Category Archives: fermilab

Finding Hope in the November Prairie

“Do not go gentle into that good night…rage, rage against the dying of the light.”—Dylan Thomas

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November, shmo-vember.

Sure, a few hard-core “I love all months of the year” folks out there are going to give a high-five to November. But I’m going to come clean here.

I think November is the toughest month of the year.

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The elections are certainly a part of that.  I despise the mud-slinging, the he-said/she-said, the polarization of the world I find myself in today and the many places where hatred and suspicion are cultivated in public forums. I cast my vote early, feeling a bit like I do when I planted pasque flower seeds on the prairie this season. The odds seem long, but hope was there. The promise of something beautiful. Today, in November, there’s no sign of the pasque flowers.  But I haven’t given up hope. I’m trying to live in “prairie time.” Taking the long view.

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If you live in the Chicago region, our first few days of November have not been promising. Temperatures are cold enough to prompt extra blankets, but not cold enough for a Christmas card-worthy snowstorm.  Rain, desperately needed, came just in time to splash all the (finally) colorful autumn leaves off the trees. High winds decimated most of the rest of the foliage, which lies strewn across prairie trails like discarded party invitations.

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How do you feel about November? Does November give you the blues? If you’re tempted to hang up your hiking boots and sit this month out, here are five reasons to go outside and see the prairie this month. If you feel discouraged by the state of the world—or just discouraged by the month of November and all it brings—this hike’s for you.

1. The Good News About Bison

If you live in the Midwest, chances are you’re within driving distance of seeing bison on a prairie. In the Chicago region, I’m fortunate enough to have bison on three preserves within a two-hour driving distance. There’s something, well, reassuring about their sturdy presence, impervious to cold and rain amid the wind rippling the tallgrass in November. Bison remind me of  strength. Of continuity. Of hope. Here is a species that was almost extinct, and through the efforts of people who care, is now thriving again. We need this kind of inspiration, as the United Nations issued grim news about our natural world that made headlines this week. So hop in the car and drive to your nearest bison preserve. Bring a friend.  Feel your spirits lift?

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2. Encore Performances

Oddly enough, some native plants (and non-natives too!) put on a repeat bloom performance in November. To discover them is a bit of a bizarre scavenger hunt, worth traveling a trail or two to see what you can find. My backyard pond has pops of yellow right now; marsh marigolds which normally bloom in April are hosting a second-run performance. Other late bloomers in my prairie patch, like the obedient plant below, gave a last push of color against its deteriorating foliage this week. You can almost hear them whispering, “Do not go gentle into that good night… .”

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3. Cruising Without Guilt

I always feel a pang of remorse about driving around a natural area. After all, shouldn’t I be on foot, exploring trails, wading through wetlands looking for dragonflies, or sitting on top of a rocky knob, enjoying the breeze? Of course I want to hike this month. But in November, when pounding rain, wind gusts of 30 mph, and temps in the 40s are all in play, I can feel almost virtuous driving through a grassland, enjoying the views, without the shame that might normally accompany my gas-guzzling self. I’m outdoors! Sort of. Braving the elements.

Hey–turn the heater up, will you?

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4. Prairie Plants Take On New Personalities

In November, you can exercise your imagination to describe the familiar prairie plants of summer in new ways. Prairie dock, below, is my November favorite for its transition from flexible sandpaper-y green to a crackled surface. A little like those old decoupaged craft projects we did in the sixties; right down to the tiny beads of “glue.” Maybe you see a prairie dock leaf in November as an aerial view of Death Valley. Or perhaps you see the leaf as the back of an dry, aged hand, with pores, veins and tiny hairs. A mountain range, dotted with snow? Spiderwebs in the rain? Or? Go ahead, your turn!

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Other plants give up the above-ground life in tangled shoelaces slowly draining of color, a virtual jungle of still-green and long-past-the-sell-date leaves.

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And when is a square-stemmed plant not a mint? When it’s a cup plant! After focusing on the signature leaves and flowers of this vigorous, sometimes-aggressive native all summer, we get a good look at the scaffolding. Wonder what tiny critter made that hole?

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5. Those Spellbinding Seeds

It’s  almost worth facing November on the prairie to see how nature plans for the future. Diversity is on display in the form of prairie seeds in all colors, sizes, and shapes.

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Each seed is a possibility. The promise of restoration.

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I need that promise. You too? Of change, of hope, of restoration in the month of November. Especially on an election day, after another week of horrific shootings and dismal headlines. The prairie seeds remind me of all of those who have made a difference in the world. The stewards and site managers who are out there today, as you read this, cutting brush. Collecting seeds. Leading tours of the tallgrass. Painting prairie landscapes.

At the polls, voting to save our natural areas and fund them for the future.

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Doing their part to make sure change happens in the world.  Change doesn’t always come as quickly as we’d like. But the prairie reminds me—keep working toward restoring a  damaged world. It all starts with these small, simple actions that are ours to take.

“Do not go gentle into that good night…rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

You know, November isn’t so bad after all if it brings the opportunity of change—the hope of a better future—with it.  And at this point, I think I’ve talked myself into a hike. You too?

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Let’s go.

*****

Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) was a Welsh poet, whose lines that open this essay are from a poem of the same name. He told biographers he fell in love with words after learning nursery rhymes as a child. Thomas was a contemporary of T.S. Eliot, who helped bring him to the public’s attention as a very young man. Thomas was a high-school drop-out, an alcoholic, often homeless, hounded by creditors, and frequently cheated on his wife, Caitlin.  He died at age 39 from pneumonia, probably complicated by alcohol poisoning and drug use, and Caitlin was incarcerated for a time in an insane asylum. And yet—out of so much despair and damage—there are these beautiful poems. Click here to hear Thomas read Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom):  Rice Lake-Danada, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Wheaton, IL; pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens or Anemone patens) in seed, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; red maple (Acer rubrum) leaves on the path, Kath Thomas’ prairie planting, Hinsdale, IL; bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; Stone Barn Road, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL: prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) and bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis) seeds, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: rosinweed  (Silphium integrifolium) seeds, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; Remic Ensweiller, prairie manager, leads a tour of the Russell Kirt Prairie at College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL; thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Hinsdale Prairie Remnant, Hinsdale, IL.

The Trouble with “Leave No Trace”

Perhaps, you will absorb something of the land. What you absorb will eventually change you. This change is the only real measure of a place.”–Paul Gruchow

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We are taught to “leave no trace” when we visit a natural area, such as the prairie. Pack out our trash. Stay on the path. Respect what we find. Yet, there is another side to this simple saying.

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Hike the prairie early in the new year. Look carefully. In the shady hollows, there are transitory marvels. Rock candy sticks of ice linger until the sun strikes. Then…vanish.

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The old is finished.

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The past months melt away.

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There are lingering signs of the life of the prairie to come.

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To hike a prairie is to be prompted to want to know more about it. Paying attention is one way to grow more deeply in understanding the tallgrass. Helping restore it with others is another.

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When we care for a place, we are more “careful” of that place. But familiarity sometimes breeds carelessness. So… How do we break out of the same patterns of thinking?

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How do we become less rigid in the ways of “knowing?”

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How do we open ourselves to seeing and thinking about prairie in new ways?

Come with me, and surf the grasses; ride the waves of the prairie in January. Admire the tweediness of the grass colors, bleached and burnished.

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Follow a path not taken before; explore in all directions. Who knows where you’ll end up? What might be found on the other side?

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It might not all be softness and light. The prairie can be harsh, unforgiving.

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No surprise. It’s a landscape that must be burned again and again to become strong.

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Through beauty and terror–and even, the ordinary–the prairie imprints itself on the heart.

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It reminds us of our insignificance in the big scheme of things.

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And yet.

It also whispers: “One person who lives intentionally can make a difference in the bigger life of a community.” Even if only a trace.

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Yes, if you’re careful and pay attention–stick to the trails, carry out your trash, speak softly, admire the blooms but don’t pick them– you may “leave no trace” in the tallgrass. If you give back to the prairie–learn the names of its community members, help gather its seeds, pull weeds —you may leave traces on it of the best kind.

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But be warned. The trouble with “leave no trace” is that the prairie does not follow the same principles you do. It will cause you to think more deeply. To care more fully. To pay attention more intently.

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The prairie will leave its traces on you. And you will be forever changed by the encounter.

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The opening quote in this essay is by Paul Gruchow (1947-2004) from Journal of a Prairie Year (Milkweed Editions). Gruchow suffered from severe depression; for many years he found solace in the outdoors and on the prairie. Among his other works are Boundary Waters: Grace of the Wild; The Necessity of Empty Places; Travels in Canoe Country;  and Grass Roots: The Universe of Home.  His writing is observational, wryly humorous, attentive to detail, and reflective. If you haven’t read Gruchow, let this be the year that you do.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): snow on the tallgrass, Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL; ice crystals on the path, Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL; pale purple coneflower seed head (Echinacea pallida), Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL; snow pocket melting in the sun, Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL; Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum), Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL; removing invasives, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) leaf, Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL; ice, Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL; grasses in January, Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL; prairie road, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL; prescribed burn, Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL;  hiking on New Year’s day, Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL; working to restore bison, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; snowy road, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; tracks through frost, Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL.