10 Reasons to Hike the October Prairie

“…I cannot endure to waste anything so precious as autumnal sunshine by staying in the house. So I have spent almost all the daylight hours in the open air.” –Nathaniel Hawthorne

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What do you think of in October? Halloween candy sales? Pumpkins? Fall foliage?

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There’s more this month than squash and sugar going on, or a few maples turning color. Really. October is one of the most satisfying months on the tallgrass prairie. Here’s why you’ll want to go for a hike this week.

#10. Those October color contrasts! So vivid and striking. And how could the seeds of something on the prairie called “carrion flower” be so pretty?

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#9. That sky.  Take a moment, find a comfortable place in the sunshine to lay on your back, and cloud-watch for a while in the tallgrass. Wow.

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#8. Once familiar plants take on a whole new personality in October.  Like this false Solomon’s seal. Worth hunting for.

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#7. Sometimes, the seedheads of prairie plants are  just as interesting as the flowers—or more so. True of this pale prairie coneflower? You be the judge.

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#6. Round-headed bush clover might double as a Pinterest craft project with pom-poms gone awry.

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#5. Each prairie trail promises adventures, just around the corner.

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#4. Step outside in the evening. Glorious sunsets, followed by clear, crystal-splattered starry nights make every October twilight show time.

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#3. If you’re a prairie steward like I am, sumac may be a pain in the neck. So aggressive! But in October, you can’t help but catch your breath at its colors. The lower slant of the autumnal sun backlights them just so. Sumac are the stained glass windows of the prairie cathedral.

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#2. There’s a dreaminess that October brings to the prairie; a sense of other-worldliness in the plants blown out to seed, the changing hues of the grasses. Everything seems a bit unmoored; adrift.

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#1. Seeing the seeds disperse on October breezes offers hope for the future, doesn’t it? Even when it seems that chaos is the order of the day, the prairie goes about its regular business. Just as it has done for thousands of years.

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The days are shortening. October is half over.

If you haven’t hiked the prairie this week, what are you waiting for? Why not go see?

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Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) was a novelist born in Salem, Massachusetts, and the author of such required high school reading as The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables. He was a contemporary of Abraham Lincoln, and when  he died, his pallbearers included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Hawthorne is considered by some to be one of the greatest fiction writers in American literature.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): pumpkin (Cucurbita pepo) patch, Jon-a-Mac Orchard, Malta, IL; upright carrion flower (Smilax ecirrhata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; clouds over Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; false Solomon’s seal (Smilacina racemosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) and little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata), Taltree Arboretum/Gabis Arboretum, Purdue Northwest, Valparaiso, IN;  path to the prairie, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunset, Kent Fuller Air Station Prairie, Glenview, IL; smooth sumac (Rhus glabra), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bridge to the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; butterfly weed (Asclepius tuberosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

October’s Prairie Astronomy

“To find the universal elements enough; to find the air and the water exhilarating; to be refreshed by a morning walk or an evening saunter… to be thrilled by the stars at night; to be elated over a bird’s nest or a wildflower in spring – these are some of the rewards of the simple life.”– John Burroughs

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October has arrived on the prairie, bringing drizzly skies, a metallic palette of color, and a last flush of flying insects.

 

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When the gray sky clears over the prairie, it often turns to impossible blue. Contrails and cumulus clouds sketch their weather thoughts.

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October has come to my backyard as well, touching the tomatoes with rot. Fungi unfold their umbrellas against the damp in unexpected places, and the garden and prairie patch are crisped with brittleness. Colored with a brown crayon. When I walk out to the prairie patch in the morning, cup of coffee in hand, the mush of mud under my feet contrasts with the crunch of decaying leaves.

Goldfinches and cardinals, sifting the bird feeders for the choicest fare, must have let a few sunflower seeds drop, leaving bright spots in the yard. Such welcome color! Makes me happy I let the weeding chores go this fall.  The bees are pleased.

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In my backyard prairie patch and on the prairie, the Silphiums—prairie dock, cup plant, compass plant, and rosin weed—are perhaps most intriguing in October. Without the competition of so much summer wildflower jazz, I can focus on the plant leaf patterns and textures. Rosin weed on the prairie shows its variable-ness of leaf arrangement by going for a whorl.

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Close to my backyard prairie patch, the moonflower vine finally decides October is show-time. The seed packet description warned me—120 days until bloom–but what is four months when you’re standing in the plant nursery back in the raw month of March and thinking about the delights of the garden to come? Anything seemed possible then. But my moonflower vine has been unhappy in Illinois. It longs for the tropics of the south, like so many Chicago folks, and it doesn’t much care for the hot, long days of July or August, either. Suddenly, in October’s cool nights and shorter days, it flourishes. It’s an equinox aficionado, setting bud and bloom best when days are close to equal length. As they are right now.

I walk out on the back patio early one morning this week and BAM! Eight moonflowers  had twirled open overnight, each one bigger than my hand.

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Moonflower, a night-blooming morning glory (ironically named, isn’t it?) would be perennial in Mexico or Florida. But here in the Chicago region, I’m lucky to get it to bloom as an annual.  The first touch of frost will be the end of the vine.  I count the buds, imagine what could be, and keep my fingers crossed.

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As the sun disperses the mist and gray and touches the flowers with light, the vanilla-scented blooms will slowly crumple. Taking with them their delicious fragrance. By the time I go outside again at 11 a.m., they’re a memory.

My backyard prairie patch and the prairies I visit don’t have any moonflowers, of course. But the prairie does have the “stars.”

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“Astronomy” comes from the Greek word astronomia, meaning “star regulating.” The word “aster” is also from the Greek, and means “star.” Constellations of asters cover the prairies and also, my backyard; a little starry universe in this suburban sprawl. The green bottle flies use the asters as launching pads for their adventures in corruption.

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The bumble bees work the asters, seeing their future in these stars.

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My goldenrods have now gone to seed, closing up nectar shop. But the blurry blizzards of asters spend themselves profligately, as if there is no tomorrow.

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The butterflies, like this cabbage white below, gorge themselves on “starshine” before the last blooms disappear in the cold. Where will these butterflies go in the winter? Check out this fascinating blog post by Dr. Doug Taron, Chief Curator of the Chicago Academy of Sciences, here to find out. Meanwhile, I enjoy the butterflies of October, counting down the days until the prairies will be emptier for their absence of color and motion.

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I also soak up as much of this “starshine”—this blizzard of asters—as I can. Temperatures threaten to drop into the low thirties by the end of the week. Fall flowers won’t linger much longer. As the evenings turn colder, night skies come into focus. The new moon will sliver its way to full on the 24th. Orion stalks the night sky, staking his claim for a new season. Soon, it will be time to trade some of my prairie and backyard “astronomy”—with its own versions of sun, stars and moon—for the winter constellations overhead.

Bittersweet.

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John Burroughs (1837-1921) was a writer, naturalist, and activist in the conservation movement.  His close friend was Walt Whitman, and Burroughs was a contemporary of John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt. The book, Tip of the Iceberg by Mark Adams is a fascinating account of Burroughs’ expedition to Alaska with railroad magnate Edward Harriman, George Bird Grinnell, Muir, and other naturalists of the time. A few favorite Burroughs’ quotes: “I go to books and to nature as a bee goes to the flower, for a nectar that I can make into my own honey;” “To learn something new, take the path you took yesterday;” and “A man can fail many times, but he isn’t a failure until he begins to blame somebody else.” The John Burroughs Medal is given each April to a distinguished Natural History book. Check out the winners here; it’s a thoughtful reading list for curling up with a good read during the colder months ahead.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): 250-plus year old bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa), Taltree/Gabis Arboretum-Purdue Northwest, Valparasio, IN; trail through the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, The Nature Conservancy and the National Park Service, Strong City, Kansas; common sunflower (Helianthus sp.) with unknown bee, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium), Taltree/Gabis Arboretum-Purdue Northwest, Valparaiso, IN; moonflowers (Ipomoea alba) with garden roses and salvia, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; moonflower (Ipomoea alba), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), Taltree/Gabis Arboretum-Purdue Northwest, Valparaiso, IN; unknown aster, possibly Short’s (Symphyotrichum shortii) with green bottle fly/blow fly (Calliphoridae, Lucilia sp.), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) with male bumblebee, either the common eastern (Bombus impatiens) or the two-spotted bumblebee (Bombus bimaculatus); blurred heath asters (Aster ericoides), Taltree/Gabis Arboretum-Purdue Northwest, Valparaiso, IN; New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) with cabbage white butterfly (Pieris rapae), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Thanks to Kristian Williams of FaceBook Group “Insect ID”  for the help on the bumblebee identification and Kristian, Benjamin Coulter, and the other good folks of “Insects and Spiders of Illinois FB Group” for the green bottle fly/blow fly ID. Grateful. 

Fall Comes to the Prairie

“Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns.”–George Eliot

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The Canada geese are quarreling. I watch them elbow each other out of the way in mid-flight; honking and diving. Maybe they are arguing the mysteries of matter, or particle physics? After all, they’re at Fermilab, a government facility for particle physics and an accelerator laboratory just down the road from my house. The facility grounds are a  mosaic of beautiful natural areas, including prairies and wetlands. fermilabWMwilsonhall10118.jpg

The bison grazing nearby on the grounds seem more placid than the geese, untroubled by neutrino experiments or accelerator science.

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You can almost imagine their thoughts. Hey geese! Keep it down. What’s all the fuss about? At any rate, I’m not here to bison watch, and I have little patience for quarrels today, geese or otherwise. My destination is a prairie trail.pathatfermiprairie10118WM.jpg

Approximately one thousand acres of Fermilab Natural Areas, surrounding the government world of equations and physics, promises endless adventures. And today, there’s not a soul on the prairie path. Although it’s obvious I’m not alone.

Overhead, green darner dragonflies hover high above the tallgrass. Are they migrating south? Or waiting out their lives here? Hard to tell. But this late in the season I suspect they’re on their way to warmer places. Lately, a black saddlebags dragonfly, also migratory, has hung around my backyard, slow and torpid in the colder weather. Imagine those wings taking it thousands of miles! Close up the wing veination reminds me of ferns.

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I continue hiking, stepping in coyote scat on the trail. Oops! Better watch where I’m going. An insect sings a single note, as if struck from a tuning fork. Everywhere, there are tiny crackling sounds. Mice eating seeds? Birds rustling in the grasses? Leaves drying in the  sun? Part of the prairie’s mystery.

The dogbane or Indian hemp, as it is sometimes called, is gone to seed in places. Its soft silks contrast with the crisp, browning leaves of neighboring prairie plants and their tinker-toy stems.dogbaneindianhemp10118WM.jpg

Wildflowers are mostly of the goldenrod and aster variety, with a few exceptions. Some mountain mint. A last pale prairie Indian plantain bloom or two.

The stiff gentians, those party girls of the fall, are out in full regalia. Looks like a weevil might be crashing the fun.

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So many gentians! They are abundant here, like amethysts scattered deep in the tallgrass. Nearby, goldenrod galls create their own sort of green “flowers” everywhere I look.  Sometimes called “bunch galls” or “rosette galls,” they are formed by insects. Check out more about goldenrod galls here.

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You could enjoyably spend several hours searching for the different goldenrod galls (ellipse, ball, rosette, small bunch…), and reading up on their buggy creators. See one bunch gall, and suddenly the others come into focus.

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The rosin weed blooms are past, but their seedheads look like floral bouquets, don’t they? As pretty in seed as in flower.

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Everywhere there are riots of asters; including many species of white aster that I struggle to name. More easily ID’d is the ubiquitous New England aster, poised on the prairie like a satellite dish with fringe.

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It’s not all prettiness and pleasantry.  The tall coreopsis is in seed, towering over my head, and  I can’t resist pulling down a seedhead and digging into it with my fingernail even though I know I’ll be repelled. And I am. It oozes a smelly, oily substance—and I quickly let the stem spring back. Of all the seeds we collect each fall on the prairie, this is my least favorite. So pretty in bloom! So stinky in your hands.tallcoreposisWMFermi10118.jpg

Rot and decay, the calling cards of October, are juxtaposed with these last flushes of bloom and seed. A giant puffball lies shattered and corrupt, broken up by small mammals and now fodder for insect life.

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And in proportion to the slow decline of plants, the insects seemingly flourish. You don’t notice them so much at first, except for the mosquitoes who won’t be ignored. But take a moment and look—really look—at the grasses and flowers, and all at once, you realize they are teeming with insect life. So much diversity!

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Decay can be beautiful. The turn of the prairie dock leaf…

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The compass plant seedheads, dry and full of promise for new life.

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Wild quinine, its silvered seeds perhaps more lovely than the flowers themselves were.wildquinineWMFermi10118.jpg

In autumn, the balance of light to dark shifts, tipping ever-so-slowly toward darkness as the days go by. Change is in the air. Bloom to seed. Flourishing to decline. All this change is in evidence here this morning.

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So much to see in one short morning hike here! Who knows what other adventures will unfold this October on the prairie?

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The opening quote about autumn is from Mary Ann Evans (1819-1880), a Victorian-era English novelist and poet who wrote under the pen name George Eliot. She chose a man’s name to escape being thought of as a romance writer. Among her books are Middlemarch, The Mill on the Floss, and Silas Marner.

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All photos taken at Fermilab Natural Areas Interpretive Trail, Fermilab Accelerator Laboratory, Batavia, IL, unless otherwise indicated: Wilson Hall and prairie grasses; bison (Bison bison); prairie trail; black saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata), author’s backyard pond and prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; dogbane or Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum):  stiff gentians (Gentianella quinquefolia); Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) with probable bunch gall midge (Rhopalomyia solidaginis); Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) with probable bunch gall midge (Rhopalomyia solidaginis); rosin weed (Silphium integrifolium) seedhead; New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae); tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris) seedheads; decayed puffball (possibly Calvatia gigantea); partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata) and an unknown species of ant; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceeum) leaf; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) seeds; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium); sky and grass in October. 

Rethinking Wilderness: Of Prairies and Deserts

“Wilderness is not a luxury, but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. ” — — Edward Abbey

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Displacement is good for the soul; or so I tell myself as I hike the beautiful red-rock trails of Sedona with Jeff under a blazing sun.

Shade? Forget about it. Unless it’s the shade you cast as you hike.

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As a prairie lover, the plants and grasses of the desert are a study in contrasts to what I know back home. I’m used to lush foliage. Vibrant wildflowers. In the Chicago region this season, the tallgrass prairie lived up to its name. Rain ensured this. Big bluestem towers over my head whenever I go for a hike; bends over trails with the weight of its tallness.

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Sunflowers form jungle-like vegetation along the prairie streams. In places, vegetation is so impenetrable, I’ve had to abandon some of my dragonfly monitoring routes for the season.

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But when you look closely—think out of the box a little bit—there are similarities between the prairie I know and the desert I’m hiking today that I don’t know. Here in Sedona, it’s obvious most of the grasses and plants are primed for weather extremes; small amounts of  rainfall and harsh heat. There are empty creek beds everywhere that must flash flood from time to time.  But today, everything is dusty and parched in the glare of the sun.

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You can almost hear the plants whisper advice to each other. Conserve water. Adapt. Adapt.

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The tallgrass prairies of home, while receiving around 40 inches of rainfall in a good year, are also primed for weather swings between drought and flood. As I look closely at the yucca on my hike, its foliage reminds me of the tallgrass prairie’s rattlesnake master, whose scientific name, Eryngium yuccifolium pays homage to its prickly, fleshy, yucca-like leaves.  What do you think?

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Both the desert and the tallgrass have fire in common. There’s a wildfire burning in a wilderness area just a few miles away. Everywhere, there is a sense of caution.

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A sign on the highway notes: “Brushfire Danger High: Use Your Ashtray.”  Are there still ashtrays in cars? Who knew? Burnout operations — creating small fires to stop wildfires —are underway at night. Evidently, smoke creates less of a breathing hazard for residents at night than in the daytime. Fascinating stuff.  I hadn’t thought of the desert, with its cactus and forests and mountains, as a place of fire. But so it is.

A species of prickly pear cactus pops up everywhere in the desert; a relative to a prickly pear cactus we have  (oddly enough) in our Midwest tallgrass prairies. Hello, friend. Nice to see a familiar face.

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However, I keep a respectful distance. Those sharp bristles are nothing to trifle with.

I try to decipher the hieroglyphics of the trail as I hike. What is the desert trying to tell me?

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Maybe the words of Ed Abbey again: “We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it. We need a refuge even though we may not ever need to go there.”

Being in the desert prompts me to think about wilderness in new ways. Mostly, I’ve thought of wilderness as the North Woods, or maybe the Bob Marshall in Montana, or large swathes of Arctic habitat. And yet, there are ten federally designated wilderness areas in or close to Arizona’s Coconino National Forest, including where I’m hiking on the outskirts of the Munds Mountain Wilderness. Desert has its own version of a wilderness refuge, a place apart. Just as prairies are.

Another similarity between deserts and prairie is that both can be overlooked, misunderstood, and taken for granted. “Once you’ve seen the red rocks a few times, they can be pretty boring,” said the maintenance man who came to fix my hotel door lock in Sedona.

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Ditto for a shopkeeper downtown. “It’s so beautiful here,” I said to her (gushingly, I’m afraid.) She shook her head. “It’s ugly!”  I’ve heard much the same back home about the tallgrass prairie. “Weeds!”  a friend once told me. Perhaps familiarity breeds contempt? But, as the venerable garden writer Henry Mitchell rather caustically once said, these remarks tend to come from folks who “don’t see much when they look.” And we’ve all been guilty of that, haven’t we?

So, I remind myself, Look. Look again. Don’t dismiss what you don’t understand. Find connections. Appreciate the differences. Let the desert soak in.

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“What draws us into the desert is the search for something intimate in the remote.” Ed Abbey again. As an outsider here, I feel the draw. There’s so much here I don’t understand. I see a lot of other people hiking the trails, climbing the rocks, searching for something…more. 

Like the base jumper, defying laws of both gravity and the legal system. As we hiked the trails one morning, we heard a yell of delight. We looked up— just as he leapt from thousands of feet high off of one of the towering red rocks and floated to the ground.

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What was he looking for? Did he find it? I wonder.

I want to listen to the wisdom the desert has to offer, even when I don’t always know what I’m looking at. Or, what I’m looking for. Pay attention. Be grateful these places exist, even if this is may be the only time in my life I’ll get to see them.

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I want to cherish these diverse places in my memory. Act to protect them for future generations. After all, who knows what these places may have to teach us? We need to tuck them into our hearts. We need them to be there…when we go looking.

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Edward Abbey (1927-1989) was a writer, environmental activist, and park ranger. Although personal happiness seemed elusive (he was married five times) and he held controversial views on immigration, women, and environmental sabotage, his writings on American deserts—-leaning toward mysticism—-helped inspire a public appreciation for the desert landscape that continues today. If you haven’t read Abbey, try Desert Solitaire.

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Bell Rock hiking trail, Oak Creek, AZ; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; Maxmillian sunflowers (Helianthus maximiliani), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown desert grasses and plants, Bell Rock hiking trail, Oak Creek, AZ; yucca (Yucca, unknown species), Oak Creek, AZ; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) fire hazard sign, State Highway 169, AZ; prickly pear cactus (probably Opuntia cactaceae or Opuntia phaeacantha) and unknown grasses, Bell Rock hiking trail, Oak Creek, AZ; sand track graffiti on the Bell Rock hiking trail, Oak Creek, AZ; red rocks, Red Rock Scenic Parkway, Sedona, AZ; Bell Rock, Red Rock Scenic Parkway, Sedona, AZ;  base jumper off of Courthouse Rock, Oak Creek, AZ; moonrise over Sedona on the Autumn equinox, Sedona, AZ. Any plant ID’s from my desert friends are welcome! Grateful to all of you who work to care for these amazing desert places, including Neil Chapman at TNC’s Hart Prairie in northern Arizona. Thank you. 

The (Prairie) Butterfly Effect

“I want the experience of the butterfly.” — William Stafford

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The first one flew just ahead of us, then disappeared. “Hey—was that a monarch?” my husband Jeff asked. I shaded my eyes against the sun, unsure.

We were at Kankakee Sands in northwestern Indiana, returning from visiting family down south. Needing to get off the mind-numbing, semi-rumbling Interstate 65 that connects Indianapolis with Chicago, we decided to take a more off-the-beaten path route.  A stop at this 7,000-plus acres Nature Conservancy site along the way was a no-brainer.

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As we pulled into the empty “Bison Viewing Area” parking lot, there was nary a hairy mammal in sight.  All the bison were grazing far away in the preserve, oblivious to public relations and their responsibilities in promoting prairie at their assigned station. The light slanted low across the wildflowers. September days were shortening. The quiet was tangible, except for the hum of singing insects in the grasses.

Jeff broke the silence. “Look! There’s another one,” he said, pointing. Two more butterflies flew over. Monarchs! And then another.  And another. As our eyes adjusted, we began to understand what was in front of us.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of monarch butterflies covered the prairie…

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A viceroy butterfly occasionally mixed in. Everywhere we looked, there were monarchs nectaring on stiff goldenrod.

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The prairie was a shimmer of motion and color in the late afternoon light.

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Wave after wave of orange and black butterflies fluttered across the goldenrod. I began frantically snapping photos with my camera. Click! Click! Click! But…How do you capture the movement and motion of clouds of butterflies? After a few minutes, I put my camera down and tried videotaping them with my cell phone. I soon gave up. One random viceroy butterfly video later,  I realized it was futile to try and freeze the magic.

 

Perhaps, this was a moment to tuck into your heart, instead of trying to capture it with images and technology. We put away the camera and our cell phones. Instead of frantically clicking away, both of us watched the butterflies in silence.

So many butterflies! We couldn’t stop talking about them as we drove home. We knew prairies were great habitat for these amazing insects. But still!

Nachusa Grasslands, a Nature Conservancy site where I’m a steward, has some beautiful butterflies. I love the buckeyes, which seem to be everywhere at Nachusa this month…

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…and the uncommon regal fritillaries, which I’ve seen there a few times in the summer. They take my breath away!

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The Schulenberg Prairie, where I’m a steward supervisor, constantly dazzles me with its frequent fliers. Like this black swallowtail butterfly nectaring on rattlesnake master just weeks ago.

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Fermilab’s prairies, another great place to hike in the Chicago region, continue to delight me with a diversity of butterflies, including the common but charming little eastern tailed blues.

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But seeing the massive monarch migration up close for the first time at Kankakee Sands this week brought all the other prairies like these into focus.

This, I thought, is what happens when we try to heal the earth.

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This is why we collect native prairie seeds, then go to crazy lengths to dry them and reseed new prairie restorations.WMseeds drying at Nachusa Grasslands 918.jpg

This is why we set the prescribed fires to renew the tallgrass each spring.

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This is why we sweat in summer temperatures nearing 100 degrees, caring for prairie. Stay up late at night reading about restoration methods. Help our children and grandchildren raise a few caterpillars that become butterflies to understand the cycle of life. This is why we hike the  prairie trails with little ones, so that early on they will experience some of the miracles of the natural world.

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This is why we scribble restoration plans and seed collection notes. Cut honeysuckle and buckthorn so it doesn’t encroach into the tallgrass. Go out and speak and teach about prairie and all its creatures. Pull weeds.

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This is what can happen when volunteers and stewards and site managers and donors care for the beautiful world we’ve been given.

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And, sometimes, on a magical day like this one, we see the tangible results.

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William Stafford (1914-1993)  is considered to be one of our finest, if sometimes uneven, nature poets. Wrote Steve Garrison of Stafford, “He offers a unique way into the heart of the world.”

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All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): late afternoon at the bison viewing area of Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN: monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) and viceroy butterflies (Limenitis archippus) nectaring on stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN;  trio of monarchs (Danaus plexippus) nectaring on stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN; late afternoon at Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN:  video of viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) nectaring on stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN; buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia) on unknown aster (Asteracea), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; regal fritillary (Speyeria idalia) , Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) on rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; eastern tailed-blue (Cupido comyntas), Fermilab Inner Ring, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; September on Fame Flower Knob, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; drying seeds at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; prescribed burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; small toddler investigating flowers, Fermilab Interpretive Trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; weeds and work bucket, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Nachusa Grasslands in the rain, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

Thanks to all the organizations that manage Kankakee Sands, including the Nature Conservancy of Indiana, Division of Fish & Wildlife, Division of Nature Preserves, Indiana Department of Environmental Management, Indiana Heritage Trust, Indiana Grand Company, Lilly Endowment, National Fish & Wildlife Foundation, and Natural Resources Conservation Services. Grateful for the butterfly magic this week.

Seven Splendors of the September Prairie

“To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” — Mary Oliver

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Although the tallgrass prairie is striking in any season, there are at least seven specific reasons you’ll want to pay attention to it in September. And especially, today.

#7. Look up. The prairie skies are never more brilliant than in the slanting light of mid-September.FermiskiesSeptember2018WM.jpg

#6. Look down—and watch your step. The eastern prickly pear cactus, an unusual native of the tallgrass prairie, is in fruit.  Look out for those bristles!

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#5. Touch a few flowers. Obedient plant is an endlessly satisfying perennial native wildflower to fiddle with. Move its blooms around and they’ll stay put. Nice to see something you can have some control over, even for a moment.

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#4. Pause for a moment, and enjoy the big bluestem extravaganza, going on at a prairie near you. Illinois gives big bluestem the nod as its state grass; the nickname “turkey-foot” makes it an easy plant for prairie beginners to ID.

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#3. Eyes to the skies! Sure, monarchs steal the spotlight in September, migrating to Mexico in clouds of orange and black. But there’s a kaleidoscope of other butterflies on the wing this month. Check out the gorgeous red-spotted purple butterfly below.  The red-spotted purple lay eggs on the tips of willow or cherry tree leaves, then its late-emerging caterpillars will likely spend the winter as hibernating caterpillars. Goldenrods and asters are big butterfly nectar magnets this time of year on the tallgrass prairie.

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#2. Look at prairie plants closely. This Indian hemp below, or dogbane as it is sometimes called, is a contrast in flossed silks, tough fibers, and the Halloween colors of its insects, shown here in several stages of growth.

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#1. Pay attention to the big picture, as well as the small things. There is astonishment in the particular; the smallest particles of matter. There is glory in broad sweeps of landscape and sky. Both feed our deepest longings for beauty.FermiSeptember201891018WM

Today, let the tallgrass prairie remind you of the astonishing complexity of the world all around us, available to us 24/7. All we have to do is choose to pay attention to it.

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The poet Mary Oliver (1935-) grounds her words in a deep understanding of the natural world.  Her poetry collections have won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and many other honors. Writers will find her “Rules for the Dance: A Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Verse;” and “A Poetry Handbook” inspiration for the writing journey.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): skies over the Interpretive Trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; Eastern prickly pear cactus (Opuntia humifusa), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; obedient plant ( Physostegia virginiana), Interpretive Trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Interpretive Trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; red-spotted purple butterfly (Limenitis arthemis astyanax), Interpretive Trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; bugs (possibly Oncopeltus fasciatus) on dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; prairie with Wilson Hall in the distance, Fermilab Accelerator Laboratory, Batavia, IL.

A September Prairie Soaking

“Life is one big transition.”– Willie Stargell

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Thunder rattles the windows. Up north, tornado warning sirens blare. The news broadcasts footage of holiday passengers wading across flooded roads to get to O’Hare Airport, thinking only of returning home.

The deluge continues.

At last, in the early evening, a short break in the precipitation gives me time to go for a walk. I head to the prairie to check conditions.

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Trail puddles are necklaced with black walnut leaves, pulled loose from their tentative moorings by the pounding rain.

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A ruby-throated hummingbird shelters from the weather in an oak along the path. Just like the passengers at O’Hare, the thunderstorms have put a crimp in this bird’s travel plans.

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The hummingbirds are migrating. In my backyard, they wage fierce battles over the single feeder filled with sugar water, placed tantalizingly over the butterfly weed and little bluestem. The hummers are driven by instinct. Powered by nectar—or in the case of my backyard birds—faux nectar. In a few weeks, they’ll disappear completely; their entertaining antics only a memory.

On the prairie, the sun breaks through the clouds. The tall Indian grasses, with their lingering raindrops, become crystal-hung chandeliers.

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For a moment. Despite the glitter and bling of raindrops catching sunlight, the prairie still seems dark. Subdued.  The beginning of September is always a bit melancholy.  Perhaps it’s the lowering slant of light; shorter days, longer nights. Just some of the many signals Mother Nature sends her creatures that colder weather is on the way.

For migrating dragonflies—green darners, black saddlebags, wandering gliders, and others—those signals mean GO! GO! GO! They’ve massed together, then zipped away to warmer climes this past week. Their remaining kin, bedraggled and shopworn, are left to face the coming cold.

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The end-of-the-season butterflies I’ve seen this week are a study in contrasts. A few are bright and freshly emerged. Like this newly-minted American painted lady. Crisply colored, with unblemished wings, she’s probably the Midwest’s late season generation of her species.

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Oddly enough, according to University of Florida, instead of making a southward journey, American painted ladies, or “American ladies” as they are sometimes called, “overwinter in the southern U.S. and repopulate more northern areas each spring.” The report tells us the northern limit of their overwintering is unknown. Is Illinois too cold? Probably. Apparently, “in north central Florida, American ladies migrate northward during the spring, but there is no significant southward migration in the fall.” Why not, I wonder?

So much mystery!

This great spangled fritillary butterfly is only a bit worse for wear after the summer’s adventures.

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Perhaps it doesn’t have the worries of a cross-continental trip on its mind. Just nectaring, nectaring, nectaring until the cold weather sets in. That’s what thistles are for, right?

But this evening, on the rain-drenched prairie, there isn’t much butterfly—or dragonfly—movement. Both likely shelter in the rain-glazed trees…

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…or nestle deep in the big bluestem and grasses.

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Thunder rumbles. The clouds sweep in.

It’s Mother Nature’s signal to me! Go!

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The first raindrops splatter the trail. Tonight, the local news broadcast will tell us this was the Chicago region’s wettest Labor Day on record.  But the September rain, no matter flooding and postponed picnics, has its purpose.  It nourishes the prairie and its creatures for the last months of the prairie season.  Gives a last boost to the goldenrods and asters, needed by monarchs on their long migratory journey south to Mexico. Coaxes the gentians to open, fresh and vibrant in the grasses.

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The passage from summer to autumn is bittersweet. But the prairie knows how to ease the transition. Butterflies. Gentians. The daily surprises of migration.

Even thunderstorms.

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The opening quote is from Baseball Hall of Famer, Wilver “Willie” Stargell (1940-2001), who played his entire 21-year professional baseball career for the Pittsburgh Pirates (1962-82). During his farm club years, he was harassed, threatened at gunpoint, and denied lodging because of his race in many of the towns where he played. Stargell, an African-American, was tempted to quit. He persevered to become one of the most beloved players in the game. Stargell is one of only five players to hit a home run out of Dodger Stadium, and is known for his long-distance home runs. Said Cincinnati Reds second baseman Joe Morgan upon Stargell’s death, “He never made anyone look bad, and he never said anything bad about anybody.” A good way to be remembered.

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All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): video clip of rainfall, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; thunderstorm approaching the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  rain-drenched path, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) in the rain, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Halloween pennant dragonfly (Celithemis eponina) at the end of the season, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; American painted lady (Vanessa virginiensis), 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; trees on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) with raindrops, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: bridge to the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie gentians (Gentiana puberulenta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.