Tag Archives: asters

November Prairie Focus

“Young prairie plants put down deep roots first; only when these have been established do the plants invest much energy in growth above ground. They teach us that the work that matters doesn’t always show.” -Paul Gruchow

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The cold, gray days of November are here. Beautiful? Yes, in their own way. They offer time for reflection on a year mostly past.

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The sky becomes a slate backdrop to plants which spike and angle and curve. Like silhouette cut-outs.

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Grace notes. Some more interesting now in seed and shape than they were in bloom.

It’s easy for me to overlook what’s good about November. Easier to long for sunshine and warmth; for the fireworks of July wildflowers—purple leadplant spikes and bright orange butterflyweed and lemon-yellow coreopsis. The fresh emerald spikes of grasses pushing through the dark prairie soil in spring. Or even the golds and violets of the autumn prairie.

Seems like we missed part of that season with our early snows.

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As I walk, I think of John Updike’s poem, November:

The stripped and shapely

Maple grieves

The loss of her

Departed leaves.

The ground is hard,

As hard as stone

The year is old

The birds are flown…..

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Much of what I see on the prairie is a matter of focus. In November, I have to remind myself that beauty is here. That the work of restoration is moving forward. It’s a more difficult season than spring when everything is full of promise and possibility. The “prettiness” and promise of the prairie is more obvious in the warmer months. November’s calibration of what constitutes headway, success on a prairie, is different.

Gray. Beige. Black. Brown. The prairie smells of wet earth. Snowmelt. Decay. You’d think this would be distressing, but it’s strangely pleasant. Invigorating.  It’s the fragrance of a work in progress. The cycling of nutrients. The prairie finishes its work of the growing season, then lays the groundwork for the future.

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Sometimes, I look at the November prairie and all I see is the unfinished work of a prairie steward. The native brambles taking over, arcing their spiny branches across the prairie and shading out wildflowers.

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It’s discouraging. Impatience surges. Are we really making a difference here? Or are we like Sisyphus, rolling a boulder uphill, only to have it roll back.

Then, I remember. There was a time when I didn’t  think about these “brambles” because the invasive buckthorn, honeysuckle, and sweet white and yellow clovers were consuming all my stewardship hours. It’s a luxury  now to have most of these problem plants licked (Hubris, don’t strike me down!) and room to think about how to tackle new management  issues.

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Despite my self-reassurance, as I hike I see other potential issues. Are the native grasses dominating the wildflowers? Is the false sunflower spreading too aggressively  in the corner by the bridge?

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I tuck my cold fingers into my pockets and stand on the bridge over Willoway Brook.  Reed canary grass chokes the shoreline. A never-ending problem. Then I look closer. I’m missing the lovely configurations of ice and stream; leaf and stone.

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Just across the bridge is a new “menace.” The past several years I’ve moaned about Illinois bundleflower making inroads into the prairie; it has become a monoculture in spots. Is it a desirable plant? Sure. It belongs on the prairie. But how much is too much? Decisions about how to manage it causes me some frustrating hours. But today, I take a few moments to admire it. Wow. Look at those seed pods.

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There are plants that “don’t belong” on a prairie restoration, and other plants that do, yet get a bit rambunctious. It’s so easy to focus on what’s wrong. Sometimes its tougher to remember what we’ve done well. To focus on the beauty, instead of the chaos.

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Nearby are ruined choirs of cup plants; taller than I am, growth-fueled by rain. Cup plants are the bane of my backyard prairie patch—aggressive thugs that elbow my Culver’s root and spiderwort out of the way.

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But here, on the 100-acre prairie, they are welcome. When I think about it, I realize I’ve not seen them in this area before. They are part of the first waves of prairie plants making inroads in an old field we’re restoring by the Prairie Visitor Center. A sign of success. A sign of progress.

Among the rusts and tans, there are bright bits of color. Carrion flower, now gone to inedible seeds.

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The last flag-leaves of sumac.

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Sumac is also an issue in parts of this prairie. But for now, I relax and enjoy the color.

Nuthatches call from the savanna. The breeze rustles the grasses. Looking over the prairie, focusing on its draining colors and dwindling seedheads…

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… I remember what Paul Gruchow wrote about the tallgrass prairie: “…The work that matters doesn’t always show.”

The day suddenly feels brighter.

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Paul Gruchow (1947-2004) was a Minnesota writer who wrote such beautiful books as Travels in Canoe Country; The Boundary Waters: Grace of the Wild; Journal of a Prairie Year; The Necessity of Empty Places; and Grass Roots: The Universe of Home from which this opening quote was taken. There’s nothing like the power of a good book—especially those passages that stick in your mind and are available when you need them the most.

John Updike’s lovely poem November” is found in A Child’s Calendar, first published in 1965. If you’re unfamiliar with his poetry, check out Facing Nature: Poems, Collected Poems: 1953–1993, and Americana and Other Poems (2001).

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken on the Schulenberg Prairie and Savanna at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, unless noted:  Willoway Brook in November; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); maple leaf (Acer saccharum) by the Prairie Visitor Station; silky wild rye (Elymus villosus) and log; prairie under snow in November; common blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis); prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides); Willoway Brook; Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) and unknown asters; cup plants Silphium perfoliatum); carrion vine (probably Smilax ecirrhata); staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina); false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides).

Please join Cindy for one of these upcoming classes or talks:

Saturday, December 7, 1:30-3 p.m.—Sterling Stories from the Arboretum Stacks: Grab a friend and spend a lively hour together sipping hot beverages while you enjoy little-known stories about the Morton Arboretum. What’s that old fountain doing in the library? Why was there a white pine planted in the May Watts Reading Garden? Who is REALLY buried in the Morton Cemetery—or not? What book in the Sterling Morton Library stacks has a direct relationship to a beheading? Why does the library have glass shelves? How has salt been a blessing —and a curse—to the Arboretum over its almost 100 years? Listen as 33-year Arboretum veteran library collections manager Rita Hassert and  Cindy Crosby spin entertaining tales of a place you thought you knew….until now.    A lovely afternoon enjoying little known Arboretum’s stories, and a quiet respite from the holiday hustle and bustle. Register here.

Sunday, December 8, 2-3:30 p.m.: Tallgrass Conversations at Prairieview Education Center, 2112 Behan Road, Crystal Lake, IL 815-479-5779 Book signing after the talk! Free and open to the public.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology online wraps up this month! Watch for the next course in March. Registration opens on November 19 here.

Nature Writing continues at The Morton Arboretum, on-line and in-person through November 20. Next session begins March 3, 2020. Watch for registration soon!

Find more at www.cindycrosby.com  

Aster Disasters (& Other Prairie ID Puzzles)

“But now in September the garden has cooled, and with it my possessiveness. The sun warms my back instead of beating on my head … The harvest has dwindled, and I have grown apart from the intense midsummer relationship that brought it on.” – Robert Finch

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A just-past-full harvest moon shines through the window. It’s Monday morning, 5 a.m.  Through the cracked-open window, I hear a great-horned owl hooting somewhere in the neighborhood. The smell of skunk drifts into the bedroom. Some unwary creature has done battle with the skunk in the early hours, and the creature and I both lose.

I lay awake for a while, then, realizing further sleep is an illusion, head downstairs to make a cup of Lapsang souchong tea. Sunrise in mid-September doesn’t occur until around 6:30 a.m., and as clouds roll in, obscuring the moon, everything in the kitchen turns back to black. The autumnal equinox is September 23 this year, signaling the arrival of astronomical fall. Sunrise  falls a bit later each day, and will until late December.

It’s the season of senesce. Of slow decline.

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Mid-September is the month of last-ditch, frenetic activity. Hummingbirds dive bomb the remnants of cardinal flowers and fight over the sugar water feeder, refueling on their way to Central America.  Monarchs are on the move to Mexico. They pause to nectar in my backyard, then float skyward, driven by a longing deeply encoded in their DNA.

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Butterfly milkweed—that monarch magnet—has closed up shop and thrown together its seed pods. The large milkweed bugs’ coloration mimics the monarchs’ coloration, don’t you think?

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It’s also  goldfinch season. Drabber now, more olive oil hued than buttery lemon, they pluck Nyjer thistle and sunflower seeds from my feeders and then hit the prairie and garden for dessert. Goldfinches seem to prefer the cup plants, zinnias, evening primrose,  and gray-headed coneflowers from September’s seed smorgasboard. Everywhere I look in my backyard, a goldfinch clings to a plant, working the seedheads. Insects need not worry. Goldfinchs are strict vegetarians. 

Last Tuesday, dragonflies moved through the Chicago region en masse. Green darner dragonflies predominated in my little corner of the world, making up about 95 percent of the swarms. Mixed in were a few black saddlebags dragonflies and the occasional wandering glider. As we sat on the porch swing Tuesday evening, Jeff and I counted about 50 green darners over the prairie patch, picking off mosquitoes before they resumed their long journey south.

Dragonfly swarms also showed up on the National Weather Service’s radar this week.   Where are they going? The most recent studies tell us they migrate as far as the Gulf of Mexico, and perhaps as far as Central America. We’re still learning.  Each day brings new knowledge about this mysterious seasonal phenomenon. Just as citizen scientists led the way in learning about monarch migration half a century ago, today’s dragonfly monitors gather data so we’ll understand more about this phenomenon.

As I relaxed in my hammock this weekend, I saw the elusive red saddlebags dragonfly  hover directly over the hammock, silhouetted against the blue sky. It’s not an easy ID (they are easily confused with the Carolina saddlebags), but because of its blue sky background and close proximity, the markings were clearly delineated.  Last year, at the end of August, I was able to get a good close-up shot when a red saddlebags rested in my tomato patch. Different individuals, of course.  A dragonfly’s life is measured in weeks. Why does this species show up in my backyard? Why only this time of year? I mull it over and wonder.

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The birds are on the move as well, although the large sandhill crane migrations are still to come.

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Other species seem suddenly more visible. Hike any prairie trail in September, and you’ll scuff up grasshoppers underfoot, which pelt the grasses like rain. Near the backyard pond, they hang out on the black-eyed Susans, still in full bloom. Up close, this red-legged grasshopper is full of intricate detail. Yet I often overlook the grasshoppers. Perhaps I need to pay closer attention. Appreciate them more, with their Harley-Davidson helmets and sassy attitudes. You can almost hear this one rasping, “Hey you. Yeah, you. Waddahyawant?”

redleggedgrasshopperonWMblackeyedsusanGE91519.jpgSince August, I’ve become more aware of the skipper butterflies, and all the ID conundrums that follow the desire to know their names. My friend John Ayres taught me the “three witches” of the skipper family: little glassywing, northern broken dash, and the dun skipper (also called the “sedge witch”.  As I study the red-legged grasshopper, a Peck’s skipper paused on a nearby bloom to rest.

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At least, I think it is a Peck’s skipper. I’ve lost confidence in my skipper ID’s, so I pore through my Field Guide to the Skippers of Illinois hoping to gain some sort of resolution. The skipper pops over to the last flowers of the great blue lobelia….

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…for a sip of sugar.

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I had no idea the skippers would nectar on great blue lobelia! Hummingbirds—yes. This is a new bit of info for me to tuck away.

Watching skippers in the grasses and nectaring in my backyard prairie patch close to the lawn in the evenings, I’ve also become aware of the tiny moths fluttering low in the airspace just above the turf grass. So ghost-like! So tiny! How have I not really noticed them before, or tried to put a name to them? And we’ve lived here two decades! On the front porch Monday evening, a moth resting on the front porch catches my attention.

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I page through  my Peterson Field Guide to Moths and check the  iNaturalist app. It’s the “beautiful wood nymph” moth! On my front porch! A first for me. Look at those furry antennae.

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Sometimes, there are incredible treasures to be found without traveling to “natural areas,” parks, or preserves. Sometimes, beautiful creatures are right under our nose.

Still, most moths I see remain an ID mystery. And it’s not just the insects that fuel my ID conundrums. In my backyard prairie this week, it’s the season of the goldenrods and asters. Since I’m still able to pull weeds (three more weeks to go!), I’ve let far more of both come into bloom than is my norm. The insects are pretty excited about it, including this green metallic sweat bee.

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Or is it a green metallic sweat bee? I’m not sure. As I study the insects rummaging through the prairie asters, I try to key the bees out, using iNaturalist. It’s much more difficult than I bargained for. Several choices come up, and most of the choices look the same. Ah well. I keep trying.

The more I seem to learn about the natural world, the more I discover there is to learn. Even in my own backyard.

Take the asters. On the prairies where I’m a steward, the heath aster, silky aster, and sky blue asters are old friends. I know where they grow, and I can call them by name. In my backyard prairie patch, the New England aster is a “gimmee” —it’s difficult to mistake it for anything else in the yard.

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This September, it’s shown up everywhere.

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But after the New England aster is easily ID’d, the trouble begins. The rest of my backyard prairie asters are up for grabs. Most drifted in, some from my neighbor’s beautiful natural backyard just up the slope from my backyard, others from who knows where. I wrestle with my field guides for ID’s, wracking my brains, then turn to my computer and download the terrific free guide from The Field Museum, Asters of the Chicago Wilderness Region. I page through Wilhelm and Rereicha’s Flora of the Chicago Region on the kitchen table for clues with clippings of asters by my side. I snap photos with the iNaturalist app on my phone. I slice and dice the data. Hairs along the stems—or not?  Remind me what “reticulate” means again? And how many ray florets? I count them, and squint at the stems and scribble notes.

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Are the white ones panicled asters? Or not?

Asters91419GEWM.jpgAdding to the confusion is that the aster names were changed after I first learned them.  Aster simplex, that memorable moniker, is now  Symphyotrichum lanceolatum. Quite a change. The old name tripped easily off my tongue. The new one? Not so much. Some naturalist call the re-classifications “The Aster Disaster.” No kidding. And what about the light purple asters? Some of the white varieties can also be “blue” or what I see as lavender.  Hmmm. There is plenty of variability, and even hints–whispered furtively–about hybridizing between species.

Wrote Edward Voss in his Michigan Flora: None of the wild plants have read their job descriptions, much less attempted to conform to them, and the student of Aster can expect exceptions to almost any statement in the key.” Ain’t it the truth.

The word “aster” is from the Greek, meaning “star.” I put down my field guides and turn off the apps and website links and take a moment to really look at my asters. Admire the pollinator traffic swarming the aster blooms.

Butterflies. Honeybees.

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Bumblebees. Even the flies, those overlooked pollinators, are fascinating in their own way.

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As I walk past the asters and pause by the prairie cordgrass, heavy with seedheads arcing out over the lawn…

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…I startle an eastern cottontail rabbit.

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She freezes. There have been far too many bunnies in the garden this summer for my taste. My vegetables and newly-planted prairie wildflowers? Their personal salad bar. I may never forgive the rabbits for eating my pricey Kankakee mallows. Munch munch. None-the-less, I can’t help but admire her soft fur, that perky cotton-ball tail. I take a step. She bounces gracefully away across the lawn, deep into the tallgrass.

At least I can name the rabbit with certainty–unlike most of the moths, many of the skippers, or the majority of the asters in my backyard.  I’m not giving up on those unknowns, however. After all, there are more field guides to be purchased, more web sites to explore, more conversations about taxonomy to be had with friends.

Tomorrow’s another day.

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The opening quote is from nature writer Robert Finch (1943–) in his book Common Ground: A Naturalist’s Cape Cod, from the chapter “Going to Seed.”  Common Ground was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction (1982). The writer Annie Dillard said, “Robert Finch is one of our finest observers.” Not a bad compliment.

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All photos and video clip copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on cut-and-come-again zinnia (Zinnia elegans), author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; large milkweed bugs  (Oncopeltus fasciatus) on butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) migrating in November, Jasper Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area, Medaryville, Indiana (photograph from a past season); red saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea onusta), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; red-legged grasshopper (Melanoplus femurrubrum); Peck’s skipper (Polites peckius) on black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) with Peck’s skipper (Polites peckius), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; the beautiful wood nymph moth (Eudryas grata), author’s front porch, Glen Ellyn, IL; the beautiful wood nymph moth (Eudrays grata), author’s front porch, Glen Ellyn, IL; unknown asters (Symphyotrichum spp.) with (possibly) green metallic sweat  bee (Augochloropsis metallica), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; unknown asters (Symphyotrichum spp.) with possibly the common eastern bumblebee (Bombus impatiens), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; possibly panicled asters (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; honeybee (Apis mellifera) on unknown asters (Symphyotrichum spp.), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; common green bottle fly (Lucilia sericata) on unknown aster (Symphyotrichum spp.), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; eastern cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

With thanks to Peggy Dunkert for the grasshopper motorcycle comparison, and kudos to The Field Museum’s “Aster’s of the Chicago Wilderness Region” and authors John Balaban and Rebecca Collings for the quote from Edward Vox.

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Cindy’s classes and events resume October 5.  Hope you’ll join me!

October 5, 8:30-11:30 a.m.: Prairie Habitats and Their Wildlife, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: Register by clicking here.

October 5-6, 4 p.m. until noon: Weekend Nature Retreat at The Morton Arboretum. I’ll be leading the journaling section for this overnight event.  Registration information is here.

October 11 — Cress Garden Club, Naperville: Dragonflies and Damselflies: The Garden’s Frequent Fliers at Cress Country Club, Naperville, IL (closed event)

October 18–Northern Kane Book Club — The Schulenberg Prairie  (closed event)

October 19–Second Annual Illinois Odonate Survey Meeting, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, Chicago, IL. Cindy will be reading an essay “The Girl with the Dragonfly Tattoo” and co-leading a workshop on photographing dragonflies and damselflies.  Registration open to dragonfly monitors. More information here.

Prairie Passages

“The opposite of love is not hatred, but indifference.”–Paul Gruchow

The sun lobs her light into the early morning hours. Mist rises from the warmth of the tallgrass into the cool air. It’s quiet, except for the wake-up songs of a few migrating warblers, resting in the nearby trees.

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Dawn is later now. The autumn equinox is only days away. You feel the transition in the slant of the light, the scent of the breezes. The just-past-full harvest moon this week seemed to speak of the cold and dark to come.

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The prairie  year rushes toward its inevitable conclusion.

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Drive by the prairie in late September. The impression is a sea of grasses. It’s easy to be indifferent to the seeming sameness, if you don’t take time to pay attention and look carefully.  

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So. Get out of your car. Sit. Look up at the sunflowers. See the migrating monarch nectaring?

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Celebrate the grasshopper, the bee, the cricket. Each one with plant associations; each irreplaceable in the prairie community.

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Applaud the profusion of asters, dabbing the prairie with purple.

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Watch as the prairie, under the lessening light, gently puts on the brakes. Seeds ripen and fall; some gathered by volunteers, others fuel for grassland birds or tiny mice and voles.  Bison thicken up their hairy chocolate-colored coats.

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Admire the boneset, one of the last flushes of extravagant flowers before the frosts touch the grasses. Boneset was once valued for its medicinal qualities; its ability to alleviate pain. Discomfort is part of change, but there is always solace in unexpected places. The clouds of pale boneset are one of the comforts of a prairie in transition.

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Inhale, smell the buttery prairie dropseed, the lemony scent of gray-headed coneflower seeds, the dusty mint of bee balm.

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Are transitions difficult for you, as they are for me? Are you watching and listening as the tallgrass moves from the warm season; melds into the coming cold?

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Let the prairie remind  you that there is always something amazing waiting, just around the corner. Love the transitions. Embrace what is bittersweet. Don’t be indifferent. Or afraid of change. Keep moving forward with anticipation to the new season ahead.

You’ll see.

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The opening quote is from Grass Roots: The Universe of Home, by Minnesota writer Paul Gruchow (1947-2004). Gruchow grappled with depression throughout his writing life; he found solace in the solitude of wild places, especially prairie.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby: (top to bottom): Prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; just past full harvest moon seen from author’s prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL;  Clear Creek, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on Maximilian sunflowers (Helianthus maximiliani), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; red-legged grasshopper (Melanoplus femurrubrum) on Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; silky asters (Symphyotrichum sericeum), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; tall boneset (Eupatorium altissimum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; mist over prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; September on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. 

A 2015 Prairie Retrospective

May you never forget what is worth remembering; May you never remember what is best forgotten. — old Irish blessing

Every prairie year has its own personality. Every season in the tallgrass is full of surprises.

Thank you for hiking the prairie with me on Tuesdays in 2015. I hope you’ll enjoy this retrospective of the Illinois prairie, month by month.  Who knows what wonderful things are in store for us in 2016?

January

Winter is a good time for naps, as these shaggy bison know. Bringing buffalo to Nachusa Grasslands in Franklin Grove, IL,  was a culmination of a dream for many prairie restorationists. In 2015, we watched the herd grow and a new bison unit open.

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February

Windy winter skies bring their own motion to the prairie, rattling the brittle grasses and seedheads.

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March

Fire is to prairie as water is to life. Because we suppress wildfires, prairie restorationists must used prescribed burns to ensure the prairie regularly goes up in flames. Only a few weeks after all is soot and ashes, the prairie turns emerald with new growth. It’s a resurrection of sorts. A chance for new beginnings that inspires even the most jaded and cynical observer.

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April

A great egret keeps watch over a wet prairie, scanning for small frogs and fish.

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May

As spring breezes ripple prairie ponds and streams, the sounds of insects, frogs, and birds add their notes to the tallgrass soundtrack. Dragonflies emerge.

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June

Pale purple coneflowers  open, heralding the beginning of summer on the prairie. Once revered for their medicinal value, today we appreciate them for their verve and color.

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Like badminton birdies, aren’t they?

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Moist conditions helped queen of the prairie have a banner year in 2015.

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July

Dragonflies are all around us in the warmer months. In July, they clamor for our attention with their numbers and bejeweled colors.  Here, a blue dasher looks out at the prairie with its complex eyes. Below, an American rubyspot hangs over a stream rushing through the tallgrass.

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August

Bee balm rampaged across the prairie in 2015; monarchs sipping beebalm nectar approved. There was good news for monarch butterflies this year — from the tollroads in Illinois which will fund milkweed plantings; to increased numbers of monarchs this season.

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September

Without volunteers, the prairie restoration efforts in the Midwest would be a moot point. Here, a volunteer from an Illinois church group collects seeds on one prairie that will be used to plant a different site.

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October

Asters are the floral bon voyage to the prairie blooming season. It’s bittersweet to see their purples, whites, and golds across the prairie. We know winter is just around the corner.

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The goldenrods join the chorus of goodbyes each autumn.

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November

Milkweed, including this common milkweed, got a lot of attention in 2015 for its value to monarchs. Did you plant some? If not, there’s always next year.

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December

Who says December has to be colorless? In some years, the prairie palette seems to catch fire as winter begins its slow drain of colors from the tallgrass. The oranges, yellows, and reds are a reminder of the prescribed fires that will burn in the spring; waking the prairie up to a new season of life.

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I began my first blog entry this year with the image above; it seems fitting to close out this prairie season with it.

Looking forward to hiking the tallgrass on Tuesdays with you in 2016.

Happy New Year!

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): bison in the snow, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; winter sky, NG; prescribed burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; after the fire, SP; great egret, NG; pond life, NG; Echinacea pallida, SP; Echinacea pallida, SP; queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra); blue dasher dragonfly, SP; American rubyspot, NG; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) and monarch butterfly; volunteer, SP; smooth blue asters (Symphyotrichum laeve), SP; New England asters (Symphyotrichumnovae-angliae) and goldenrod (Solidago spp. — there were several species represented in this particular patch where I photographed, and the IDs are uncertain) SP; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) DuPage County Forest Preserve; late December grasses, NG.

Old Irish Blessing: original source unknown

Chasing the Light

The earth is tilting. Can you feel the shift?

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On September 23, the autumn equinox brought together day and night of equal lengths. The slow slide down the dark tunnel began. Each day, a few minutes shorter. Each night, a bit longer. Do you sense the battle between the light and the dark?

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The dark seems to be winning. Hello, season of slow decline.

As the light slips away, I soak up as much as I can. The first snowfall is a bonus.

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The world brightens under the snow and seems to glow.

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The blanket of white catches sparks of light; ignites the prairie.

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Unexpected sunshine hangs crystal earrings from unlikely grasses and dry forbs; dresses them with diamonds.

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The cold ices the pond, which glitters in the brief light of late afternoon by my backyard prairie.

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The light pools in Willoway Brook, reflecting the savanna by the Schulenberg Prairie.

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Such a season of contrast, of opposites.

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Close by the tallgrass, I find a vole hole and tracks, evidence that I’m not the only one who wants to escape the dark.

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Even the empty milkweed pods, bereft of their silky floss, seem luminous in the low-slung sunlight.

IMG_1554I’m thankful for whatever glimpses of light I can get. Whatever holds the light and reflects it. 

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Small solaces as the world seemingly plunges into darkness. But I’m grateful for these moments. Each reflected glow. Each spark of light. Every small bright spot.

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I know what’s coming. The darkest day, the winter solstice. December 21, the shortest day of the year.  Soon. Very soon.

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Until then, I’ll keep looking for the light. Wherever it may be found.

All photos by Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; author’s window to the prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; SP at TMA; TMA; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), author’s prairie, GE; asters, author’s prairie,  GE; author’s prairie pond, GE; SP savanna, SP at TMA; New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus) SP at TMA; vole hole and tracks, author’s prairie, GE; milkweed pod (Asclepias syriaca), author’s prairie, GE;  author’s prairie, GE;  SP at TMA; author’s prairie, GE: SP at TMA; SP at TMA.

Finding Peace in Wild Things

So much fear in the world right now.

It’s catching. I find myself jumpy, anxious. Feeling like nothing will change. Up against a wall of doubt.

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When the world seems like an impossible place, I go to the prairie. This time, instead of going alone, I go with friends. I need the reminder of how much we need each other.  A reminder that we’re not alone in the world.

The late summer and early autumn greens and reds of the grasses are draining away, creating a new palette of rusts, tans, and browns.

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It’s quiet here.

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Until, suddenly, pheasants fly up – two, three – six! One lands in a tree.

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I admire their vibrant colors — that scarlet head — even while acknowledging that pheasants aren’t native to this place. But there’s room here for them.

We have so much.

A Cooper’s hawk settles in near the black plastic mulched plant nursery, where plants are going to seed, which will be used for future restoration efforts. I love the plant nursery, with its sturdy rows of prairie plants. It’s a visual reminder of how we deliberately cultivate hope for change in the future.

The hawk stares me down. Even when we think we’ve got the way forward all figured out and organized, there’s always a wild card.

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Look! Just around the corner,  a herd of bison spill over the grassy two track.

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One blocks our way.

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We keep a respectful distance. The bison stay together, tolerating our presence.

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I admire their shaggy chocolate coats; their heft and muscle. Their coats gleam and shine in the late afternoon light.

They know where the juiciest grasses are, even now.

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We watch them for a long time before we move away.

The slant of the November sun backlights the prairie like a false frost.

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The milk-washed sky brightens; the smell of old grass and decaying chlorophyll  lifts in the autumn chill. I inhale. Exhale. The autumn prairie is changing, seemingly dying.

It’s not the end. Just a transition to the next season.

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Fur and feathers…and a sea of grass. My fears are not gone, but they begin to dissolve in the late afternoon light. There is so much to be grateful for.

So much in this world that gives us reason to hope.

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All photos by Cindy Crosby from Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (The Nature Conservancy) 

There is a beautiful (copyrighted!) poem by Wendell Berry, The Peace of Wild Things, that I find a good antidote to difficult times. Find it at The Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171140.

Prairie Endings and Beginnings

“What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.” –T. S. Eliot

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October recedes in the rear-view mirror.

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Hello, November.

On the edge of the prairie, ruby-leaved maples still spill their colors into the cold, blue air.

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An Asian beetle scrambles along a wooden beam, then slows.

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Grasshoppers flip and turn on the bridge through the tallgrass, then pause, as if asking: “What’s next?”

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It’s the end of one cycle. And the beginning of another.

The season of seeds.

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The prairie explodes with a seed extravaganza.

Asters shake their pom poms.

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Milkweeds breathe out tendrils of silk.

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Cattails wave their batons to the rhythm the wind commands.

Seeds, seeds, seeds.

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The prairie tosses its curls full of Canada wild rye, punctuated with thistle.

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Enchanter’s nightshade casts its spell over the prairie savanna.

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One by one, the seeds ripen, then loosen.

And so, they begin their journeys. Some by wind…

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Some by water…

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Some lifted by the hands of volunteers, who spend hours in the tallgrass picking prairie seeds into buckets;

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spread them out in trays to dry.

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The seeds wait, ready to be sown on winter’s first snow. The cold, damp conditions will ready them for germination in the spring.

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The end of one chapter; the beginning of another.

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The promise of something new to come.

All photos by Cindy Crosby: (top to bottom) Leaves, Springbrook Nature Center, Itasca, IL; bridge, SNC; maple (Acer spp.), SNC; Asian beetle, SNC; grasshopper, SNC; wild plum (Prunus americana), Songbird Slough Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Itasca, IL; asters (unknown species) , SS;  milkweed pod (Asclepias syriaca), SS; cattails (Typha latifolia), SS; Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; enchanter’s nightshade (Circaea lutetiana canadensis), NG; beebalm with milkweed seed (Monarda fistulosa and Asclepias syriaca), author’s backyard in Glen Ellyn, IL; Springbrook Creek by the prairie at SNC; seeds collected on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  native prairie seeds drying in the headhouse, SP;  little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), SP; goldenrod (Solidago spp), SS.

The opening quote is from T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets.”