of its colorful and lively characters…

sunset-cod-91216

…another chapter is about to begin.

Meanwhile, we watch them go. Bon voyage. Safe travels.

 

*****

The opening quote is by Scott Weidensaul, the author of Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom):  painted turtle (Chrysemys picta) and mallard ducks ((Anas platyrhynchos) on the  prairie pond, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; baby snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) and Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; grasshopper (species unknown), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Glen Ellyn Public Library prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL; black saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata), James “Pate” Philip State Park, Illinois DNR, Bartlett, IL;  meadowhawk (Sympetrum spp.) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; monarch (Danaus plexippus), author’s backyard garden and prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) on Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; turkey vulture (Cathartes aura), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) , author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; sunset at Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL. 

Wild Things

“Two great and conflicting stories have been told about (wildness). According to the first of these, wildness is a quality to be vanquished; according to the second, it is a quality to be cherished.”–Robert Macfarlane

So often, we settle for “pretty” when we think about place. And yes, the prairie can be pretty, and full of pretty things. Great blue lobelia. Creamy white turtlehead blooms.

“Wild” makes more demands of us.  It changes our idea of beautiful. The prairie as a wild place asks us to be uncomfortable in order to experience it.  To be scratched, sore, tired, and bitten.

P1000745

Wild may be more subtle than pretty. It asks us to look at the sweep of a prairie landscape; the nuances of color and movement.

P1000935

It pushes us to pay attention to small things, that may otherwise easily slip below our radar.

P1000907

To be wild is sometimes unsafe. Prairie dropseed lures us with its buttered popcorn smell, while tripping us up with its silky grasses and mounded roots. Early European settlers called prairie dropseed, “ankle breaker.”  To cross a prairie in that time, with your belongings packed into your wagon, was to enter the wild. A place of hazards.

IMG_8254.jpg

Other plants, like the prairie cordgrass towering over your head, slash bare skin with razor-like leaf cuts if you venture too close. Its nickname: “rip gut.”

CROSBY-Cordgrass2016SP

And yet…look again. So many delicate blooms amid the rough and ready grasses! You pick your way carefully, still conscious of the perils.

P1000895

 

Beauty and terror co-exist, side by side.

P1000882

The idea of “wild” invites us to marvel over less-appreciated creatures, who have a certain ferocious allure.

P1000811

The wildness of prairie may seem empty. The openness of sky and grass leaves us vulnerable to whatever is “out there.”

P1000872

You feel the eyes of a thousand inhabitants of the natural world watching.

P1000871 (2)

You stand, a solitary figure in the tallgrass. No other person in sight. Prairies, like other wild places, give us room to be alone with ourselves, without white noise and distractions. And perhaps this is the most terrifying demand of all from wild places. But for those who make the journey, it is the most satisfying reward. What will you discover?

Why not go, and find out?

*******

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby: (top to bottom) great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) and white turtlehead (Chelone glabra linifolia), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL: great spangled fritillary (Speyeria cybele) on pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor) , Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  September colors at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; familiar bluet damselfly (Enallagma civile) , Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; prairie dropseed, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata) , Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; violet wood sorrel (Oxalis violacea) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) and bee (Megachile spp.), Nachusa Grassland, Franklin Grove, IL; banded garden spider (Argiope trifasciata), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; September at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; common buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

Robert Macfarlane (1976-) penned the opening quote, which is from his book, The Wild Places. He is a contemporary British writer, and winner of the Boardman Tasker Prize for literature.

Prairie Signs and Wonders

“By all these lovely tokens, September days are here, with summer’s best of weather, and autumn’s best of cheer.”–Helen Maria Hunt Jackson

*****

August slows, and puts on her turn signal. Autumn lies just ahead. The signs are all around us.

In my backyard prairie patch, the goldfinches work the cup plant seedheads–then sip a drink from yesterday’s rainwater, pooled in the leaves.

P1000518 (1)

Nearby, a lone monarch appears on the zinnias, delicately sourcing fuel for its migration flight to Mexico. Hasta la vista. What a tough year it’s been for you, monarchs.

P1000418.jpg

 

Hikes on the prairies after work end sooner. Shorter days. Earlier sunsets.

IMG_8227.jpg

The tallgrass is peppered with dark chocolate coneflower seedheads; limned with early goldenrod.

P1000606

In the first light of morning, deep in the dew, the white-faced meadowhawks appear. Harbingers of fall. Their kin, the green darners and wandering gliders, black saddlebags and variegated meadowhawks, have already taken wing and left the Midwest. What a wonder, that they can disappear into the winds to fly thousands of miles! The non-migratory dragonflies  are tied to this place, however, and wait helplessly for the cold.

10556238_10152534260051136_5166223903964505355_n

There is a more spare look to the landscape. It moves from cheerful to slightly melancholy. Lonelier.

P1000686

The jewelweed opens along the prairie’s creeks. Hummingbirds work the flowers for nectar, mindful that they’ll soon need energy to make the long trip south. Come on! You can almost hear the monarchs and dragonflies whisper to the hummers. It’s getting late. Go!

IMG_8118

 

Summer is ending. We see dimly ahead. Wonder what’s around the corner.

P1000548.jpg

Something new.

IMG_7940.jpg

Something different.

And always, adventures to anticipate.

*********

The opening quote is from Helen Maria Hunt Jackson (1830-1885), who was a novelist and tireless advocate for Native Americans. She was also a classmate of Emily Dickinson. She suffered many difficult losses during her life–parents, siblings, children, her husband. At the time of her death from cancer, Jackson was still advocating for Native American rights from her sickbed. Although some have criticized her prose as “middlebrow,” she used her words to change the world she lived in for the better.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby: (top to bottom):  cup plant (Silphium prefoliatum) with American goldfinches (Spinus tristis), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; monarch (Danaus plexippus), author’s backyard garden zinnias (Zinnia spp., certified Monarch Way Station), Glen Ellyn, IL; Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL; early goldenrod (Solidago juncea) and pale purple conehead (Echinacea pallida) seeds, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; white-faced meadowhawk, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), Clear Creek Unit, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) with tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris) and big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) also visible in the fog, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie,  The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

To Know a Prairie

“A walk is only a step away from a story, and every path tells.” –Robert Macfarlane

How do you begin to know a prairie?

You walk it alone, in the late summer sun.

August 21, 2016 NG

 

Wait for the mist to rise, after the rain.

P1000583

 

You sit quietly, doing nothing at all. Suddenly, the  focus becomes what is small.

IMG_8039

 

And the big things as well, a foil for the small. You notice the bison, formed and shaped by the land;  their bodies echoed in the knobs and the trees.

Bison bison 2

And you stop for a while, and marvel.

How do you begin to know a place?

Your skin is scraped raw by the roughness of grass. Then soothed by the silk of the Canada rye.

IMG_8132

 

You watch the sun light the grass as it sinks out of view.

P1000597

And the darkness throws all into impossible relief.

Grasses and shrubs…

IMG_7994

 

…and wildflowers pink; catching the last light before going to sleep.

IMG_8129

You reflect on what you know, and what you realize  you don’t.

IMG_7818 (1)

 

There will always be mystery, here in the grass.

P1000586

You absorb what you can; you listen and learn.

And let the rest wash over you. Too much to take in.

IMG_8093

The story continues with each step that you take. And like a good book, you don’t want it to end.  You pull on your boots the next morning, and hike it again.

That’s how you begin.

To know a place.

*******

The opening quote is from The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot by British writer Robert Macfarlane (1976-), about the shaping of people and places.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby: (top to bottom): road through Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; mist on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; common pondhawk dragonfly female (Erythemis simplicicollis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Canada wild rye, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  sunset with big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  sunset with shrubs, Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL; gaura (Gaura biennis), Nachusa Grasslands, the Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; cattails (Typha latifolia) on Silver Lake, Blackwell Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; mist, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; clouds, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

Of Bison and Butterflies

Today’s prairie post is brought to you by the letter “B.”       

“B” is for bison, big, bored, and brown.

P1000429

“B” is for barns; the prairie’s “downtown.”

Barn Dixon 816

 

“B” is for butterflies that brighten the blooms.

Black Swallowtail NG816

 

Monarch 816 My backyard

 

“B” is for bugs; they “zips” and they “zooms.”

 

Bandwinged Meadowhawktwo NG16

 

“B’ is for bluestem, both big…

P1000303

…and so small.

Little bluestemandfloweringspurge816 NG

 

“B” is for beaten path, the trail through it all.

Bryn NG816

 

“B” is for brave, brawny, and bold…

Bison NG816

 

And “B” is for beautiful; 

P1000395 (2).jpg

My tale is now told.

******

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby(top to bottom): bison (Bison bison) Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; old barn, Dixon, IL; black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) on gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) with flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata) in the background, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; monarch (Danaus plexippus), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; band-winged meadowhawk (Sympetrum semicinctum) with a stink bug (Halyomorpha halys), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) with flowering spurge in the background (Euphorbia corollata), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL;  trail through the tallgrass, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL.