Category Archives: September

Prairie Migration

“Oh the days dwindle down, To a precious few . . .September….”

—Maxwell Anderson

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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?

South.

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 needed that this week. You, too?

It’s been bird migration time here in the Chicago region; more than 30 million birds were estimated to pass through Illinois in one 12 hour period last week. Jeff and I sit on the back porch and count the nighthawks high overhead; marvel at the hummingbirds that zoom in to fuel up at the feeder.

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.

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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.

Join Cindy for an Online Class or Talk this Autumn! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for details.

“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.

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Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Morton Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org, direct from Northwestern University Press (use coupon code NUP2020 for 25% off), or other book venues. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during this chaotic time.

Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction. 

Seven Splendors of the September Prairie

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

*****

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

******

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.

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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.

A Thousand Prairie Details

” …few (if any) details are individually essential, while the details collectively are absolutely essential. What to include, what to leave out. Those thoughts are with you from the start.” –John McPhee

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“What to include, what to leave out?” How do you decide—when you try to describe September on the prairie?

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Look through the tallgrass kaleidoscope. Details change. From hour to hour; moment to moment.

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The prairie is a shape-shifter.

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Color and pattern maker.

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Each insect and plant outlined and highlighted.

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A few shocks of color. Burnt cherry.

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Pure purple.

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Other details, less colorful, still dazzle. Fizzy whites, knitted together by spiders; pearled by dew.

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Sheer numbers sometime disguise the finer elements.

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The particulars lost in a tangle. Taken out of context.

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The familiar becomes unfamiliar.

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The tiniest details create the sum of the whole. The autumn prairie.

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Dreamlike.

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Almost invisible at times. Camouflaged. But unforgettable.

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The magic of a thousand prairie details.

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They all add up to something extraordinary.

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The opening quote is from John McPhee’s Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process.  McPhee (1931-) is the author of more than 30 books, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999 for Annals of the Former World.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) at the end of a trail, Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN;  white wild indigo leaves with spider silk, Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN; September in the tallgrass, Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN; three butterflies puddling (two male clouded sulphurs (Colias philodice) and an orange sulphur (Colias eurytheme)), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) with morning dew, Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN;  yellow legged or autumn meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum vicinum), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN;  unseasonal bloom on white wild indigo in September (Baptisia leucantha), Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN;  nodding bur marigold (Bidens cernua), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  bison (Bison bison) hair on the trail, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) with dewdrops, Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN; early morning on the prairie, Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN; fog over Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN; eastern tailed blue butterfly (Cupido comyentas), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Taltree Arboretum prairie, Valparaiso, IN.

Autumn Prairie Delights

“It’s hard to grasp at first the density, the specificity with which the world has been named. This is a planet of overlapping lexicons… . Name upon name, terms of identity in endless degrees of intricacy. And all at hand, if you look for them.” — Verlyn Klinkenborg

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The prairie saves some of its best surprises for September. Gentians. So many gentians.

Tiny stiff gentians budding in blue.

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Maturing to lavender.

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Cobalt blue prairie gentians on the brink of opening.

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Each interior a delight.

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Or some gentians tightly closed in bloom. But no less delightful, for that.

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Color is overrated, say the cream gentians.

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And what joy to find a cross between the cream and the blue.

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Sure, there are other spectacular prairie blooms in September besides gentians.

Turtleheads. Like this one.

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(Not this one. Although it’s a welcome surprise, too.)

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The wild white ladies’ tresses orchids, drilling themselves deep into the grasses.

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Inhale. Mmmm. Such a lovely, light scent!

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Even a few of the weedy non-native flowers, like chicory, give us pleasure.

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Like chips off the September sky, aren’t they?

The month is more than half over.

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Yet the prairie offers new blooms and other delights in September wherever we look.

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If… we take time to look.

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The opening quote is from Verlyn Klinkenborg’s book, Several short sentences about writing (2012). Klinkenborg (1952-) grew up on a farm in Iowa. He teaches creative writing at Yale University, and has written reflections on the rural life for the New York Times editorial pages. Read NPR’s interview with Klinkenborg here.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Stiff gentians (Gentianella quinquefolia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; stiff gentians (Gentianella quinquefolia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie or downy gentians (Gentiana puberulenta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie or downy gentians (Gentiana puberulenta) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blue bottle gentians (Gentiana andrewsii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  cream gentian (Gentiana flavida or sometimes, Gentiana alba), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; possibly pale-blue gentian (Gentiana x pallidocyanea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white turtlehead (Chelone glabra linifolia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; eastern painted turtle (Chrysemys picta), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; nodding ladies’ tresses (Spiranthes cernua), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; nodding ladies’ tresses (Spiranthes cernua), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; chicory (Cichorium intybus), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; sky over the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sky over prairie grasses at Hidden Lake, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL. SaveSave