September Arrives on the Prairie

The three great elemental sounds in nature are the sound of rain, the sound of wind in a primeval wood, and the sound of outer ocean on a beach.” –Henry Beston

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Crackle. Pop. Crunch. The once-tender prairie wildflowers and grasses snap under the weight of my boots. The wind rustles the dry big bluestem and switchgrass. Dust puffs up behind me.

Today is the first day of meteorological autumn. The prairie is hard as concrete, desperate for water.

Since the Durecho on August 10, not a drop has fallen in Glen Ellyn. Twenty-one days without precipitation. I miss the sound of rain. I miss the way the garden lifts its leaves and perks up after a shower. I long for the slam-ka-BAM of thunder, the drumming of raindrops on the roof. Flicker-flashes of lightning that illuminate the world. And the clean, earthy smell of the prairie after a storm.

I think of the early settlers and the Dust Bowl. How did they feel as the harsh winds blew their lives to ruin? It’s only been three weeks without rain, and I’m on edge. Brittle. Testy.

In the evenings, I water my backyard prairie patch and garden, but the green bean leaves turn yellow anyway. Zucchini leaves dry up. Tomatoes hang green on the vine and fail to ripen. Cardinal flowers close up shop as the cup plants crumb and brown.

Wildflowers wilt.

We need rain.

I walk my dragonfly monitoring routes on the prairies, astonished. Where are the Odes? Has the lack of water affected them? Perhaps. A few migrants —a trio of black saddlebag dragonflies, a cluster of common green darners circling overhead, the glint of a wandering glider—are all I see on an hour-long outing. Where before there was a richness of species and numbers, the dragonflies have dwindled to these few. Damselflies? Not a single one.

And it’s no wonder. Willoway Brook’s tributaries—usually aflutter with ebony jewelwing damselflies and blue-fronted dancers—are dry and choked with brush.

Ordinarily, we complain about rain: that despoiler of picnics, outdoor weddings, kayak outings, and camping trips. And yet. How we long for it when it doesn’t show up.

A lone common buckeye butterfly surprises me on the path. It fruitlessly loops from clover to clover, seeking nectar. The red clover blooms are withered and brown and it comes up empty.

On the parched prairie, the grasses and wildflowers continue on. Tall coreopsis is vibrant despite the lack of precipitation.

Cream gentians still look fresh and supple.

Carrion flower, with its alienesque seeds, is show-stopping.

Big bluestem and Indian grass, look brittle and bruised.

Stiff goldenrod pours out its blooms, irregardless of drought, attracting a goldenrod soldier beetle (sometimes called leatherwings). Butterflies love it. Monarchs depend on this relatively well-behaved goldenrod and other fall wildflowers to fuel up for their long journey south. Planted in backyards and prairies, goldenrod helps ensure survival of this beloved butterfly.

As a child, I remember bringing an older relative goldenrod in a kid-picked bouquet. Alarmed, she thanked me for the flowers, but removed the goldenrod—because she said it gave her allergies. Today, we know this is a myth. It’s the ragweeds (both common and giant ragweed —-also native) that bloom about this time of year that wreak havoc with allergy suffers. We can enjoy goldenrod without fear.

Tall boneset announces autumn as it opens in clouds on the edges of the prairie, mingling with goldenrod and competing for a seat in the savanna.

Nearby, wingstem in full bloom attracts its share of pollinators, including this non-native honeybee and native bumblebee.

There’s been a lot of discussion among prairie stewards about competition between native and non-native bees. Should we have beehives on our prairie restorations? Or not? Read this excellent post by Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie’s Bill Glass here. We’re always learning new things about prairie stewardship; always adjusting our management strategies and expectations as we grapple with new information and its implications for a healthy prairie. It’s important to keep an open mind. Not to get mired in doing things “the way we’ve always done them.” To keep reading and learning from others who have experiences we can benefit from. I mull over information on managing for native bees as I walk.

As I finish my hike on the prairie, thinking about prairie management issues, I try to be patient. Rain will come. The prairie will survive. Soon, my longing for rain will be only a memory. In the meantime, I cultivate patience.

The road ahead is uncertain.

Staying flexible. Keeping an open mind. Adapting. Listening to experts. Acting on the science as it unfolds. Practicing patience.

Good advice for prairie stewardship—and for life in general in September.

*******

Henry Beston (1888-1968) was a writer and naturalist, best known for The Outermost House. I particularly love the chapter “Orion Rises On the Dunes.” Check it out here.

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All photos taken at the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL, and copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): the prairie in August; new england aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae); canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis); tall boneset (Eupatorium altissimum); common green darner dragonfly (Ajax junius); Willoway Brook; wild lettuce or prickly lettuce (Lactuca serriola); common buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia); tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); cream gentian (Gentiana alba); carrion flower (probably Smilax ecirrhata); indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigida) with goldenrod soldier beetle (Chauliognathus pensylvanicus) and unknown beetle; tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima); tall boneset (Eupatorium altissimum); wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) with a honeybee (Apis sp.) and bumblebee (Bombus sp.); Illinois tick trefoil (Desmodium illinoense) and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) with unidentified insects; path through the Schulenberg Prairie; smooth aster (Symphyotrichum laeve).

******

Join Cindy for an Online Class this Autumn! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for details.

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” Begin a new session this Thursday, September 2 through The Morton Arboretum! Work from home at your own pace (with suggested assignment deadlines) for 60 days to complete the material, and meet other prairie volunteers and stewards on the discussion boards and in the optional Zoom session. Classes are limited to 50. Register here.

“Nature Writing Online” Begins Monday, October 5, through The Morton Arboretum. 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! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History.

Chasing Dragonflies Final Cover 620.jpg

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 this chaotic time.

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. 

10 responses to “September Arrives on the Prairie

  1. Your weekly posts are always grounding and centering with wonderful observations and gentle wisdom. It has been dry on my property in NW Ohio as well, and the prairie plants have been showing it. My two first year button bushes have needed periodic watering. I hope they make it to next year. Thanks so much for enriching my Tuesdays.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ron, you are so kind! Thank you for reading and taking a moment to drop me such an encouraging note. It is much appreciated this morning. Here’s to rain — may we both see some soon! Good luck to your button bushes. My queen-of-the-prairie is looking iffy. We’ll keep our fingers crossed! –Cindy 🙂

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  2. In the stiff goldenrod piece….”irregardless”. Ouch. I think I must have been a grammar teacher in a prior life….

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    • Hello, Sandy! I know, a lot of folks hate that word! Here’s a link to how I made that decision — irregardless of my journalism training! 🙂
      https://www.grammarly.com/blog/irregardless/ You can see if it was a graded paper I’d skip it — but I like the blog to be conversational and informal.
      Thanks for your note and for reading so carefully, and most of all, thanks for your love of the natural world. I’m grateful! — Cindy 🙂

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  3. johnayres43gmailcom

    The honeybee issue is a big one. Where to draw the line in restoration ecology is probably one of the bigger issues out there. Do we get rid of all the earthworms that were brought over? Do we remove all the sulpher and cabbage butterflies that were brought over. Wild Indigo Duskywing caterpillars gave upon Indigo and started eating Crown Vetch as there apparently wasn’t enough Wild Indigo. Now what do we do? Stop killing Crown vetch or plant it? As Honeybees have been here now since 1622 no one can say what niches they have filled as most of the landscape has been turned into agriculture for over 150 years inferring that many species are probably gone before we had any chance to compare any results. Honeybees have been in the wild now competing with native bees for almost 400 years so many of the species that could have produced clear competitive results have been replaced long ago. Getting rid of them now in the wild may be worse than having them as they have established a niche potentially? Of course the biggie is that all the white people should go away as they’re a non native invader and habitat destruction is the major culprit, not the honeybee. Adam Dozal at the Illinois bee lab has pointed out that we do not understand honeybee diseases yet as most are RNA viruses and the studies have only shown the presence of pathogens not any effects. None of the studies done have been able to show any long term effects. Native bees do not have near the social population as a honeybee hive to vector disease the same way. There is nearly an even split between research findings with a positive and negative effect. The findings have been that there is a potential for negative impact. Some studies show that native bees are much more susceptible to neonicanoids than honeybees which if only a ¼ mile wide surrounded by big ag means potentially no bees then. That’s not good for sure. I think the article that is causing all the fuss is the Racheal E Mallinger article called “Do managed honeybees have a negative effect on wild bees?” NRCS promoted honeybees for years. Now they are not sure what to do? The next question is if they want to say honeybees should not be in native areas then where are they supposed to be? What else does that apply to? It’s complicated.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello, John –It is a difficult issue. I appreciate honey (I just had some on my toast this morning, and the most delicious honey comes from Nomia Meadows Farm! :)) My family counts beekeepers among us. As a prairie steward, this is an issue I’m really wrestling with. I appreciate the work everyone is doing to try to understand these issues. Let’s all continue to read, and listen, and learn — and hopefully, the data will be clear and directive as we move forward with trying different plans and management strategies! Chris Helzer, the Science Director for TNC Nebraska, has been influential in my thinking — as have others working with insects, like the Xerxes organization. I appreciate all you do for prairie, John, and for our natural world. Thanks for reading, and for your thoughtful post! Grateful for all of you who care so much! — Cindy

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  4. My tomatoes have been producing well despite getting less than 1/2 inch of rain in August. Although they probably would have done better if I had water them during the heat waves. I only incidentally gave my tomatoes about 1/4 inch of sprinkler water last month when I gave some water to my brown dead-looking lawn. I planted my tomatoes in an area of my yard that is a puddle in Spring. I have been piling leaves to decompose in this garden each fall. This has made the soil nice and black but did not increase the elevation of the garden after doing this for many years. Since having the roots of vegetables submerged in spring for too long will cause them to rot, I decided I needed to raise up the soil level. I put 8 inches of a coir-based potting mix over this garden. I would have used compost, but I never have enough. The extra height keeps the roots from being saturated with water during wet periods in spring. Once the roots have grown deeper, they appreciate that the garden tends to retain moisture during the drier summer. The coir is the real key. It retains something on the order of 10 times its weight in water. Before the recent rain, I had dug down into the coir-based mix and it was moist two inches below the surface. In addition to allowing me to grow tomatoes through a drought without specifically watering them, just think about how much rainwater this garden is absorbing during extreme rain events. Other neighbors have solved their wet yard problem by putting in drain tiles contributing to flooding downstream. I have found a way to absorb the water onsite, reduce runoff, and get tasty tomatoes even during a drought.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is so interesting, James! I have never tried coir; I’ll have to do so. I’m glad your tomatoes are doing better than mine. 🙂 I do have some cherry tomatoes (sunsugar, sweet million) that are soldiering on in the dry heat, and pumping out little gems. Take care, and thank you—as always–for reading the blog and for sharing your experiences.– Cindy 🙂

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  5. lovely opening photo

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