Honk if You Love Prairie

“The petty entanglements of life are brushed aside (on the trail) like cobwebs”–Grandma Gatewood


It’s August. Big bluestem is tassling out, waving its turkey-footed seedheads against the sky. You understand why we call our Midwestern grasslands  the “tallgrass prairies” after a summer like this one, filled with heat and rain. Everything on the prairie is lush.


The butterflies are putting on a show this summer. Yellow swallowtails and  black swallowtails…

black swallowtail 2013 NG.jpg

…flock to the Joe Pye weed, now blooming cloud-like with pale Indian plantain under the oaks in the savanna.


It’s hot on the prairie. Tempers are hot, too, in the suburbs where I live.  Earlier in the week, as I waited at an intersection for a light to change, the driver behind me laid on her horn. Honk! Honk! Honk! She wanted to turn right. My car, going straight ahead, blocked her way.  I made the mistake of looking in the rear view mirror and saw her red face. She was shouting. I quickly looked away and prayed for the light to change. Turned up my Paco de Lucia CD (yes, I still have a CD player in my old Honda) and hoped the chords of Paco’s guitar would drown out her honking.

Honk! Honk! Honk! Finally, an eternity later, the light turned green. My car moved through the intersection, and with a squeal of rubber, she turned right, still laying on her horn.


I knew I needed a “prairie therapy” hike.


Not that I need a reason to go to the prairie. But for 20 years now, I’ve found that an hour of walking a prairie trail or two siphons off built-up stress and alleviates a looming tension headache.  The song of the common yellowthroat that hangs out in a tree by the prairie savanna trail, singing his “wichety, wichety, wichety,” is enough to erase some of that miserable “Honk! Honk! Honk!” from the soundtrack playing in my mind.


And, oh, that August sky on the prairie! I’m reminded that, just a few days ago, one of my six little grandkids asked me if I’d cloud-watch with him. We lay back on the grass and watched the sky change from moment to moment,  comparing clouds to other objects—a ship, a turtle—in the same way people have cloud-watched from time beyond memory. I think of this as I hike the prairie now, watching the cumulus clouds floating lazily overhead, casting shadows on the tallgrass.


I stop on the bridge over Willoway Brook and look into the stream. The dragonflies and damselflies are in a frenzy of reproduction. Do they sense the downward seasonal slide toward autumn? Maybe. The American rubyspot damselflies hang low over Willoway Brook on blades of grass, waiting for potential mates. Such anticipation! Like speed dating.


The grasses are slipping into their late summer colors. Switchgrass, big bluestem, and Indian grass ripple in the wind, with a sound like rustling silk. The flowering spurge mists the grasses with its delicate white blooms.


High-pitched sounds overhead cause me to look up.

Honk! Honk! Honk!



It’s the  Canada geese, flying to a 18-hole course nearby to terrorize the golfers. These are kind of “honks” that don’t raise my blood pressure.

As I pass the bench that overlooks the prairie trail, I see a pile of coins, mostly quarters. Doubtless, someone has paused to rest, and their change has spilled from a back pocket.  I leave the coins. Maybe they’ll realize their loss, and backtrack, looking for their cash.  Or perhaps some other hiker having a bad day will pocket the change, and feel a bit more cheerful.


I don’t need a cash windfall to improve my mood. The prairie hike has already worked its magic . My day is transformed. My blood pressure is lowered, my perspective is more positive.


All it took was a little prairie therapy.


Emma “Grandma” Gatewood (1887-1973) lived a difficult life. After brutal abuse by her husband—and raising eleven children under tough circumstances—she decided to go for a walk at age 66 on the Appalachian Trail. She became the first woman to hike it solo in one season. By age 77, she had hiked the 2,000-miles-plus AT three times through, plus the Oregon Trail. She wore tennis shoes for most of her hikes. Gatewood was the quintessential ultralight backpacker, with a simple bag she sewed herself holding very few supplies. Gatewood often relied on the kindness of strangers, who sometimes fed and sheltered her for the night. But, she also spent time sleeping under a shower curtain (her tent) and picnic tables along the way. “After the hard life I lived, this trail isn’t so bad,” Gatewood told reporters. Ben Montgomery’s book, Grandma Gatewood’s Walk, is well worth the read to follow the grit and willpower of an inspirational woman.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL: Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum) and pale Indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sky over Nachusa Grassland, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Schulenberg Prairie Savanna trail, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; August skies on the prairie, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; American rubyspot damselfly (Hetaerina americana), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Canada geese (Branta canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; cash on the bench, Schulenberg Prairie, the Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; the prairie in August, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

14 responses to “Honk if You Love Prairie

  1. Can certainly relate to that as the Prairie is nice to wake up to. After burning my Sedge Meadow last fall I was hoping for an explosion of Cardinal flower. I had collected seed and spread it around but so far much to my surprise it is showing just the opposite. The seed I put out on the waters edge of the ponds is coming up but the big stands have thinned out into ones and twos here and there. Does it not like fire? Was it too wet this spring? Never know what it likes exactly as it appears that there can be standing water in the spring and have it come up in those areas in August. The rest of the Sedge Meadow is stunning with the waning Culvers root everywhere. Blazing stars kicked but and the Swamp Milkweeds is prolific with the Blue Vervain and many others. A lot of nectar out there keeping all my butterflies happy. Worth a look if you are nearby! I tried to have a sort of open house July 21 but it was too early for Cardinal flower and pretty much no one cared. Bill Kleiman came and we had one on one time to discuss which was good as I value his opinion. The jury is still out on the Cardinal flower as still waiting as everything seems late this year???

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi John — Wow, what amazing things you are doing at your wetland and prairie restoration! I’m so grateful to know there are people like you caring for the natural world out there. I would love to come and see those cardinal flowers — might be the end of August before I get out there — so save a few for me! Love the beauty of your restoration — and the diversity. Cardinal flower is notoriously unpredictable, isn’t it? Mine is appearing by the little pond and back in the prairie spot, but appears and disappears from year to year without much rhyme or reason. Hope to see you soon! Thank you for reading each week and taking time to comment.


  2. Yep! Prairie Therapy does wonders almost every time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • So excited for you, Ron, and your amazing prairie restoration and the rare critters it is attracting. Your work encourages me in my own! Thanks for taking time to read, and to leave a comment. Here’s to Prairie Therapy! 🙂


  3. Emma Gatewood truly appreciated the outdoors and Ben Montgomery’s book is wonderful in its detailing of her life on and off the trail. If you’re interested in Emma, check out the Emmy-nominated documentary, TRAIL MAGIC: THE GRANDMA GATEWOOD STORY at http://edenvalleyenterprises.org/progdesc/gatewood/tmfilminf/tmdvd.htm

    Liked by 2 people

    • So glad you are a Gatewood fan too, Bette Lou! Just discovered her book this summer, and will definitely check out the documentary — how fun! She is an inspiration. Thank you for reading, and taking time to comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. HONK! I love prairie. Lovely pictures as usual.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. My blood pressure even calms simply reading these “Tuesdays”.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. pathill682056510

    Stunning photographs, as usual.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Loved reading this Cindy! It’s true, one is never the same after a hike on the prairie!

    Liked by 1 person

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