Monthly Archives: October 2020

Little Prairie in the City

“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

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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.

Gray

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?

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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.

*****

Join Cindy for a class—or ask her to speak virtually for your organization–now booking talks for 2021. Email Cindy through http://www.cindycrosby.com.

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.

Just released in June! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History.

Chasing Dragonflies Final Cover 620.jpg

Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the 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 visit her website at http://www.cindycrosby.com. See you there!

Rainy Day on the Prairie

“I feel like it’s rainin’ all over the world.”–Tony Joe White

*****

For the first time since spring, my fingers are stiff and cold as I hike the Belmont Prairie.

Jeff and I have this 10-acre remnant in Downers Grove, IL, all to ourselves this evening. No wonder. Rain falls in a steady drizzle. It’s 40 degrees. Who in the world would hike a prairie in this weather?

It’s worth the discomfort. With the first freeze last week, the prairie traded in its growing season hues for autumn’s deeper mochas, golds, and wine-reds. In the splattering rain, the colors intensify.

Sawtooth sunflowers, dark with wet, stand stark sentinel against gray skies. I inhale the prairie’s fragrance. A tang of moist earth; a tease of decaying leaves and grasses.

Most wildflowers have crumpled like paper bags in the chill.

But when I look closely, a few smooth blue asters still pump out color.

Panicled asters are bright white in the fast-fading light.

Wild asparagus writhes and waves, neon in the dusk.

Goldenrod galls, once brown, are now gently rosed by frost.

Goldenrod blooms are here, too, a few shining yellow wands scattered across the tallgrass.

Most wildflowers have swapped color and juice for the stiffness and starch of structure; the wisps and clouds of seeds.

These seeds promise new life next year; hard-won redemption from the summer of 2020.

Every year is precious. But I’m not sorry to see this year go.

The dripping prairie glows.

Thistle, drenched and matted, plays with the contrast of soft and sharp.

Evening primroses drip diamonds.

Sumac is luminous, splashed with crystal raindrops.

Tall coreopsis runs with water.

Let the rain set the evening alight.

And every plant glitter.

Let the prairie sing its farewell song to warm weather as it greets the dark.

A train sounds its horn in the distance. There is a rumble of metal on rails as the sun drops behind the horizon. Jeff and I head back to the parking lot. As I walk, I think of the winter to come.

The months ahead will bring their own loveliness, reluctantly embraced.

For now, it’s time to say goodbye to what was.

Then, to welcome, with anticipation and courage…

…whatever lies ahead.

*****

Tony Joe White wrote the lyrics to “Rainy Night in Georgia” which open this post. It was sung and popularized by Brook Benton (1970). A great song for a gray day—listen to it here. Bonus points if you can name White’s other hit, which he wrote and performed himself. (Check your answer here).

All photos this week taken at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL (top to bottom): Belmont Prairie trail; indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); stream through the prairie; sawtooth sunflowers (Helianthus grosseserratus); unknown plant dead in the freeze; smooth blue asters (Symphyotrichum laeve); panicled aster (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum); wild asparagus (Asparagus officinalis); goldenrod gall; tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima); canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis); tall boneset (Eupatorium altissimum) ; indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); possibly tall thistle ( Cirsium altissimum), evening primrose (Oenothera biennis), staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina); tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris) ; sunset on the prairie; indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) in the rain; fall colors in the tallgrass; compass plants (Silphium lacinatum) in the rain; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); sawtooth sunflowers (Helianthus grosseserratus) at sunset; fall color on a rainy day prairie trail.

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Join Cindy for a class—or ask her to speak virtually for your organization. Booking talks for 2021. Email Cindy through http://www.cindycrosby.com.

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.

Just released in June! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History.

Chasing Dragonflies Final Cover 620.jpg

Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the 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. 

Prairie Lights

“This is the light of autumn; it has turned on us.”–Louise Glück

*****

I am preoccupied with light; the number of daylight hours is slipping through my fingers. Gradually lessening.

I rise in the dark, and eat dinner at dusk. Where has the light gone?

The trees at the edge of the prairie are alight.

The year is passing quickly.

Sunday evening, as I admired my backyard prairie patch, a white-crowned sparrow appeared. Its bright white striped helmet glowed in the twilight as it sampled seeds spilled from my feeders, under the wands of the blazing star.

This tiny bird has traveled thousands of miles– up to 300 miles in a single night. Now, it’s back from its summering grounds up north in the Arctic and subartic where it nested in the tundra among the lichens and mosses.

The appearance of the white-crowned sparrow tells me winter is only a whisper away.

This world of color won’t be with us long.

The prairie dock leaves are fallen awnings of opaque dotted swiss fabric.

Indian grass surrenders to the shortening days and its inevitable fate. Death above. Life remains, unseen, underground.

Horse gentian—sometimes called “wild coffee” —throws its orange orbs into the mix of prairie seeds as its leaves crumple. Insurance for the future.

The silvered leaves of leadplant fade into oblivion.

New england asters and goldenrod dance their last tango in the tallgrass.

Sumac refuses to go quietly. Look at that red!

The heath asters offer star-shine under arches of prairie cordgrass. Their days are numbered.

Listen! Can you hear the low husky lament of the katydids for a season about to end?

No matter how we cling to what we have, it will eventually be lost to us.

Better to turn the page. Practice release.

October is a bittersweet month; a month that catches fire and burns everything to ashes as it goes.

But oh, what a fire.

And oh, what a light the burning makes.

Store up October now.

Cherish that light.

It will be solace in the months to come.

******

The opening line is from poet Louise Glück (1943–), who won a well-deserved Nobel Prize in Literature this past week. It’s the latest of many major prizes she’s earned for her writing including the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for The Wild Iris, a good introduction to her work. Her poems are often harsh; exploring the meaning of suffering and mortality. Read about her life and writing here, or listen to her read some of her poems here.

All photos this week taken at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (top to bottom): view over the October prairie; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium); sugar maple (Acer saccharum) and staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina); bird’s nest; blazing star seeds (Liatris sp.); lichens, one is possibly gold dust (Chrysothrix candelaris) and another possibly hoary rosette (Physcia aipolia); Schulenberg Prairie in October; rose hips (Rosa carolina); prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); leadplant (Amorpha canscens); canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) and new england aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angeliae); bridge over Willoway Brook in October; heath aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides) and prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata); one of the katydids (possibly Scudderia sp.); illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis); common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) pappus; video of leaf fall, prairie looking into savanna; staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina); ladies’ tresses orchid (Spiranthes cernua); Schulenberg Prairie Savanna; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).

*****

Join Cindy for a class—or ask her to speak virtually for your organization—this autumn and winter.

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.

Just released in June! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History.

Chasing Dragonflies Final Cover 620.jpg

Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the 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. 

5 Reasons to Hike the October Prairie

The frost makes a flower, the dew makes a star.” — Sylvia Plath

*******

First frost. We woke up to a silvered backyard, pond, and prairie patch on Monday. The sheet-covered raised beds were strange looking striped and plaid beasts, wrapped against the chill.

Under this mishmash of bedding, cherry tomatoes, okra, zucchini, green beans, celery, and peppers emerged later that morning, a little worse for wear but game to continue their production a week or two longer. Basil and the larger tomatoes left to the frost roulette sagged and browned as the sun warmed them. Goodbye. It’s October, and the days of fruit and flowers are passing swiftly.

In my backyard prairie patch and out in the tallgrass, there are wonders to be seen. Different than those of summer. More nuanced. There are rewards for those who spend time on the October prairie and pay attention. Will you?

Here are five reasons to take a hike this week. Let’s go look.

1. Those Astonishing Asters: Smooth blue asters are in full bloom, and wow-oh-wow that unusual color! There’s nothing like it on the tallgrass in any other season. Feel the leaves, and you’ll see where this aster gets its name. Seeing this beautiful lavender-blue washed through the prairie is one of the perks of hiking in October.

Heath asters—Symphotrichum ericoides—spin across the prairie in small clouded constellations. I love their tiny, perfect flowers. You can see why the name “aster” means “star.”

New England asters bloom fringed purple—so much purple—intense and alluring for bumblebees, honeybees, butterflies, and several species of moth caterpillars, which feed on the plant. It needs pollinators to ensure the resulting seeds are fertile.

2. Leaves Beyond Belief: Sure, there might be a bad pun in there (couldn’t resist) but trees, shrubs, and the leaves of wildflowers, grasses, and vines intensify in hue as the month progresses. Carrion flower, that unusually-named vine, shows off its bright autumn coloration.

Staghorn sumac flames scarlet rainbows among the grasses.

Shagbark hickory, standing sentinel to the entrance of the prairie, is a shower of gold.

Wild plum, growing where I wish it wouldn’t on the Schulenberg Prairie, is none-the-less a pretty foil for tall boneset with its pale flowers.

3. October Skies: There’s something about the sky this month; is it the color?

The clouds?

Maybe it’s that particular slant of the sun as it seems to cling closer to the horizon on its daily swing through the sky. Or the reflection of the afternoon in a cold prairie stream.

Whatever the reason, these prairie skies are worth our attention in October.

4. Sensational Silhouettes: Now the prairie moves from the flash and glamour of blooms toward the elegance of line and curve.

There is beauty in October’s stark architecture as the prairie plants wrap up their season of bloom.

The cup plants no longer hold the morning dew or night rains; their joined leaves sieved by age and decay.

But the promise of 2021 is here in the tallgrass in its seeds. The promise of a future, full of flowers and lush growth.

5. Discovering the Unexpected: What will you see and experience when you hike the tallgrass prairie in October? Perhaps you’ll discover something small—-but eye-catching.

Maybe it’s a familiar plant you see in a new way.

Or perhaps it’s the song of a migrating bird that stops you in your tracks. What was that? Or the familiar whisper of wind through the tallgrass; the rattle of white wild indigo pods blowing in the breeze.

Will you feel your spirits lift at the sight of the last sawtooth sunflowers, turning their faces to the low-slanting sun?

I hope so. And that whatever adventures are ahead in these last months of the chaotic and unpredictable year of 2020…

… I hope you’ll find the courage and strength you need for them.

*****

Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) was best known for her poetry, and her semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar. After her suicide, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry; the first person to win the award posthumously.

All photos this week are from the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL, unless otherwise noted (top to bottom): author’s garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; sawtooth sunflower (Helianthus grosseserratus); trail through the prairie; smooth blue aster (Symphyotrichum laeve); heath aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides); new england aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), College of DuPage East Prairie Study Area, Glen Ellyn, IL, with honeybee (Apis spp.); carrion flower (probably Smilax ecirrhata); staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina); shagbark hickory (Carya ovata); tall boneset (Eupatorium altissimum) with wild plum (Prunus americanus); switchgrass (Panicum virgatum); Schulenberg Prairie in October; Willoway Brook; rainbow, author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL: tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); bee balm or wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa); cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum); gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata); biennial gaura (Gaura biennis); prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum); white wild indigo (Baptisia alba var. macrophyllia); sawtooth sunflowers (Helianthus grosseserratus); bridge over Willoway Brook.

******

Join Cindy for a class—or ask her to speak virtually for your organization this autumn and winter.

Literary Gardens Online: Friday, Dec.4, 1-2:30 p.m 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.

Just released in June! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History.

Chasing Dragonflies Final Cover 620.jpg

Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the 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.