Tag Archives: autumn

Hello, October Prairie

The little bluestem was exquisite with turquoise and garnet and chartreuse; and the big bluestem waved its turkeyfeet of deep purple high against the October sky, past the warm russet of the Indian grass.” — May Theilgaard Watts

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Drip. Drip. Drip.

Rain at last. A welcome opening to October! Sure, we’ve had a few intermittent showers just west of Chicago in September, but rainfall is far below normal. The garden shows it. My prairie patch—so resilient—is also suffering. No amount of watering with the hose is quite the same as a good cloudburst.

Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

Ahhhh. The air smells newly-washed…as it is. As I walk the neighborhood, the leaves drift down, released by wind and water.

Fallen leaves, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Welcome, rain! Stay awhile. We need you.

Road through Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Dry conditions suit prairie gentians. They linger on, adding their bright color to an increasingly sepia landscape.

Prairie gentian (Gentiana puberulenta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Goldfinches work the pasture thistles.

Pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Bright male goldfinches of spring and summer are gradually changing to the olive oil hues of autumn and winter. When I see them working over the seed pods in my backyard, I’m glad I left my prairie plants and some garden plants in seed for them. They love the common evening primrose seeds.

American goldfinches (Spinus tristis), Crosby backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL. (File photo)

This past week, the dragonflies put on a last-minute show. Most will be gone in mid-October; either migrated south, or their life cycle completed. It’s been great to see meadowhawks again. Usually ubiquitous in the summer and autumn, this group of skimmers have gone missing from my dragonfly routes on both prairies where I monitor this season. Suddenly, they are out in numbers. Mating in the wheel position…

Autumn meadowhawks (Sympetrum vicinum) in the wheel position, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

…then flying to a good spot to oviposit, or lay eggs. Everywhere I turn, more autumn meadowhawks!

Autumn meadowhawks (Sympetrum vicinum) in “tandem oviposition”, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Ensuring new generations of meadowhawks to come on the prairie. A sign of hope. I love seeing that brilliant red—the bright scarlet of many of the species. Autumn meadowhawks have yellow-ish legs, which help separate them from other members of this difficult-to-identify group. The white-faced meadowhawks have, well…. you know.

White-faced Meadowhawk (Sympetrum obtrusum), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

The face is unmistakeable. Many of the meadowhawks are confusing to ID, so I was grateful to see my first band-winged meadowhawk of the year last week, with its distinctive amber patches.

Band-winged Meadowhawk (Sympetrum semicinctum), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

If only all meadowhawks were this easy to distinguish as these three species! It’s a tough genus. I’m glad they showed up this season.

Other insects are busy in different pursuits. Some skeletonize plants, leaving emerald cut lace.

Skeletonized riverbank grape (Vitis riparia) leaf, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

Northern leopard frogs, now in their adult stage, prepare for hibernation. As I hike through the prairie wetlands, looking for dragonflies, they spring through the prairie grasses and leap into the water.

Northern leopard frog (Lithobates pipiens), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Whenever I see them, I’m reminded of the Frog & Toad books I love to read to my grandchildren, and the value of true friendships, as evinced in those stories. Strong friendships, worth hanging on to.

Familiar bluet (Enallagma civile), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

As we begin to navigate our second pandemic autumn, I feel a renewed gratitude for close friends, an appreciation for family, and an appreciation for the peace and solace to be found in the natural world.

False solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosum),Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

I can’t wait to see what the prairie holds for us in October.

Schulenberg Prairie trail, Lisle, IL.

Why not go see for yourself?

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The opening quote is from Reading the Landscape of America by May Theilgaard Watts (1893-1975). Watts was the first naturalist on staff at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL, and a poet, author, and newspaper columnist. Her drawings and words continue to illuminate how we understand a sense of “place.”

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Join Cindy for a program or class!

Wednesday, October 13, 10-11:30 a.m. (CT): “A Cultural History of Trees in America” ONLINE! Offered through The Morton Arboretum. Join Cindy from the comfort of your couch and discover the way trees have influenced our history, our music and literature, and the way we think about the world. Register here.

Friday, December 3: WINTER PRAIRIE WONDERS–ONLINE10-11:30 a.m. (CT)Discover the December Delights of the Tallgrass! Make yourself a cup of hot tea, snuggle under a warm afghan, and join prairie steward and writer Cindy Crosby virtually for this interactive online immersion into the tallgrass prairie in winter. See the aesthetic beauty of the snow-covered grasses and wildflowers in cold weather through colorful images of winter on the prairies. Follow animal tracks to see what creatures are out and about, and see how many you can identify. Learn how birds, pollinators, and mammals use winter prairie plants;  the seeds for nourishment and the grasses and spent wildflowers for overwintering, protection, and cover. Then, listen as Cindy shares brief readings about the prairie in winter that will engage your creativity and nourish your soul. Registration information here.

Summer’s Finale on the Tallgrass Prairie

“Earth teach me quiet, as the grasses are still with new light.”–Ute Prayer

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Goodbye, summer. I’m not sad to see you go.

Tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

I’m ready for less humidity. More cool breezes.

Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Less chaotic headlines. More peace and stability.

I’m ready for change.

Swamp Thistle (Cirsium muticum), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Meteorological summer draws to a close on the tallgrass prairie today. The signs of autumn are all around us, from the sheets of goldenrods….

Mixed goldenrods and late summer wildflowers, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

… to the fringed swirls of deep purple New England asters, to the pale amethyst obedient plant spikes.

Obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

You can feel autumn nearing in the slant of light. The air is pixelled, a bit grainy. Mornings dawn later and cooler, a little less of the “air you can wear” humid.

Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Anise hyssop…

Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…is a hummingbird magnet, both on the prairies and in my backyard prairie planting. When the hummers finish nectaring at the hyssop, they bounce from the cardinal flowers to the zinnias, then over to the sugar-water feeder. According to Journey North at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, ruby-throated hummingbirds eat between one-and-a-half to three times their weight in food each day. Imagine if we did that! (Hello, ice cream!) This time of year, they are in a state known as hyperphagia, in which they fuel up for migration.

Ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Journey North, which tracks hummingbird migration sightings, notes that the males may have already left for the south by the end of August. Females and young ones will follow this week and next. Each one migrates alone. I wonder what it feels like, flying so far, looking for flowers to nectar at along the way?

Blazing star (Liatris aspera) and late summer wildflowers, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

On my prairie hikes this week, I see insects. So many insects! Wasps. Praying mantis. Grasshoppers. Robber flies.

Giant Robber Fly (possibly Promachus vertebratus), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Robber flies are so bizarre! This one is a Billy Gibbons look-alike. Robber flies ambush other insects in flight, then land and suck the juices out of them. There are stories of robber flies preying on wasps, bees, and even hummingbirds! Their nickname is “cannibal fly” because they snack on each other. Yikes!

Wingstem (Verbesina alterniflora), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Although robber flies are strange looking, skunk cabbage seedpods may get my award for “most bizarre late summer find” this year. I was out with Dr. Elizabeth Bach at Nachusa Grasslands on a dragonfly monitoring run this past week, and we waded into a boggy area. I recognized skunk cabbage immediately.

Eastern Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

But not the seed pod. She was kind enough to point it out.

Eastern Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) seed pod, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Cool! I would have thought it was some type of fungi. In the same wet area, we found the cream of the late summer wildflowers. A small stand of turtlehead…

Turtlehead (Chelone glabra), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

…virgin’s bower, twining among the false buckwheat at the edge of the woods…

Virgin’s Bower (Clematis virginiana), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

…and lots of swamp betony (or “swamp lousewort” or “marsh lousewort” as it is sometimes called).

Swamp Betony (Pedicularis lanceolata), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

August is also bloom time for one of my favorite wildflowers: the great blue lobelia. Love that eye-popping color! I find this wetland native at Nachusa Grasslands, and I also have it around my backyard pond.

Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilatica), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The name “tallgrass prairie” is apt for this last day of August. Off the trail, it’s tough hiking through the curtain of grasses. Big bluestem, switchgrass, Indian grass, and cordgrass, are in all stages of flowering and seed. Little bluestem in seed reminds me of July Fourth sparklers.

Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

When I leave the prairie, I’m powdered with pollen from a hundred different blooms. As I brush off my shirt, I think of September. So close I can feel it. This has been a summer full of truth-is-stranger-than-fiction happenings; a savage season of tornadoes and drought; and a summer of a continuing pandemic that just won’t quit. I won’t miss these things.

It’s also been a summer of knock-out wildflowers….

Common Sneezeweed (Helenium autumale), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…beautiful sunsets and cumulus clouds like whipped cream; blue moons and butterflies; tiger beetles and tiger swallowtails; and a host of wonders free for the viewing—if we take time to pay attention. It’s these everyday miracles of the natural world that sustain me amid the chaos seemingly all around.

Thank you for these bright spots, summer.

And now….Welcome, fall.

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The opening quote is from a Ute Prayer, given here in its entirety from the Aspen Institute: Earth teach me quiet, as the grasses are still with new light. Earth teach me suffering ~ as old stones suffer with memory. Earth teach me humility, as blossoms are humble with beginning. Earth teach me caring, as mothers nurture their young. Earth teach me courage, as the tree that stands alone. Earth teach me limitation, as the ant that crawls on the ground. Earth teach me freedom, as the eagle that soars in the sky. Earth teach me acceptance, as the leaves that die each fall. Earth teach me renewal, as the seed that rises in the spring. Earth teach me to forget myself, as melted snow forgets its life. Earth teach me to remember kindness, as dry fields weep with rain. The Ute were an indigenous tribe that once lived in what is present day Utah and Nevada. Very few Utes survive to the present day.


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Join Cindy for a class or program this fall!

September 9, 9:30-11 am– in person–“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Oswego Hilltoppers Garden Club, Oswego Public Library. Please visit the club’s Facebook page for guest information, event updates pending Covid positivity in Illinois, and Covid protocol. Masks required for this event.

September 27, 7-8:30 p.m.–in person–“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Arlington Heights Garden Club. Please visit the club’s website here for guest information, event updates pending Covid positivity in Illinois, and Covid protocol.

If you enjoy this blog, please check out Cindy’s collection of essays with Thomas Dean, Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit. Order from your favorite indie bookseller, or direct from Ice Cube Press.

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.

Chasing Dragonflies Final Cover 620.jpg

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.

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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.

bisonFermi10118WM.jpg

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.

stiffgentian10118WM.jpg

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.

goldenrodrosettegalls10118FermiWM.jpg

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.

bunchgallsatFermiprairie10118WM.jpg

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

rosinweedFermi10118WM.jpg

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.

newenglandaster10118WM.jpg

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?

*****

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.

*****

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

****

“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.