Tag Archives: autumn

Little Prairie in the City

“Wherever we look, from the dirt under our feet to the edge of the expanding cosmos, and on every scale from atoms to galaxies, the universe appears to be saturated with beauty.”–Scott Russell Sanders

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We went looking for beauty. We found it in the northwest corner of Illinois, on a day both foggy and cold.

The 66-acre Searls Park Prairie and wetland is tucked into a mosaic of soccer fields, jogging trails, picnic grounds, and a BMX bike track. Once part of a 230-acre family farm homesteaded in the 1850’s, today the prairie is a designated Illinois Nature Preserve and part of the Rockford Park District.

Fog drizzles the tallgrass with droplets, but no light sparkles. Staghorn sumac lifts its scarlet torches in the gloom, bright spots of color on this gray, gray day.

This remnant is mostly mesic prairie; or what I call the “Goldilocks” type of prairie—-not too wet, not too dry. Well-drained. Just right. Black soil prairie was once coveted by farmers as a fertile place for crops—farmers like the Searls, no doubt. For that reason, most black soil prairies have vanished in Illinois.

It’s quiet. Even the recreational areas are empty in the uncomfortably damp late afternoon. No soccer games. No picnics. The BMX bike track is closed.

The prairie seems other-worldly in the silence.

Prairies like this, tucked into cities, are important sanctuaries. Searls Park Prairie is known for hosting three state-listed threatened or endangered plant species. I don’t see any of the rare or endangered plants on my hike today. But I do see Indian grass….lots and lots of Indian grass.

Its bright bleached blades are etched sharply against the misty horizon. The colors of the drenched prairie are so strong, they seem over-exposed.

Thimbleweed, softly blurred in the fog, mingles with…

…round-headed bush clover, silvery in the late afternoon.

Canada wild rye is sprinkled with sparks.

Gray

Inhale. Ahhhh. Gray-headed coneflower seedheads are soggy with rainwater, but still smell of lemons when you crush them.

I pinch the hoary leaves of bee balm. Thymol, its essential oil, is still present. But the fragrance is fading.

Mountain mint has lost most of its scent, but still charms me with its dark, silvery seedheads.

Stiff goldenrod transitions from bloom to seed, not quite ready to let go of the season.

Overhead, a flock of tiny birds flies over, impossible to identify. There are rare birds here, although I don’t see any today. On our way to the prairie, we marveled at non-native starlings in the cornfields along the interstate, moving in synchronized flight. I’ve never been able to get this on video, but there are great examples of this flight found here. I’ve only seen this phenomenon in the autumn; one of the marvels of the dying year. Once seen, never forgotten.

On the edge of the prairie, wild plums spangle the gloom.

Such color! Such abundance.

I’ve read there is high-quality wet prairie here, full of prairie cordgrass, blue joint grass, and tussock sedge. We look for this wetter area as we hike, but the path we’re on eventually disappears.

No matter. So much prairie in Illinois is gone. So little original prairie is left. I’m grateful to Emily Searls for deeding her family’s farm to the city of Rockford almost 80 years ago, ensuring this prairie is preserved today.

So much beauty. We hardly know where to look next.

The sun burns briefly through the fog like a white-hot dime.

Dusk is on the way, a little early. We make our way back to the car, just ahead of the dark.

There are many different ways to think of beauty.

It’s always available for free on the prairie, in all its infinite variations.

Why not go see?

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The opening quote is from Scott Russell Sanders’ (1945-) The Way of Imagination. Sanders is professor at Indiana University in Bloomington, IN, where Jeff and I lived for a dozen or so years. After writing the opening quote, he follows it with “What are we to make of this?” and later “How then should we live, in a world overflowing with such bounty? Rejoice in it, care for it, and strive to add our own mite of beauty, with whatever power and talent we possess.” Oh, yes.

All photos from Searls Park Prairie, Rockford, IL (top to bottom): fog over the Searls Park Prairie; Illinois nature preserve sign; staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina); white vervain (Verbena urticifolia); dedication plaque; foggy landscape; indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica); round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata); canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis); gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum); fog on the prairie; stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum); indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and wild plum (Prunus americanus); wild plum (Prunus americanus); autumn colors; Jeff on the Searls Park Prairie; sawtooth sunflowers (Helianthus grosseserratus) in the mist; foggy day on the Searls Park Prairie; prairie landscape in the fog; unknown umbel.

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Join Cindy for a class—or ask her to speak virtually for your organization–now booking talks for 2021. Email Cindy through http://www.cindycrosby.com.

Literary Gardens Online: Friday, Dec.4, 1-2:30 p.m.CST– Join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby from wherever you live in the world for a fun look at great (and not-so-great) gardens in literature and poetry. From Agatha Christie’s mystery series, to Brother Cadfael’s medieval herb garden, to Michael Pollan’s garden in “Second Nature,” to the “secret garden” beloved of children’s literature, there are so many gardens that helped shape the books we love to read. Discover how gardens and garden imagery figure in the works of Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Goudge, Rumer Godden, May Sarton, Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Gilbert, Henry Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver, and Lewis Carroll–and many more! This class is online. Register here through The Morton Arboretum.

Just released in June! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History.

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Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the 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 these unusual times.

Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (phrelanzer). Or visit her website at http://www.cindycrosby.com. See you there!

A Prairie with Class

“Before we can imagine saving the landscape we must be able to form it realistically in our imaginations as something that we love.” — Joel Sheesley

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Cool nights. Steady rain. A first frost forecast. The September tallgrass is singing its swan song, and I want to listen to every last note.

The prairie is in full autumnal splendor this week, as temperatures drop. Jeff and I are at the campus of the “second largest provider of undergraduate education” in Illinois, but we’re not here to take a class. Rather, we’re hiking the trails of College of DuPage’s beautiful prairies and natural areas in Glen Ellyn, not far from where we live.

Normally, the campus is abuzz with students rushing to their next academic or social commitment. But this year, most on-campus classes are temporarily online. The library, theater, and restaurant are closed.

The only “buzz” comes from the bees, checking out the prairie’s wildflowers. And they’re not the only ones.

Skippers jostle for position on the New England asters.

A false milkweed bug checks out a panicled aster. Looks similar to the “true” large milkweed bug, doesn’t it? But, I discover as I identify it with iNaturalist on my cell phone, the false milkweed bug feeds on members of the aster family.

Along the edges of the prairie are four acres of woodland with a few osage orange trees scattered alongside the trails. That bizarre fruit! I’ve heard it called “hedge apples,” but it’s nothing you’d want to dip in caramel or make a pie with.

The wood of the osage orange is a favorite for fence posts and archery bows. The grapefruit sized balls are strangely brain-like in appearance (another nickname: “monkey brains.” )

I’d hate to have one of these drop on my head. Ouch!

The 15 acres of the East Prairie Ecological Study Area, established by College of DuPage visionary Russell Kirt (author of Prairie Plants of the Midwest), includes the aforementioned four acres of woodland, three acres of marsh, with plenty of cattails…..

…and eight acres of reconstructed tallgrass prairie, which according to College of DuPage’s website, were planted between 1975-1997.

Across campus is the Russell R. Kirt Prairie, an 18-acre natural area with marsh, a retention pond, and 11 reconstructed prairie and savanna acres planted between 1984 and 2000. For many years, that was “the prairie” I came to hike at COD. I’m still learning this place—the East Prairie—which Jeff and I found this spring during the first weeks of quarantine. It’s been a bright spot in a chaotic, unsettling time.

Now, Jeff and I make the East Prairie a regular part of our hiking trips. I love exploring its wildflowers in the fall with their unusual seedpods, like the Illinois bundleflower.

Illinois bundleflower is an overly-enthusiastic native on the Schulenberg Prairie, where I’m a steward. We’ve picked its seed defensively in some years, to keep it from spreading. Here it appears in reasonable amounts. We’ve shared seed from the Schulenberg with COD, so it is possible these are descendants from those very plants. I hope it behaves in the coming years!

In contrast, I wish we had more of the white wild indigo seed pods this season. I see a few here at COD’s prairie. White wild indigo is subject to weevils, which eat the seeds, and sometimes make seed saving a difficult chore. These look good!

As I wander this prairie path, my thoughts move away from the plants at hand. I wonder what the winter will bring. Last autumn, the events of the past seven months would have seemed inconceivable.

Sometimes, I wonder if I’ve imagined it all.

Surely we’ll wake up, shake ourselves and laugh. You won’t believe what I dreamed last night.

Most weeks, I try to be intentional about how I spend my time. I want to look back on this chaotic year and know I didn’t just mark off days.

That I chose to make good memories.

Hiking the prairie is part of this. Time to be quiet, and away from the news. Time to soak up the beauty around me.

Room to listen. Time to reflect on where I’ve been, and where I want to go.

Memories in the making.

Time well spent.

*****

The opening quote is from Joel Sheesley’s beautiful book, A Fox River Testimony. Visit Joel’s website to learn more about his art, writing, and inspiration.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby, East Prairie Ecological Study Area at College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL (top to bottom): the prairie in autumn; prairie path in autumn; prairie at COD in September; two skippers, possibly tawny-edged (Polites themistocles) on new england asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae); panicled aster (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum) with false milkweed bug (Lygaeus turcicus); osage orange (Maclura pomifera); osage orange (Maclura pomifera); cattails (probably Typha glauca); indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); Indian hemp (sometimes called dogbane) (Apocynum cannabinum); illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis); white wild indigo (Baptisia lactea or alba var. macrophylla); beaver-chewed trees; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum); new england aster (Symphotrichum novae-angliae) with flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata); staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina); mixed wetland plants at the edge of the marsh; panicled aster (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum) with Peck’s skipper (Polites peckius); mixed plants at the edge of the prairie; prairie path; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) and culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum) with mixed prairie grasses and forbs.

Join Cindy for a class—or ask her to speak virtually for your organization this autumn! Now booking talks for 2021.

“Nature Writing Online” begins Monday, October 5, through The Morton Arboretum. Last days to register! 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 in June! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History.

Chasing Dragonflies Final Cover 620.jpg

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 these unusual times.

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. 

Fall Comes to the Prairie

“Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns.”–George Eliot

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The Canada geese are quarreling. I watch them elbow each other out of the way in mid-flight; honking and diving. Maybe they are arguing the mysteries of matter, or particle physics? After all, they’re at Fermilab, a government facility for particle physics and an accelerator laboratory just down the road from my house. The facility grounds are a  mosaic of beautiful natural areas, including prairies and wetlands. fermilabWMwilsonhall10118.jpg

The bison grazing nearby on the grounds seem more placid than the geese, untroubled by neutrino experiments or accelerator science.

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You can almost imagine their thoughts. Hey geese! Keep it down. What’s all the fuss about? At any rate, I’m not here to bison watch, and I have little patience for quarrels today, geese or otherwise. My destination is a prairie trail.pathatfermiprairie10118WM.jpg

Approximately one thousand acres of Fermilab Natural Areas, surrounding the government world of equations and physics, promises endless adventures. And today, there’s not a soul on the prairie path. Although it’s obvious I’m not alone.

Overhead, green darner dragonflies hover high above the tallgrass. Are they migrating south? Or waiting out their lives here? Hard to tell. But this late in the season I suspect they’re on their way to warmer places. Lately, a black saddlebags dragonfly, also migratory, has hung around my backyard, slow and torpid in the colder weather. Imagine those wings taking it thousands of miles! Close up the wing veination reminds me of ferns.

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I continue hiking, stepping in coyote scat on the trail. Oops! Better watch where I’m going. An insect sings a single note, as if struck from a tuning fork. Everywhere, there are tiny crackling sounds. Mice eating seeds? Birds rustling in the grasses? Leaves drying in the  sun? Part of the prairie’s mystery.

The dogbane or Indian hemp, as it is sometimes called, is gone to seed in places. Its soft silks contrast with the crisp, browning leaves of neighboring prairie plants and their tinker-toy stems.dogbaneindianhemp10118WM.jpg

Wildflowers are mostly of the goldenrod and aster variety, with a few exceptions. Some mountain mint. A last pale prairie Indian plantain bloom or two.

The stiff gentians, those party girls of the fall, are out in full regalia. Looks like a weevil might be crashing the fun.

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So many gentians! They are abundant here, like amethysts scattered deep in the tallgrass. Nearby, goldenrod galls create their own sort of green “flowers” everywhere I look.  Sometimes called “bunch galls” or “rosette galls,” they are formed by insects. Check out more about goldenrod galls here.

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You could enjoyably spend several hours searching for the different goldenrod galls (ellipse, ball, rosette, small bunch…), and reading up on their buggy creators. See one bunch gall, and suddenly the others come into focus.

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The rosin weed blooms are past, but their seedheads look like floral bouquets, don’t they? As pretty in seed as in flower.

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Everywhere there are riots of asters; including many species of white aster that I struggle to name. More easily ID’d is the ubiquitous New England aster, poised on the prairie like a satellite dish with fringe.

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It’s not all prettiness and pleasantry.  The tall coreopsis is in seed, towering over my head, and  I can’t resist pulling down a seedhead and digging into it with my fingernail even though I know I’ll be repelled. And I am. It oozes a smelly, oily substance—and I quickly let the stem spring back. Of all the seeds we collect each fall on the prairie, this is my least favorite. So pretty in bloom! So stinky in your hands.tallcoreposisWMFermi10118.jpg

Rot and decay, the calling cards of October, are juxtaposed with these last flushes of bloom and seed. A giant puffball lies shattered and corrupt, broken up by small mammals and now fodder for insect life.

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And in proportion to the slow decline of plants, the insects seemingly flourish. You don’t notice them so much at first, except for the mosquitoes who won’t be ignored. But take a moment and look—really look—at the grasses and flowers, and all at once, you realize they are teeming with insect life. So much diversity!

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Decay can be beautiful. The turn of the prairie dock leaf…

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The compass plant seedheads, dry and full of promise for new life.

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Wild quinine, its silvered seeds perhaps more lovely than the flowers themselves were.wildquinineWMFermi10118.jpg

In autumn, the balance of light to dark shifts, tipping ever-so-slowly toward darkness as the days go by. Change is in the air. Bloom to seed. Flourishing to decline. All this change is in evidence here this morning.

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So much to see in one short morning hike here! Who knows what other adventures will unfold this October on the prairie?

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The opening quote about autumn is from Mary Ann Evans (1819-1880), a Victorian-era English novelist and poet who wrote under the pen name George Eliot. She chose a man’s name to escape being thought of as a romance writer. Among her books are Middlemarch, The Mill on the Floss, and Silas Marner.

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All photos taken at Fermilab Natural Areas Interpretive Trail, Fermilab Accelerator Laboratory, Batavia, IL, unless otherwise indicated: Wilson Hall and prairie grasses; bison (Bison bison); prairie trail; black saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata), author’s backyard pond and prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; dogbane or Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum):  stiff gentians (Gentianella quinquefolia); Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) with probable bunch gall midge (Rhopalomyia solidaginis); Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) with probable bunch gall midge (Rhopalomyia solidaginis); rosin weed (Silphium integrifolium) seedhead; New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae); tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris) seedheads; decayed puffball (possibly Calvatia gigantea); partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata) and an unknown species of ant; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceeum) leaf; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) seeds; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium); sky and grass in October. 

The Last Wild Prairie Places

“Undisturbed remnants of ancient ecosystems, habitats for rare or threatened species, pristine stretches of river, unusual geologic features, exclamations of topography—-wild places aren’t merely beautiful landscapes; they possess a totemic lure, a power or presence that attracts people, sometimes across generational and cultural chasms spanning centuries.” — George Frazier

***

Go west of Illinois. Drive through the small towns of Kansas.

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Imagine thousands and thousands of acres of tallgrass prairie here.

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Then discover the Flint Hills, which are just that.

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Sweeps of bronze, backlit by sunshine, wash the prairie in early autumn. Big bluestem, little bluestem, switchgrass, and Indian grass predominate.

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Bison are all around, plopped across the landscape.

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Keep your distance.

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To appreciate prairie here demands that you pay close attention. Look deep into the buffalo grass.

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You might see something fuzzy.

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Or rubbery.

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You may see a critter in seemingly constant motion that is motionless for a moment.

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Fall flowers add bright dabs of color.

Yellows.

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A few purples and lavenders.

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Blue blooms, as if the sky has flaked into the grasses.

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Heath aster spangles its pale stars everywhere you look.

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As you hike the miles and miles of trails…

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…you feel a sense of something lost.

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You catch the vision of what once was. And you wonder what the future here will be.

It’s in these last wild places that our imagination has room to take flight.

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They are the “thin places” as the Celts tell us. Places that change the way we see the world. Perhaps these places are more precious to us because they have almost vanished. And still may.

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Unless…we continue to pay attention and care for them. Share these wild places with others. Never lose our sense of wonder about them. Marvel.

And make time to go see.

***

George Frazier is the author of The Last Wild Places of Kansas: Journeys into Hidden Landscapes  (University Press of Kansas), from which the opening quote in this essay was taken. This book was a wonderful companion for my first trip to the Flint Hills.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): barn in Burns, Kansas (population 228); trail through the autumn grasses, Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, KS; trail through the Flint Hills in autumn,  Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; lone bison (Bison bison), Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; buffalo grass (Buchloe dactyloides), Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; yellow bear caterpillar (Spilosoma virginica), Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; unknown fungi, Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; red-legged grasshopper, (Melanoplus femurrubrum), Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; prairie coneflower (Ratibida columnifera), Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; curly-cup gumweed (Grindelia squarrosa), Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; prairie blazing star (Liatris punctata), Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; unknown aster, Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; blue sage (Salvia azurea), Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; heath aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides), Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; trail through the Flint Hills in autumn, Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; feather caught in the tallgrass, Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; kite flying over Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; possibly an immature western meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta), cemetery in Burns, Kansas.

Thanks to Mike and Donna Kehoe, who generously hosted us in Kansas and who help keep the last wild places alive through books.

September Prairie Reflections

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

***

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.

Winter Prairie Wonders

 “It is easy to underestimate the power of a long-term association with the land, not just with a specific spot but with the span of it in memory and imagination, how it fills, for example, one’s dreams…”–Barry Lopez

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“There’s nothing much happening on the prairie now…right?” a long-time nature lover asked me recently. Here is what I want him to know.

To develop a relationship with a prairie, you will want to experience the spring burn.

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Learn the names of the summer wildflowers.

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Marvel at the fall colors.

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But don’t forget hiking the winter prairie, no matter how cold and gray the days may be. Because part of any good relationship is simply showing up.

The joys of a winter hike include the thimbleweed’s soft cloud-drifts of seeds. Like Q-tips.

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Or, the way prairie dock’s dotted Swiss leaves, brittle with cold and age, become a vessel for snow and a window into something more.

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Don’t miss the deep grooves, sharp spikes, and elegant curves of rattlesnake master leaves, swirling in and out of focus in the grasses. How can a plant be so forbidding–yet so graceful?

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In winter, you’re aware of the contrasts of dark and light; of beaded pods and slender stems.

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The goldenrod rosette galls are as pretty as any blooms the summer offers.

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The colors of the end-of-January prairie, which splatter across the landscape like a Jackson Pollock painting, are more subtle than the vivid hues of July.  But no less striking, in their own way. The winter prairie whispers color, instead of shouting it.

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On your hike, you may bump up against signs of life, like this praying mantis egg case.

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Or be dazzled by the diminutive drifts of snow crystals, each bit of ice a work of art.

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All of the flowers –and most of the seedheads–are gone. Many of the birds have flown south. Hibernating mammals sleep away the cold. But as life on the stripped-down prairie slows…

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…there is still much to see and to learn. And, isn’t slowing down and waiting an important part of any relationship?

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Yes, there is a lot happening on the winter prairie right now. But only for those who take time to look.

Why not go for a hike and see?

***

Barry Lopez (1945-), whose quote begins this essay, won the National Book Award for his nonfiction book, Arctic Dreams. His Of Wolves and Men” won the John Burroughs Nature Writing Medal (1978). Lopez graduated from Notre Dame University, and is currently  Visiting Distinguished Scholar at Texas Tech University. He has been called “the nation’s premier nature writer” by the San Francisco Chronicle, and writes compellingly about the relationship of people and cultures to landscape. Another memorable line from Arctic Dreams: The land is like poetry: it is inexplicably coherent, it is transcendent in its meaning, and it has the power to elevate a consideration of human life.” Well said. Lopez lives in Oregon.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): spring burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blue vervain (Verbena hastata) and pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; autumn on the prairie, Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy and Indiana DNR, Newton County, IN; thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; wild senna (Senna hebecarpa), St. Stephen’s Prairie, Carol Stream, IL; goldenrod (probably Solidago canadensis) gall rosette (sometimes called “bunch gall”), St. Stephen’s Prairie, Carol Stream, IL; tallgrass, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL (Thanks to Charles Larry for the Jackson Pollock reference); praying mantis (Mantis religiosa) egg case, St. Stephen’s Prairie, Carol Stream, IL;  snow crystals, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; empty seedhead, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; tallgrass, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL.

Advice from John Muir

“Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” –John Muir

 

***

You might not be able to climb a mountain, or spend a week in the woods in December, as the opening quote from John Muir advocates. But, a short walk in the winter prairie savanna does “wash your spirit clean.” Come hike with me and see why.

What is a prairie savanna, anyway? Very simply put, it’s a place that’s less dense than a forest, and has its own suite of plants. You may see tallgrass prairie plants, animals, birds, or critters you recognize here, as well. Especially on the edges.

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Look around. In Conrad Station’s black oak savanna at Kankakee Sands in northwestern Indiana, there are traces of human habitation. People once remade this landscape into a place for commerce. But now — with the help of volunteers  and caring people –nature has reclaimed the savanna.

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Dried fern fronds arch over the crunchy fallen leaves.

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A recent rain beads mullein leaves with water drops.

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Oaks, shorn of their fall finery, are decorated with shelf fungi. Elf staircases?

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Seeds…so many seeds. The plant leaves curl as they dry, perhaps more beautiful in death than in life.

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Towers of fungi rise from the savanna floor.

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There are “muffins” everywhere. Mystery mushrooms? What could they be?

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These kinds of questions  will give you many happy hours flipping through ID books later at home. After much searching in field guides, the “muffins” turned out to be purple-spored puffballs.

Moss spangles the trail.

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Oak apple galls dangle from trees, their wasp-y occupants long since fled.

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Open one,  and marvel at the “web” that once held a tiny developing oak apple gall wasp safely inside.

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On your prairie savanna hike, you’ll see things you know. You’ll also discover new plants and other living things you can’t easily find names for. All it takes to “clean your spirit” is a little curiosity; a little energy.

You don’t have to hike alone — ask a friend or two to explore with you. Talk about what you discover.

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Who knows what is waiting for you on your December walk in the prairie savanna?

Wherever you are — make time to go see. Take John Muir’s advice. It will “wash your spirit clean.”

***

John Muir (1838-1914)  is known as the father of our National Parks. His love for the outdoors and activism on behalf of natural areas have been formative and inspirational for many naturalists, including myself. Although some find his superlatives heavy slogging, his books have been read by millions and have decorated many a dorm room poster. His words continue to inspire people today to develop a relationship with the outdoors, and care for the natural world.

Read more about the history of Conrad Station Savanna at The Nature Conservancy’s website:

http://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/northamerica/unitedstates/indiana/placesweprotect/conrad-station-history.xml

***

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby; taken at Conrad Station’s black oak sand savanna at Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Newton County, IN (top to bottom): starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) lifting off on the savanna’s edge; sweet fern (Comptonia peregrina) fronds; common mullein (Verbascum thapsus) leaves; various polypore (bracket) fungi (Family: Polyporaceae); unknown seedhead; white polypore (bracket) fungi (Family: Polyporaceae); purple-spored puffballs-late stage (Calvatia cyathiformis); haircap moss (Polytrichum spp.); oak apple gall (Amphibolips confluenta) on black oak (Quercus velutina); open oak apple gall (Amphibolips confluenta); hikers exploring the savanna (Homo sapiens). 

Of Birds and Bison

“Bird migration is the one truly unifying natural phenomenon in the world, stitching the continents together in a way that even the great weather systems, which roar out from the poles but fizzle at the equator, fail to do. It is an enormously complex subject, perhaps the most compelling drama in all of natural history.” — Scott Weidensaul

***

It’s a cold, drizzly day. As much as I’m tempted to curl up on the couch with a good book, plans are underway for a birding outing. Along with six of our friends, my husband Jeff and I head out of the Chicago suburbs and to the famed Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area in Indiana, two hours southeast. This is the big weekend. Thousands of migrating sandhill cranes will be passing through.

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This fall, we saw thousands of migrants from the western flyways gathering in southern New Mexico, at Bosque del Apache National Refuge. On the ground, the cranes look almost prehistoric.p1020795

Those red caps! Those rusty feathers! How do they get their bulky bodies airborne? Cranes remind me of the mysteries of flight, and of migration. Why do large groups of birds travel from one place to another, sometimes tens of thousands of miles from their starting point? No one has completely been able to explain  this rhythmic dance. And perhaps, that’s part of the joy in watching them. We don’t fully understand. So we marvel, instead.

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The cranes fly over the Chicago suburbs during November and December. Their high pitched cries often pull me out of the house, shielding my eyes against the sun, to watch them move southeast.

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In the Jasper-Pulaski refuge, I’ll get a chance to see these same cranes that fly over my house congregating en masse on the ground, a little farther along on their journey. But first, a stop at Kankakee Sands, a more than 7,000 acre mosaic of prairie, savanna, and wetland in northern Indiana.

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Kankakee Sands introduced bison to their prairie this fall, and we’re looking forward to seeing how they’ve settled in. There’s a bison viewing area where I have an excellent up-close-and-personal meeting with the shaggy all-stars.

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I wonder if the bison consider this place a “visitor viewing area;” a chance to see people behavior. This one kept an eye on us.

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A few brown-headed cowbirds hung out on bison backs, giving us a sense of the difference in sizes. A study in contrasts.

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While watching the bison, my friend John suddenly shouts– “prairie falcon!” A first for me. Although prairie falcons are usually found out west, occasionally they pop up in Illinois and Indiana. So quick!

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The sun moves toward the western horizon. We leave the bison and birds and drive the short distance to the Jasper-Pulaski refuge. The viewing platform is thick with binocular-wielding birders and the giant scopes of photographers.

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Anticipation. A few cranes have already straggled in.We find our places on the platform. In the fields, there is a loud rumble of distinctive crane chatter.Then…. a clamor in the distance. The crane cries rise to a crescendo.

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They’re coming! Waves and waves of sandhill cranes. The air froths with cranes; boils with birds. Swirling and tilting in every direction in the last light.

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I think of a line from Mary Oliver’s poem, The Wild Geese: “…the world offers itself to your imagination…”.

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I imagine these cranes in the morning, taking off to continue their flight to the southern coasts. Why will they go? I don’t fully know. But it gives me a sense of peace and happiness to think about the rest of their journey. To know that this rhythm of nature–these migrations–will continue.

And that for one small part of one evening, I was witness to it.

****

The opening quote in this essay is by Scott Weidensaul, author of Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds, a finalist for the 2000 Pulitzer Prize in Nonfiction. Weidensaul captures the magic, mystery, and science of migration in this memorable book which still remains one of my favorites in nature writing.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis), Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area, Medaryville, IN; sandhill crane duo (Grus canadensis), Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, San Antonio, NM; wading sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis), at sunrise, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, San Antonio, NM; sandhill cranes  (Grus canadensis),over the author’s prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie grasses in November, Kankakee Sands (The Nature Conservancy), Newton County, IN: bison (Bison bison) grazing, Kankakee Sands (The Nature Conservancy), Newton County, IN; bison (Bison bison), Kankakee Sands (The Nature Conservancy), Newton County, IN; bison (Bison bison) and a cowbird (Molothrus ater), Kankakee Sands (The Nature Conservancy), Newton County, IN; prairie falcon ((Falco mexicanus), Kankakee Sands (The Nature Conservancy), Newton County, IN; watching for cranes, Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area (DNR), Medaryville, IN; crane fly-in (Grus canadensis), Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area (DNR), Medaryville, IN: swirl of sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis), Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area (DNR), Medaryville, IN; sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis), Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area (DNR), Medaryville, IN.

Prairie in Unlikely Places

“It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.”–Arthur Conan Doyle

***

When you think of “nature,” do you picture large, sprawling preserves or national parks in other regions, filled with wildlife and unusual plants?

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Yes, these are beautiful destinations. But, the most inspirational places in the natural world aren’t always parks and preserves in other parts of the country. Sometimes, it’s the little places where people are caring for nature that move us the most.

You never know where you’re going to find a small patch of planted or remnant prairie. Like these tallgrass plants, hanging out by a graffitied underpass in Bloomington, Indiana.

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Or prairie plants scattered along old railroad tracks, like these grasses in northern Indiana.

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Recently, I visited the St. Stephen’s Cemetery Prairie in Carol Stream, Illinois; a tiny prairie remnant off the beaten path. It took me three tries to find it. The view around the prairie might be a clue as to why. Not exactly “pristine” or “untrammeled” nature, is it?

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The forbidding entrance — a gravel road through a cement plant, the road lined with buckthorn — echoed the fortress-like feel of the cemetery. Because of vandalism, the cemetery is surrounded by a high, chain-link fence lined with barbed wire.

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When you look through it, you can see the prairie. Like the cemetery, it’s also surrounded by a high, chain-link fence.

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Bob Jacobsen, the 85-year-old volunteer caretaker for the prairie and cemetery, offered me a short introduction to the tallgrass here. The two acres, he said, were originally purchased and intended to be part of an 1852 German Catholic Church’s cemetery expansion. The cemetery stayed small. The little piece of expansion ground, full of prairie plants, escaped the plow that destroyed most of Illinois prairies when this portion of the state was settled.

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This little remnant is hanging on — but just barely. Jacobsen reminisced about the dilapidated state of the prairie during the 1970s. Moped riders and motorcyclists used the prairie as a racetrack, he told me. The fence he put up offers protection from people who don’t recognize the prairie’s value.

He has a vision for this little two-acre remnant.

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That it might hang on, despite the build-up all around it. That it will continue, despite the odds. He burns it, weeds it, and hopes for others to carry on the legacy of caring for this little prairie patch in an unlikely place.

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“Nature” — and tallgrass prairie remnants like this one– don’t always have the wow factor of a large, protected refuge, vast open spaces, and innumerable wildlife inhabitants.

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But sometimes, it’s the small, carefully-protected tiny remnants or surprising mini-restorations in someone’s backyard that give me the most hope. They are a spark in the dark. A match, which may strike interest, then kindle love and appreciation for the prairie in those who don’t know it well. Learning to understand and nurture the small places are a stepping stone to greater appreciation and care for the big tracts of land we need in our world that are also irreplaceable.

These small patches are unlikely survivors in a harsh environment. Light, in the darkness.

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Long may those like Bob Jacobsen continue to do their best to keep these small places with original prairie alive and flourishing. And may these remnants and other little prairie reconstructions continue to inspire us to continue our work with prairie. To prompt us to  care for the natural world in the large scenic places. To care for those nooks and crannies full of “nature” in our communities. And, perhaps most importantly, to care for the natural world in our own neighborhoods and backyards, no matter how small they may seem. Paying attention. Making a difference.

***

The opening quote is by Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), the author who created the  Sherlock Holmes detective series.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): snow geese and sandhill cranes, Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge, San Antonio, New Mexico; prairie plants and graffiti, Bloomington, IN:  prairie plants along the railroad tracks, northwestern Indiana; cement plant, Carol Stream, IL; warning sign, St. Stephen’s Cemetery, Carol Stream, IL; St. Stephen’s Cemetery tombstones with prairie in the background, Carol Stream, IL; Indian hemp or dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum), St. Stephen’s Cemetery Prairie, Carol Stream, IL; St. Stephen’s Cemetery Prairie, Carol Stream, IL; wild asparagus seed (Asparagus officinalis), St. Stephen’s Cemetery Prairie, Carol Stream, IL; sunset, Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge, San Antonio, New Mexico; unknown aster, St. Stephen’s Cemetery Prairie, Carol Stream, IL.

Three Minutes of Hope on the Prairie

“Truly we live with mysteries too marvelous to be understood.”–Mary Oliver

***

Forget politics for a moment. Take three minutes to walk with me. Focus on the wonders of the tallgrass prairie in November.

I need a hike where it’s quiet today — don’t you?

November’s Indian summer sighs, then turns and marches toward the cold. Little bluestem throws its confetti of seeds across the tallgrass  in an extravagant last hurrah; a marvel of color and light.

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Look at the sky, a kaleidoscope of clouds forming and reforming in different patterns.

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It’s an ever-changing painting, so easily taken for granted. Put there…for what? For our joy? For our amazement? The least we can do is take time to look.

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Lose yourself in the architecture, colors, and texture of a prairie dock leaf. It is one unique leaf in an infinite number of leaves in the tallgrass, in an infinite number of prairies. Each is its own work of art. Does your mind boggle at the artistry so lavishly displayed?

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Old tree stumps have stories to tell, weathered by the rains and sunshine of thousands of  days. But you have to stop for a moment. Take time to read. And to listen. What story will they tell you?

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In November, the prairie does a strip tease, shedding seeds and leaves. What’s left are the essentials for the perennials to survive the winter, much of their life invisible underground. The seeds promise hope for the future.

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Even the fuzzy caterpillars that slouch and slinky their way through the tallgrass remind us of future transformation. Moth, you wonder? Or butterfly?

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In November, plant structures are more evident, bleached of their summer and early fall colors.

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Trees silhouette themselves against the sky. You admire them, shorn of the distraction of colorful leaves.

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It may feel lonely in the tallgrass in November. You’re aware of your smallness in the grand scheme of the universe.

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The shaggy bison look tough and well-suited to the coming chill. We, however, sometimes feel fragile wondering what the world may have in readiness for us.

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Listen. There is the sound of water. The prairie creek rushes headlong on its way to some far-flung sea. Everything is connected. We’re not alone.

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Under the surface of the cold water, the drab, beetle-like dragonfly nymphs wait for warmer weather. They listen for the signal to stretch out their wings; don their dazzling array of bold hues. The signal for change is months away, so they concentrate on growing. Soon enough all will be warmth and light.

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When we shake our heads over the state of the world, remember. These prairie skies, this grass, the wildflowers, the seeds, those large shaggy creatures and small flying winged ones–and furry ones, too–are also the world.

And what  a beautiful and hopeful place the world can be.

****

The opening quote is from Mary Oliver’s “Mysteries, Yes.” The next lines of the poem read as follows: “Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous to be understood/How grass can be nourishing in the mouths of the lambs/How rivers and stone are forever in allegiance with gravity/ while we ourselves dream of rising.” Mary Oliver (1935-)  is winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and writes extensively about the importance of paying attention to the world around us. The complete poem is included in her book: Evidence: Poems.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Schulenberg Prairie in November, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; old tree stump, Fame Flower knob, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) seed pod, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; great leopard moth (Hypercompe scribonia) caterpillar, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; silky aster (Symphyotrichum sericeum) in November, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  trees in November, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Fame Flower Knob, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  Clear Creek, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; white faced meadowhawk (Sympetrum obtrusum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.