Category Archives: tallgrass prairie

September Arrives on the Prairie

The three great elemental sounds in nature are the sound of rain, the sound of wind in a primeval wood, and the sound of outer ocean on a beach.” –Henry Beston

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Crackle. Pop. Crunch. The once-tender prairie wildflowers and grasses snap under the weight of my boots. The wind rustles the dry big bluestem and switchgrass. Dust puffs up behind me.

Today is the first day of meteorological autumn. The prairie is hard as concrete, desperate for water.

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.

Wildflowers wilt.

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.

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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.

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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 (Elymus canadensis); 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 (Eupatorium altissimum); 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).

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

“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.

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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. 

October Prairie Wonders

“The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.” — Sherlock Holmes

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A whisper of frost is in the air, with the hard slam of a freeze not far behind.

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Cold weather’s scythe hangs over the prairie. In response, the tallgrass flings itself into October, showcasing all the delights that autumn has to offer. So much to explore. So much to discover.

Let’s go look.

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The tallgrass hums along, closing up shop, its seed production mostly complete.

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Smooth Solomon’s seal leaves cling to their bright green draining away. Their fruits show the turn of the season.

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Lichens colonize the metal bridge which leads to the prairie, splotching it with color.

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Nodding ladies’ tresses orchids,  latecomers to the seed production party, throw out their final blooms. Their mild fragrance has vanished into the cold.

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Big bluestem and Indian grass stitch the prairie with slender threads of subtle color.

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Pale prairie plantain trims the landscape with seed lace and leaf rickrack.

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Lashes of goldenrod’s foamy seeds decorate the edges.

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Late figwort throws its seed pearls into the mix.

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Little bluestem launches its colorfest; you can find swatches of it patching the prairie in a rust-hued blur.

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Pincushions of pasture thistle send silky seed-notes into the air.

 

 

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Joy in the aggregate; beauty in the singular.

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Dragonfly season is mostly shot. That said, six green darners hover overhead, delayed, perhaps, in joining the migration masses. A lone American rubyspot damselfly clings to reed canary grass over Willoway Brook. Despite the name, this particular insect is mostly colorless on a gray, windy, October day.

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The sounds of the season have gradually changed from summer to autumn in the Chicago region.

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Walking Fermilab’s interpretive trail in high winds this weekend, I hear the scraping of prairie dock leaves, still morphing between juiced and brittle. The hiss of big bluestem and Indian grass; rusting leaves and switchgrass stems rubbing together. The sound is rain patter on a roof, or hot oil in sizzling in a skillet. What do you think?

This prairie dock leaf’s venation stands out like a topo map; all mountains and rivers and ridges.

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Nearby, the rosette galls are October’s last bouquet; beauty in the face of rampant decay.

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Even the Queen Anne’s lace takes on a new persona in October. I hesitate to say it’s “beautiful” as we prairie stewards and volunteers work so hard to eradicate Queen Anne’s lace from our natural areas. And yet…

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Among the lone trees that sprinkle the tallgrass, I hear unaccustomed chirps — the sounds of warblers moving south and sheltering here for a few hours. “Those confusing fall warblers” — an understatement, if ever there was one. Today, a few invasive starlings show up with the warbler crowd. These—at least—are easy to ID.

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Although I’m not much good at identifying fall birds, I can identify a pair of sandhill cranes wading through a nearby wetland at Fermilab. Hard to miss.

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Regal and comical at the same time. Seemingly impervious to the cold winds.

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There’s so much to see in October on the prairie. So much grace and color. So many simple wonders.

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So much to love.

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It’s waiting for you.

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Sherlock Holmes, whose quote kicks off this post, was a fictional detective penned by British physician turned writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930). “Holmes” first appeared in print in the late 1880’s. Doyle also wrote poetry, science fiction, fantasy, plays, and romance.  Oddly enough, he also dabbled in architecture and designed a golf course and redesigned a hotel. Doyle, who had five children, died at 71; his last words were to his wife: “You are wonderful.” Now that’s sweet.

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All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby except photo of children on bridge (courtesy Jennifer Buono): (top to bottom): stormy October skies over the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  exploring the prairie, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (Jennifer Buono, photographer);  Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; smooth Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum commutatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown lichens on the bridge over Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; nodding ladies’ tresses orchids (Spiranthes cernua), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: pale Indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; probably Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) and pale Indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasture thistles (Cirsium discolor), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; American rubyspot damselfly (Hetaerina americana), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Prairie Interpretive Trail in October, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; video of wind on the  Prairie Interpretive Trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Prairie Interpretive Trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; goldenrod gall rosette, Prairie Interpretive Trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), Prairie Interpretive Trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; European starling (Sturnus vulgaris), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis),  Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; sandhill crane (Antigone canadensis), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; woodland sunflower (Helianthus spp.), Interpretive Prairie Trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; possibly American hog-peanut vine (Amphicarpaea bracteata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bench on the Schulenberg Prairie in October, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

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Cindy’s nature writing class (online and in-person) begins Wednesday, October 16! Tomorrow is the last day to register —check it out here.

See more of Cindy’s speaking events and classes at www.cindycrosby.com