Category Archives: october

Prairie Tricks and Treats

“You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.” — Annie Dillard

******

Mother Nature pulled out her bag of tricks this weekend. First up: tropical storm Olga. She swept into the Chicago region Saturday, washing out roads and flooding creeks. Pools of water stand on the prairie. Wind decoupages the savanna trails with sifted leaves.

leavespmasav102819WM.jpg

Willoway Brook muscles over its banks, surging and submerging.

willowaybrookSPMA102819WM.jpg

Our resident great blue heron watches the weather unfold from a high bare branch.  Despite the bird’s great size, it weighs only five or six pounds. Why? Its bones are hollow.

blueheronSPMA102819WM.jpg

I watch the heron, and wonder. Male? Or female? Cornell, my favorite bird resource, tells me the female heron is smaller; otherwise, males and females look mostly similar.  Huh. Not much help, I’m afraid.

Olga, her temper tantrum spent, moves on and Sunday dawns to a scoured-blue sky. Jeff and I stroll the Belmont Prairie  to celebrate. The storm burnishes the Indian grass and big bluestem to bronze, copper, and golds; puffs of soaked seedheads soften the metallic stalks. The post-storm light so bright it almost hurts. It’s a treat after all that gloom and rain.

BelmontPrairie102719WM.jpg

Water-soaked rattlesnake master dries its seedheads in the sunshine.

rattlesnakemasterBelmontPrairie102819WM.jpg

Its sharp-spined leaves are as striking as its seedheads, and makes it easy to spot in the tallgrass.

rattlesnakemasterleaves102719WMBelmont

Signs of recent restoration seed collection are everywhere. Clumps of Indian grass are lopped off. Some forbs show signs of positive pilfering. Belmont prairie volunteers have been busy! However, most thimbleweed seeds are still around, in all possible stages of seed production.

Tight and “green.”

thimbleweedBelmontPWM102719WM.jpg

Q-tip topped.

thimbleweedmidstage102719WM.jpg

A few are full-blown. Ready for collection.

thimbleweedBelmontPrairiefullseed102719WM.jpg

All at once, or so it seems, the tall coreopsis leaves have turned the colors of a sunrise. A treat for the eyes.

tallcoreopsisleavesBelmontPrairie102719wM.jpg

Tricks of the cold? Or of the shorter days? I’m not sure. I only know that autumn has come calling, and the prairie is transformed.

*****

Sunday’s sunshine gave way to fog on Monday. The Schulenberg Prairie is wreathed in mist.

SPMAfoggymorning102819WM.jpg

As I hike, the rising sun briefly lights the prairie.

SPfog102819WMWM.jpg

I watch it pull over the horizon, then sputter to a spark.

bridgeoverwillowaybrook102819WM.jpg

It disappears behind the clouds. Poof! Gone.

tallcoreopsisSPMA102819WM.jpg

Even without much light, the prairie glows in the fog. Little bluestem and stiff goldenrod thread themselves into an impressionistic tapestry.

tapestrySPMA102819WM.jpg

The savanna offers its own colorful morning treats. Sumac. Boneset. Pale prairie plantain.

spsavannasumac102819WM.jpg

Joe Pye weed and woodland sunflowers swirl seed-clouds under the changing leaves.

spsavannagoldandjoepye102819WM.jpg

Simple pleasures.

bigbluestemdropoffog102819WM.jpg

Familiar seedheads, like these tall coreopsis, seem unfamiliar in the fog.

tallcoreopsistwoSPMA102819WM.jpg

Tricks of the light.

sumacBelmontPrairie102719WM.jpg

The smell of sweet decay after the storm is oddly energizing. In less than a week, rain has soaked the prairie. Sun has baked it. Cold changed its colors. Now, the mist acts as a moisturizer. Fog dampens my skin. There’s a low hum of bird chatter low in the grasses; a nuthatch beeps its toy horn call from the savanna. My jeans are soaked.

I’m fully awake. Fully relaxed. Content.

The prairie at the end of October is a treat for the senses. It’s tough to see the month go.

Switchgrassandgrayheadedconeflower102819WMSPMA copy.jpg

Goodbye, October.

We hardly knew ya.

*****

The quote that opens this post is from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. I reread this book every year, and learn something new each time I do so.

*****

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom):  leaves on the savanna trail, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Willoway Brook in flood, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; great blue heron (Ardea herodias), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Belmont Prairie at the end of October, Downer’s Grove, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccaolium), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccafolium), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; tall coreoposis (Coreopsis tripteris), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; Schulenberg Prairie in the morning fog, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  morning fog over bridge, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bridge to the sun, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunrise with tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; little bluestem (Schizochryum scoparium) and stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie Savanna at the end of October, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie Savanna at the end of October, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown sumac (Rhus spp.), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ritibida pinnata) with switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

*****

Join Cindy! Upcoming Speaking and Events

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology online wraps up this month! Watch for the next course in March. Registration opens on November 19 here.

Nature Writing continues at The Morton Arboretum, on-line and in-person through November 20. Next session begins March 3, 2020. Watch for registration soon!

Saturday, December 7, 1:30-3 p.m.: Join Cindy and The Morton Arboretum’s library collections manager Rita Hassert for Sterling Stories from the Arboretum Stacks, at the Sterling Morton Library, Lisle, IL.  Register here. A lovely afternoon enjoying little known Arboretum’s stories, and a quiet respite from the holiday hustle and bustle.

Sunday, December 8, 2-3:30 p.m.: Tallgrass Conversations at Prairieview Education Center, 2112 Behan Road, Crystal Lake, IL 815-479-5779 Book signing after the talk! Free and open to the public.

See more at www.cindycrosby.com   

6 Reasons to Hike the October Prairie

“October is a fine and dangerous season in America . . . a wonderful time to begin anything at all.”  –Thomas Merton

*****

I hear them before I see them. Shielding my eyes against the afternoon sunshine, I scan the skies. Three sandhill cranes. A small wave headed south. Their chatter echoes long after they are folded into the deep blue sky and disappear.

More follow. They come and go throughout the afternoon.

sun halo with sandhill cranesWM 3-15-16 copy.jpg

It’s bittersweet. Sandhill cranes moving south are a signal of change. Summer is gone,  and autumn, it seems, already passes too quickly. Seeing the first waves of cranes reminds me to open my eyes. Pay attention. To intentionally not miss a moment of the month. October is a time for walking the prairies and savannas slowly. For looking carefully. For soaking up whatever sunshine we can before cold weather hits.

Soon, October will be a dim but cherished memory.

SPMASAV10719WM.jpg

The woodlands are a magnet for paparazzi in October; visitors shooting photos of  the sugar maples aglow. Hickories and sweet gums change their green leaves to bright colors. But the prairie has its own autumnal palette.

Turn away from the woodlands for a moment, and consider six reasons to hike the tallgrass in October.

SPMA10619path.jpg

1. Goodbye, Butterflies

In my backyard prairie patch and garden, the painted lady butterflies flutter wildly—drunk on nectar—-but not prepared to stop gorging themselves. Only frost will cut them off. Butterflies pile up, two to a bloom, jostling for the best positions, battling skippers and bees. The occasional monarch still floats across the prairie, but not in the numbers seen in September.

If you’re lucky, you’ll find some New England asters still in bloom as I did, with a few butterflies working the flowers. This cabbage white butterfly is a common one I see all summer on the prairie—and late into the fall. I love its pale, gold-dusted contrast with the  purple fringes of the aster.

butterflyonnewenglandaster10819WM.jpg

2. That Prairie Fragrance!

Breathe deep the newly-crisped air with its fragrance of cool damp earth and sweet decay.  Bee balm, Monarda fistulosa, still gives up its delicious fragrance when its leaves are broken. So does mountain mint. When I taste the leaves of both, the oils are a bit bitter and harsh in my mouth.  I content myself with rubbing the leaves between my fingers. Gray-headed coneflower seed heads, crushed in my hands, are my favorite fragrance of all. After a hike on the prairie, rubbing leaves, I’m scented with “the outdoors” for the rest of the day. Nature’s own prairie perfume.

grayheadedconeflowerSPMA10719WM.jpg

3. Seed Diversity

Walk the prairie and the prairie savanna this month and you’ll be astounded by the variety of seeds.

Pale Indian plantain, with its fluffy pinwheels.

paleindianplantainseedsSPMAWM10719.jpg

Tall compass plants, with their unique seedheads, bring the Statue of Liberty to mind, don’t you think?

compassplantseedheadSPMA10719WM.jpg

False Solomon’s seal brightens the prairie edges.

falsesolomonssealSPSAVMA10719WM.jpg

Carrion vine’s mostly-inedible fruits will hang half-hidden in the Indian grass and big bluestem until almost spring.

carrionvineSPMA10719WM.jpg

This week, I searched until I found the  quirky seeds of white turtlehead, almost invisible in the prairie now unless you know where to look. We don’t have very many turtleheads, so the seeds give me hope for more of this wildflower in the future.

turtleheadSPMASAV10719WM

4. Structure 

Without the ka-POW of bright bloom colors blanketing the prairie, structure takes center stage.

Bottlebrush grass, with its skeletal spikes.

bottlebrushgrassSPMASAV10719WM.jpg

You can see it it shares a Genus with Canada wild rye. They are both graceful and needle-like.

Canadawildrye10719WMSPMA.jpg

 

5. Textures

Feel the rubbery leaves of pale Indian plantain.

paleindianplantainSPMA10719WM.jpg

Then contrast them with the sandpapery surface of a compass plant leaf.

compassplantSP10719WM.jpg

6. Fall Color

The sumacs, woven into the prairie grasses, are touched with reds and chartreuse.

sumac10719WMSPMA.jpg

Little bluestem sparks its seeds as its stems color up from greens to reds to rusts. The tallgrass prairie in October is just as startling and gorgeous in its own way as the colorful woodlands. Maybe better.

SPMAlittlebluestem10719WM.jpg

Why not go see?

SPMA-Octoberbridge10719WM.jpg

Who knows who you’ll meet on your hike.

greatblueheronbridgeSPMA10719WM.jpg

It’s worth a trip to the tallgrass to find out.

*****

Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was best known for his spiritual memoir, The Seven Story Mountain (1948), the title of which refers to Purgatory in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Merton was an English literature teacher turned Trappist monk, who joined Kentucky’s Gethsemane Abbey. There, he wrote more than 50 books and promoted interfaith understanding. My favorite of Merton’s books is The Sign of Jonas.

*****

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken this week at the Schulenberg Prairie and Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, unless noted otherwise: Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) over author’s backyard prairie patch (this photo taken in 2016), Glen Ellyn, IL;  October in the savanna; prairie path; Small white butterfly or “cabbage white” (Pieris rapae) on New England aster  (Symphyotrichum novae-anglia), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL;  gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) with spider web; pale Indian plantain seedhead (Arnoglossum atriplicfolium); compass plant seedhead (Silphium terebinthinaceum); false Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosum); probably upright carrion vine (Smilax ecirrhata); white turtlehead (Chelone glabra) in seed; bottle brush grass (Elymus hystrix); Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis); pale Indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium); compass plant (Silphium terebinthinaceum); sumac (Rhus spp.); little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium); bridge in the October tallgrass; great blue heron (Ardea herodias).

******

Join Cindy for a Nature Writing Workshop, online and in-person, through The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL. Click here for registration information. Or see http://www.cindycrosby.com for more classes and events.

Cindy’s forthcoming book is Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History with Northwestern University Press, illustrated by the talented Peggy Macnamara, artist-in-residence at The Field Museum, Chicago. Look for it in Spring, 2020.

A Season of (Prairie) Change

“Change is inevitable—except from a vending machine.”  — Robert Gallagher

*****

When you think of change, how does it make you feel?  Excited? Confused? A sense of dread? Or, perhaps you feel as one of my adult natural history students does. She walked in on the second day of class, saw I had rearranged our seating, and her face fell. Annoyed, she grumbled: “I HATE change!”

Love it, hate it, try to ignore it—-change is inevitable (except as where noted in our opening quote). October smacks us with this fact, then teases us with changes in color and texture, sounds and scents. See-saw temperatures and strange weather phenomena.  Autumn is already flirting with winter here in the Chicago region. Hey, what happened to Fall? Where’s the transition?

roadtothelma102018NGWM.jpg

In my backyard, the first freeze of the season—-followed by an unexpected snowfall and high winds, with a side helping of graupel-–has put “paid” to the gardening account for the year.  Basil? Should have gotten out there to pick it last week. Too late now. The only tomatoes I’ll have onward are the ones I threw from my garden into my freezer, ready for chili and spaghetti sauce over the winter.  But I’m not quite ready to trade my iced coffee for hot. My short sleeves for sweaters. My long sunny days for short.

It doesn’t matter what I want.  Change is oblivious to my personal preferences. Ready or not, here the cold weather comes. My backyard prairie patch still sports a sizzle of asters but most of the zing has gone out of them. For the rest of the month, I’ll find pleasures in the structures; the white puffs of silk from Joe Pye weed and little bluestem; the contrasts of stem and seed.

littlebluestemSPMA1018WM.jpg

The rich tapestry of October is already hurtling toward the bleak starkness of November.

CROSBY-NGAutumn2016WM.jpg

Contrasts, I tell myself. Think about seasonal simplicity. A winter landscape free from distractions like wildflowers, or the dazzle of bright-colored birds in breeding plumage. It’s easier to focus in winter. Worthwhile to consider the forthcoming season as a time to reflect. I’ll catch up on my reading and  make my garden and prairie steward to-do lists for next year. I’ll scribble: Take out the honeysuckle coming into the north side of the prairie. Check pasque flower seeds—did they germinate? Try a new method to get rid of the birds-foot trefoil along Willoway Brook. Issue an ultimatum to the reed canary grass. Plan a teaching display garden at the Prairie Visitor Center. 

spmaskiesoctober2018WM.jpg

The tallgrass is no stranger to transitions; the prairie dock leaves changing from chlorophyll green to brittle brown remind me of this. Change means possibilities. Gaining new perspectives on old problems. Transition seasons like October keep me  from getting too comfortable, too complacent in my routines. Mostly, this season means moving from doing to observing and reflection.

prairie dock leaf FERMI 2018 fall.jpg

Visible life drains from the supple juicy prairie plants, as the leaves crisp into new patterns and textures. The prairie slowly becomes something different. Kind of a Dorothy entering the land of OZ—but in reverse.

birdhousethelmacarpenterNG103018WM.jpg

The tallgrass has gone to seed; a blizzard of white silk in a sea of grass. The bison pull on their winter coats as autumnal cues signal winter ahead. As I watch the bison drift across the prairie in strong winds that toss the seedheads and swirl the grasses, I’m reminded, once again, why so much of the prairie literature compares tallgrass to the ocean. Bison NG 10-20-18WM.jpg

The prairie decrescendos. Butterflies? Dragonflies? Bright memories, mostly, although a few linger on.  Now that the last prairie wildflowers are mostly bloomed out, the solitary mated queen bumble bees are looking for their wintering sites, ready to out-last the coming cold until spring.  Just a month ago, the bumble bees amused me as they foraged in the gentians. I miss the bumble bees’ frenetic activity on the prairie. I guess I’ll have to content myself with listening to bumble bee-inspired music until spring.

gentianandbumblebee1017SPMAWM.jpg

Meanwhile, bird activity has stepped up to fill in the insect gaps. Migrating flocks move through, stripping the backyard birdfeeders; invasive starlings perform their choreography each day, schooling across the skies in black particles like those old Etch-a-Sketch tablet drawings. Eerily beautiful.  Pert chickadees rap out their signature songs. Canada geese drag chains of “V’s” across the slanted light of October skies. Everything seems a little surreal; a little otherworldly.

fameflowerNG102018WM.jpg

The warblers have done their autumn clothes shopping and appear at my bird feeders in disguise. Even the goldfinches have taken on the color of olive oil. Remember when they were a dazzling yellow?

goldfinchSPMA41218watermark.jpg

Crows ink their way around the prairie, a welcome sight after the dramatic population decline of a decade or so ago due to West Nile virus.  I never thought much about crows until they disappeared for a few years, then rebounded. The prairie skies were emptier for their absence.

NG102018skiesandcloudsWM.jpg

As the earth tilts toward the winter solstice, the prairie puzzle pieces rearrange themselves into new images. I give myself a pep talk. Change can be positive. Why not invite it in, rather than resist it?

prairiegatesNG102018WM.jpg

If nothing else, I can say that the changes October brings keep me on my toes as I try to  pay attention. Notice the change of light; the ebb and flow of the community of the natural world. Listen to the hush of grasses bending in the strong winds, and the tap-tap-tap of the first snowflakes pelting the prairie. Breathe in occasional bursts of the metallic tang of cold prairie air, beginning to replace the scent of autumn decay.

October is a post-it note to myself: Embrace change. Enjoy each moment as it comes. After all, without change, life would be pretty predictable and stale.

And who wants that?

****

Robert C. Gallagher, whose quote opens this post, is a sportswriter and author of The Express: The Ernie Davis Story. He lives in Virginia.

All photographs and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom) road marking transition from agriculture to prairie, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Franklin Grove, IL; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  tree line and prairie transition at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; skies over the Schulenberg Prairie in October, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) leaf, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bluebird house on the prairie, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bison (Bison bison) in October, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Franklin Grove, IL; unknown bumblebee (Bombus) in cream gentian (Gentiana flavida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; goldfinch (Spinus tristis) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; October skies, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Franklin Grove, IL; bison corral gates, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy of Illinois, Franklin Grove, IL.

10 Reasons to Hike the October Prairie

“…I cannot endure to waste anything so precious as autumnal sunshine by staying in the house. So I have spent almost all the daylight hours in the open air.” –Nathaniel Hawthorne

****

What do you think of in October? Halloween candy sales? Pumpkins? Fall foliage?

WMOctober in the Pumpkin Patch Malta IL 10-13-18.jpg

There’s more this month than squash and sugar going on, or a few maples turning color. Really. October is one of the most satisfying months on the tallgrass prairie. Here’s why you’ll want to go for a hike this week.

#10. Those October color contrasts! So vivid and striking. And how could the seeds of something on the prairie called “carrion flower” be so pretty?

carrionflower1018SPMAWM.jpg

 

#9. That sky.  Take a moment, find a comfortable place in the sunshine to lay on your back, and cloud-watch for a while in the tallgrass. Wow.

cloudsOctoberSPMAWM2018.jpg

#8. Once familiar plants take on a whole new personality in October.  Like this false Solomon’s seal. Worth hunting for.

solomons seal false SPMA1018WM.jpg

#7. Sometimes, the seedheads of prairie plants are  just as interesting as the flowers—or more so. True of this pale prairie coneflower? You be the judge.

palepurpleconeflower1018SPMAWM.jpg

#6. Round-headed bush clover might double as a Pinterest craft project with pom-poms gone awry.

Taltree1018WMroundheadedbushclover.jpg

#5. Each prairie trail promises adventures, just around the corner.

spma10918

#4. Step outside in the evening. Glorious sunsets, followed by clear, crystal-splattered starry nights make every October twilight show time.

Kent Fuller Air Station Prairie WM.jpg

#3. If you’re a prairie steward like I am, sumac may be a pain in the neck. So aggressive! But in October, you can’t help but catch your breath at its colors. The lower slant of the autumnal sun backlights them just so. Sumac are the stained glass windows of the prairie cathedral.

sumacSPMA1018WM copy.jpg

#2. There’s a dreaminess that October brings to the prairie; a sense of other-worldliness in the plants blown out to seed, the changing hues of the grasses. Everything seems a bit unmoored; adrift.

Bridge to the Schulenberg 10-18WM.jpg

#1. Seeing the seeds disperse on October breezes offers hope for the future, doesn’t it? Even when it seems that chaos is the order of the day, the prairie goes about its regular business. Just as it has done for thousands of years.

SPMA-seedheadbutterflymilkweed1018WM.jpg

The days are shortening. October is half over.

If you haven’t hiked the prairie this week, what are you waiting for? Why not go see?

****

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) was a novelist born in Salem, Massachusetts, and the author of such required high school reading as The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables. He was a contemporary of Abraham Lincoln, and when  he died, his pallbearers included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Hawthorne is considered by some to be one of the greatest fiction writers in American literature.

***

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): pumpkin (Cucurbita pepo) patch, Jon-a-Mac Orchard, Malta, IL; upright carrion flower (Smilax ecirrhata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; clouds over Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; false Solomon’s seal (Smilacina racemosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) and little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata), Taltree Arboretum/Gabis Arboretum, Purdue Northwest, Valparaiso, IN;  path to the prairie, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunset, Kent Fuller Air Station Prairie, Glenview, IL; smooth sumac (Rhus glabra), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bridge to the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; butterfly weed (Asclepius tuberosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

October’s Prairie Astronomy

“To find the universal elements enough; to find the air and the water exhilarating; to be refreshed by a morning walk or an evening saunter… to be thrilled by the stars at night; to be elated over a bird’s nest or a wildflower in spring – these are some of the rewards of the simple life.”– John Burroughs

******

October has arrived on the prairie, bringing drizzly skies, a metallic palette of color, and a last flush of flying insects.

 

taltreegabis-buroak250yearsoldWM10818.jpg

When the gray sky clears over the prairie, it often turns to impossible blue. Contrails and cumulus clouds sketch their weather thoughts.

P1120297

October has come to my backyard as well, touching the tomatoes with rot. Fungi unfold their umbrellas against the damp in unexpected places, and the garden and prairie patch are crisped with brittleness. Colored with a brown crayon. When I walk out to the prairie patch in the morning, cup of coffee in hand, the mush of mud under my feet contrasts with the crunch of decaying leaves.

Goldfinches and cardinals, sifting the bird feeders for the choicest fare, must have let a few sunflower seeds drop, leaving bright spots in the yard. Such welcome color! Makes me happy I let the weeding chores go this fall.  The bees are pleased.

sunflowerWMbackyard1018.jpg

In my backyard prairie patch and on the prairie, the Silphiums—prairie dock, cup plant, compass plant, and rosin weed—are perhaps most intriguing in October. Without the competition of so much summer wildflower jazz, I can focus on the plant leaf patterns and textures. Rosin weed on the prairie shows its variable-ness of leaf arrangement by going for a whorl.

CROSBY-Gabis201WM8.jpg

Close to my backyard prairie patch, the moonflower vine finally decides October is show-time. The seed packet description warned me—120 days until bloom–but what is four months when you’re standing in the plant nursery back in the raw month of March and thinking about the delights of the garden to come? Anything seemed possible then. But my moonflower vine has been unhappy in Illinois. It longs for the tropics of the south, like so many Chicago folks, and it doesn’t much care for the hot, long days of July or August, either. Suddenly, in October’s cool nights and shorter days, it flourishes. It’s an equinox aficionado, setting bud and bloom best when days are close to equal length. As they are right now.

I walk out on the back patio early one morning this week and BAM! Eight moonflowers  had twirled open overnight, each one bigger than my hand.

moonflower, roses, salvia 10-8-18WM

Moonflower, a night-blooming morning glory (ironically named, isn’t it?) would be perennial in Mexico or Florida. But here in the Chicago region, I’m lucky to get it to bloom as an annual.  The first touch of frost will be the end of the vine.  I count the buds, imagine what could be, and keep my fingers crossed.

moonflower, 10818WM.jpg

As the sun disperses the mist and gray and touches the flowers with light, the vanilla-scented blooms will slowly crumple. Taking with them their delicious fragrance. By the time I go outside again at 11 a.m., they’re a memory.

My backyard prairie patch and the prairies I visit don’t have any moonflowers, of course. But the prairie does have the “stars.”

WMNewEnglandAsterCROSBYTaltreeGabis10618.jpg

“Astronomy” comes from the Greek word astronomia, meaning “star regulating.” The word “aster” is also from the Greek, and means “star.” Constellations of asters cover the prairies and also, my backyard; a little starry universe in this suburban sprawl. The green bottle flies use the asters as launching pads for their adventures in corruption.

asterWMbackyard10818.jpg

The bumble bees work the asters, seeing their future in these stars.

beeonnewenglandasterbackyard10818WM.jpg

My goldenrods have now gone to seed, closing up nectar shop. But the blurry blizzards of asters spend themselves profligately, as if there is no tomorrow.

blizzardofheathasters10618TaltreeWM.jpg

The butterflies, like this cabbage white below, gorge themselves on “starshine” before the last blooms disappear in the cold. Where will these butterflies go in the winter? Check out this fascinating blog post by Dr. Doug Taron, Chief Curator of the Chicago Academy of Sciences, here to find out. Meanwhile, I enjoy the butterflies of October, counting down the days until the prairies will be emptier for their absence of color and motion.

white butterfly WM 10818 backyard NEASTERS copy.jpg

I also soak up as much of this “starshine”—this blizzard of asters—as I can. Temperatures threaten to drop into the low thirties by the end of the week. Fall flowers won’t linger much longer. As the evenings turn colder, night skies come into focus. The new moon will sliver its way to full on the 24th. Orion stalks the night sky, staking his claim for a new season. Soon, it will be time to trade some of my prairie and backyard “astronomy”—with its own versions of sun, stars and moon—for the winter constellations overhead.

Bittersweet.

****

John Burroughs (1837-1921) was a writer, naturalist, and activist in the conservation movement.  His close friend was Walt Whitman, and Burroughs was a contemporary of John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt. The book, Tip of the Iceberg by Mark Adams is a fascinating account of Burroughs’ expedition to Alaska with railroad magnate Edward Harriman, George Bird Grinnell, Muir, and other naturalists of the time. A few favorite Burroughs’ quotes: “I go to books and to nature as a bee goes to the flower, for a nectar that I can make into my own honey;” “To learn something new, take the path you took yesterday;” and “A man can fail many times, but he isn’t a failure until he begins to blame somebody else.” The John Burroughs Medal is given each April to a distinguished Natural History book. Check out the winners here; it’s a thoughtful reading list for curling up with a good read during the colder months ahead.

*****

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): 250-plus year old bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa), Taltree/Gabis Arboretum-Purdue Northwest, Valparasio, IN; trail through the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, The Nature Conservancy and the National Park Service, Strong City, Kansas; common sunflower (Helianthus sp.) with unknown bee, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium), Taltree/Gabis Arboretum-Purdue Northwest, Valparaiso, IN; moonflowers (Ipomoea alba) with garden roses and salvia, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; moonflower (Ipomoea alba), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), Taltree/Gabis Arboretum-Purdue Northwest, Valparaiso, IN; unknown aster, possibly Short’s (Symphyotrichum shortii) with green bottle fly/blow fly (Calliphoridae, Lucilia sp.), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) with male bumblebee, either the common eastern (Bombus impatiens) or the two-spotted bumblebee (Bombus bimaculatus); blurred heath asters (Aster ericoides), Taltree/Gabis Arboretum-Purdue Northwest, Valparaiso, IN; New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) with cabbage white butterfly (Pieris rapae), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Thanks to Kristian Williams of FaceBook Group “Insect ID”  for the help on the bumblebee identification and Kristian, Benjamin Coulter, and the other good folks of “Insects and Spiders of Illinois FB Group” for the green bottle fly/blow fly ID. Grateful. 

October on the Prairie

“The sea, the woods, the mountains, all suffer in comparison with the prairie…The prairie has a stronger hold upon the senses.”– – Albert Pike

When you think of October, what comes to mind?

Pumpkins?

P1120475.jpg

Spectacular changing leaves?

sugarmaplespma1017.jpg

The prairie, which has lost most of its blooms, isn’t on most people’s radar.

Perhaps it should be.

IMG_1450

A few blossoms persist in the tallgrass, magnets for insects.

beewithpasturethisleandafriend1017spma.jpg

chicoryandpollinatorspma1017.jpg

The flowers gone to seed may be as beautiful as the blooms.

compassplantseed107masp.jpg

tallcoreopsisspma1017.jpg

Colorful grasses are easily overlooked, but no less worth our attention.

bigbluestemspma1017.jpg

bigbluestemwithdewspma1017.jpg

Plant structure has its own beauty.

beebalmspma1017.jpg

latefigwortspma1017.jpg

As do plant silhouettes.

Pasturethistlespma-1017.jpg

Although the prairie is outwardly in senescence, its sensory pleasures continue. The play of light on prairie dock.

prairiedockleafshadowsspma1017.jpg

The smell of damp earth. Decaying leaves. The unexpected flight of a buckeye butterfly as you hike a trail.

IMG_0241

Soft puffs of seed clusters, which foreshadow the snowflakes, only weeks away.

snakerootspma1017.jpg

paleindianplantainspma1017.jpg

Unlike the flashy reds and oranges of the autumn woodlands, the prairie is nuanced.

littlebluestemspma1017.jpg

spma1017wildrye.jpg

As the year wanes…

waxingmoonspma1017.jpg

…much of this prairie season will be forgotten, fleeting. A blur of colors, textures, fragrances, and sounds.

sumacunfocusedspma1017.jpg

So let’s walk the prairie trails.

pathspma1017.jpg

Experience what each day in October has to offer. Soak up every detail. And be grateful that we are here, present in this moment.

***

The opening quote is from Albert Pike’s Journeys in the Prairie ((1831-32). Pike (1809 –91) was a soldier, poet, newspaper journalist, and early explorer.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and are from the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL, unless noted otherwise: pumpkin patch, Jonamac Orchard, Malta, IL; maple in October (Acer spp.), Sterling Pond, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sumac (Rhus glabra), grasses and forbes at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor) with unknown bee and insect; non-native chicory (Cichorium intybus) with unknown pollinator;  compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica); pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor); prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; white snakeroot (Ageratina altissima); pale Indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium), little bluestem, Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis); waning October moon; sumac out of focus (Rhus glabra); trail through the prairie in October.