Monthly Archives: October 2015

Setting Sail on a Sea of Grass

The forests are ablaze at the end of October;


The stained glass of trees


Melts into the last smoldering embers of color.


The prairie becomes a vast sea of grass:


waves and waves and waves of grass


you long to throw yourself into it; feel the seed spray


even as you wonder over the last green and gold leaves; like anemones in the liquid air; sprouted from the prairie floor


You know this green will crumble into what is inevitable




A transition we can accept with grace, or rebel against it


We set a brave face against the coming cold


and yet, we forget


what we are given is gold.


The wind blows, whipping up whitecaps from horizon to horizon


the froth of a hundred thousand prairie flowers gone to seed


that crest and foam against


those few rocky islands, which float through the grasses


and even as the turn of seasons brings a kind of melancholy


we bravely set sail for what we can’t yet see


but believe is there, just over the horizon line.

All photos by Cindy Crosby (top to bottom):  First sixteen photos from The Morton Arboretum and its Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL; road through the sumac, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; island of trees on the prairie, Franklin Creek Grist Mill prairie, Franklin Grove, IL;  barn and boat, just outside Ashton, IL.

Remembering A Prairie Poet

From: The Prairies by William Cullen Bryant

The prairies. 


Lo! they stretch, in airy undulations, far away…


As if the ocean in his gentlest swell, stood still, with all his rounded billows fixed, and motionless forever.  


Motionless? No — they are all unchained again…

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The clouds sweep over with their shadows…


 And, beneath, the surface rolls…


And fluctuates to the eye.


Dark hollows seem to glide along and chase the sunny ridges.


In these plains, the bison feeds no more.


Still this great solitude is quick with life;

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Myriads of insects, gaudy as the flowers…


And birds, that scarce have learned the fear of man are here.


The graceful deer bounds to the wood at my approach.


The bee, a more adventurous colonist than man, with whom he came across the eastern deep…


Fills the savannas with his murmurings.


William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878) was a keen observer of the natural world. He was editor of the New York Evening Post, and one of the first American writers and romantic poets to be recognized internationally at that time. Martin Luther King, Jr., quoted this immortal phrase from Bryant, “Truth, crushed to earth, will rise again.” The above excerpts are all taken from his poem, The Prairies.

All photos by Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Autumn on the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; October, SP; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) seedheads, SP; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), SP; clouds, SP: prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); grasses, SP; grasses, SP; bison, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; grasshopper, SP; milkweed bugs, SP; red-tailed hawk, SP; fawn, SP; bumblebee in cream gentian (Gentiana flavida), SP;  savanna, SP.

October’s Fire

Autumn strikes its match against the tallgrass.


There’s a hiss, then a smolder. Seemingly overnight, the prairie bursts into flame.


Sumacs catch fire.


The odd sapling or two torches the tallgrass, creating small flare ups.



Impossible colors clash.


Even the butterflies mimic the tallgrass, their wings full of glowing embers.


The colors crescendo, peak, then begin to fade.


Compass plants wave leaf flags of surrender.


Slowly, the elephant-eared prairie dock leaves crumple like old paper bags.


Little bluestem sparks bright;  then its seeds float away like cinders, still combustible.


Colors burn out, leaving trails of ash-colored seeds behind.


The seeds disperse. Only skeletons of the plants remain.


November is close on the heels of this conflagration. As the prairie moves into a season of rest, it will offer new ways of seeing beauty. Structure, instead of color.



Until then, we celebrate the last frenzied outpourings.

October’s fire.


All photos by Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; road through the October tallgrass, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; sumac (Rhus spp.), NG; October sapling in the tallgrass, NG;  October sapling in the tallgrass, NG; New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae- angliae) against gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa), SP; buckeye butterfly, NG; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), SP; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), SP; Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis), NG; Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), NG; Great Angelica (Angelica atropurpurea), NG.


I wander through a universe of flowers.


Asters, that is. The stars of the October prairie.

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Literally. The name, aster, from the Latin and the Greek, means “star.” It’s an apt reference to the constellations of flowers clustered across the tallgrass; too many to count.


But the name “aster” is deceptively simple these days. Scientists changed the classifications and names of many of the asters. Restorationists and prairie lovers still struggle to ID them, and give them their proper names.


Some call the reclassification “the aster disaster.” Take the New England aster, as one example, which once had the friendly scientific moniker, Aster novae-angliae.


New name? Symphyotrichum novae-angliae. So many syllables! It’s enough to make you swear off asters for good. These unwieldy names are the “fault in our stars” — the last straw for many of us in our desire to learn to ID a few fall prairie plants.


And yet. We plow through an impossible black hole of endlessly difficult aster names in pursuit of knowing the seemingly unknowable. The starfields of deep purples, blues, and whites of the asters draw us in. They woo us. They dazzle us. Delight us.

They are the perfect foil for the goldenrods, which sun-shower the prairie with brightness.


And so. Every October, I stroll through this temporary universe, field guide in hand, trying to decipher a smooth blue aster from a sky blue aster. A panicled aster from a side-flowering aster. Hairy aster? Or? I attempt to pronounce those unpronounceable scientific names their proud parents, the botanists, dubbed them with. And find it all worthwhile, no matter how frustrating it becomes.

Because a stroll through a grassland galaxy, twinkling with asters, is one of the joys of October. As I walk, I wish upon a star or two.  An aster. Who knows what might happen?

All aster photos above are from the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum by Cindy Crosby.