“Time flies over us, but leaves its shadow behind.” — Nathaniel Hawthorne
It’s “shadow season” on the prairie, a time where everything seems a ghost of its former, vibrant self. I find it one of the most difficult times of the year in the tallgrass. Everything that remains at the turn of March to April is seemingly brittle. Ruined. Grasses are flattened. The prairie seems worn out.
Waiting for fire.
Or maybe I’m just projecting my own winter-weary self on the prairie. The prairie—as always—has its gifts to give. These gifts just aren’t that in-your-face, “wow-look-at-that-color!” good looks. No wildflowers. No juicy grasses. Few returning grassland birds.
There is a whole lot of animal scat and mud. Trash, small mammal bones, and flotsam and jetsam left behind after the snow melt.
It’s discouraging. But sometimes, to see hope for the future—or even, just to give yourself a mental boost to get to next week—you have to look a little closer. Dig a little deeper. Take more time. Sit with things.
When you do, you find that with the prairie’s maturity comes a different sort of beauty. It’s nuanced.
Some plants are crumpled and twisted. This one caught a plant virus. See that thick stem? It’s frayed a little around the stress points, but not broken…
Prairie dock leaves are so wrinkled you have to look twice to recognize them.
Much different from their beginnings just a year or so ago.
All the knowledge of the past prairie season is encapsulated here in March. A shadow of what once was. You can’t help but be reminded of our own fleeting presence here.
There’s promise. That promise will be more evident after the prescribed fires, when the prairie is once again lush and green and beginning to bloom.
Despite the stands of dead foliage, what is important to the prairie is still here. Even if unseen. It’s right where you’re standing. Down deep where the fire can’t touch it, in the roots that plunge up to 15 feet or more into the earth.
Martin Luther King, Jr., once said: “Everything we see is but a shadow cast by that which we don’t see.” He wasn’t talking about the prairie, but his words are applicable. Those unseen deep roots that grip the soil so tenaciously–and will remain untouched by fire—are the prairie’s future. They hold the history of the prairie–the soil—in their grasp. While the life of the prairie above the ground is finished—that fleeting shadow of wildflowers, grasses, and color—there is more to consider than what is visible to our eyes.
Some prairies have already been burned as March comes to a close. But, without the right weather conditions, many of our local prairies are still in a state of anticipation. Waiting for the flames. For the prairie to flourish—for color and life and motion to be kindled again in the tallgrass—calls for something harsh, extravagant, and radical to happen.
There’s not much time left. March is almost over.
Bring on the fire.
The opening quote is by dark romantic writer Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864), a neighbor of Ralph Waldo Emerson and a contemporary of Abraham Lincoln, Bronson Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville (who dedicated his novel Moby Dick to Hawthorne), and Louis Agassiz. To support his writing, and later his family, Hawthorne did everything from working as a surveyor to shoveling manure. He’s known for his short stories and his novels, such as The House of the Seven Gables. Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter was one of the first mass produced books in America, and required reading when I was in high school. Writer D.H. Lawrence said of The Scarlet Letter, “There could be no more perfect work of the imagination.” Hawthorne is buried at Authors Ridge in Concord, Massachusetts.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Schulenberg Prairie in March before the burn, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown mammal bones, Prairiewoods Prairie, Hiawatha, IA; spoon in the tallgrass, Prairiewoods Prairie, Hiawatha, IA; prairie dock leaf (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Illinois DNR, The Nature Conservancy IL, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) (probably infected with a virus), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Illinois DNR, The Nature Conservancy IL; Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL; wrinkled prairie dock leaf (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Illinois DNR, The Nature Conservancy IL, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL; green prairie dock leaf (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Aldo Leopold Prairie Visitor Center prairie planting, Baraboo, WI; feather on prairie plant (both unknown species), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) at Prairiewoods, Hiawatha, IA; ball gall, Prairiewoods, Hiawatha, IA; unburned savanna and burned prairie at Prairiewoods, Hiawatha, IA; prescribed burn sign, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prescribed burn in the distance, viewed from The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.