“Wherever we look, from the dirt under our feet to the edge of the expanding cosmos, and on every scale from atoms to galaxies, the universe appears to be saturated with beauty.”–Scott Russell Sanders
We went looking for beauty. We found it in the northwest corner of Illinois, on a day both foggy and cold.
The 66-acre Searls Park Prairie and wetland is tucked into a mosaic of soccer fields, jogging trails, picnic grounds, and a BMX bike track. Once part of a 230-acre family farm homesteaded in the 1850’s, today the prairie is a designated Illinois Nature Preserve and part of the Rockford Park District.
Fog drizzles the tallgrass with droplets, but no light sparkles. Staghorn sumac lifts its scarlet torches in the gloom, bright spots of color on this gray, gray day.
This remnant is mostly mesic prairie; or what I call the “Goldilocks” type of prairie—-not too wet, not too dry. Well-drained. Just right. Black soil prairie was once coveted by farmers as a fertile place for crops—farmers like the Searls, no doubt. For that reason, most black soil prairies have vanished in Illinois.
It’s quiet. Even the recreational areas are empty in the uncomfortably damp late afternoon. No soccer games. No picnics. The BMX bike track is closed.
The prairie seems other-worldly in the silence.
Prairies like this, tucked into cities, are important sanctuaries. Searls Park Prairie is known for hosting three state-listed threatened or endangered plant species. I don’t see any of the rare or endangered plants on my hike today. But I do see Indian grass….lots and lots of Indian grass.
Its bright bleached blades are etched sharply against the misty horizon. The colors of the drenched prairie are so strong, they seem over-exposed.
Thimbleweed, softly blurred in the fog, mingles with…
…round-headed bush clover, silvery in the late afternoon.
Canada wild rye is sprinkled with sparks.
Inhale. Ahhhh. Gray-headed coneflower seedheads are soggy with rainwater, but still smell of lemons when you crush them.
I pinch the hoary leaves of bee balm. Thymol, its essential oil, is still present. But the fragrance is fading.
Mountain mint has lost most of its scent, but still charms me with its dark, silvery seedheads.
Stiff goldenrod transitions from bloom to seed, not quite ready to let go of the season.
Overhead, a flock of tiny birds flies over, impossible to identify. There are rare birds here, although I don’t see any today. On our way to the prairie, we marveled at non-native starlings in the cornfields along the interstate, moving in synchronized flight. I’ve never been able to get this on video, but there are great examples of this flight found here. I’ve only seen this phenomenon in the autumn; one of the marvels of the dying year. Once seen, never forgotten.
On the edge of the prairie, wild plums spangle the gloom.
Such color! Such abundance.
I’ve read there is high-quality wet prairie here, full of prairie cordgrass, blue joint grass, and tussock sedge. We look for this wetter area as we hike, but the path we’re on eventually disappears.
No matter. So much prairie in Illinois is gone. So little original prairie is left. I’m grateful to Emily Searls for deeding her family’s farm to the city of Rockford almost 80 years ago, ensuring this prairie is preserved today.
So much beauty. We hardly know where to look next.
The sun burns briefly through the fog like a white-hot dime.
Dusk is on the way, a little early. We make our way back to the car, just ahead of the dark.
There are many different ways to think of beauty.
It’s always available for free on the prairie, in all its infinite variations.
Why not go see?
The opening quote is from Scott Russell Sanders’ (1945-) The Way of Imagination. Sanders is professor at Indiana University in Bloomington, IN, where Jeff and I lived for a dozen or so years. After writing the opening quote, he follows it with “What are we to make of this?” and later “How then should we live, in a world overflowing with such bounty? Rejoice in it, care for it, and strive to add our own mite of beauty, with whatever power and talent we possess.” Oh, yes.
All photos from Searls Park Prairie, Rockford, IL (top to bottom): fog over the Searls Park Prairie; Illinois nature preserve sign; staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina); white vervain (Verbena urticifolia); dedication plaque; foggy landscape; indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica); round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata); canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis); gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum); fog on the prairie; stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum); indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and wild plum (Prunus americanus); wild plum (Prunus americanus); autumn colors; Jeff on the Searls Park Prairie; sawtooth sunflowers (Helianthus grosseserratus) in the mist; foggy day on the Searls Park Prairie; prairie landscape in the fog; unknown umbel.
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Literary Gardens Online: Friday, Dec.4, 1-2:30 p.m.CST– Join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby from wherever you live in the world for a fun look at great (and not-so-great) gardens in literature and poetry. From Agatha Christie’s mystery series, to Brother Cadfael’s medieval herb garden, to Michael Pollan’s garden in “Second Nature,” to the “secret garden” beloved of children’s literature, there are so many gardens that helped shape the books we love to read. Discover how gardens and garden imagery figure in the works of Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Goudge, Rumer Godden, May Sarton, Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Gilbert, Henry Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver, and Lewis Carroll–and many more! This class is online. Register here through The Morton Arboretum.
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