“Before we can imagine saving the landscape we must be able to form it realistically in our imaginations as something that we love.” — Joel Sheesley
Cool nights. Steady rain. A first frost forecast. The September tallgrass is singing its swan song, and I want to listen to every last note.
The prairie is in full autumnal splendor this week, as temperatures drop. Jeff and I are at the campus of the “second largest provider of undergraduate education” in Illinois, but we’re not here to take a class. Rather, we’re hiking the trails of College of DuPage’s beautiful prairies and natural areas in Glen Ellyn, not far from where we live.
Normally, the campus is abuzz with students rushing to their next academic or social commitment. But this year, most on-campus classes are temporarily online. The library, theater, and restaurant are closed.
The only “buzz” comes from the bees, checking out the prairie’s wildflowers. And they’re not the only ones.
Skippers jostle for position on the New England asters.
A false milkweed bug checks out a panicled aster. Looks similar to the “true” large milkweed bug, doesn’t it? But, I discover as I identify it with iNaturalist on my cell phone, the false milkweed bug feeds on members of the aster family.
Along the edges of the prairie are four acres of woodland with a few osage orange trees scattered alongside the trails. That bizarre fruit! I’ve heard it called “hedge apples,” but it’s nothing you’d want to dip in caramel or make a pie with.
The wood of the osage orange is a favorite for fence posts and archery bows. The grapefruit sized balls are strangely brain-like in appearance (another nickname: “monkey brains.” )
I’d hate to have one of these drop on my head. Ouch!
The 15 acres of the East Prairie Ecological Study Area, established by College of DuPage visionary Russell Kirt (author of Prairie Plants of the Midwest), includes the aforementioned four acres of woodland, three acres of marsh, with plenty of cattails…..
…and eight acres of reconstructed tallgrass prairie, which according to College of DuPage’s website, were planted between 1975-1997.
Across campus is the Russell R. Kirt Prairie, an 18-acre natural area with marsh, a retention pond, and 11 reconstructed prairie and savanna acres planted between 1984 and 2000. For many years, that was “the prairie” I came to hike at COD. I’m still learning this place—the East Prairie—which Jeff and I found this spring during the first weeks of quarantine. It’s been a bright spot in a chaotic, unsettling time.
Now, Jeff and I make the East Prairie a regular part of our hiking trips. I love exploring its wildflowers in the fall with their unusual seedpods, like the Illinois bundleflower.
Illinois bundleflower is an overly-enthusiastic native on the Schulenberg Prairie, where I’m a steward. We’ve picked its seed defensively in some years, to keep it from spreading. Here it appears in reasonable amounts. We’ve shared seed from the Schulenberg with COD, so it is possible these are descendants from those very plants. I hope it behaves in the coming years!
In contrast, I wish we had more of the white wild indigo seed pods this season. I see a few here at COD’s prairie. White wild indigo is subject to weevils, which eat the seeds, and sometimes make seed saving a difficult chore. These look good!
As I wander this prairie path, my thoughts move away from the plants at hand. I wonder what the winter will bring. Last autumn, the events of the past seven months would have seemed inconceivable.
Sometimes, I wonder if I’ve imagined it all.
Surely we’ll wake up, shake ourselves and laugh. You won’t believe what I dreamed last night.
Most weeks, I try to be intentional about how I spend my time. I want to look back on this chaotic year and know I didn’t just mark off days.
That I chose to make good memories.
Hiking the prairie is part of this. Time to be quiet, and away from the news. Time to soak up the beauty around me.
Room to listen. Time to reflect on where I’ve been, and where I want to go.
Memories in the making.
Time well spent.
The opening quote is from Joel Sheesley’s beautiful book, A Fox River Testimony. Visit Joel’s website to learn more about his art, writing, and inspiration.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby, East Prairie Ecological Study Area at College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL (top to bottom): the prairie in autumn; prairie path in autumn; prairie at COD in September; two skippers, possibly tawny-edged (Polites themistocles) on new england asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae); panicled aster (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum) with false milkweed bug (Lygaeus turcicus); osage orange (Maclura pomifera); osage orange (Maclura pomifera); cattails (probably Typha glauca); indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); Indian hemp (sometimes called dogbane) (Apocynum cannabinum); illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis); white wild indigo (Baptisia lactea or alba var. macrophylla); beaver-chewed trees; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum); new england aster (Symphotrichum novae-angliae) with flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata); staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina); mixed wetland plants at the edge of the marsh; panicled aster (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum) with Peck’s skipper (Polites peckius); mixed plants at the edge of the prairie; prairie path; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) and culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum) with mixed prairie grasses and forbs.
Join Cindy for a class—or ask her to speak virtually for your organization this autumn! Now booking talks for 2021.
“Nature Writing Online” begins Monday, October 5, through The Morton Arboretum. Last days to register! Want to commit to improving and fine-tuning your writing for six weeks? This is a great opportunity to jump start your blog, your book, or your journal writing while working online from home, supplemented with three evenings of live evening Zoom classes on alternate weeks. Class size is limited; register here.
Just released in June! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History.
Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Morton Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org, direct from Northwestern University Press (use coupon code NUP2020 for 25% off), or other book venues. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during these unusual times.
Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction.