Monthly Archives: October 2017

Prairie Ghosts

“O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.” — Thomas Wolfe

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Prairie restoration often seems a paradox.

We set the prairie aflame, to bring life out of the ashes.

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We learn to weld fences—in hope of the return of wild things.

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Although we are organic gardeners; we take tests, earn licenses to spray herbicide to keep aggressive plants at bay in the tallgrass.

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We listen to plants which have no voices; ask them to tell us their stories.

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We construct beautiful buildings to tell the message of open spaces.

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We look for traces of the past in order to create a different future. Ghosts. They linger in out-of-the-way places. A certain wildflower, perhaps. An endangered bird. A rare butterfly. Do they still exist? Or have they vanished forever?

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Even as we search, we wonder at the absurdities. Past generations labored to change these prairies into fields of corn and soybeans. We patiently endeavor to return fields to  prairie.

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Why did we lose so much before we realized its value?

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We envision a different future for the acres we care for. A future that might be possible through the work of our hands, the strength of our longing, the power of our imagination…and a little luck.

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We recognize that the prairie restoration work we do is in part, our desire to know that we can make a tangible difference. That change is possible.  That it is never too late to try.

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We pray that what is now fragile and  broken…

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…and once almost erased…

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…will return again. A shadow of what it once was, perhaps. An echo.

But worthwhile, all the same.

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Because we recognize that when we heal the land, in many ways, we heal ourselves.

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As for how we accomplish both—we make peace with the paradoxes.

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Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938) was the author of Look Homeward, Angel (1929), from which the first quote in this post was taken. This quote is also included as a stunning conclusion to John Madson’s classic book, Where the Sky Began: Land of the Tallgrass Prairie

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Schulenberg Prairie prescribed burn, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bison (Bison bison) herd, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; interpretive sign at Kent Fuller Air Station Prairie, Glenview, IL; the stunning Evelyn Pease Tyner Interpretive Center, Kent Fuller Air Station Prairie, Glenview, IL; prairie burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) seed head, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; small white lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium candidum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) in bloom, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; broken eggshell in a nest, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; icy bison track, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale purple coneflowers (Echinacea pallida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Rainy Day on the Prairie

“To one unaccustomed to it, there is something inexpressibly lonely in the solitude of a prairie.” — Washington Irving

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October crayons its changes on the prairie.

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Rain moves in. The colors seem to wash from the trees…

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…into the tallgrass.

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The trees seem vulnerable; stressed by drought, their leaves shattered by wind and hard rain.

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The showers intensify grass colors.

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Everything looks pixelled, a little grainy, under lead skies.

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Brittle prairie plants are bright with raindrops. A contradiction of sorts.

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Fields of corn and soybeans press into the prairie on all sides. Trees and shrubs, waiting for their chance to take over, crowd the edges.

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Once shorn of their crops, it’s not difficult to imagine these vast agricultural spaces covered with tallgrass as they were hundreds of years ago.

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There is a sense of melancholy for what has passed—and what can’t easily be undone.

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An appreciation for what this rainy day on the prairie has to offer. Solitude. A different perspective on something familiar.

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Gratefulness for how the season opens us to new ways of seeing and thinking.

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An appreciation for what is happening now, in this moment.

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And the beginnings of acceptance of the bigger changes of a new season, still ahead.

***

Washington Irving (1783-1859), whose quote begins this essay, is sometimes called “the first American to make a living as a writer.” He is best known for his short Halloween-esque stories, Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow from his book, The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.   A Tour on the Prairies, published in 1835 and from which the opening quote is taken, has never been out of print. Read more about Irving’s tallgrass travels here.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): late October landscape, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; late October landscape, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; late October landscape, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; late October landscape, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; view of the visitor center, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; raindrop on cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) leaf, author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; corn, trees, and prairie, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; harvested field, somewhere between Franklin Grove and Rochelle, IL; unknown plant, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; late October landscape, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; late October landscape, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Carthage Road, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL 

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.

***

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.

***

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

***

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.