Category Archives: Prairie

A Season of (Prairie) Change

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

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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?

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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.

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

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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?

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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

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

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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?

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#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.

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

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#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.

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

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

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

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#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.

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#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.

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#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.

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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?

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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.

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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

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

 

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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“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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

Fall Comes to the Prairie

“Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns.”–George Eliot

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The Canada geese are quarreling. I watch them elbow each other out of the way in mid-flight; honking and diving. Maybe they are arguing the mysteries of matter, or particle physics? After all, they’re at Fermilab, a government facility for particle physics and an accelerator laboratory just down the road from my house. The facility grounds are a  mosaic of beautiful natural areas, including prairies and wetlands. fermilabWMwilsonhall10118.jpg

The bison grazing nearby on the grounds seem more placid than the geese, untroubled by neutrino experiments or accelerator science.

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You can almost imagine their thoughts. Hey geese! Keep it down. What’s all the fuss about? At any rate, I’m not here to bison watch, and I have little patience for quarrels today, geese or otherwise. My destination is a prairie trail.pathatfermiprairie10118WM.jpg

Approximately one thousand acres of Fermilab Natural Areas, surrounding the government world of equations and physics, promises endless adventures. And today, there’s not a soul on the prairie path. Although it’s obvious I’m not alone.

Overhead, green darner dragonflies hover high above the tallgrass. Are they migrating south? Or waiting out their lives here? Hard to tell. But this late in the season I suspect they’re on their way to warmer places. Lately, a black saddlebags dragonfly, also migratory, has hung around my backyard, slow and torpid in the colder weather. Imagine those wings taking it thousands of miles! Close up the wing veination reminds me of ferns.

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I continue hiking, stepping in coyote scat on the trail. Oops! Better watch where I’m going. An insect sings a single note, as if struck from a tuning fork. Everywhere, there are tiny crackling sounds. Mice eating seeds? Birds rustling in the grasses? Leaves drying in the  sun? Part of the prairie’s mystery.

The dogbane or Indian hemp, as it is sometimes called, is gone to seed in places. Its soft silks contrast with the crisp, browning leaves of neighboring prairie plants and their tinker-toy stems.dogbaneindianhemp10118WM.jpg

Wildflowers are mostly of the goldenrod and aster variety, with a few exceptions. Some mountain mint. A last pale prairie Indian plantain bloom or two.

The stiff gentians, those party girls of the fall, are out in full regalia. Looks like a weevil might be crashing the fun.

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So many gentians! They are abundant here, like amethysts scattered deep in the tallgrass. Nearby, goldenrod galls create their own sort of green “flowers” everywhere I look.  Sometimes called “bunch galls” or “rosette galls,” they are formed by insects. Check out more about goldenrod galls here.

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You could enjoyably spend several hours searching for the different goldenrod galls (ellipse, ball, rosette, small bunch…), and reading up on their buggy creators. See one bunch gall, and suddenly the others come into focus.

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The rosin weed blooms are past, but their seedheads look like floral bouquets, don’t they? As pretty in seed as in flower.

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Everywhere there are riots of asters; including many species of white aster that I struggle to name. More easily ID’d is the ubiquitous New England aster, poised on the prairie like a satellite dish with fringe.

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It’s not all prettiness and pleasantry.  The tall coreopsis is in seed, towering over my head, and  I can’t resist pulling down a seedhead and digging into it with my fingernail even though I know I’ll be repelled. And I am. It oozes a smelly, oily substance—and I quickly let the stem spring back. Of all the seeds we collect each fall on the prairie, this is my least favorite. So pretty in bloom! So stinky in your hands.tallcoreposisWMFermi10118.jpg

Rot and decay, the calling cards of October, are juxtaposed with these last flushes of bloom and seed. A giant puffball lies shattered and corrupt, broken up by small mammals and now fodder for insect life.

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And in proportion to the slow decline of plants, the insects seemingly flourish. You don’t notice them so much at first, except for the mosquitoes who won’t be ignored. But take a moment and look—really look—at the grasses and flowers, and all at once, you realize they are teeming with insect life. So much diversity!

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Decay can be beautiful. The turn of the prairie dock leaf…

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The compass plant seedheads, dry and full of promise for new life.

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Wild quinine, its silvered seeds perhaps more lovely than the flowers themselves were.wildquinineWMFermi10118.jpg

In autumn, the balance of light to dark shifts, tipping ever-so-slowly toward darkness as the days go by. Change is in the air. Bloom to seed. Flourishing to decline. All this change is in evidence here this morning.

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So much to see in one short morning hike here! Who knows what other adventures will unfold this October on the prairie?

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The opening quote about autumn is from Mary Ann Evans (1819-1880), a Victorian-era English novelist and poet who wrote under the pen name George Eliot. She chose a man’s name to escape being thought of as a romance writer. Among her books are Middlemarch, The Mill on the Floss, and Silas Marner.

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All photos taken at Fermilab Natural Areas Interpretive Trail, Fermilab Accelerator Laboratory, Batavia, IL, unless otherwise indicated: Wilson Hall and prairie grasses; bison (Bison bison); prairie trail; black saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata), author’s backyard pond and prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; dogbane or Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum):  stiff gentians (Gentianella quinquefolia); Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) with probable bunch gall midge (Rhopalomyia solidaginis); Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) with probable bunch gall midge (Rhopalomyia solidaginis); rosin weed (Silphium integrifolium) seedhead; New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae); tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris) seedheads; decayed puffball (possibly Calvatia gigantea); partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata) and an unknown species of ant; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceeum) leaf; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) seeds; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium); sky and grass in October. 

Seven Splendors of the September Prairie

“To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” — Mary Oliver

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Although the tallgrass prairie is striking in any season, there are at least seven specific reasons you’ll want to pay attention to it in September. And especially, today.

#7. Look up. The prairie skies are never more brilliant than in the slanting light of mid-September.FermiskiesSeptember2018WM.jpg

#6. Look down—and watch your step. The eastern prickly pear cactus, an unusual native of the tallgrass prairie, is in fruit.  Look out for those bristles!

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#5. Touch a few flowers. Obedient plant is an endlessly satisfying perennial native wildflower to fiddle with. Move its blooms around and they’ll stay put. Nice to see something you can have some control over, even for a moment.

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#4. Pause for a moment, and enjoy the big bluestem extravaganza, going on at a prairie near you. Illinois gives big bluestem the nod as its state grass; the nickname “turkey-foot” makes it an easy plant for prairie beginners to ID.

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#3. Eyes to the skies! Sure, monarchs steal the spotlight in September, migrating to Mexico in clouds of orange and black. But there’s a kaleidoscope of other butterflies on the wing this month. Check out the gorgeous red-spotted purple butterfly below.  The red-spotted purple lay eggs on the tips of willow or cherry tree leaves, then its late-emerging caterpillars will likely spend the winter as hibernating caterpillars. Goldenrods and asters are big butterfly nectar magnets this time of year on the tallgrass prairie.

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#2. Look at prairie plants closely. This Indian hemp below, or dogbane as it is sometimes called, is a contrast in flossed silks, tough fibers, and the Halloween colors of its insects, shown here in several stages of growth.

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#1. Pay attention to the big picture, as well as the small things. There is astonishment in the particular; the smallest particles of matter. There is glory in broad sweeps of landscape and sky. Both feed our deepest longings for beauty.FermiSeptember201891018WM

Today, let the tallgrass prairie remind you of the astonishing complexity of the world all around us, available to us 24/7. All we have to do is choose to pay attention to it.

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The poet Mary Oliver (1935-) grounds her words in a deep understanding of the natural world.  Her poetry collections have won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and many other honors. Writers will find her “Rules for the Dance: A Handbook for Writing and Reading Metrical Verse;” and “A Poetry Handbook” inspiration for the writing journey.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): skies over the Interpretive Trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; Eastern prickly pear cactus (Opuntia humifusa), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; obedient plant ( Physostegia virginiana), Interpretive Trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Interpretive Trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; red-spotted purple butterfly (Limenitis arthemis astyanax), Interpretive Trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; bugs (possibly Oncopeltus fasciatus) on dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; prairie with Wilson Hall in the distance, Fermilab Accelerator Laboratory, Batavia, IL.

A September Prairie Soaking

“Life is one big transition.”– Willie Stargell

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Thunder rattles the windows. Up north, tornado warning sirens blare. The news broadcasts footage of holiday passengers wading across flooded roads to get to O’Hare Airport, thinking only of returning home.

The deluge continues.

At last, in the early evening, a short break in the precipitation gives me time to go for a walk. I head to the prairie to check conditions.

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Trail puddles are necklaced with black walnut leaves, pulled loose from their tentative moorings by the pounding rain.

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A ruby-throated hummingbird shelters from the weather in an oak along the path. Just like the passengers at O’Hare, the thunderstorms have put a crimp in this bird’s travel plans.

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The hummingbirds are migrating. In my backyard, they wage fierce battles over the single feeder filled with sugar water, placed tantalizingly over the butterfly weed and little bluestem. The hummers are driven by instinct. Powered by nectar—or in the case of my backyard birds—faux nectar. In a few weeks, they’ll disappear completely; their entertaining antics only a memory.

On the prairie, the sun breaks through the clouds. The tall Indian grasses, with their lingering raindrops, become crystal-hung chandeliers.

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For a moment. Despite the glitter and bling of raindrops catching sunlight, the prairie still seems dark. Subdued.  The beginning of September is always a bit melancholy.  Perhaps it’s the lowering slant of light; shorter days, longer nights. Just some of the many signals Mother Nature sends her creatures that colder weather is on the way.

For migrating dragonflies—green darners, black saddlebags, wandering gliders, and others—those signals mean GO! GO! GO! They’ve massed together, then zipped away to warmer climes this past week. Their remaining kin, bedraggled and shopworn, are left to face the coming cold.

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The end-of-the-season butterflies I’ve seen this week are a study in contrasts. A few are bright and freshly emerged. Like this newly-minted American painted lady. Crisply colored, with unblemished wings, she’s probably the Midwest’s late season generation of her species.

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Oddly enough, according to University of Florida, instead of making a southward journey, American painted ladies, or “American ladies” as they are sometimes called, “overwinter in the southern U.S. and repopulate more northern areas each spring.” The report tells us the northern limit of their overwintering is unknown. Is Illinois too cold? Probably. Apparently, “in north central Florida, American ladies migrate northward during the spring, but there is no significant southward migration in the fall.” Why not, I wonder?

So much mystery!

This great spangled fritillary butterfly is only a bit worse for wear after the summer’s adventures.

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Perhaps it doesn’t have the worries of a cross-continental trip on its mind. Just nectaring, nectaring, nectaring until the cold weather sets in. That’s what thistles are for, right?

But this evening, on the rain-drenched prairie, there isn’t much butterfly—or dragonfly—movement. Both likely shelter in the rain-glazed trees…

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…or nestle deep in the big bluestem and grasses.

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Thunder rumbles. The clouds sweep in.

It’s Mother Nature’s signal to me! Go!

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The first raindrops splatter the trail. Tonight, the local news broadcast will tell us this was the Chicago region’s wettest Labor Day on record.  But the September rain, no matter flooding and postponed picnics, has its purpose.  It nourishes the prairie and its creatures for the last months of the prairie season.  Gives a last boost to the goldenrods and asters, needed by monarchs on their long migratory journey south to Mexico. Coaxes the gentians to open, fresh and vibrant in the grasses.

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The passage from summer to autumn is bittersweet. But the prairie knows how to ease the transition. Butterflies. Gentians. The daily surprises of migration.

Even thunderstorms.

*****

The opening quote is from Baseball Hall of Famer, Wilver “Willie” Stargell (1940-2001), who played his entire 21-year professional baseball career for the Pittsburgh Pirates (1962-82). During his farm club years, he was harassed, threatened at gunpoint, and denied lodging because of his race in many of the towns where he played. Stargell, an African-American, was tempted to quit. He persevered to become one of the most beloved players in the game. Stargell is one of only five players to hit a home run out of Dodger Stadium, and is known for his long-distance home runs. Said Cincinnati Reds second baseman Joe Morgan upon Stargell’s death, “He never made anyone look bad, and he never said anything bad about anybody.” A good way to be remembered.

****

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): video clip of rainfall, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; thunderstorm approaching the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  rain-drenched path, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) in the rain, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Halloween pennant dragonfly (Celithemis eponina) at the end of the season, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; American painted lady (Vanessa virginiensis), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; great spangled fritillary (Speyeria cybele) on pasture thistle, (Cirsium discolor), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; trees on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) with raindrops, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: bridge to the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie gentians (Gentiana puberulenta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Turn the (Prairie) Page

“Something in me isn’t ready to let go of summer so easily.”–Karina Borowicz

If you read the book of seasons closely, you’ll know it’s about time to turn the page to a new chapter. Summer wildflowers give way to asters and goldenrods; birds fuel at the feeders, storing up energy for their long migrations. Meteorological autumn arrives on Saturday. Meanwhile, August covers the prairie like a blanket that’s been in the dryer long enough to get hot, but not dry. Humidity reigns.

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The pale Indian plantain on the tallgrass prairie is lush and jungle-like this season; the combination of heat and early rains this spring pushing it skyward.

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Wingstem blooms nearby….

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…and the asters on the prairie pop open; soft blooms of lavender blue.

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At home, I step out the back door to admire my prairie patch. As I pass the vegetable bed, I notice the tomatoes are rioting. Pick me! Pick me! No me! Me! 

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I avert my eyes. Our kitchen counter is awash in fruit. I should can tomato sauce, or dry tomatoes in my food dehydrator, or do something in the face of all this lipstick red abundance…

tomatoes 818wm.jpg …but instead, I avoid the whole issue and go for a stroll around the yard. Ten tomato plants didn’t seem like enough for us in May. Yeah, right.

But wait! There’s a rustle, deep in the tomato leaves. Reluctantly, I turn. A dark red insect—almost brown—rests on one of my Roma tomato plants.

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It’s a red saddlebags dragonfly, cooling its wings in the shade of the tomato leaves. I’ve never seen this species at either of the prairies where I’m a steward. The two times I’ve seen it over the past 13 years I’ve monitored have been in my small suburban backyard, among the tomatoes. I wonder what it’s up to?

We know the black saddlebags dragonflies migrate; we speculate the red saddlebags may migrate as well, although very little is known about this.  We do know that migration on the prairie is an epic event. The past two weeks, I’ve watched the black saddlebags and common green darners massing and moving south, just as I have the past decade or so.

 

Perhaps this red saddlebags in my garden is headed south as well. Better hurry up!

I leave the dragonfly in peace. Now, by the porch, I notice movement in the mums and the roses. Someone else is out for an evening walk. She’s barely visible.

See that white plume?

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SKUNK! Uh, oh.

I avoid the porch, and detour to my prairie patch where the goldenrod is in full bloom. The monarch butterflies loved the swamp milkweed I planted for them this summer, but now, as they migrate to Mexico, they need fall-blooming wildflowers to nourish them on their way.  Scientists tell us that monarchs are looking for nectaring sources beyond milkweed. Goldenrod in my backyard prairie serves as a filling station for their long journeys. A beautiful—if a bit unruly—filling station, at that.

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Still keeping an eye on the skunk, which is now rummaging under the bird feeders for dropped seeds, I marvel over the prairie. What a year it has been for the Silphiums in my backyard! The compass plant, cup plant, and prairie dock have flourished. Compass plant is now in bloom, in seed, and in “sap.” Resin oozes from the hairy stem. Native American children chewed the resin like Wrigley’s spearmint, and although I’m not fond of it on my teeth (nor is my dentist fond of finding it there) I do love the piney smell. It’s one of the scents of summer. As I rub it stickily between my fingers, I feel a melancholy sense of something passing.

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Cautiously, I walk back to the porch. The skunk is gone, visiting the neighbor’s birdfeeders, no doubt. I notice the moonvine. It has yet to bloom this summer but finally, has its first buds.

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Moonflower is a night blooming species of morning glory. I like it, as it gives me another excuse to sit on the back porch after sunset and listen to the cicadas. Perhaps tonight I’ll see it swirl open, and have my first chance this summer to enjoy its fragrance.

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Fitting, perhaps, to see these first moonflower buds as the night sky this week has been full of wonders over my suburban neighborhood. Like the just-past-full moon last night, looking like an antique coin, or the juxtaposition of the Moon and Mars in the southeastern sky a few days ago.

moonmarsnighttime82318wm.jpgThe heat of the day gives way to a breath of cool; the relief of evening coming to the backyard. I glance up at the sky, darkening now, a few stars beginning to appear.

Goodnight, moon. So long, August.

It’s been swell.

*****

The opening quote is from September Tomatoes, a poem by Karina Borowicz. Her first poetry collection, The Bees are Waiting (2012), won numerous awards. Said Jeff McMahon in Contrary Magazine, “(She) captures the unbearable pulse of despair and hope in the world as its people pass across it, scarcely aware.”

****

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; pale Indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; smooth blue asters (Symphyotrichum laeve), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum), author’s kitchen, Glen Ellyn, IL; red saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea onusta), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; dragonfly migration swarm, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (from a few years ago, about this time in August); striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis) in the garden, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) oozing resin, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; moonflower vine (Ipomoea alba), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; moonflower vine buds (Ipomoea alba), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; Moon and Mars over author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.