November Prairie Focus

“Young prairie plants put down deep roots first; only when these have been established do the plants invest much energy in growth above ground. They teach us that the work that matters doesn’t always show.” -Paul Gruchow


The cold, gray days of November are here. Beautiful? Yes, in their own way. They offer time for reflection on a year mostly past.

Willoway Brook SPMA111719WM.jpg

The sky becomes a slate backdrop to plants which spike and angle and curve. Like silhouette cut-outs.


Grace notes. Some more interesting now in seed and shape than they were in bloom.

It’s easy for me to overlook what’s good about November. Easier to long for sunshine and warmth; for the fireworks of July wildflowers—purple leadplant spikes and bright orange butterflyweed and lemon-yellow coreopsis. The fresh emerald spikes of grasses pushing through the dark prairie soil in spring. Or even the golds and violets of the autumn prairie.

Seems like we missed part of that season with our early snows.


As I walk, I think of John Updike’s poem, November:

The stripped and shapely

Maple grieves

The loss of her

Departed leaves.

The ground is hard,

As hard as stone

The year is old

The birds are flown…..


Much of what I see on the prairie is a matter of focus. In November, I have to remind myself that beauty is here. That the work of restoration is moving forward. It’s a more difficult season than spring when everything is full of promise and possibility. The “prettiness” and promise of the prairie is more obvious in the warmer months. November’s calibration of what constitutes headway, success on a prairie, is different.

Gray. Beige. Black. Brown. The prairie smells of wet earth. Snowmelt. Decay. You’d think this would be distressing, but it’s strangely pleasant. Invigorating.  It’s the fragrance of a work in progress. The cycling of nutrients. The prairie finishes its work of the growing season, then lays the groundwork for the future.


Sometimes, I look at the November prairie and all I see is the unfinished work of a prairie steward. The native brambles taking over, arcing their spiny branches across the prairie and shading out wildflowers.


It’s discouraging. Impatience surges. Are we really making a difference here? Or are we like Sisyphus, rolling a boulder uphill, only to have it roll back.

Then, I remember. There was a time when I didn’t  think about these “brambles” because the invasive buckthorn, honeysuckle, and sweet white and yellow clovers were consuming all my stewardship hours. It’s a luxury  now to have most of these problem plants licked (Hubris, don’t strike me down!) and room to think about how to tackle new management  issues.


Despite my self-reassurance, as I hike I see other potential issues. Are the native grasses dominating the wildflowers? Is the false sunflower spreading too aggressively  in the corner by the bridge?


I tuck my cold fingers into my pockets and stand on the bridge over Willoway Brook.  Reed canary grass chokes the shoreline. A never-ending problem. Then I look closer. I’m missing the lovely configurations of ice and stream; leaf and stone.


Just across the bridge is a new “menace.” The past several years I’ve moaned about Illinois bundleflower making inroads into the prairie; it has become a monoculture in spots. Is it a desirable plant? Sure. It belongs on the prairie. But how much is too much? Decisions about how to manage it causes me some frustrating hours. But today, I take a few moments to admire it. Wow. Look at those seed pods.


There are plants that “don’t belong” on a prairie restoration, and other plants that do, yet get a bit rambunctious. It’s so easy to focus on what’s wrong. Sometimes its tougher to remember what we’ve done well. To focus on the beauty, instead of the chaos.


Nearby are ruined choirs of cup plants; taller than I am, growth-fueled by rain. Cup plants are the bane of my backyard prairie patch—aggressive thugs that elbow my Culver’s root and spiderwort out of the way.

cupplant SPMA111719WM.jpg

But here, on the 100-acre prairie, they are welcome. When I think about it, I realize I’ve not seen them in this area before. They are part of the first waves of prairie plants making inroads in an old field we’re restoring by the Prairie Visitor Center. A sign of success. A sign of progress.

Among the rusts and tans, there are bright bits of color. Carrion flower, now gone to inedible seeds.


The last flag-leaves of sumac.

sumac SPMA111719WM.jpg

Sumac is also an issue in parts of this prairie. But for now, I relax and enjoy the color.

Nuthatches call from the savanna. The breeze rustles the grasses. Looking over the prairie, focusing on its draining colors and dwindling seedheads…

November on the SPMA111719WM.jpg

… I remember what Paul Gruchow wrote about the tallgrass prairie: “…The work that matters doesn’t always show.”

The day suddenly feels brighter.


Paul Gruchow (1947-2004) was a Minnesota writer who wrote such beautiful books as Travels in Canoe Country; The Boundary Waters: Grace of the Wild; Journal of a Prairie Year; The Necessity of Empty Places; and Grass Roots: The Universe of Home from which this opening quote was taken. There’s nothing like the power of a good book—especially those passages that stick in your mind and are available when you need them the most.

John Updike’s lovely poem November” is found in A Child’s Calendar, first published in 1965. If you’re unfamiliar with his poetry, check out Facing Nature: Poems, Collected Poems: 1953–1993, and Americana and Other Poems (2001).


All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken on the Schulenberg Prairie and Savanna at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, unless noted:  Willoway Brook in November; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); maple leaf (Acer saccharum) by the Prairie Visitor Station; silky wild rye (Elymus villosus) and log; prairie under snow in November; common blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis); prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides); Willoway Brook; Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) and unknown asters; cup plants Silphium perfoliatum); carrion vine (probably Smilax ecirrhata); staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina); false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides).

Please join Cindy for one of these upcoming classes or talks:

Saturday, December 7, 1:30-3 p.m.—Sterling Stories from the Arboretum Stacks: Grab a friend and spend a lively hour together sipping hot beverages while you enjoy little-known stories about the Morton Arboretum. What’s that old fountain doing in the library? Why was there a white pine planted in the May Watts Reading Garden? Who is REALLY buried in the Morton Cemetery—or not? What book in the Sterling Morton Library stacks has a direct relationship to a beheading? Why does the library have glass shelves? How has salt been a blessing —and a curse—to the Arboretum over its almost 100 years? Listen as 33-year Arboretum veteran library collections manager Rita Hassert and  Cindy Crosby spin entertaining tales of a place you thought you knew….until now.    A lovely afternoon enjoying little known Arboretum’s stories, and a quiet respite from the holiday hustle and bustle. Register here.

Sunday, December 8, 2-3:30 p.m.: Tallgrass Conversations at Prairieview Education Center, 2112 Behan Road, Crystal Lake, IL 815-479-5779 Book signing after the talk! Free and open to the public.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology online wraps up this month! Watch for the next course in March. Registration opens on November 19 here.

Nature Writing continues at The Morton Arboretum, on-line and in-person through November 20. Next session begins March 3, 2020. Watch for registration soon!

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7 responses to “November Prairie Focus

  1. I enjoy your posts so much. I read them every Tuesday morning. We are restoring my husband’s grandmother’s eighty acres to native grasses in Floresville, Texas. We planted a year ago and have had great results. It’s so exciting. Your post reminded me of Judy Collin’s song, “I’ll Learn to Love the Fallow Way.”


    Words and Music by Judy Collins
    Universal Music Corp. (ASCAP)/ The Wildflowers Company (ASCAP)
    (Administered by Universal Music Corp.)

    I’ll learn to love the fallow way
    When winter draws the valley down
    And stills the rivers in their storm
    And freezes all the little brooks
    Time when our steps slow to the song
    Of falling flakes and crackling flames
    When silver stars are high and still
    Deep in the velvet of the night sky

    The crystal time the silence times
    I’ll learn to love their quietness
    While deep beneath the glistening snow
    The black earth dreams of violets
    I’ll learn to love the fallow way

    I’ll learn to love the fallow way
    When all my colors fade to white
    And flying birds fold back their wings
    Upon my anxious wonderings
    The sun has slanted all her rays
    Across the vast and harvest plains
    My memories mingle in the dawn
    I dream a joyful vagabonds

    The crystal times the silence times
    I’ll learn to love their quietness
    When deep beneath the glistening snow
    The black earth dreams in of violets
    I’ll learn to love the fallow times

    No drummer comes across the plains
    To tell of triumph or of pain
    No word far off battle’s cry
    To draw me out or draw me nigh
    I’ll learn to love the fallow way

    I’ll learn to love the fallow way
    And gather in the patient fruits
    And after autumns blaze and burn
    I’ll know the full still, deep roots
    That nothing seem to know or need

    That crack the ice in frozen ponds
    And slumbering in winter’s folds
    Have dreams of green and blue and gold
    I’ll learn to love the fallow way
    And listening for blossoming
    Of my own heart once more in spring

    As sure as time, as sure as snow
    As sure as moonlight, wind and stars
    The fallow time will fall away
    The sun will bring an April day
    And I will yield to Summer’s way
    Melinda Creech

    Liked by 1 person

    • What a lovely response, and thank you for reading and taking time to share these lyrics. So beautiful! Grateful for your good work in Texas on restoring prairie, Melinda. So glad you dropped me a note this morning. — Cindy


  2. Martha Hellander

    I also love every season in my “wild garden”…I find the stalks of cup plants, which I’ve grown in my backyard prairie patch for 25+ years, rather like Renoir sculptures. If/when one cuts them (leaving 3-4 feet as supports for next season and homes for creatures), their stalks can be used in woven fences, garden structures like summer trellises, or laid over leaf piles to hold the leaves in place, or chopped into shorter lengths for temporary stakes. Cup plants make wonderful privacy screens in the garden and during dry periods just sprinkle them from above with a hose to create a water park for the birds and insects! I just cut young stalks to the ground where I don’t want them. They draw flocks of goldfinches!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Martha, it is so lovely to hear from you. I’m inspired to know how you use your cup plants — and now, I will always think of Renoir when I see them. My grandkids, too, love the stalks — they are always making bridges over the pond with them — and now, I have a whole lot of new ideas for cup plant creativity! Thank you for sharing. I love these “aggressive thugs” also — and wow — the goldfinches enjoy the “drinking fountains” they create! Thanks for taking time to drop me a note. Grateful for your wild garden, and all the wild gardens out there. –Cindy 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. William Nettelhorst

    Well here you go again Cindy. I’m reading your piece, your thoughts, and I hear you putting into understandable words exactly what’s happening to me. I just want to show everybody your words so they will understand what I’m doing out there all the time.
    When you wrote “It’s discouraging… I could feel the way my bottom drops out at that point for me. Then you wrote “What we’ve done well. … the beauty”
    And my personal joy, the experience, rose back up. Your so good. Thank you once again.
    Hearing a bit of your Steward approach is quite helpful to my thinking, approach. I just love the way you weave this artful smorgasbord of loveliness into my day. Bill

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill, you are so kind, and such a kindred spirit! We’re on this prairie restoration journey together—all of us stewards and prairie enthusiasts and gardeners and Wild Ones and well… all of us who love the natural world and want to leave it a little healthier. I’m encouraged by your notes here on the comment page, and just knowing you’re out there, plugging away at the same sorts of tasks I am. Grateful to hear from you, and glad you found some places of recognition in today’s post. Thank you for taking time to write. And thank you for reading.


  4. When I was living in Ithaca (NY) we used to pass a furniture store that announced it was open on the “T” nights–Tuesday, Thursday and SaTurday, a summary of how I read your soul-satisfying posts. Today is the last of those advertised days. Sumac is so many reds and I’m grateful that it fades so slowly from sight. The seeds remind me that “going to seed” is a good thing.

    Thank you again. I also must thank the others who responded for the way they enlarge my view and make me think.

    Liked by 1 person

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