Thorny Prairie Issues

“Our goals can only be reached through a vehicle of a plan, in which we must fervently believe, and upon which we must vigorously act. There is no other route to success.” –Pablo Picasso

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Although traditionally the New Year is when we set goals, October seems a good time to begin thinking about what’s next.

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This week finds me thinking about the management plan for the 100 acre prairie where I’m a steward supervisor. It’s a chance to work with the staff and consider what was accomplished or still needs finished as I wind things up in autumn.

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Much of the plan was made at the beginning of the year and concerns invasive plant removal—particularly, non-native plants. To name a few: sweet clover (Melilotus spp.), reed canary grass (Phalaris arundinacea), and garlic mustard (Alliara petiolata). There are others, of course.  But this trio comprises the chief invaders that threaten the diversity of this particular prairie.

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In the early years of stewarding, weeding out these three invaders pretty much comprised the whole of my management plan. But with the maturing of the prairie (55-plus years!) and the hard work over time by volunteers and staff, this season was different. No, we  didn’t conquer those three. But at last, they were knocked back enough that I could turn my eyes to some other problem plants that threatened the tallgrass.

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A “native plant” — one that evolved in Illinois—is usually thought of as a “good plant.” However, even good plants can go bad. Given our vigorous removal of non-natives over the years, a few native plants became bullies.  The extent of their rogue advancement across the prairie took me by surprise. It was so gradual, I hadn’t noticed.

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So. Out they came. Wild plum (Prunus americana).  Gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa). I discovered Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus Illinoensis) had conducted a stealth slide along the banks of Willoway Brook, then slithered across the stream. Once I noticed, I found a solid wave of ferny leaves. We attempted to slow this species down by defensive seed collection; stripping the plants so they couldn’t add to their numbers. We’ll find out next season just how successful our efforts were.

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Today, I’m wrestling with brambles. Wild raspberries and blackberries are native to this part of Illinois where I’m a prairie steward. Normally, they are not a big deal, just a prickly part of the prairie landscape. But in the past several years, they’ve sent cane tentacles across the tallgrass, spreading throughout an area previously full of diverse, high-quality plants and shading them out. In short, becoming undesirable.

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Removing native brambles is a difficult proposition. Because they are surrounded on this prairie by high-quality native prairie plants—butterflyweed, gentians, prairie sundrops— no collatoral damage is acceptable.

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So, our prairie volunteers cut each bramble cane by hand. An applicator then paints the raw cut on the cane with the minimum amount of herbicide to knock it back. Our goal is not to completely eliminate the brambles, rather, to halt their aggressive spread.

This opens up room for other prairie plants to grow.

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Work like this is always part of a bigger plan on a restored or reconstructed tallgrass prairie. Each season, stewards and staff evaluate the prairie community. Are we allowing a wide variety of plants to become established? How are our prescribed burns affecting the insect and bird community?

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Is there a particular invasive plant—native or non-native—on which we should focus our efforts? If so, can we accomplish its removal by hand weeding? Or do we need to consider other methods?

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These are the conundrums that will keep us flexible, constantly making adjustments in management as we care for a vanishing biological community. One that we hope to keep vigorous and healthy for future generations.

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Setting goals. Having a plan.

Reflecting on the past. Thinking about the future.

All good occupations for anyone in the month of October.

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Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), whose quote opens this blog essay,  was a writer and artist from Spain. One of his many notable works is The Old Guitarist from his Blue Period, owned by The Art Institute of Chicago:  “… the image reflects the struggling twenty-two-year-old Picasso’s sympathy for the plight of the downtrodden; he knew what it was like to be poor, having been nearly penniless during all of 1902. ”

This week’s photos copyright Cindy Crosby all taken on the Schulenberg Prairie at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL  (top to bottom): common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca); carrion flower (Smilax spp.) fruit; October on the Schulenberg Prairie; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); October on the Schulenberg Prairie; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) seedhead;  black raspberry cane (Rubus occindentalis); gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata); compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); white wild indigo seedpods (Baptisia alba macrophylla); two jagged assassin bugs (Phymata spp.) eating an unknown fly on a pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor); Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans);  little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium). 

October on the Prairie

“The sea, the woods, the mountains, all suffer in comparison with the prairie…The prairie has a stronger hold upon the senses.”– – Albert Pike

When you think of October, what comes to mind?

Pumpkins?

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Spectacular changing leaves?

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The prairie, which has lost most of its blooms, isn’t on most people’s radar.

Perhaps it should be.

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A few blossoms persist in the tallgrass, magnets for insects.

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The flowers gone to seed may be as beautiful as the blooms.

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Colorful grasses are easily overlooked, but no less worth our attention.

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Plant structure has its own beauty.

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As do plant silhouettes.

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Although the prairie is outwardly in senescence, its sensory pleasures continue. The play of light on prairie dock.

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The smell of damp earth. Decaying leaves. The unexpected flight of a buckeye butterfly as you hike a trail.

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Soft puffs of seed clusters, which foreshadow the snowflakes, only weeks away.

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Unlike the flashy reds and oranges of the autumn woodlands, the prairie is nuanced.

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As the year wanes…

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…much of this prairie season will be forgotten, fleeting. A blur of colors, textures, fragrances, and sounds.

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So let’s walk the prairie trails.

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Experience what each day in October has to offer. Soak up every detail. And be grateful that we are here, present in this moment.

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The opening quote is from Albert Pike’s Journeys in the Prairie ((1831-32). Pike (1809 –91) was a soldier, poet, newspaper journalist, and early explorer.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and are from the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL, unless noted otherwise: pumpkin patch, Jonamac Orchard, Malta, IL; maple in October (Acer spp.), Sterling Pond, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sumac (Rhus glabra), grasses and forbes at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor) with unknown bee and insect; non-native chicory (Cichorium intybus) with unknown pollinator;  compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica); pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor); prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; white snakeroot (Ageratina altissima); pale Indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium), little bluestem, Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis); waning October moon; sumac out of focus (Rhus glabra); trail through the prairie in October. 

The Last Wild Prairie Places

“Undisturbed remnants of ancient ecosystems, habitats for rare or threatened species, pristine stretches of river, unusual geologic features, exclamations of topography—-wild places aren’t merely beautiful landscapes; they possess a totemic lure, a power or presence that attracts people, sometimes across generational and cultural chasms spanning centuries.” — George Frazier

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Go west of Illinois. Drive through the small towns of Kansas.

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Imagine thousands and thousands of acres of tallgrass prairie here.

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Then discover the Flint Hills, which are just that.

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Sweeps of bronze, backlit by sunshine, wash the prairie in early autumn. Big bluestem, little bluestem, switchgrass, and Indian grass predominate.

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Bison are all around, plopped across the landscape.

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Keep your distance.

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To appreciate prairie here demands that you pay close attention. Look deep into the buffalo grass.

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You might see something fuzzy.

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Or rubbery.

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You may see a critter in seemingly constant motion that is motionless for a moment.

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Fall flowers add bright dabs of color.

Yellows.

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A few purples and lavenders.

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Blue blooms, as if the sky has flaked into the grasses.

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Heath aster spangles its pale stars everywhere you look.

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As you hike the miles and miles of trails…

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…you feel a sense of something lost.

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You catch the vision of what once was. And you wonder what the future here will be.

It’s in these last wild places that our imagination has room to take flight.

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They are the “thin places” as the Celts tell us. Places that change the way we see the world. Perhaps these places are more precious to us because they have almost vanished. And still may.

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Unless…we continue to pay attention and care for them. Share these wild places with others. Never lose our sense of wonder about them. Marvel.

And make time to go see.

***

George Frazier is the author of The Last Wild Places of Kansas: Journeys into Hidden Landscapes  (University Press of Kansas), from which the opening quote in this essay was taken. This book was a wonderful companion for my first trip to the Flint Hills.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): barn in Burns, Kansas (population 228); trail through the autumn grasses, Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, KS; trail through the Flint Hills in autumn,  Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; lone bison (Bison bison), Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; buffalo grass (Buchloe dactyloides), Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; yellow bear caterpillar (Spilosoma virginica), Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; unknown fungi, Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; red-legged grasshopper, (Melanoplus femurrubrum), Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; prairie coneflower (Ratibida columnifera), Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; curly-cup gumweed (Grindelia squarrosa), Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; prairie blazing star (Liatris punctata), Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; unknown aster, Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; blue sage (Salvia azurea), Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; heath aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides), Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; trail through the Flint Hills in autumn, Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; feather caught in the tallgrass, Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; kite flying over Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; possibly an immature western meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta), cemetery in Burns, Kansas.

Thanks to Mike and Donna Kehoe, who generously hosted us in Kansas and who help keep the last wild places alive through books.

A Thousand Prairie Details

” …few (if any) details are individually essential, while the details collectively are absolutely essential. What to include, what to leave out. Those thoughts are with you from the start.” –John McPhee

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“What to include, what to leave out?” How do you decide—when you try to describe September on the prairie?

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Look through the tallgrass kaleidoscope. Details change. From hour to hour; moment to moment.

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The prairie is a shape-shifter.

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Color and pattern maker.

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Each insect and plant outlined and highlighted.

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A few shocks of color. Burnt cherry.

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Pure purple.

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Other details, less colorful, still dazzle. Fizzy whites, knitted together by spiders; pearled by dew.

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Sheer numbers sometime disguise the finer elements.

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The particulars lost in a tangle. Taken out of context.

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The familiar becomes unfamiliar.

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The tiniest details create the sum of the whole. The autumn prairie.

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Dreamlike.

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Almost invisible at times. Camouflaged. But unforgettable.

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The magic of a thousand prairie details.

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They all add up to something extraordinary.

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The opening quote is from John McPhee’s Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process.  McPhee (1931-) is the author of more than 30 books, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999 for Annals of the Former World.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) at the end of a trail, Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN;  white wild indigo leaves with spider silk, Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN; September in the tallgrass, Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN; three butterflies puddling (two male clouded sulphurs (Colias philodice) and an orange sulphur (Colias eurytheme)), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) with morning dew, Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN;  yellow legged or autumn meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum vicinum), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN;  unseasonal bloom on white wild indigo in September (Baptisia leucantha), Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN;  nodding bur marigold (Bidens cernua), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  bison (Bison bison) hair on the trail, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) with dewdrops, Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN; early morning on the prairie, Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN; fog over Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN; eastern tailed blue butterfly (Cupido comyentas), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Taltree Arboretum prairie, Valparaiso, IN.

Autumn Prairie Delights

“It’s hard to grasp at first the density, the specificity with which the world has been named. This is a planet of overlapping lexicons… . Name upon name, terms of identity in endless degrees of intricacy. And all at hand, if you look for them.” — Verlyn Klinkenborg

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The prairie saves some of its best surprises for September. Gentians. So many gentians.

Tiny stiff gentians budding in blue.

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Maturing to lavender.

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Cobalt blue prairie gentians on the brink of opening.

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Each interior a delight.

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Or some gentians tightly closed in bloom. But no less delightful, for that.

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Color is overrated, say the cream gentians.

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And what joy to find a cross between the cream and the blue.

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Sure, there are other spectacular prairie blooms in September besides gentians.

Turtleheads. Like this one.

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(Not this one. Although it’s a welcome surprise, too.)

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The wild white ladies’ tresses orchids, drilling themselves deep into the grasses.

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Inhale. Mmmm. Such a lovely, light scent!

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Even a few of the weedy non-native flowers, like chicory, give us pleasure.

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Like chips off the September sky, aren’t they?

The month is more than half over.

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Yet the prairie offers new blooms and other delights in September wherever we look.

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If… we take time to look.

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The opening quote is from Verlyn Klinkenborg’s book, Several short sentences about writing (2012). Klinkenborg (1952-) grew up on a farm in Iowa. He teaches creative writing at Yale University, and has written reflections on the rural life for the New York Times editorial pages. Read NPR’s interview with Klinkenborg here.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Stiff gentians (Gentianella quinquefolia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; stiff gentians (Gentianella quinquefolia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie or downy gentians (Gentiana puberulenta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie or downy gentians (Gentiana puberulenta) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blue bottle gentians (Gentiana andrewsii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  cream gentian (Gentiana flavida or sometimes, Gentiana alba), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; possibly pale-blue gentian (Gentiana x pallidocyanea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white turtlehead (Chelone glabra linifolia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; eastern painted turtle (Chrysemys picta), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; nodding ladies’ tresses (Spiranthes cernua), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; nodding ladies’ tresses (Spiranthes cernua), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; chicory (Cichorium intybus), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; sky over the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sky over prairie grasses at Hidden Lake, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL. SaveSave

September Prairie Reflections

“Happily we bask in this warm September sun, which illumines all creatures… .” –Henry David Thoreau

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That certain slant of light.

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The fierce blank blue brightness of a cloudless sky.

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The scrabble of motion on (so it seems) every leaf and grass blade.

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September moves in and sets up housekeeping on the prairie. It’s a month that seems obsessed with metallics. Gold sawtooth sunflowers.

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Rusts of aged prairie dock leaves.

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Drifts of every possible variation of silver, gold, copper and pewter.

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September brings with it sharp contrasts: bright seeds of Jack in the pulpit in primary colors…

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Softest airbrushed pastels of prairie dropseed.

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Summer-only tallgrass residents are shopworn, like tourists who have overstayed their welcome. The non-migrating dragonflies look a bit bedraggled; their season about to end.

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Monarchs and hummingbirds are already on their way south; other birds like this green heron won’t be far behind.

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October is only a few weeks away. But for now, it’s enough to pause and enjoy the season. Soak up its diversity of sound, motion, and colors.

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Reflect on where we find ourselves.

Read the pages of the September prairie without missing a word.

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Then, prepare for the next chapter.

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Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), whose words begin this essay, is best known for his book Walden.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): unknown insect on bur marigold (Bidens cernua), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  cloudless sky, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; praying mantis (Mantis religiosa) in the tallgrass, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sawtooth sunflower (Helianthus grosseserratus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) leaf, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Nachusa Grasslands in September, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  Jack in the pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) seeds, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; prairie dropseed (Sporabolus heterolepis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white-faced meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum obtrusum), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; green heron (Butorides virescens), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; reflection of black walnut (Juglans nigra) leaves turning gold in Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; reading in the tallgrass, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

Thanks to Susan Kleiman for her help with plant ID.

To Understand a Prairie

“The prairie, in all its expressions, is a massive, subtle place, with a long history of contradiction and misunderstanding. But it is worth the effort at comprehension. It is, after all, at the center of our national identity.” — Wayne Fields

***

How do you begin to understand a prairie?  Start by walking the tallgrass trails on a breezy day in September. See the boneset flowers sway and bend in the wind?

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Count the number of bees you find nectaring in the flowers.  Then consider—this is only one small stand of blooms! Imagine what remains unseen. Suddenly, your eyes open to the buzzing and crawling; sipping and chewing insects all around you. You begin to understand. The prairie world is not static. It is a living, moving, humming community.

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From the blooms and bugs, you turn to the fall seed heads, in all their infinite variety. The spiky purple meadow rue.

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Soft Indian grass seed plumes, a few yellow petals decorating them like confetti.

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The parachute seeds of pale Indian plantain, ready for lift off.

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You marvel at the variety. A prairie, you think, is about diversity. And yes, you’re getting closer to knowing.

How do you begin to understand a prairie? You notice how the plants change with the September slant of sun; cool nights, shorter days. See the butterfly weed in its fall colors, just before the seed pod bursts open. This milkweed’s work nurturing monarch butterflies is finished for this year. Now it must send out  a new generation of plants to do the same next season.

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Those September colors! Flowering spurge foliage glows pink under the grasses.

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As you marvel at the pink, you catch your breath. Are those cream gentians you almost stepped on? Or wait—are they bottle gentians? The blooms seem to be both, yet neither. Perhaps this is the hybrid pale-blue gentian that you’ve heard about. You drop to your knees for a closer look.

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And what is this plant, waving over your head, and flowering so late in the season?

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You take photos, examine the leaves. It looks like one of the wild lettuces, but you can’t remember for sure.  And it seems…different, somehow. So you take another photo; carefully imprint the details of the plant on your mind. Vow to look it up later.

Understanding a prairie means knowing that the more you discover, the less you’ll realize you know. And the more you know, the more you’ll forget. (Sigh.) Even when you do remember, the taxonomists may rename the plants you once knew by heart.

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Perhaps this is what it means to understand a prairie. To look. To ask questions. To marvel. To imagine. To learn. To forget. To ask for help. To be humbled as you do, realizing there will always be more to comprehend. And to accept change.

Knowing you’ll never know or understand the prairie completely —isn’t that the best gift of all? Like a present you look forward to unwrapping… again and again.

***

Wayne Fields, whose quote opens this post, is the Lynne Cooper Harvey Chair Emeritus in English at Washington University in St. Louis, MO. As a child, he grew up in Missouri and Iowa before his family settled in Rock Island, IL. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Augustana College, then a masters and PhD at University of Chicago. Fields has been with Washington University since 1968. He lives in Iowa.

All photos in this week’s blog are from the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): tall boneset (Eupatorium altissimum); pasture thistle with insects (Cirsium discolor); purple meadow rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum); Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); pale Indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium);  butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata) foliage; possibly pale-blue gentian (Gentiana x pallidocyanea); rough white lettuce (Prenanthes aspera or Nabalus aspera)–a “10” in Gerould Wilhelm’s & Laura Rericha’s Flora of the Chicago Region— thanks Illinois Botany FB page for help on the ID! a new lettuce for me; New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) whose latest name from taxonomists is so difficult to remember and to say.