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.

***

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.

***

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

***

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.

****

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.

***

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

September Prairie Reflections

“Happily we bask in this warm September sun, which illumines all creatures… .” –Henry David Thoreau

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That certain slant of light.

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The fierce blank blue brightness of a cloudless sky.

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The scrabble of motion on (so it seems) every leaf and grass blade.

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September moves in and sets up housekeeping on the prairie. It’s a month that seems obsessed with metallics. Gold sawtooth sunflowers.

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Rusts of aged prairie dock leaves.

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Drifts of every possible variation of silver, gold, copper and pewter.

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September brings with it sharp contrasts: bright seeds of Jack in the pulpit in primary colors…

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Softest airbrushed pastels of prairie dropseed.

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Summer-only tallgrass residents are shopworn, like tourists who have overstayed their welcome. The non-migrating dragonflies look a bit bedraggled; their season about to end.

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Monarchs and hummingbirds are already on their way south; other birds like this green heron won’t be far behind.

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October is only a few weeks away. But for now, it’s enough to pause and enjoy the season. Soak up its diversity of sound, motion, and colors.

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Reflect on where we find ourselves.

Read the pages of the September prairie without missing a word.

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Then, prepare for the next chapter.

***

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), whose words begin this essay, is best known for his book Walden.

***

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): unknown insect on bur marigold (Bidens cernua), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  cloudless sky, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; praying mantis (Mantis religiosa) in the tallgrass, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sawtooth sunflower (Helianthus grosseserratus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) leaf, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Nachusa Grasslands in September, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  Jack in the pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) seeds, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; prairie dropseed (Sporabolus heterolepis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white-faced meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum obtrusum), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; green heron (Butorides virescens), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; reflection of black walnut (Juglans nigra) leaves turning gold in Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; reading in the tallgrass, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

Thanks to Susan Kleiman for her help with plant ID.

To Understand a Prairie

“The prairie, in all its expressions, is a massive, subtle place, with a long history of contradiction and misunderstanding. But it is worth the effort at comprehension. It is, after all, at the center of our national identity.” — Wayne Fields

***

How do you begin to understand a prairie?  Start by walking the tallgrass trails on a breezy day in September. See the boneset flowers sway and bend in the wind?

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Count the number of bees you find nectaring in the flowers.  Then consider—this is only one small stand of blooms! Imagine what remains unseen. Suddenly, your eyes open to the buzzing and crawling; sipping and chewing insects all around you. You begin to understand. The prairie world is not static. It is a living, moving, humming community.

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From the blooms and bugs, you turn to the fall seed heads, in all their infinite variety. The spiky purple meadow rue.

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Soft Indian grass seed plumes, a few yellow petals decorating them like confetti.

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The parachute seeds of pale Indian plantain, ready for lift off.

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You marvel at the variety. A prairie, you think, is about diversity. And yes, you’re getting closer to knowing.

How do you begin to understand a prairie? You notice how the plants change with the September slant of sun; cool nights, shorter days. See the butterfly weed in its fall colors, just before the seed pod bursts open. This milkweed’s work nurturing monarch butterflies is finished for this year. Now it must send out  a new generation of plants to do the same next season.

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Those September colors! Flowering spurge foliage glows pink under the grasses.

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As you marvel at the pink, you catch your breath. Are those cream gentians you almost stepped on? Or wait—are they bottle gentians? The blooms seem to be both, yet neither. Perhaps this is the hybrid pale-blue gentian that you’ve heard about. You drop to your knees for a closer look.

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And what is this plant, waving over your head, and flowering so late in the season?

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You take photos, examine the leaves. It looks like one of the wild lettuces, but you can’t remember for sure.  And it seems…different, somehow. So you take another photo; carefully imprint the details of the plant on your mind. Vow to look it up later.

Understanding a prairie means knowing that the more you discover, the less you’ll realize you know. And the more you know, the more you’ll forget. (Sigh.) Even when you do remember, the taxonomists may rename the plants you once knew by heart.

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Perhaps this is what it means to understand a prairie. To look. To ask questions. To marvel. To imagine. To learn. To forget. To ask for help. To be humbled as you do, realizing there will always be more to comprehend. And to accept change.

Knowing you’ll never know or understand the prairie completely —isn’t that the best gift of all? Like a present you look forward to unwrapping… again and again.

***

Wayne Fields, whose quote opens this post, is the Lynne Cooper Harvey Chair Emeritus in English at Washington University in St. Louis, MO. As a child, he grew up in Missouri and Iowa before his family settled in Rock Island, IL. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Augustana College, then a masters and PhD at University of Chicago. Fields has been with Washington University since 1968. He lives in Iowa.

All photos in this week’s blog are from the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): tall boneset (Eupatorium altissimum); pasture thistle with insects (Cirsium discolor); purple meadow rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum); Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); pale Indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium);  butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata) foliage; possibly pale-blue gentian (Gentiana x pallidocyanea); rough white lettuce (Prenanthes aspera or Nabalus aspera)–a “10” in Gerould Wilhelm’s & Laura Rericha’s Flora of the Chicago Region— thanks Illinois Botany FB page for help on the ID! a new lettuce for me; New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) whose latest name from taxonomists is so difficult to remember and to say.

The Turn of a Prairie Page

“All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy…”  – Anatole France

***

August takes her last breath.  Insects stitch together the transitions between daylight and dark. When we open our bedroom windows to welcome the cooler air at night, their high-pitched chorus lull us to sleep. ZZZzzz.

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Mornings in Illinois take on a clean, cold feel. A sudden drop into the 40s at night prods us to reach for our jackets; we don’t know how to dress for the day ahead anymore. Layers. We add a sweater, peel it off by 10 a.m.

September is so close you can feel it. Time to turn the seasonal page.

The blue gentians bloom at last. They’re a specialty reserved for autumn’s introduction. A trumpet blast of jewel-like color.

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In my backyard, sandwiched between suburban houses, the prairie patch puts out a few, tentative asters. Joe Pye weed blooms brown up.

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I find my new Kankakee mallow plant stalks, grown from expensive plant plugs this spring, abruptly cut in half by sharp bunny teeth this morning.  Will they survive the winter? Maybe. Or maybe not.

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A lone cardinal flower still blooms in one of the wetter places in the yard…

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…and close beside it, the great blue lobelia are at their best, pumping out bright blue  around the pond with the promise of more flowers to come.

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Each day, I watch a few more new England asters slowly unfurl their purple fringed blooms on the prairie.

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Little bluestem is prominent now, blizzarding the prairie with rusts and tufts of snowy white.

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Hummingbirds, driven by the migration impulse, battle over my dew-drenched feeder each morning. They fuel up on whatever wildflowers they can find in my backyard prairie, then zip away, always moving south.

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Love it or moan about it: Autumn always brings with it a sense of our own mortality. The great rush of plant growth is over. It’s replaced with the Earth’s concern for legacy. The plants push each other over in their exuberance to crank out seeds, seeds, more seeds.

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The community of the prairie transforms. Soon, it will be dry grasses and seedheads rustling in an increasingly chill breeze. Widow skimmer dragonflies perch around prairie ponds, anticipating this. They watch other dragonfly species begin to migrate. But no trip to the south for them. They await the tipping point that ends their season.

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What will the autumn bring? Beauty of its own kind, yes. But now, at the tail end of summer, we feel a bit melancholy.

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The prairie promises a new chapter. Who can tell what it will bring? We remind ourselves: the best days may lie ahead. It’s up to us to accept change. And to embrace it.

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Jacques Anatole Thibault, known by his pseudonym, Anatole France (1844-1924) was a Nobel Prize-winning French novelist, poet, and journalist–in fact, there are few genres of literature he did not attempt in his writings. Not surprising to learn that his father was a bookseller and he grew up surrounded by books. One of my favorite quotes by France: “Never lend books, for no one ever returns them; the only books I have in my library are books that other folks have lent me.”

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): unknown grasshopper on wild Canada rye seedhead (Elymus canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  prairie gentians (Gentiana puberulenta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; interior of prairie gentian (Gentiana puberulenta ), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  purple Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; Eastern cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), author’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), author’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium ), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) at the feeder, author’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; wild Canada rye (Elymus canadensis) seedheads, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; widow skimmer dragonfly (Libellula luctuosa), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Schulenberg Prairie at the end of August, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Oh Beautiful, For Spacious (Prairie) Skies

“…there don’t seem to be words, let alone colors, to do justice to the land and sky-scape that surrounds me.” — Kathleen Norris

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In the prairie state of Illinois, the talk this week of August revolves around the solar eclipse.

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It may take an epic solar event  to turn Americans’ eyes skyward. Yet, truth be told, there are wonders above the prairie 24/7. If only we would take time to look.

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Sunsets are an easy sell. Who doesn’t love one?

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But how about the way the clouds float in August, when the tall pink gaura casts silhouettes against the sky?

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Or the building cumulonimbus clouds, with big bluestem’s turkey-footed trinity of seed heads against it?

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Consider the contrast and play of milky cirrus clouds with a few low cloud puffs.  They show us that the harsh mid-day light has its own enchantment.

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Sure, sometimes the prairie skies just seem like a foil for the landscape…

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…or even a backdrop for birds like this dickcissel.

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But without the 360-degree, horizon-to-horizon, ever-changing kaleidoscope of vast prairie sky, the tallgrass wouldn’t seem nearly so rich and intriguing.

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Why not go out right now and take a look at the sky, wherever you find yourself?

And the next time you take a hike in the tallgrass, don’t forget. Look up.

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You might be surprised at what you see.

***

The opening quote is from Kathleen Norris’ introduction to On the Plains by Peter Brown. Norris (1947-) is a poet and essayist who writes compellingly about a sense of place. If you haven’t read her books, try Dakota: A Spiritual Geography.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom) moonrise over author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; sunset over farms and prairies near Shabbona Lake State Park, Shabbona, IL;  sunset over prairie in Shabbona Lake State Park, Shabbona, IL; sunset behind big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL; gaura (Gaura biennis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; mid-day sun on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: road across Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; dickcissel (Spiza americana), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; sunset, Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL;  sunset, Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

An August Prairie Hike

“On the brink of a shining pool, O Beauty, out of many a cup, You have made me drunk and wild, Ever since I was a child… .” —from “August Moonrise” by Sara Teasdale

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Take a walk with me. Let’s see what’s happening in the tallgrass in August.

Pink gaura, that tall prairie biennial that goes unnoticed until it bursts into bloom, shows its shocking color for the first time all season. Where have you been hiding? You wonder.

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White goldenrod underpins the grasses; its common name an oxymoron.

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Violet sorrel flowers glow low in the grass. They’ve decided to put on a second flush of blooms this season. Applause!

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Lavender obedient plant spikes across the prairie. Move each bloom around the stem and it stays where you put it; thus the name. Better than a fidget spinner!

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Have you noticed the green caterpillar-ish seeds clinging to your shirt, your pants, and your socks as you walk? Tick trefoil, that hitchhiker of the August prairie, is guaranteed to show up in your laundry room for the next several months. A souvenir of your time in the tallgrass.

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Deep in the prairie wetlands…

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…a slender spreadwing damselfly perches. Its wings appear spider-web delicate. But they are seriously strong. Deceptively so.

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A bullfrog cools its heels in the shallows…

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…while nearby, a bronze copper butterfly snaps her wings open and shut.

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So much to see on the prairie in August.

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But don’t wait too long to look.

Autumn is on the way.

****

The opening lines in this blogpost are from the poem, “August Moonrise,” by Sara Teasdale (1884 –1933). Teasdale, a native of St. Louis, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1918 for her poetry collection, Love Songs. Many of her poems have been set to music. She committed suicide at age 49.

***

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): biennial gaura (Gaura biennis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white goldenrod (Oligoneuron album), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; violet wood sorrel (Oxalis violacea), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana), Schulenberg Prairie, The  Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Illinois tick trefoil (Desmodium illinoense), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wetlands, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; male slender spreadwing damselfly (Lestes rectangularis ), Nomia Meadows Farm, Franklin Grove, IL; American bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus or Rana catesbeianabronze copper butterfly (Lycaena hyllus), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; August prairie, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.