“Gardens console us, welcome us, connect us. They humble. They teach… . Couldn’t prairies exist in our backyards in some meaningful form?” — Benjamin Vogt
Snow. 70 degrees and sunshine. Sleet. 75 mph wind gusts.
It is March in the Midwest, full of twists and turns…and wonder. We wake up, not knowing if we’ll put on sweaters and boots or shorts and sandals. Each day offers surprises, like crocus suddenly in bloom.
The first daffodils and hyacinths spear green shoots through the prairie dropseed in my backyard. Welcome back!
Redpolls cluster at the feeder, seemingly loath to begin their trip to their Arctic breeding grounds. They remind me of myself getting ready to go somewhere. “Hold on—let me do one more thing before we go… .”
A male redpoll feeds a female redpoll some thistle. Is this courting behavior? I’m not sure. This was our first year to have redpolls at our backyard feeders in Illinois and I know very little about them. What an unexpected delight! Who knows if we’ll see them again? I’ll miss the redpolls when they are gone. They’ve left us with some beautiful memories, and the reminder that life is full of these unexpected amazements —-if we pay attention.
There will be other birds to enjoy. The female downy woodpeckers hang around all year…
…and so do the males, with their bright scarlet splash of color.
Our backyard prairie, lank and leaning after months of weather, gets a facelift with the falling snow. Magical!
Even the pawpaw tree—though leafless—is lovely with its snow-piled limbs.
Temperatures hover around freezing, but our pond remains thawed from Saturday’s wild 70-degree temperature binge.
Gently, I bend the fall-planted buttonbush shoots near the pond. They feel supple, rather than brittle. Tiny buds. A flush of color. It has survived the winter. Last summer, with its drought and weather swings, was a tough year for newly-planted perennials.
My New Jersey tea hasn’t done as well. Under the eaves, close to the house, this native shrub gets plenty of warmth but not as much moisture and sun as it would in the bigger prairie planting. Should it be moved this year? Hmmm.
It’s a stick! Not much to write home about, is it? Every spring I think I’ve lost this shrub, and each spring New Jersey tea surprises me. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.
Other natives like prairie smoke….
…and prairie alum root still hold some green. They look alive and ready for the growing season.
We’re one week into the month of March.
A week of blustery wind and snow. A week of warmth and rain. A week of good news, as Covid numbers recede. A week of terrifying events on the other side of the world.
A week of wondering. What’s Mother Nature going to throw at us next?
As the snow falls and ices the prairie with wonder, I remind myself: There’s a lot to look forward to in the new year. Plenty of astonishments and delights ahead that we can’t even imagine.
I can’t wait.
The opening quote is by Benjamin Vogt (1976-) from his book, A New Garden Ethic: Cultivating Defiant Compassion for an Uncertain Future, which calls us to reconsider lawns, and plant our gardens thoughtfully. Read more about Vogt here.
“Year’s end is neither an end nor a beginning but a going on, with all the wisdom that experience can instill in us.” —Hal Borland
And so 2021 comes to a close.
On the prairie, the tallgrass colors transition to their winter hues.
The prairie is stripped to bare essence.
The deep roots of prairie plants continue to hold the tallgrass through the winter.
As Paul Gruchow wrote, “The work that matters does not always show.”
2021 has been another tough year. We’ve attempted to make each day meaningful in the midst of uncertainty and loss.
We’ve pulled from our reserve strength until we wonder if there is anything left. Trying to keep a sense of normalcy. Trying to get our work done. Trying. Trying. It all seems like too much sometimes, doesn’t it? In When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chӧdrӧn writes, “To be fully alive, fully human, is to be continually thrown out of the nest.” The past two years have made us realize how comfortable that “nest” used to be.
But we keep moving forward, little by little. Reaching for that extra bit of patience. Putting away the media for a time out. Setting aside a morning to go for a walk and just be.
Listening to our lives. Listening to that interior landscape.
We’ve learned we are fragile.
We’ve also learned we are more resilient than we ever knew we could be.
In 2019, we had no idea of the challenges ahead.
And yet, here we are. Meeting those challenges. Exhausted? You bet! It’s not always pretty, but we keep getting up in the morning and getting things done.
We’re making the best of where we find ourselves.
Trying to keep our sense of humor, even when there doesn’t seem to be much to laugh about.
With less margin, we are learning to untangle what’s most important from what we can let go of.
We are making life work, even if it’s messy. Knowing that whatever is ahead in 2022, we’ll give it our best shot.
We’ll hike—the prairies, the woodlands, or wherever we find ourselves—aware of the beauty of the natural world. We’ve never appreciated the outdoors spaces like we have these past months.
We’ll give thanks for joys, big and small. Grateful in new ways for what we have.
And we’ll encourage each other. Because we need community, now more than ever before.
Keep on hiking. The road has been long, but we’ve got this. Together.
Happy New Year!
Hal Borland (1900-1978) was a naturalist and journalist born in Nebraska. He is the author of many books of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and plays, and wrote a tremendous number of nature observation editorials for TheNew York Times. He was also a recipient of the John Burroughs Medal for Distinguished Nature Writing. I’m so grateful for his “through the year” books— I love books that follow the months and seasons! Thanks to blog reader Helen Boertje, who generously shared her copies of Borland’s books with me. I’m so grateful.
Making a New Year’s resolution? Don’t forget Bell Bowl Prairie! Commit to doing one action on the list you’ll find at Save Bell Bowl Prairie, and help us save this rare prairie remnant from the bulldozers.
Happy New Year, and thank you for reading in 2021. What a year it’s been! I’m grateful to have this community of readers who love the natural world. I’m looking forward to virtually hiking the prairies with you in 2022.Thank you for your encouragement, and for your love of the natural world.
“The little bluestem was exquisite with turquoise and garnet and chartreuse; and the big bluestem waved its turkeyfeet of deep purple high against the October sky, past the warm russet of the Indian grass.” — May Theilgaard Watts
Drip. Drip. Drip.
Rain at last. A welcome opening to October! Sure, we’ve had a few intermittent showers just west of Chicago in September, but rainfall is far below normal. The garden shows it. My prairie patch—so resilient—is also suffering. No amount of watering with the hose is quite the same as a good cloudburst.
Ahhhh. The air smells newly-washed…as it is. As I walk the neighborhood, the leaves drift down, released by wind and water.
Welcome, rain! Stay awhile. We need you.
Dry conditions suit prairie gentians. They linger on, adding their bright color to an increasingly sepia landscape.
Goldfinches work the pasture thistles.
Bright male goldfinches of spring and summer are gradually changing to the olive oil hues of autumn and winter. When I see them working over the seed pods in my backyard, I’m glad I left my prairie plants and some garden plants in seed for them. They love the common evening primrose seeds.
This past week, the dragonflies put on a last-minute show. Most will be gone in mid-October; either migrated south, or their life cycle completed. It’s been great to see meadowhawks again. Usually ubiquitous in the summer and autumn, this group of skimmers have gone missing from my dragonfly routes on both prairies where I monitor this season. Suddenly, they are out in numbers. Mating in the wheel position…
…then flying to a good spot to oviposit, or lay eggs. Everywhere I turn, more autumn meadowhawks!
Ensuring new generations of meadowhawks to come on the prairie. A sign of hope. I love seeing that brilliant red—the bright scarlet of many of the species. Autumn meadowhawks have yellow-ish legs, which help separate them from other members of this difficult-to-identify group. The white-faced meadowhawks have, well…. you know.
The face is unmistakeable. Many of the meadowhawks are confusing to ID, so I was grateful to see my first band-winged meadowhawk of the year last week, with its distinctive amber patches.
If only all meadowhawks were this easy to distinguish as these three species! It’s a tough genus. I’m glad they showed up this season.
Other insects are busy in different pursuits. Some skeletonize plants, leaving emerald cut lace.
Northern leopard frogs, now in their adult stage, prepare for hibernation. As I hike through the prairie wetlands, looking for dragonflies, they spring through the prairie grasses and leap into the water.
Whenever I see them, I’m reminded of the Frog & Toadbooks I love to read to my grandchildren, and the value of true friendships, as evinced in those stories. Strong friendships, worth hanging on to.
As we begin to navigate our second pandemic autumn, I feel a renewed gratitude for close friends, an appreciation for family, and an appreciation for the peace and solace to be found in the natural world.
I can’t wait to see what the prairie holds for us in October.
Why not go see for yourself?
The opening quote is from Reading the Landscape of Americaby May Theilgaard Watts (1893-1975). Watts was the first naturalist on staff at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL, and a poet, author, and newspaper columnist. Her drawings and words continue to illuminate how we understand a sense of “place.”
Join Cindy for a program or class!
Wednesday, October 13, 10-11:30 a.m. (CT): “A Cultural History of Trees in America” ONLINE! Offered through The Morton Arboretum. Join Cindy from the comfort of your couch and discover the way trees have influenced our history, our music and literature, and the way we think about the world. Register here.
Friday,December 3: WINTER PRAIRIE WONDERS–ONLINE, 10-11:30 a.m. (CT): Discover the December Delights of the Tallgrass! Make yourself a cup of hot tea, snuggle under a warm afghan, and join prairie steward and writer Cindy Crosby virtually for this interactive online immersion into the tallgrass prairie in winter. See the aesthetic beauty of the snow-covered grasses and wildflowers in cold weather through colorful images of winter on the prairies. Follow animal tracks to see what creatures are out and about, and see how many you can identify. Learn how birds, pollinators, and mammals use winter prairie plants; the seeds for nourishment and the grasses and spent wildflowers for overwintering, protection, and cover. Then, listen as Cindy shares brief readings about the prairie in winter that will engage your creativity and nourish your soul. Registration information here.
“At once [the buffalo] is a symbol of the tenacity of wilderness and the destruction of wilderness…it stands for freedom and captivity, extinction and salvation.”—Steven Rinella
Let’s take a hike “where the buffalo roam.”
I’m chasing dragonflies at one of my favorite preserves in Illinois: Nachusa Grasslands. Approximately two hours west of Chicago, Nachusa Grasslands is a 3,800-acre mosaic of tallgrass prairies and savannas. Woodlands and wetlands. Today, as a dragonfly monitor at Nachusa with access inside the bison unit, I hope to collect Odonate data at one of my favorite pond routes. But the bison have other plans for my morning. As I wade into the wetland surrounding the pond, admiring the dragonflies…
…I hear a bellow. Uh, oh. That’s the sound of a bison bull kicking up some trouble.
When you’re working in a bison unit, you don’t wait around when you hear that sound. I immediately head for my car. It doesn’t take long. Here they come!
Mamas. Papas. Baby bison.
They make a beeline for my dragonfly pond, ready to join the frogs and cool off on this sunny morning.
I enjoy watching them wade into the water and graze on the juicy vegetation. But time passes. My plans for collecting dragonfly data this morning are shot. These bison aren’t going anywhere soon.
I make myself comfortable in the car, hoping they’ll eventually move on. I don’t get out. Bison are one of the most dangerous animals in North America. Males may weigh more than 2,000 pounds. And—they’re fast! I’ve watched them tear across the prairie at top speeds of 30 mph for no apparent reason. It’s important to respect these incredible animals.
I only take photos of bison with a zoom lens from the safety of my vehicle. Even then, while working in the bison unit, I’m careful to keep my car a good distance away.
Bison can jump, too! Up to six feet. They won’t let a fence keep them from something they really, really want to do. I admire that kind of determination.
I’m grateful for the bison at Nachusa—and not only because I enjoy watching them. Without them, the prairie is incomplete. They are an important piece of the prairie puzzle. As they wallow and churn through the prairie with their hooves…
…they create spaces for other members of the prairie community to thrive.
Bison grazing habits may also free up space for prairie wildflowers.
They also fertilize the prairie with their dung. Bison patties! Good stuff for prairies.
Time passes. The bison show no sign of leaving. Looks like it’s going to be “Plan B” today. I start the car and back up, then turn around on the gravel two-track. I’ve got plenty of alternatives besides this pond for a dragonfly-chasing hike. So many exciting areas to explore!
With so many wildflowers in bloom at Nachusa…
…and plenty of other interesting prairie creatures around….
… my alternative hike on the prairie this morning will still be time well spent.
The bison are fun to see, but they’re only a bonus on a trip to Nachusa. There is so much else to discover!
Why not go for a hike and see it for yourself?
The opening quote is from American Buffalo: In Search of A Lost Icon by Stephen Rinella (2008).
All photos in this week’s blog are from Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.
Visit Nachusa Grasslands, and see the bison herd from the road pull-offs or from the beautiful new outdoor Prairie Visitor Center. Know bison safety protocol before you go: find it here. Respect the bison, and always observe them from a safe distance outside the bison unit. Want a closer look? Join Nachusa Grasslands bison tours during the “Autumn on the Prairie” celebration Saturday, September 18 to get an inside-the-bison unit view. For more information on public hiking trails and bison, visit Friends of Nachusa Grasslands’ website.
Join Cindy for a class or program this summer!
August 17, 7pm-8:30 pm —in person —“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Bloomingdale Garden Club, Bloomingdale, IL. Please visit http://www.bloomingdalegardenclub.org/events-new/ for more information and Covid safety protocol for the event and for current event updates.
September 9, 9:30-11 am– in person–“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Oswego Hilltoppers Garden Club, Oswego Public Library. Please visit the club’s Facebook page for guest information, event updates and Covid protocol.
New to the prairie? Want to introduce a friend or family member to the tallgrass? Check out The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction (Northwestern University Press). No jargon, no technical terms — just a fun guide to navigating prairie hikes and developing a deeper relationship with the beautiful grasslands that make the Midwest special.
“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” —Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Today’s prairie post is brought to you by the color green. Green. Green. Everywhere on the prairie, it’s green.
It’s the middle of April, and the prairie is assembling its components. From a distance on the prairie path, it appears the landscape is blanketed in sheets of emerald. But look closely. The prairie is as much shape as color. Ferny fringes of baby compass plants.
Ruffles of purple meadow rue.
These green sheets are an intricate mass of forms and hues. It’s easy to grasp the diversity of the prairie in July, when the tallgrass is a chorus of grasses and flowers. But never is that diversity more evident than in the new sprouts of life in April.
Today, there is one plant remarkable for its absence in this chorus of new growth: the pasque flower. It’s been on the brink of disappearing in years past, but this season, I’m having a difficult time finding it. It’s one of my favorites. Older prairie stewards knew it as Anemone patens.
When I began as a steward on the prairie, I learned it by its newer scientific name, Pulsatilla patens. “Pasque” comes from the Hebrew word “pasakh,” “passing over.” Despite the flames of early prescribed burns, the early blooming wildflowers are often “passed over” by the flames, often protected by the gravelly soil in which they prefer to grow. Slightly singed or sometimes a bit worse for wear, they make me think of courage.
The blooms usually occur during the Passover or Easter season; thus the common name “pasque” from the old French language. Maybe that’s the reason they wear fur coats. They are ready for any late snows or cold spells.
I love the meaning of the scientific names. The old name, Anemone means “windflower.” The newer “Pulsatilla” means “sway” or “tremble” —and they do, in the slightest breeze. It takes a bit of plant adaptation to brave the sometimes brutal winds, prescribed fire, and seasonal instability of April, which the poet T.S. Eliot famously called “the cruelest month.”
On the prairie where I am a steward, our numbers of these fuzzy favorites were down to one clump plus a few stragglers in 2017.
Seeing the imminent demise of a prairie favorite, I watched until the plants went to seed.
I collected a handful of the fuzzy seeds…
…and sent them to the propagation greenhouse.
There, the greenhouse staff worked their magic. Pasque flower seeds have a notoriously poor germination rate, but in 2019, a few small plants appeared. We transplanted them to the prairie. They didn’t take well. Back to the drawing board.
In 2019, hoping to hedge our bets and bring in some new genetic material, we sourced seeds from another prairie and direct sowed the. We also sent more seeds to the greenhouse. We planted. We waited.
Just as the pasque flowers would have been making their first appearance in 2020, the pandemic hit. The prairie was closed. I stood outside the gates that month, peering in. Were the pasque flowers up? Did any of them make it? I couldn’t see.
By the time we were able to access the prairie, the pasque flower season was over. It was difficult to know if the plants were successful.
In 2021, after the prescribed burn, I went out to check the pasque flowers. Oh no!
An animal —possibly a raccoon? — had tunneled into the pasque flower area. The “mother plant” was dead. All was lost! Or so it seemed.
During the pandemic, the greenhouse staff kept the work of the prairie going. Unbeknownst to me, more pasque flower seeds continued to germinate. Last week, seeing the demise of our plants on the prairie, I asked if any of the pasque flowers in the greenhouse had made it.
More than 50 plants had germinated! They were actively growing and ready for transplanting.
Joy! Hedging our bets, I transplanted two dozen of them to the prairie.
We’ll hold the other two dozen in reserve to grow for another year in the greenhouses, just in case weather—and prairie mammals—decimate this first batch. Then we’ll cross our fingers, water them regularly, and hope.
Because even with more than 400 other species of plants on this prairie…
No other plant could take the place of pasque flowers.
Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) was the youngest man to ever receive the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 35 (1964). He was assassinated four years later. He was the author of five books, including Strength to Love, and the manifesto Letter from the Birmingham Jail.
Join Cindy for a program or class this spring!
A Brief History of Trees in America: Online,Wednesday,April 28, 7-8 pm CST Sponsored by Friends of the Green Bay Trail and the Glencoe Public Library. From oaks to sugar maples to the American chestnut: trees changed the course of American history. Discover the roles of a few of our favorite trees in building our nation as you remember and celebrate the trees influential in your personal history and your garden. Register here.
Spring Wildflowers of Prairies and Woodlands Online: Thursday, May 6, 6:30-8 p.m. Join Cindy for a virtual hike through the wildflowers of late spring! Hear how wildflowers inspire literature and folklore. Discover how people throughout history have used wildflowers as medicine, groceries, and love charms. Registerhere.
Plant A Backyard Prairie:Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm CST –Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Register here.
Thanks to the good folks at Byron Forest Preserve who donated seeds to help us with our pasque flower restoration.
***Please note: Today’s post was delayed because of WordPress technical difficulties. Thanks for hanging in there with me!
“Fire works best in nature as it does in the lab, as a catalyst. It interacts. It quickens, shakes, forces.” — Stephen Pyne
Rising temperatures. Light winds. Rain, forecast later in the week. There’s a sense of urgency. This is the moment.
Time to burn the tallgrass prairie.
In 2020, the Covid-19 lockdown occurred during prescribed fire season. For the first time in recent memory, the Schulenberg Prairie—like many prairies—was left unburned.
So much was surreal about 2020; not the least was to see the prairie in its second year growth. Spring wildflowers were partially invisible under thatch and old grasses. Black walnut saplings, sumac, and gray dogwood moved in. Prairie shrubs looked, well, shrubby, without their annual fire regime. Most stunning was the prairie pasture rose, which grew taller than I’ve seen it before, with beautiful rose hips that lingered into spring.
And now, in a matter of four hours, the last two seasons of tallgrass growth have gone up in smoke.
A red-tailed hawk hovers, waiting to pounce on any small mammals running ahead of the flames. How do they know what fire will do? I wonder. Nearby, a field sparrow sings from a wild plum tree, oblivious to the spectacle taking place. I often find hawk feathers and other bird feathers on my hikes here; now, there will be no trace. Only ashes and bird song.
A woman pulls her car to the side of the road; rolls down her window. “Do you know why they’re doing this?” she asks. It’s an excellent question. The short answer is this: Prescribed fire helps keep a prairie healthy. Without fire, we would lose our prairies.
Fire keeps brush and trees from taking over the tallgrass and turning it to woodland.
Spring burns warm the ground. The blackened soil heats up much more quickly than unburned soil. This tells the prairie plants it’s time to grow.
Old leaf litter—dead plants—vanish in the flames, freeing up space for new growth.
Fire also helps control some weedy plants that might otherwise take over the prairie and outcompete native plants. The prescribed burns help prairie stewards maintain diversity.
I watch the hardworking women and men of the fire crew check the prairie for hikers, then lay down a waterline around each area to be burned.
The water line, back-burns, mowed pathways, and the gravel road create boundaries that help keep the fire within a contained space.
With the help of a drip torch, different portions of the prairie are set on fire.
Up in flames go the prairie dock leaves.
Mountain mint seedheads turn to ashes.
The last lingering seeds of carrion flower: vanished.
Late figwort disappears into the inferno.
The last vestiges of 2020 on the prairie are only a memory.
Fire is usually something we fear.
Today, we embrace it. Welcome it. Respect it.
Losing our prairie burn season in 2020 was only one of many losses in a year full of assorted griefs.
But with today’s prairie fire, I feel joy.
At last. There’s hope for the season ahead.
Stephen Pyne (1949-) is professor emeritus at Arizona State University, and the author of The Perils of Prescribed Fire from which the opening quote for this post is taken. He’s written 34 other books, most of them about fire. Listen to his Ted Talk How Fire Shapes Everything here.
Virtual Wildflower Walks Online: Section A: Friday, April 9, 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. CST Woodland Wildflowers, Section B: Thursday, May 6, 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. CST Woodland and Prairie Wildflowers. Wander through the ever-changing array of blooms in our woodlands and prairies in this virtual walk. Learn how to identify spring wildflowers, and hear about their folklore. In April, the woodlands begin to blossom with ephemerals, and weeks later, the prairie joins in the fun! Each session will cover what’s blooming in our local woodlands and prairies as the spring unfolds. Enjoy this fleeting spring pleasure, with new flowers revealing themselves each week. Register here.
A Brief History of Trees in America: Online,Wednesday,April 28, 7-8 p.m. Sponsored by Friends of the Green Bay Trail and the Glencoe Public Library. From oaks to sugar maples to the American chestnut: trees changed the course of American history. Discover the roles of a few of our favorite trees in building our nation as you remember and celebrate the trees influential in your personal history and your garden. Registration here.
Plant A Backyard Prairie:Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm. CST –Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Register here.
Those of us in the tallgrass prairie region know that with March, anything is possible.
Willful, changeable, whimsical March.
March is thaw season. Mud season. Melt season. Even as the ice vanishes by inches in prairie ponds and streams…
…we know the white stuff hasn’t surrendered. Not really.
March is the opening dance between freeze and thaw.
Snow and rain. Fire and ice.
It’s a teasing time, when one day the snow sparkles with sunlight, spotlighting the desiccated wildflowers…
…the next, howling winds shatter the wildflowers’ brittle remains.
March is shadow season. Light and dark. Sun and clouds.
It’s been so long. So long since last spring. So many full moons have come and gone.
We remember last March, a month of unexpected fear. Shock. Grief. Anxiety for what we thought were the weeks ahead…
…which turned into—little did we know—months. A year. Hope has been a long time coming.
But now, sunshine lights the still snow-covered prairie.
Deep in the prairie soil, roots stretch and yawn.
Seeds crack open.
A new season is on the way.
In March, anything seems possible.
Hope seems possible.
The nursery rhyme “March winds and April showers, bring forth May flowers” is likely adapted from the prologue to Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.There, it reads a bit inscrutably for modern readers: “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote, The droghte of March hath perced to the roote… . ” Chaucer, who was born sometime between 1340-45, is called “the first English author” by the Poetry Foundation. Troubled by finances, he left The Canterbury Tales mostly unfinished when he died in 1400, possibly because “the enormousness of the task overwhelmed him.” Chaucer is buried in Westminster Abbey; the space around his tomb is dubbed the “Poet’s Corner.”
Sunday, March 7, 4-5:30pm CST: Katy Prairie Wildflowers, offered through Katy Prairie Conservancy, Houston, Texas. Discover a few of the unusual prairie wildflowers of this southern coastal tallgrass prairie. Register here
Thursday, March 11, 10am-noon CST: Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History is a book discussion, offered by Leafing through the Pages Book Club at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (Morton Arboretum members only) Registration information here.
Friday, April 9, 11:30a.m-1pm CST: Virtual Spring Wildflower Walk —discover the early blooming woodland and prairie plants of the Midwest region and hear their stories. Through the Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Register here.
Here are five reasons to hike the November prairie.
November’s prairie is a sea of gorgeous foamy seeds. Exploding asters loosen their shattered stars against the winds.
Boneset seeds prepare to set sail on the breeze.
Thistles are an exercise in contrast.
Thimbleweed’s wispy Q-tips hold fast against the wind. A few lose their grip, but most will hang on to their seeds through winter.
So many seeds.
So much promise for 2021. Hope for the future.
2. November’s prairie offers the solace of gray skies. Depressing? No. Curiously calming to the spirit, even in high winds, which carve curves in the clouds.
On mornings when the temperature drops below 30 degrees, the freeze softens plants; breaks them down. They crumple. Ice pierces succulent plants from the inside out.
The skies are misted and vague.
The future seems uncertain. But the skies, cycling between sunshine and steel, remind us how quickly change is possible.
3. November’s prairie is full of music. Autumn’s orchestra is fully tuned now, with winter whispering soft notes in the wings. Switchgrass and Indian grass hiss in high winds, like onions sizzling in a frying pan.
Geese cry overhead. on their way to nowhere special.
A train blows its mournful whistle.
I listen until the sound fades away.
4. Leaves are the stars of November’s tallgrass.Prairie dock leaves are topographic maps of the world.
The prairie paints a thousand pictures every day. Sings a hundred songs. Tells stories.
Ready for more?
Jean Hersey (1902-date of death unknown) was the author of The Shape of a Year. She wrote about gardening, houseplants, herbs, grief, flowering shrubs, and penned many homespun articles for Women’s Day magazine.
All photos this week are from Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL unless tagged otherwise (top to bottom):deserted school playground, Glen Ellyn, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca); Belmont Prairie in November; Belmont prairie boardwalk; panicled asters (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum); tall boneset (Eupatorium altissimum); pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor); thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica); mixed grasses and forbs; gray skies over Belmont Prairie; hard freeze (prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL): Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripterus); Canada geese (Branta canadensis); Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium); unknown prairie forb; unknown prairie forb; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); mixed grasses; Belmont Prairie edges; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) in November; Jeff hikes Belmont Prairie; trail through Belmont Prairie in November.
Join Cindy for a class—or ask her to speak virtually for your organization–now booking talks for 2021.Email Cindy through http://www.cindycrosby.com.
Literary Gardens Online: Friday, Dec.4, 1-2:30 p.m.CST– Join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby from wherever you live in the world for a fun look at great (and not-so-great) gardens in literature and poetry. From Agatha Christie’s mystery series, to Brother Cadfael’s medieval herb garden, to Michael Pollan’s garden in “Second Nature,” to the “secret garden” beloved of children’s literature, there are so many gardens that helped shape the books we love to read. Discover how gardens and garden imagery figure in the works of Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Goudge, Rumer Godden, May Sarton, Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Gilbert, Henry Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver, and Lewis Carroll–and many more! This class is online. Register here through The Morton Arboretum.
Just released in June! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History.
“Oh the days dwindle down, To a precious few . . .September….”
They swirl in my backyard, green helicopters against a blue sky. On the prairies, I count them. Twenty-five. Fifty.
Where are these dragonflies going?
It’s migration season in the Chicago region.
Common green darners zip and dart overhead, as I try to estimate their numbers for my dragonfly data. Seventy-five. One hundred. One hundred and ten. I put my clipboard down and marvel. How was I alive in the world for so many years and never noticed this phenomenon?
My data sheet is pre-printed with the names of numerous species, but today the common green darners’ hash marks spill over into other columns. I finish estimating at 165. Then I turn my attention to the dragonflies and damselflies that won’t make the trip.
In Willoway Brook, a stream bluet, shows his age by his pruinosity:
A few tired-looking American rubyspot damselflies stake out the stream.
A single widow skimmer dragonfly flies across the tallgrass trail.
These dragonfly and damselfly species will remain on the prairie, resigned to end their lives here in the Chicago region. As the colder temperatures increase, their natural lifespans will come to an end. By the time frost ices the tallgrass, most will be gone.
There are other delights that prepare to take their place. The prairie, refreshed by much-needed downpours this week, is alight with the colors of autumn. The leaves of purple meadow rue are in transition.
September loves yellow. Illinois’ corn fields are quilted green and yellow and brown with corn in full tassel. Goldenrod shows off its different floral shapes—some tall and branching, other blooms flat or rounded. Soybean fields stretch to the horizon, pools of molten gold. On the prairie, sawtooth sunflowers are bright against a clear blue sky.
Along Willoway Brook, the sunflowers admire their reflection.
A blue heron watches the water, hoping for a fish or frog. Patience personified.
Singles and family groups have been hiking Illinois’ prairies in large numbers this week, lured out, perhaps, by the knowledge that the days of warmer weather are numbered. Meteorological autumn is here. Winter is coming. They leave evidence of their presence—sometimes a gum wrapper or wadded up Kleenex—other times a bit of encouragement.
At Nachusa Grasslands, the bison shrug on their winter coats, ready for cold weather. The spring calves darken to chocolate brown and put on weight. But a few late-born butterscotch bison babies stick close to each other and their mamas.
Near Nachusa, the beekeepers gather their honey and lay it out for sale on tables along the gravel roads. There’s something touching about the tin can honor system of payment; the “Need change? Take bills from here!” tin. It’s a little bit of optimism, a vote of trust in the inherent goodness of people.
I’ve also been heartened by the number of migrating monarchs that cruise through the tallgrass on my walks through the prairies this week. Insect news has not been great, folks, so to see the skies full of orange and black wings headed south is a shot of joy.
But it’s the green darners who are the stars of the prairies this week. The green darners I’m hanging my hopes on. Today, hundreds. Tomorrow, they may vanish. Sure, there will be a straggler or two around, but the electricity of their activity will be a thing of remembrance. When we see them again, it won’t be these individuals that come back. Rather, their progeny, one darner at a time, struggling to return from thousands of miles. We’ll see the first one in the first warming days of March and April. What a day to look forward to!
When the green darner dragonflies arrived in March this year, I couldn’t have imagined what our lives would be like in the following months of 2020. Seeing them go now in September—almost seven months later—I wonder what life for us will be when they return next spring. This season of change makes me feel hopeful.
See you in March, little dragonflies. Safe travels.
The opening quote is from the lyrics of September Song, written by Maxwell Anderson and composed by Kurt Weill. It’s been recorded by many artists, including Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Jeff Lynn of Electric Light Orchestra (with George Harrison). But my favorite continues to be the rendition by Willie Nelson from Stardust. Listen, and see if you agree.
All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): bridge over Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; video of green darner migration, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (2013); common green darner dragonfly male (Ajax junius), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; stream bluet male (Enallagma exsulans), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; American rubyspot damselfly (Hetaerina americana), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; widow skimmer dragonfly (Libellula luctuosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (2018); purple meadow rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sawtooth sunflowers (Helianthus grosseserratus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; woodland sunflower (Helianthus sp.), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; great blue heron (Ardea herodias), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; found nature art, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; twin baby bison calves (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; honey stand, next to Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; migrating monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor), Franklin Creek Natural Area, Franklin Grove, IL; common green darner dragonfly, male (Ajax junius), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.
SPECIAL EVENT! DuPage County friends —DuPage Monarch is sponsoring a “Parks for Pollinators” bioblitz from this Saturday, 9/12 through 9/20. Click here to find out how you can contribute your observations and make a difference in the natural world! Simply take photos of pollinators and upload them to iNaturalist, a free App for your phone. Have fun and help this great effort.
Nomia Meadows Farm, just down the road from Nachusa Grasslands in Franklin Grove, IL, has great honey for sale. Contact them here.
“A Tallgrass Conversation”—Conservation Cocktails online with Lake Forest Openlands. Friday, September 11, 6-7:30pm. To register—and find out how to join the good work of this organization–click here.
“Nature Writing Online” Begins Monday, October 5, through The Morton Arboretum. Want to commit to improving and fine-tuning your writing for six weeks? This is a great opportunity to jump start your blog, your book, or your journal writing while working online from home, supplemented with three evenings of live evening Zoom classes on alternate weeks. Class size is limited; register here.
Just released! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History.
Since the Durecho on August 10, not a drop has fallen in Glen Ellyn. Twenty-one days without precipitation. I miss the sound of rain. I miss the way the garden lifts its leaves and perks up after a shower. I long for the slam-ka-BAM of thunder, the drumming of raindrops on the roof. Flicker-flashes of lightning that illuminate the world. And the clean, earthy smell of the prairie after a storm.
I think of the early settlers and the Dust Bowl. How did they feel as the harsh winds blew their lives to ruin? It’s only been three weeks without rain, and I’m on edge. Brittle. Testy.
In the evenings, I water my backyard prairie patch and garden, but the green bean leaves turn yellow anyway. Zucchini leaves dry up. Tomatoes hang green on the vine and fail to ripen. Cardinal flowers close up shop as the cup plants crumb and brown.
We need rain.
I walk my dragonfly monitoring routes on the prairies, astonished. Where are the Odes? Has the lack of water affected them? Perhaps. A few migrants —a trio of black saddlebag dragonflies, a cluster of common green darners circling overhead, the glint of a wandering glider—are all I see on an hour-long outing. Where before there was a richness of species and numbers, the dragonflies have dwindled to these few. Damselflies? Not a single one.
And it’s no wonder. Willoway Brook’s tributaries—usually aflutter with ebony jewelwing damselflies and blue-fronted dancers—are dry and choked with brush.
Ordinarily, we complain about rain: that despoiler of picnics, outdoor weddings, kayak outings, and camping trips. And yet. How we long for it when it doesn’t show up.
A lone common buckeye butterfly surprises me on the path. It fruitlessly loops from clover to clover, seeking nectar. The red clover blooms are withered and brown and it comes up empty.
On the parched prairie, the grasses and wildflowers continue on. Tall coreopsis is vibrant despite the lack of precipitation.
Cream gentians still look fresh and supple.
Carrion flower, with its alienesque seeds, is show-stopping.
Big bluestem and Indian grass, look brittle and bruised.
Stiff goldenrod pours out its blooms, irregardless of drought, attracting a goldenrod soldier beetle (sometimes called leatherwings). Butterflies love it. Monarchs depend on this relatively well-behaved goldenrod and other fall wildflowers to fuel up for their long journey south. Planted in backyards and prairies, goldenrod helps ensure survival of this beloved butterfly.
As a child, I remember bringing an older relative goldenrod in a kid-picked bouquet. Alarmed, she thanked me for the flowers, but removed the goldenrod—because she said it gave her allergies. Today, we know this is a myth. It’s the ragweeds (both common and giant ragweed —-also native) that bloom about this time of year that wreak havoc with allergy suffers. We can enjoy goldenrod without fear.
Tall boneset announces autumn as it opens in clouds on the edges of the prairie, mingling with goldenrod and competing for a seat in the savanna.
Nearby, wingstem in full bloom attracts its share of pollinators, including this non-native honeybee and native bumblebee.
There’s been a lot of discussion among prairie stewards about competition between native and non-native bees. Should we have beehives on our prairie restorations? Or not? Read this excellent post by Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie’s Bill Glass here. We’re always learning new things about prairie stewardship; always adjusting our management strategies and expectations as we grapple with new information and its implications for a healthy prairie. It’s important to keep an open mind. Not to get mired in doing things “the way we’ve always done them.” To keep reading and learning from others who have experiences we can benefit from. I mull over information on managing for native bees as I walk.
As I finish my hike on the prairie, thinking about prairie management issues, I try to be patient. Rain will come. The prairie will survive. Soon, my longing for rain will be only a memory. In the meantime, I cultivate patience.
The road ahead is uncertain.
Staying flexible. Keeping an open mind. Adapting. Listening to experts. Acting on the science as it unfolds. Practicing patience.
Good advice for prairie stewardship—and for life in general in September.
Henry Beston (1888-1968) was a writer and naturalist, best known for The Outermost House. I particularly love the chapter “Orion Rises On the Dunes.” Check it out here.
All photos taken at the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL, and copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): the prairie in August; new england aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae); canada wild rye (Elymuscanadensis); tall boneset (Eupatorium altissimum); common green darner dragonfly (Ajax junius); Willoway Brook; wild lettuce or prickly lettuce (Lactuca serriola); common buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia); tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); cream gentian (Gentiana alba); carrion flower (probably Smilax ecirrhata); indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigida) with goldenrod soldier beetle (Chauliognathus pensylvanicus) and unknown beetle; tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima); tall boneset (Eupatoriumaltissimum); wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) with a honeybee (Apis sp.) and bumblebee (Bombus sp.); Illinois tick trefoil (Desmodium illinoense) and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) with unidentified insects; path through the Schulenberg Prairie; smooth aster (Symphyotrichum laeve).
“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” Begin a new session this Thursday, September 2 through The Morton Arboretum! Work from home at your own pace (with suggested assignment deadlines) for 60 days to complete the material, and meet other prairie volunteers and stewards on the discussion boards and in the optional Zoom session. Classes are limited to 50. Register here.
“Nature Writing Online” Begins Monday, October 5, through The Morton Arboretum. Want to commit to improving and fine-tuning your writing for six weeks? This is a great opportunity to jump start your blog, your book, or your journal writing while working online from home, supplemented with three evenings of live evening Zoom classes on alternate weeks. Class size is limited; register here.
Just released! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History.
Cindy Crosby is the author, compiler, or contributor to more than 20 books. Her most recent is "Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History" (Northwestern University Press, 2020). She teaches prairie ecology, nature writing, and natural history classes, and is a prairie steward who has volunteered countless hours in prairie restoration. See Cindy's upcoming online speaking events and classes at www.cindycrosby.com.