“My own feeling for tallgrass prairie is that of a modern man fallen in love with the face in a faded tintype. Only the frame is still real; the rest is illusion and dream.”—John Madson
Today, as we swap sweet valentine notes with friends, family, and loved ones, I’m writing to you, prairie.
I’m talking to you, prairie remnants…
…and backyard prairies, so lovingly planted…
…and front yard prairies, placed where neighbors can see…
…and street prairies, in the midst of suburban hustle and bustle.
Cemetery prairies, where the native plants hung on for dear life as the tallgrass was plowed all around.
Prairies of a hundred acres.
Prairies of thousands of acres.
Prairies tucked into the corners of churches and schools…
…playgrounds and public spaces…
…in industrial parks…
…and in places you might not expect.
Old planted prairies that started a restoration movement…
… and prairies that remind us of the vision it takes to keep tallgrass alive in the hearts and minds of people.
Prairies that gave me new ways to think about the world.
Thank you, my landscape of home, for the thousands of hours of pleasure you’ve offered me.
I’ve pulled your weeds…
…collected your seeds.
Thank you for supporting the native bees…
…and the butterflies…
…and the birds…
…so many fascinating birds….
…and myriad whimsical insects…
…by providing them with a healthy, diverse place to live.
Thank you for your blooms, which add color to my life from March to October.
Thank you, tallgrass prairie, for days full of sound and motion…
…for nights full of discovery…
…for streams to wade through…
…for helping me understand the role of prescribed fire that causes you to flourish…
…and for endless bridges to adventure.
For the cool taste of mountain mint leaves in summer…
…for the delights of prairie thunderstorms…
…and for giving the displaced and threatened a home.
You’ve taught me to see the small things. To pay attention.
Thank you, tallgrass prairie.
This is my love letter…
The opening quote is by John Madson (1923-1995) from his beautiful, thoughtful book on tallgrass prairie, Where the Sky Began.If you haven’t read it, February is the perfect month to do so.
Dragonflies and Damselflies —IN PERSON February 18, 10-11:30 a.m. (Note new earlier date). Hosted by Citizens for Conservation, Barrington, IL. For more information, click here.
Illinois’ Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers—In Person February 20, 7:15-8:45 p.m. Hosted by the Suburban Garden Club, Indian Head Park, IL. Free and open to non-members. For more information, contact Cindy through her website contact space at http://www.cindycrosby.com.
Literary Gardens —In Person March 7, 7-8:30 p.m.—Hosted by the ELA Library and Lake Zurich Garden Club. Location change — now at St. Matthews Lutheran Church, Hawthorn Woods, IL. Free and open to the public. For more information, visit here.
Illinois’ Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers ONLINE — March 15, 7-8:30 p.m., Hosted by Bensonville Public Library. Free and open to the public, but you must register for the link by calling the library. Contact information click here.
Illinois’ Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers ONLINE –March 16, 7-8:30 p.m., Hosted by the Rock Valley Wild Ones. This event was formerly a blended program and is now online only. Open to the public; but you must register. Contact information is here.
See Cindy’s website for more March programs and classes.
Bell Bowl Prairie in Rockford, IL, needs your help! Find out more on saving this threatened prairie remnant at SaveBellBowlPrairie.
Most people know Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois, as a particle physics and accelerator laboratory. But today, I’m here for the prairie.
Fermilab is a protected government area, so a guard checks my driver’s license at the gate, then makes me a guest tag to stick on my coat. He smiles as he hands me a map and waves my car through the checkpoint. I’m off to the interpretive trail…
… to see what delights the December prairie has in store for me this morning.
You might wonder: What is tallgrass prairie doing at a place where phrases like “quantum gravity” and “traversable wormhole” are the norm?
So glad you asked! The prairie was the dream of Dr. Robert “Bob” Betz, a Northeastern Illinois biology professor who was dubbed by the Chicago Tribune as “a pioneer in prairie preservation.” In 1975, Betz heard that Fermilab’s then-director Dr. Robert Wilson was looking for ideas on how to plant its thousands of acres in the Chicago suburbs.
As Betz tells the story in his book, The Prairie of the Illinois Country (published in 2011 after his death), he enlisted the help of The Morton Arboretum’s legendary Ray Schulenberg and Cook County Forest Preserve’s David Blenz to go with him to meet with Dr. Wilson to pitch the prairie project.
Dr. Wilson, Betz said, listened to their ideas. He then proposed the interior of the accelerator ring for planting. “How long would it take to restore such a prairie?” Wilson asked the trio.
Betz admitted it might take five years. Ten. Twenty or more.
Betz writes that Dr. Wilson was quiet for a few seconds, “… and then he turned to us and said, ‘If that’s the case, I guess we should start this afternoon.’ “
What vision these men had! Their dream, coupled with the work of countless volunteers and staff, has birthed this restoration of Illinois’ native landscape across Fermilab’s vast campus today.
I wonder what Dr. Betz would think if he could hike with me this morning, and see the array of tallgrass prairie plants that shimmer under the winter sky…
… which changes every few moments, kaleidoscoping from dark clouds to blue sky; contrails to sunshine.
Within view of the interpretative trail looms Wilson Hall, where the nation’s most intelligent scientists mingle and confer.
I think of these scientists as I hike the prairie. The future, meeting the past. I think of Dr. Betz, and his willingness to dream big.
The slogan for Fermilab is this: “We bring the world together to solve the mysteries of matter, energy, space and time.”
The tallgrass prairie is full of mysteries.
It’s a restoration, hearkening to the past, but also the landscape of our future, holding hope for a healthier, more diverse natural world. Because of the work of Dr. Betz and the people who took time to introduce him to prairie in a way that seeded in him a life-long passion for saving and restoring the tallgrass, we can continue to learn about our “landscape of home” here, even as science moves us into the future.
Thanks, Dr. Betz.
You made a difference.
Dr. Robert Betz (1923-2007) caught “prairie fever” after a nature outing with the also-legendary Floyd Swink (Plants of the Chicago Region, first edition 1969). Once Betz was hooked, he became a force of nature in Illinois for prairie conservation and restoration. At the end of his book, The Prairie of the Illinois Country, he writes: “Fortunately, in spite of all the tribulations the Prairie of the Illinois Country has undergone during the past 150 years, its remnants are still with us. But to continue the work that began decades ago to save, protect, restore, and enlarge these remnants, future generations must make a real effort to educate the public about their importance as a natural heritage and ecological treasure…. Hopefully, what this may mean in the future is there would be a plethora of people infected with the author’s ‘prairie fever.‘”
For more information on Dr. Betz’s work at Fermilab, check out Fermilab’s natural areas here, and Fermilab’s Batavia National Accelerator Laboratory here. Read more about Dr. Betz in his obituary here, or in this article by former Fermi staff member Ryan Campbell here. A tremendous thanks to all the stewards, staff, and volunteers who keep the Fermilab Natural Areas healthy and thriving. As Dr. Betz wrote, it is an “ecological treasure.”
Save Bell Bowl Prairie!
Bell Bowl Prairie at the Chicago-Rockford International Airport is once again under siege. Help save this important remnant prairie! See simple things you can do here. Thank you for keeping this ecological treasure intact.
“To everything, turn, turn, turn; there is a season, turn, turn, turn… .” —Pete Seeger
Now the mercury in the thermometer slips below 30 degrees, although the sun may shine bright in a bright blue sky. Leaves from the savanna float along on Willoway Brook, which winds through the Schulenberg prairie. It’s a time of transition. A time of reflection.
The first substantial snowfall arrived last night in the Chicago region. This morning, it turned the world blue and black in the dawn light.
The projects we’ve put off outdoors seem more urgent now. No more procrastinating.
Winter is on the way. And this morning, we feel it’s already here.
In the garden, the garlic cloves are tucked into their bed of soil with leaves mounded over them as protection against the cold. Next July, as I harvest the sturdy garlic bulbs and scapes, I’ll look back and think, “Where did the time go?” It seems after you turn sixty, the weeks and months just slip away.
I notice the hard freeze Sunday night has marked “paid” to the celery…
…and also to the bok choy I’ve let stand in the garden, hoping to harvest it over Thanksgiving.
Both will take a light frost and flourish in cooler temperatures. But, they didn’t survive the the dip into the 20s very well on Monday morning. I should have covered them! Ah, well. Too late, now. Although I clean up my vegetable garden beds, I leave most of the prairie plants in my yard standing through winter; little Airbnb’s for the native insects that call them home over the winter. The prairie seeds provide lunch for goldfinches and other birds. I think of last winter, and how the goldfinches and redpolls clustered at the thistle feeders while snow fell all around.
A few miles away on the Schulenberg Prairie, the tallgrass is full of seeds. The prairie tries to see how many variations on metallics it can conjure. Gold…
…dull aluminum and copper…
…all here, in the bleached grasses and wildflowers.
It’s a season on the brink. A turn away from those last surges of energy pumping out seeds to a long stretch of rest.
Look at those November skies! You can see change in the shift of weather. You can feel it in the cool nip of the wind.
On the Schulenberg Prairie, Willoway Brook still runs fast and clear. But it won’t be long now until it is limned with ice.
Transitions—even seasonal ones—bring with them a little tension. A need to reframe things.
There’s a sense of letting go. Walking away from some of the old…
…looking forward to something new.
Transitions wake us up. They force us to do things we’ve put off. They jolt us out of our complacency.
Transitions demand that we pay attention. Expend a little energy.
Sure, they can be rough.
But bring on the change.
Hello, snow. I’m ready for you.
The song “Turn, Turn, Turn!” was written by American folk singer Pete Seeger (1919-2014) and performed in the 1950s, then made popular by The Byrds in 1965. If you’re familiar with the Book of Ecclesiastes, in the old King James Version of the Bible, you’ll see the lyrics are almost verbatim from the third chapter, although in a different order. The Limeliters (1962), Pete Seeger (1962), Judy Collins (1966), Dolly Parton (1984), and others have also performed the song. According to Wikipedia, the Byrds version has the distinction in the United States of being the number one hit with the oldest lyrics, as the words are attributed to King Solomon from the 10th Century, BC.
Join Cindy for her last program of 2022!
Wednesday, December 7, 2022 (6:30-8:30 p.m.) 100 Years Around the Arboretum. Join Cindy and Library Collections Manager Rita Hassert for a fun-filled evening and a celebratory cocktail as we toast the closing month of the Arboretum’s centennial year. In-person. Register here.
Watch for the annual “Reading the Prairie” book review round-up next week! Just in time for the holidays.
“Gardening is a long road, with many detours and way stations… .”–Henry Mitchell
Listen? Can you hear it? It’s the sound of summer winding down. Crickets and cicadas. A school bus passing by. The chatter of children walking home from school. My first-year front yard prairie pollinator patch (try saying that three times fast) is full of bees and insects working the wildflowers.
Common Mountain Mint is a popular hangout.
The bees whiz over the last few Butterfly Milkweed flowers. And look—seedpods! Not bad for a first-year planting.
Blazing Star blushes color; it won’t be long before it bursts into bloom. Are those spider silks trailing along the buds? I’m not sure.
In the backyard, the garden shifts into high gear. The squirrels, chipmunks, and birds are ready for it. They wreak havoc on the tomatoes, eggplant, and anything else that catches their fancy. I find big, impudent bites out of my best, almost-ripe “Delicious” and “Supersteaks.” What to do?
This week, I covered green tomatoes and some of the eggplant with drawstring mesh bags to deter any furry or feathered noshers.
We’ll see if it works. My yard is wildlife-friendly, and I like it that way. But this summer, it’s been a little too wildlife-friendly for the garden. Although the mesh bags make the garden look a little strange, hopefully this will slow hungry varmints down a little bit.
Meanwhile, I try to stay a day ahead of the critters by picking a little early. Sometimes, it works.
Fortunately, the birds, bunnies, and squirrels don’t seem interested in okra. I would grow Burgundy Okra just for its flowers alone. I also love okra in soups and gumbo. And wait—is that a Yellow Jacket? Or a Paper Wasp? They are tough to tell apart.
This week, I’ve been reading Endless Forms: The Secret World of Wasps. As I’ve read, I’ve put aside a few of my prejudices against these varied and diverse insects. I learned there are tens of thousands of named wasp species in the world! My apprehensions about wasps are slowly being replaced by curiosity. There is so much to discover.
Next to the okra, the arugula is in bloom. It’s so…stripy! Attractive enough that I haven’t pulled it yet. Soon, I’ll need its garden spot for lettuce or beets. But for now I’m enjoying the flowers.
Nearby, the green beans tower six feet high over my head. This June, after the bunnies sheared off the early green bean leaves, I fenced my raised bed. The beans slowly put out new leaves and took off. Now, at the end of August, I finally see the results. Green beans for dinner! At last.
The backyard prairie patch is shorter this season, likely due to the lack of rain here. However, some of the toughest plants are flourishing. Joe Pye Weed is in full bloom.
Cup Plant thrives. (Although, when does Cup Plant notdo well???)
The goldfinches love drinking the rain that collected in Cup Plant’s leafy “cups” after this weekend’s brief shower. Nearby, Obedient Plant is so short it is barely noticeable. But still the bumblebees, hummingbirds, and butterflies seem to find it.
Speaking of hummingbirds and butterflies, what’s that by the pond? Great Blue Lobelia is in bloom! One of our backyard’s prettiest August wildflowers.
Close to the Great Blue Lobelia I see our first Cardinal Flower of the season. What a beauty.
It’s a lovely surprise. With the recent lack of rainfall, I wasn’t sure we’d see Cardinal Flower at all this summer. It makes me wonder—what other surprises will the prairie and garden offer this week?
I can’t wait to find out.
The opening quote is by Henry Mitchell (1923-1993) from Henry Mitchell on Gardening. His sense of humor reminds me to keep smiling, even when the bunnies nibble my new native prairie plantings and the squirrels make off with the tomatoes…again. Mitchell was a columnist for the Washington Post for almost 25 years.
Join Cindy for a Program in September!
Saturday, September 24 —In-Person Writing and Art Retreat at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: Spend a day immersed in nature with guided writing and art workshops. Set aside time to disconnect from the day-to-day and focus on the natural world through writing and art. Sessions will explore nature journaling, sketching, developing observation skills, and tapping into your creativity. Throughout the day, you will learn from professional writers and artists, take in the sites of the Arboretum, and explore nature with fellow creatives. Appropriate for all levels. Cindy will be teaching the morning sessions. Join me! Click here for more information and to register.
“…And the soft rain—imagine! imagine! the wild and wondrous journeys still to be ours.” —Mary Oliver
It begins before dawn, with a tap-tap-tap on the windows. At last! Rain.
In my backyard, the plants perk up. From the Sun Sugar cherry tomatoes (everyone’s favorite this summer)…
…to the mixed kale…
…to the prairie patch along the backyard fence…
…it’s as if the earth heaves a sigh of relief. The rain perks me up, too. When was the last time we had a rainy day? I can’t remember.
Water drops bead and splash from Queen of the Prairie, its flowers fading to seed.
The wild asparagus drips, drips, drips.
I walk through the grass in the rain and admire the insects braving the wet. A cucumber beetle peers over the top of a spent Royal Catchfly bloom. No cucumbers here, buddy.
The Wild Quinine, Common Mountain Mint, and the last blooms of Butterfly Weed fall together in the best sort of bouquet.
Wait—what’s this? Many of my zinnia’s petals have been neatly stripped off, leaving only the centers. I don’t have to look far to find the culprit, just behind the bird feeders, eating Cup Plant seeds.
With two sock thistle feeders and plenty of feeders full of birdseed across the backyard, why eat my wildflower seeds? Ah, well.
Agastache—Hyssop—attracts a different kind of crowd.
I have a lot of Hyssop this year, gifted to me by generous friends. Last summer, I plopped it into an available space right by the patio without checking to see how tall it would get. Surprise! It towers over my head. Another surprise—sometimes Purple Giant Hyssop is sometimes…white! I won’t win any landscape design points for placing it where I did. And yet, I’m glad it’s where it is. Even in the rain, every little pollinator wants to stop and sip.
The pale pearl buds of blazing star will open any day.
August and anticipation go hand in hand.
Summer is passing. Walking through the yard in the rain, I feel it. Goldenrod shows its metallics. Wildflowers go to seed. Autumn whispers: Not too long, now.
My camera lens fogs up again and again. It feels like 100 percent humidity here, but I’m not complaining about the sauna treatment. Because it is raining! Finally.
Welcome back, rain. We missed you.
The opening quote is from Mary Oliver‘s poem, “Last Night the Rain Spoke to Me,” from What Do We Know. Oliver (1935-2019) was a force of nature who opened so many of our eyes and ears to the complexities and joys of the natural world. Read the full poem here.
Join Cindy for a Program in August!
West Cook Wild Ones presents:A Brief History of Trees in Americawith Cindy on Sunday, August 21, 2:30-4 p.m. Central Time on Zoom. From oaks to maples to elms: trees changed the course of American history. Native Americans knew trees provided the necessities of life, from food to transportation to shelter. Trees built America’s railroads, influenced our literature and poetry, and informed our music. Discover the roles of a few of our favorite trees in building our nation—and their symbolism and influence on the way we think—as you reflect on the trees most meaningful to you. Free and open to the public. Join from anywhere in the world—but you must preregister. Register here.
“Bees do have a smell, you know, and if they don’t they should, for their feet are dusted with spices from a million flowers.”—Ray Bradbury
August arrives on the tallgrass prairie.
Listen! Do you hear the buzz and zip of wings?
The patter of tiny insect feet?
Let’s hear it for the prairie pollinators!
Bees bumble across the wildflowers.
Ambling beetles browse the petals.
Enjoy the aimless ants. Marvel over the butterflies, looking like so many windsurfers…
Stay up late and enjoy the night fliers…
…with their beautiful markings.
Seek out the wandering wasps, inspiring awe and a little trepidation.
And these are just a few of our amazing pollinators!
Where would we be without these marvelous creatures?
Three cheers for the prairie pollinators!
Long may they thrive.
The opening quote for today’s post is by Illinois author Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) from his classic book, Dandelion Wine. This book was required reading in my Midwestern high school English classes back in the seventies, and a wonderful introduction to his more than 27 novels and story collections.
Join Cindy for a Program in August!
West Cook Wild Ones presents:A Brief History of Trees in Americawith Cindy Crosby on Sunday, August 21, 2:30-4 p.m. Central Time on Zoom. From oaks to maples to elms: trees changed the course of American history. Native Americans knew trees provided the necessities of life, from food to transportation to shelter. Trees built America’s railroads, influenced our literature and poetry, and informed our music. Discover the roles of a few of our favorite trees in building our nation—and their symbolism and influence on the way we think—as you reflect on the trees most meaningful to you. Free and open to the public—join from anywhere in the world—but you must preregister. Register here.
“By planting flowers one invites butterflies… .” —Zhang Chao
At last! It’s time to plant the garden. I’ve been slowed this month by a heat wave which threatened to scorch my tender six-packs of seedlings, set out on the porch to harden off. Now, cloudy, drizzly, and cooler days are in the forecast—without frost. Or so it seems. (Please don’t zap me, Mr. Jack Frost, for feeling optimistic.)
Rain and heat have pushed the prairies into spectacular spring bloom.
Seeing all the spring prairie wildflowers inspires me to want to plant more prairie at home. After digging our first front yard prairie patch last week, I’m already in expansion mode. I dropped in on two local native plant sales Friday (you know…just to look) and came home with a trunk-load of more prairie plants and no clear idea where they would go.
In a dry and partially shady spot next to the backyard patio went three native wild columbine, a jacob’s ladder, and two prairie alumroot. They join a single alumroot next to the existing prairie smoke, three prairie coreopsis, and single butterfly milkweed planted a few years ago.
It’s not all natives by the patio. There are two clematis, a vining honeysuckle transplanted from a garden move a few years ago, a petite daylily gifted by a friend, and fire-engine red oriental poppies, which reliably bloom by Memorial Day each spring.
There’s also one old gloriously fragrant rosebush that came with the house more than two decades ago that I can’t talk myself into getting rid of. But slowly, the balance is tipping toward natives, instead of the traditional garden plants.
I love prairie alumroot for its gorgeous leaves, which look good all year round. There will be tiny greenish blooms on the existing plant any day now. The newcomers may need a little time to flower.
A little turf stripping, some plant shuffling and it’s time to add more prairie plants to the expanded front yard prairie plot. As I tap out the plants from their containers, it’s interesting to see the butterfly milkweed roots which give it the species name tuberosa, meaning “swollen” or “tuberous.”
Butterfly milkweed, wild quinine, prairie brome, and common mountain mint all find a seat. I’m already planning next year’s expansion, and thinking of plants I wish I purchased. So many plants…too little budget.
After planting prairie in the yard, there’s nothing quite as inspiring as visiting the real thing. Jeff and I spent Saturday touring some native prairie remnants 90 minutes away with the wonderful folks of the Illinois Native Plant Society (INPS), Northeast Chapter). Our first stop was Flora Prairie in Boone County.
This 10-acre gravel remnant echoes the quarries that surround it.
Shooting star dot the wooded area as well as the prairie.
Jack in the pulpit pops up in the shade.
A profusion of prairie violets is in full bloom.
The sunny areas are patched with prairie smoke…
…some going to seed and showing its namesake feature.
There are other treasures as well, such as fringed puccoon…
…and its more common cousin, hoary puccoon.
As we hiked, Jeff and I saw our first monarch of the season. It moved so fast, it was only a blur in the grasses. A good omen for the season ahead? I hope so!
We followed this prairie visit with a visit to Beach Cemetery Prairie, a three-and-a-half acre remnant in the shadow of two nuclear towers in Ogle County.
As we hiked this gravel kame, surrounded by agricultural fields, I was reminded of how critical these last remaining prairie remnants are. We need them to remind us of what Illinois used to be.
We need these prairie remnants to remind us what we’ve lost.
They are also time capsules; models which help us plan and carry out future prairie restorations. They help us understand how original prairies functioned, and what plant associates naturally grow together in the wild.
This was our first tour with the INPS, and we learned from several knowledgeable and enthusiastic people in the group more about the prairie plants that make Illinois “the prairie state.” Kudos! If you live in Illinois, check these folks out here and consider joining even if only to support their efforts. It wasn’t lost on us that both prairies we visited this weekend are a stone’s throw from Bell Bowl Prairie, another dry gravel hill prairie remnant, which is slated to be destroyed by an Amazon cargo service road at Chicago-Rockford International Airport. You can read more about that here. Seeing these two prairies was a reminder of what is lost when we lose sight of what is most important.
So many gorgeous wildflowers! So much Illinois history. We came away awed over Illinois’ prairie heritage, and with a renewed desire to reflect more of it in our small suburban yard. Seeing these prairies for just a few hours, admiring the diversity of wildflowers and fauna…
…and thinking about the 22 million acres of original tallgrass prairie in Illinois that has been lost was a reminder that without more people visiting these beautiful places, falling in love with them, and advocating for them, we will lose more of our landscape of home to development or neglect. Planting prairie in our yard is a way to learn the plants at every stage of their development, and discover their stories and their pollinator associates. It’s also a reminder to keep the idea of prairie at the forefront of people’s hearts and minds.
I’m already making my prairie plant list for next year.
The opening quote by Zhang Chao (1650-1707) is from his book, Quiet Dream Shadows, a collection of essays that focus on nature.
Join Cindy for a program or class!
Wednesday, May 18, 12:30-2 pm:100 Years Around the Arboretum (With Rita Hassert), Morton Arboretum Volunteer Zoom Event (Closed to the public).
Thursday, May 26, 10:30am-noon: Stained Glass Stories of the Thornhill Mansion,in person at The Morton Arboretum. Open to the public. Register here.
Thursday, May 26, 6:30-8 pm: Add a Little Prairie to Your Garden, hosted by Old St. Patrick’s Church Green Team on Zoom. Register here.
Sunday,June 5, 2-3:30 pm: Illinois’ Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers, Downers Grove Public Library and Downers Grove Garden Club. Kick off National Garden Week with this in-person event! Open to the public. Click here for more information.
“…There exists a thousand unbreakable links between each of us and everything else…”–Mary Oliver
Gusting winds and gale warnings overnight. Plunging temperatures. We wake up to an ice-cold sunrise. Brrrrr. Today is Dec.1, the first day of meteorological winter.
Astronomical winter is December 21, the winter solstice, when we’ll see more daylight hours again. But today, I’ll take the meteorological date. After an unusually warm November, it feels like the season has changed.
As the cold settles in, the work of the garden is almost finished. Mornings and evenings —jacket-less—I dash outside to the compost pile. Coffee grounds, strawberry hulls, and the odds and ends of Thanksgiving dinner vegetable leftovers mingle and molder in the lidded bucket for that purpose. After unscrewing the top of the Darth Vader-like black plastic helmet that holds the compost (dubbed “The Earth Machine” by the manufacturer) I shake the scraps into the pile, which at this time of year, lies stubbornly unchanged from week to week in the cold. Spring heat, which will turn these scraps into brown gold for my raised garden beds, is still a long way off.
Nearby, the desiccated cup plants, brittle asters, and grasses of my prairie patch rustle in the rising wind.
Swinging the empty bucket, I linger at the raised beds where the still-green parsley, bright wands of rainbow chard, and crisp kale have slowed production, but continue to provide fresh greens for our meals. Today brings temperatures that fall into the mid-20s for a sustained period, so I cross my fingers that I’ll continue the harvest. Other plants have surrendered. The sugar snap peas are in flower, but have long stopped setting pods. Woody overgrown radishes mingle with the parsnips and a few lone beets.
I pull a radish, and it’s nibbled around the edges. Voles? Mice?
More for the compost pile.
Hiking the prairie this week, I notice almost all the green is gone—except on the grassy trails.
The joy of bloom and color—goldenrod, late asters—has passed; the shift of attention continues to move to structure and smell. The cool tang of mountain mint, when gently rubbed between the fingers…
…the dustier, Earl Grey tea-like smell of wild bergamot—bee balm—when vigorously crushed. Mmmm. Smells so good!
I know the wild bergamot —Monarda fistulosa—of the prairie is not the citrus fruit “bergamot” oil found in the tea. And yet. The smell is the same. I love the connection; love drinking Earl Grey on a frigid winter day and tasting prairie on my tongue.
As winter settles in, blue-bright skies will alternate with skies of slate and sleet. On clear nights, newly-visible Orion stalks the crystal whirl of constellations with the advent of this winter season. Seeing him after dark reminds me to go to the bookshelf and find “Orion Rises On The Dunes,” a chapter from Henry Beston’s The Outermost House, and re-read it again.
Indian hemp—or dogbane, if you will (Apocynum cannabinum)—-curls its now-seedless pods on stalks along the trails. The slant of sunlight turns it Santa suit red.
Native Americans knew that Indian hemp fibers can be stripped for good fishing line, cords, and threads. Try it if you grow the plants; it’s easy to make and a wonderful reminder of how the prairie was prized for its utility at one time, as well as its beauty.
As I round a corner of the trail, I discover goldenrod bunch galls, sometimes called “rosette galls.” They’re pretty common on my prairie walks.
But — wow —so many in one place! The galls are everywhere in front of me for yards and yards — the largest group I’ve ever seen.
I wonder what caused this vast profusion? I know the flower-like “gall” itself is made by a tiny fruit fly, Procecidochares atra (check out the link for a good guide to various goldenrod galls). But why are there so many of these rosettes in one place? They look like a winter prairie “wildflower” garden.
On the edge of the prairie where it melds into woods, I spy the still-green leaf of wild ginger. I had forgotten wild ginger keeps its foliage through the long season, unlike its spring ephemeral wildflower counterparts. Prairie Moon Nursery notes that it is a good native ground cover choice for that reason.
I’ve tried to grow it in my backyard, but without luck. So, I look forward to it on my walks. Seeing it at this time of year is a welcome surprise.
There’s always something unexpected on the prairie.
Who knows what other astonishments the first week of winter will bring?
Why not go see?
The opening line is from Mary Oliver’s prose poem “Winter Hours” in her poetry collection, Upstream. Oliver (1935-2019) paid close attention to the natural world; she ends the poem with these words: “For me, the door to the woods is the door to the temple.” I wonder what she would have thought of the prairie?
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at the East Prairie and Ecological Study Area, College of DuPage (COD), Glen Ellyn, IL, unless noted otherwise (top to bottom): prairie grasses and forbs; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum); forgotten seedling pots; Park’s rainbow blend radish (Raphanus raphanistrum subsp. sativus): horseweed (Conyza canadensis); trail through the COD prairie; common mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum); beebalm or wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa); beebalm or wild bergamot (Monada fistulosa); prairie grasses (mixed); Indian hemp or dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum); COD East Prairie and Ecological Study Area; rosette or bunch gall on Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis); rosette or bunch galls on Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis); wild ginger (Asarum canadense reflexum); Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum) unknown thistles (possibly pasture thistle, Cirsium discolor).
Join Cindy for a class—or ask her to speak virtually for your organization in 2021.Email Cindy through http://www.cindycrosby.com.
THIS FRIDAY!Literary Gardens Online: Friday, Dec.4, 1-2:30 p.m. CST– Take a break from the news and join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby from wherever you live in the world for a fun look at 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 by Thursday here through The Morton Arboretum.
Just in time for the holidays — Save 40% when you order directly from Northwestern University Press — use Code HOLIDAY40! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History (and also The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction).
“It’s the first day of autumn! A time of hot chocolatey mornings, and toasty marshmallow evenings, and, best of all, leaping into leaves!”—Winnie the Pooh
Happy autumnal equinox! It’s the first day of astronomical fall. Daylight hours shorten. The air looks a little pixeled, a little grainy. Soon, we’ll eat dinner in the dark, sleep, and rise in the mornings to more darkness. Some of us will embrace this change, in love with the season. Others will count the days until December 21, the winter solstice, to see the daylight hours lengthen again.
Wait, you might ask. Cindy—didn’t you say it was the first day of fall back on September 1? Yes indeed, I did—the first day of meteorological fall! There are two ways of calculating when the seasons begin. Meteorological fall begins on the first of September each year. Astronomical fall begins on the fall equinox. Read more about the way scientists calculate the seasons here.
The knowledge that these warm days full of light are fleeting sends Jeff and me to hike Belmont Prairie in Downers Grove, Illinois. The parking lot is full, but the prairie is mostly empty. We love this prairie remnant for its solitude; its timeless grace in the midst of suburbia.
The prairie is dusty. Crisp. Once again, we need a good, steady rain, with none in the forecast for the next ten days. Overhead it’s cloudless; a blank blue slate. I was scrolling through paint samples online this week, and came across the exact color of the sky: “Fond Farewell.” Exactly.
Although the prairie is awash in golds, it won’t be long until the flowers fade and the brightness dims. I remind myself to take joy in the moment.
Big bluestem, blighted by drought, still flashes its gorgeous colors. I love its jointed stems. No wonder it is Illinois’ state grass!
The brushed silver joints are not the only silver on the prairie. Along the trail are the skeletal remains of plants, perhaps in the Brassica family. What species are they? I’m not sure. Whatever these were, they are now ghosts of their former selves.
The flowers of showy goldenrod are busy with pollinators, such as this paper wasp (below). The wasps don’t have the smart publicity agents and good press of monarchs and bees, so are often overlooked as a positive presence in the garden.
Then again, if you’ve ever been chased by wasps as I have after disturbing a nest —and been painfully stung—you’ll give them a respectful distance.
Tall coreopsis is almost finished for the season, but a few sunshiny blooms remain.
Sawtooth sunflowers, goldenrod, and tall boneset wash together in a celebration of autumn, now at crescendo.
So much yellow! Sumac splashes scarlet across the tallgrass, adding a dash of red. As a prairie steward on other tallgrass sites, I find this native sumac a nuisance. It stealthily infiltrates the prairie and displaces some of the other species I want to thrive. However, toward the end of September, I feel more generous of spirit. Who can resist those leaves, backlit by the low slant of sun, that echo a stained glass window?
The withering summer prairie blooms are now upstaged by the stars of autumn: asters in white and multiple hues of pink, lavender and violet. New England aster provides the best bang for the buck. That purple! It’s a challenge to remember its updated scientific name: Symphyotrichum novae-angliae. Try saying that three times quickly! A real tongue twister. I miss the simpler name, Aster novae-angliae. So easy to remember. But everything changes as science discovers more about the world. It’s up to us to choose to listen, learn, and adapt rather than just doing what is easy.
The periwinkle hues of the smooth blue aster are unlike any other color on the prairie. I stop to caress its trademark smooth, cool leaves.
Every time I look closely at the asters, I see pollinators. And more pollinators. From little flying insects I can’t identify to the ubiquitous cabbage white butterflies and bumblebees, heavy with pollen. And, yes—those ever-present wasps.
Delicate pale pink biennial gaura, with its own tiny pollinators, is easily overlooked, out-glitzed by the prairie’s golds and purples, but worth discovering. Flies, like this one below stopping by the gaura, are also pollinators, but like the wasps they get little respect for the important work they do.
Soon, the glory of the prairie will be in scaffolding and bone: the structure of the plants, the diversity of shape. You can see the prairie begin its shift from bloom to seed, although blooms still predominate.
Breathe in. September is the fragrance of gray-headed coneflower seeds, crushed between your fingers.
September is the pungent thymol of wild bergamot, released by rubbing a leaf or a dry seedhead.
Inhale the prairie air; a mixture of old grass, wood smoke, with a crisp cold top note, even on a warm day. Chew on a mountain mint leaf, tough from the long season, and you’ll get a zing of pleasure. Listen to the geese, honking their way across the sky, or the insects humming in the grass.
Then, find a milkweed pod cracked open, with its pappus —- silks—just waiting to be released. Go ahead. Pull out a few of these parachute seeds. Feel their softness. Imagine what one seed may do next season! I try to think like a milkweed seed. Take flight. Explore. Plant yourself in new places. Nourish monarch butterflies. Offer nectar to bumblebees. Lend beauty wherever you find yourself.
Close your eyes. Make a wish.
Now, release it to the wind.
The opening quote is from Pooh’s Grand Adventure by A.A. Milne. Before he penned the popular children’s book series about a bear named Winnie the Pooh, Milne was known as a playwright and wrote several mystery novels and poems.
All photos are from Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve in Downers Grove, IL, this week unless otherwise noted (top to bottom): bee or common drone fly (tough to tell apart) on panicled aster (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; Belmont Prairie sign; wildflowers and grasses in September; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); something from the Brassica family maybe? Genus and species unknown; Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis); and other goldenrods; dark paper wasp (Polistes fuscates) on showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa); tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); wildflowers of Belmont Prairie in September; staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina); new england aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae); smooth blue aster (Symphyotrichum laeve); dark paper wasp (Polistes fuscates) on panicled aster (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; biennial gaura (Gaura biennis); blazing star (Liatris sp.); gray-headed coneflower seedheads (Ratibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (2019); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (2018); common mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum), Afton Prairie, DeKalb, IL (2017); butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa).
Join Cindy for a class—or ask her to speak virtually for your organization this autumn!
“Nature Writing Online” begins Monday, October 5, through The Morton Arboretum. 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.
“Perhaps by learning more about the native plants that surround us and about their use and history, we can begin to develop our own conservation ethic, which will bring us into harmony with our environment.” — Dr. Kelly Kindscher
August exhales. Hot. Steamy. The prairie crackles.
All day Sunday, we waited for rain. As I worked in my backyard prairie patch that evening, dark clouds rumbled to the north and the east. Occasionally, thunder growled.
On the radar, you could see the clouds kiss the edges of my suburban town. Not a drop of rain fell.
My head tells me that prairies are built for this. The long roots of some prairie plants reach down to 15 feet or more into the recesses of the soil. It’s an insurance policy they pay into, year after year, that keeps them alive through severe shifts of weather. Yet, as I watch my queen of the prairie plants crisp and fade away…
…and the obedient plant flowers wilt and fade to the color of pale burnt sienna.
…I can’t resist turning the sprinkler on and watering the prairie for a good hour. We put a lot of money and love into those prairie plants, and it breaks my heart to see them crumple like brown paper bags.
I console myself with these words from Minnesota author Paul Gruchow about the deep prairie roots: “The work that matters doesn’t always show.” Next year, I’ll know if the plants’ hard work tunneling roots into the soil was enough to keep them alive. I’ll be watching. And waiting.
At Nachusa Grasslands this week, dust billowed around our Subaru as we bounced along an overgrown two-track road to my dragonfly routes. On the prairie, the small pools had long vanished. Cavernous fissures gaped in bare areas. Because of the lack of spring fire, combined with the need for rain, perhaps, some waterways were down to a trickle, choked with growth.
A few dragonflies went about their business; 12-spotted skimmers, blue dashers, common whitetails. Green darners patrolled the ponds.
In Chicago region this week, common green darners gather, preparing for migration. Friends text me with news of their backyard darner swarms. Social media boards light up with numbers. I get texts from my friends who love and observe dragonflies. Thirty in the backyard. Fifty this evening, a few miles east. Soon, the green darners and other migrating species in Illinois—black saddlebags, variegated meadowhawks, wandering gliders—will mass in the hundreds and begin the long journey south.
It’s a poignant time of year, especially, perhaps, this particular year. The dragonflies have been a passionate distraction from so much that is distressing in the world. Don’t go! Stay longer. Please. Of course, they will go… drawn by an evolutionary survival mechanism that tells them to ensure their progeny continue on. The prairie will seem empty without them.
Thinking of this, I look around the prairie. It’s quiet. The bison at Nachusa Grasslands, so rambunctious only a week ago, are hiding, likely somewhere shady and cool. I miss their snorts and sparring today.
And yet, there are signs of life everywhere. The common eastern-tailed blue butterfly teases me, fanning its wings open for few seconds—oh wow, that blue!—then snapping them shut.
A common moth—with such a complex design. Truly we are surrounded by wonders.
I watch the eastern tiger swallowtails nectar on thistle for a while. They’ve been all over my backyard and the prairies I frequent this week, but they never fail to give me pause. And delight. About the time I take them for granted, they’ll be gone for the year.
Even the ubiquitous pearl crescent butterfly stops me for a second look.
In contrast, ghostly cabbage butterflies puddle in the salts and minerals along the stream. In the afternoon sun, they look almost pale green.
All around me—despite the need for rain—the prairie pushes out color. Black-eyed susans.
Great blue lobelia.
As I hike toward the car, I pinch off a leaf of mountain mint; hot and cool and refreshing—all at the same time. I chew it for a bit, then spit it out. My mouth tingles.
August is drawing to a close.
Why wait? Now is the time to go and see.
The prairie is waiting.
Dr. Kelly Kindscher, whose quote opens this post, is a senior scientist with the Kansas biological survey and a professor of environmental studies at the University of Kansas. Kindscher authored two of my favorite books on prairie ethnobotany: Edible Wild Plants of the Prairie and Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie (both from University Press of Kansas). In 1984, Kindscher supplemented his diet with prairie plants as he walked almost 700 miles from Kansas City to Denver.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at Nachusa Grasslands, unless otherwise noted (top to bottom): August at Nachusa Grasslands; cumulonimbus cloud over author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra) and ironweed (Vernonia fasciculata), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; obedient plant (Physostegiavirginiana), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; overgrowth in the sand boil stream, sedge meadow fen; common green darner dragonfly male (Ajax junius); black saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata) (2018); Nachusa Grasslands in August; wildflowers and sky at Nachusa Grasslands; eastern-tailed blue butterfly (Cupido comyntas); chickweed geometer moth (Haematopis grataria); eastern tiger swallowtail (Papilioglaucus) with unknown thistles (possibly Cirsiumdiscolor); pearl crescent butterfly (Phyciodes tharos); cabbage white butterflies (Pieris rapae) puddling; black-eyed susans (probably Rudbeckia subomentosa); great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica); common mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum); sedge meadow fen; Franklin Creek Prairie, Franklin Grove, IL.
Join Cindy for an Online Class this Autumn! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for details. “Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” Begin a new session September 2 through The Morton Arboretum! Work from home at your own pace (with suggested assignment deadlines) for 60 days to complete the material, and meet other prairie volunteers and stewards on the discussion boards and in the optional Zoom session. Classes are limited to 50. Register here.
“Nature Writing Online” Begins Monday, October 5, through The Morton Arboretum. 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. Watch for registration information coming soon.
Just released! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History.
Cindy Crosby is the author, compiler, or contributor to more than 20 books. Her most recent is "Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History" (Northwestern University Press, 2020). She teaches prairie ecology, nature writing, and natural history classes, and is a prairie steward who has volunteered countless hours in prairie restoration. See Cindy's upcoming online speaking events and classes at www.cindycrosby.com.