“A baseball weighted your hand just so, and fit it…When you hit it with a bat it cracked – and your heart cracked, too, at the sound. It took a grass stain nicely….” — Annie Dillard
For baseball fans, July means the season is building to a crescendo. So it is also in the tallgrass.
July throws out every possible pitch on the prairie: thunderstorms, scorching hot days, high winds, foggy mornings, cool evenings. It keeps you slightly off-balance. Guessing. Unsure of what the next day or—even hour—in the tallgrass might bring.
In the prairie wetlands, egrets crouch; umpire the prairie ponds and streams.
Cup plants have hit their stride. Towering and aggressive–up to 10 feet tall—their cheerful flowers team up with compass plant and prairie dock blooms to splash yellow across the prairie.
Their perfoliate sandpapery leaves catch rainwater for thirsty goldfinches and other birds. Think of a scratchy catcher’s mitt.
Big bluestem shoots up overnight, waving its turkey-footed seed heads. As Illinois state grass, it deserves an all-star role on the July prairie.
Cordgrass blooms, subtle and easy to miss.
But with the prairie roster overflowing with wildflowers…
…big bluestem and the other grasses are sometimes overlooked, just as utility players often are beside their flashier teammates. Just wait until October, they seem to whisper.
Gray-headed coneflowers shake out their lemon petal pennants, cheering on the season.
In a few weeks, their gray seed heads will become dry and brittle with an amazing scent: an anise-citrus prairie potpourri. Mmmm.
Joe Pye weed fills the prairie savanna with clouds of pale lavender. Their floral scorecards are marked with yellow tiger swallowtails and other butterflies, crazy for the nectar.
Buckeyes surf the grasses; pop up along the paths.
And every prairie clover bloom seems to sport a bee or butterfly.
America’s favorite pastime might be baseball.
But the prairie in July knows how to hit a home run.
The opening quote is from Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood (1987), her memoir of growing up in Pittsburgh. Among the awards Dillard has won for her writing is the Pulitzer Prize for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), a sustained non-fiction narrative about the beauty and terror of the natural world.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): fog over the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; great egret (Ardea alba), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), with unknown bee, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie blooms, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; Schulenberg prairie grasses at sunset, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; gray-headed coneflower seed heads (Ratibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; white prairie clover (Dalea candida) with wild indigo duskywing butterfly (Erynnis baptisiae most likely, although this is a difficult genus to ID), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.