Cindy Crosby is the author, compiler, or contributor to more than 20 books. Her most recent is "The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction," (2017 Northwestern University Press). Look for her new book, "Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit" in spring of 2019 (with Thomas Dean, Ice Cube Press). Her writing is also included in "The Tallgrass Prairie Reader" (2014, University of Iowa Press). She teaches prairie ecology, prairie literature, and prairie ethnobotany in the Chicago area, and is a prairie steward who has volunteered countless hours in prairie restoration. See Cindy's upcoming speaking and teaching events at www.CindyCrosby.com.
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Tag Archives: compass plant
“How important it is to walk along, not in haste but slowly, looking at everything and calling out Yes!”– Mary Oliver
Ask for their top 10 list of February destinations, and most of my friends would tell you “anywhere warm.” I agree. Toward the end of a Chicago region winter, I’m ready to shed the shivery cold for a few days and escape to some far-flung beach down south.
But the beach in February is not my number one destination. I include walking trails through prairie remnants in winter a little higher on my list.
Tonight, Jeff and I are walking the Belmont Prairie in Downer’s Grove, Illinois. It’s small, as prairies go, but as a remnant—part of the original Illinois tallgrass prairie which escaped development and the plow—it’s special. Writer John Madson wrote in Where the Sky Began that his “feeling for tallgrass prairie is like that of a modern man who has fallen in love with the face in a faded tintype. Only the frame is still real; the rest is illusion and dream.” Remnants remind me of those “faded tintypes.” Ghosts.
Very little of our original prairies have survived; about 2,300 high quality acres are left in Illinois. Another reason to be grateful for Belmont Prairie’s 10-acre remnant.
The grasses are weather-bleached and flattened now. You can imagine how references to the prairie as a sea came to be. Walking the trails here, amid the waves of winter tallgrass, can leave you unsteady on your feet, a little like wading through the surf and sand.
A creek glistens. Puddles of snowmelt glow. I’ve been re-reading Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series this winter, and the creek puts me in mind of Galadriel’s silver elvish rope that helped Frodo and Sam continue their quest to darkest Mordor. Magical. A tiny sliver of creek is also iced in on the right—can you see it in the grasses? Barely visible, but the setting sun sets it alight.
As we hike, Canada geese begin to settle in, pulling their V-string necklaces across the twilight overhead.
Geese have a bad rap here in the Chicago suburbs, but I admire their sense of direction, their seamless ability to work as an aerial team, their perfectly spaced flight pattern. Their confidence in knowing the way home.
Honk-honk! The soundtrack of dusk.
A crescent moon scythes its way across the burgeoning gloom.
Still enough light to see. The reflections of ice spark the last light.
Poke around. In the mud and snow pockets, trapped in north-facing crevices, there are signs of spring to come. A few spears of green. Water running under the ice.
Look closely, and you may find a few tracks. Mammals are out and about in the cold. Birds. In my backyard, close to the prairie patch, we’ve been feeding the birds extra food during the bitter temperatures, and they, in turn, have graced us with color, motion, and beauty. As I scrubbed potatoes before having some friends over for dinner this weekend, my mundane task was made enjoyable by watching the interplay at the feeders outside my kitchen window. Scrubbing potatoes became meditation of sorts. Outside were squabbling sparrows. The occasional red-bellied woodpecker. Juncos–one of my favorites–nun-like in their black and white feathered habits. The occasional burst of cardinal color. Darting chickadees. Nuthatches, hanging upside down, zipping in for a peanut or two. Downy woodpeckers, like this one.
The seeds on the ground attract more than birds. There are gangs of squirrels, well-fed and prosperous. If I wake early, I might spot a large eastern cottontail scavenging seeds, or even a red fox, whose antics with her kits have delighted us in the neighborhood over the years (and kept the resident chipmunk herds in check). Once in a while, over the years, we’ll surprise her on our back porch.
Another backyard visitor through the year is the opossum, who finds the seeds under the bird feeders a nice change of diet.
The opossum’s face looks a bit like a heart, doesn’t it? It reminded me that Valentine’s Day is Thursday. Time to find or make a card, and perhaps shop for a book or two for my best hiking partner. Speaking of him….
As Jeff and I head for the parking lot at Belmont Prairie, the great-horned owl calls from the treeline that hems the tallgrass. I hear the soft murmur. Who-Who- Hoooo.
Jeff and I once found a great horned owl here—perhaps this very one— in daylight, high in a tree on the edge of the grasses. I owl-prowl sometimes through the woods, hunting for bone and fur-filled scat pellets under trees. Find a pellet under a tree, look up, and you’ll occasionally get lucky and see an owl.
I think about Mary Oliver’s poem, “Little Owl Who Lives in the Orchard,” which begins….”His beak could open a bottle… .” As someone who teaches nature writing in the Chicago region, I love to read this poem to my students. The sounds of Oliver’s word choices (“black, smocked crickets”), her contrasts of terror and sweet, and her descriptions (“when I see his wings open, like two black ferns”) remind me of the joy of words, images, and our experiences outdoors.
Oliver’s poem about the owl ends; “The hooked head stares from its house of dark, feathery lace. It could be a valentine.”
The owl calls again. I think of the people and prairie I love. And, the joy that sharing a love of wild things with others can bring.
It’s a happiness not quite like any other. Try it yourself. And see.
Mary Oliver (1936-2019), whose words from Owls and Other Fantasies opens this blogpost, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet (1984, American Primitive) and winner of the National Book Award (1992, New and Selected Poems). Her admonition, “Pay attention. Be astonished! Tell about it.,” is some of the best advice I know. She died in January.
All photographs copyright Cindy Crosby, from Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL, unless noted (top to bottom): beach umbrellas, Sanibel Island, Florida; sawtooth sunflowers (Helianthus grosseserratus); Canada rye (Elymus canadensis); parking lot at sunset; grasses on the prairie; creek through the prairie; Canada geese (Branta canadensis) heading home; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) at sunset; crescent moon over the tallgrass; ice in the grasses; creek ice with new growth; downy woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; red fox (Vulpes vulpes), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; sunset over the prairie; Belmont Prairie treeline; treeline at the edges of the prairie; Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) with common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) pappus.
“Adapt or perish, now as is ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative.”–H. G. Wells
How do you cope with wild swings of weather? How do you make it through a tempestuous, fickle Midwestern winter?
Here in the Midwest this week, we’ve seen swings of temperature from -25 degrees below zero to 50 degrees or more. When I hiked the Schulenberg Prairie on Saturday, February 2, this was the view from the prairie bench:
Compare it to this same view when I hiked the prairie two days later, on Monday, February 4:
Oh, the difference two days makes in February!
I’ve coped with all this weather change armed with my arsenal of hot drinks, a stack of library books, and a pile of afghans. You too? But I’m not sure I can say I’ve fully “adapted.”
We worry about our non-native plants—and sometimes, with good reason—because they aren’t adapted to our harsh conditions. These garden plants come from far-flung places, where their beauty and exotic good looks brighten up our yards here. I’m a sucker for some of these plants (Moonflowers! Zinnias! Gallardia!), although I garden mostly for natives.
There is something wonderfully comforting about the Illinois prairie and its suite of plants. Sure, some of them disappear from season to season, obliterated by unusual weather conditions. But most of our native prairie plants are made for a rollercoaster climate.
How do prairie plants navigate extreme weather? What makes them different than the orchid flowering on my kitchen counter, or the scarlet runner beans in my summer garden? Let’s take a hike on the February prairie together and think about some of the ways native plants cope.
The February prairie may look desolate, in its transitions between freeze and thaw; frigid and mild.
But underneath the surface, there is a lot going on. Many of the barely-there, brittle grasses and wildflower fragments you see around you in February have deep roots. Roots that plunge 15 feet or more deep. These roots hold the promise of spring. The promise of renewal.
Can you imagine? Like a time bomb of the best kind, ready to go off at the right moment.
The growing points under the ground and deep roots help ensure survival from year to year. When fires sweep across the prairie—once caused by lightning strikes and Native Americans, and now set intentionally to mimic the historical ones —its no problem.
These adaptations are mostly about what’s invisible to us, under the ground. But what about the visible?
This article from the Illinois State Museum helps us understand why so many of the prairie plants have narrow leaves. Yes, it’s no accident! Skinny leaves, because of their slim profile, lose less water to evaporation than our more broad-leaved plants. Cool!
But wait! What about those broad-leaved prairie plants? How do they cope? Which brings us to…
Compass plant is famous for it. Prairie dock does it as well. Turning north and south—orienting your leaves to lose the least amount of moisture—is a great adaptation by certain prairie plants to avoid losing moisture to a brutal prairie sun. Sure, it’s tough to notice this in the depths of February, when compass plant leaves are barely hanging on…
…or the prairie dock leaves are battered and torn.
Easier, perhaps, in the heat of a July afternoon. In the 1800s, some naturalists thought this positioning was because the plants had taken up enough iron in the soil to become magnetic. Now we know this leaf position is another way for plants to brave the harsh elements of a Midwestern summer. Read more about the prairie dock and its leaf orientation in this excellent article by plant guru Christopher Benda, His article also includes information about long taproots, another prairie plant adaptation.
As someone who often struggles to adapt to change, I admire the strategies of these plant survivalists. They live in one of the most vulnerable places on Earth—the tallgrass prairie. Yet, they know how to cope. I’ve only touched on a few of their adaptations. There are many, many more to explore.
This week, as the temperatures have see-sawed back and forth through extremes, I have a new appreciation for prairie plants. You too? Why not go for a hike and admire these prairie plants in person?
Maybe they will inspire you, as they have me. That adaptation to difficult conditions is possible. And—you can learn to accept change.
The opening quote is by Herbert George “H.G.” Wells (1866-1946), a prolific writer often referred to as “The Father of Science Fiction.” Wells is best known for his books, The Time Machine, War of the Worlds, and The Invisible Man. A trained biologist, he brought his knowledge to bear in The Island of Dr. Moreau, in which he writes of a doctor who tampers with evolution in animals.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): bridge at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; Schulenberg Prairie bench on Saturday, February 2, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie bench on Monday, February 4, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; author’s backyard prairie during the Polar Vortex (temperature -25 degrees), Glen Ellyn, IL; silhouettes of prairie plants on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray day on the Schulenberg Prairie (looking through the savanna), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; reflections on the Schulenberg Prairie trail, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prescribed burn on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) leaves, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Schulenberg Prairie savanna on February 4, 2019, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.
“Let us go on, and take the adventure that shall fall to us.” — C.S. Lewis
Wolf Road Prairie! How could anyone resist visiting a nature preserve with a name like this one? It seems ripe with possibilities for adventure.
The sunshine over the 80-acre preserve is welcome, although the wind makes the temperature seem colder than the high 20s.
Jeff and I drive around the preserve, unsure where where the trails are. We can see prairie plants, so we know we’re in the right place. Hmmm.
Time to ask directions. A helpful member of the “Save the Prairie Society” is shoveling snow, getting ready for an open house at the historical structure on the property. He greets us warmly, and shows us where the trails begin.
We see right away we’re not alone on the prairie. Look at those tracks! Rush hour.
Little critters have left their imprints, like sewing machine stitches, across the prairie.Who made the tracks? We wonder. Prairie voles? Mice? Difficult to tell.
We cross through a wetland…
…and see other signs of the preserve’s inhabitants.
A nest of a bird, long flown.
I’m puzzled by the interesting galls on the sunflowers. My gall knowledge is limited. Sunflower crown gall, maybe?
There’s a goldenrod bunch gall–sometimes called a rosette gall—I recognize on the other side of the trail. Like a dried out winter flower of sorts.
I make a mental note to refresh my gall knowledge—at least of the goldenrod galls! There’s so much to learn while hiking the winter prairie. Always something new, something different. Later at home, I’ll chase down different bits of information, based on our hike. Crown gall. Bunch gall. Adventures of a different kind.
As we hike the south-side prairie savanna remnant…
…we find sidewalks, left over from a pre-Depression Era time when this acreage was slated for a housing development. The contractors got as far as putting in the sidewalks before the project was scrapped. Jeff, who’s a history buff, is delighted.
I’m excited, too. According to an excellent article by the Salt Creek Greenway Association, the preserve was threatened again by a proposed housing development in the 1970s. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources and Forest Preserve District of Cook County were able to acquire the acreage and save the fine examples of savanna and black soil prairie remnant. What a success story!
In January 2019, the story continues. Although the cooler palette of Wolf Road prairie in winter tends toward white, brown, and blue, with bits of pale yellow…
…little bluestem warms up the tallgrass with reds and golds. Its last clinging seeds sparkle in the sunshine.
Winter on the prairie brings certain plants into focus. Little bluestem is only one example.
In the summer, I appreciate pale purple coneflowers for their swash of pink-purple color across the grasses. In January, I find myself focusing on a single plant’s structure.
Culver’s root, bereft of summer pollinators and long past bloom, takes on sinuous grace and motion in stark relief against the snow.
Even the rough and tumble goldenrod assumes a more delicate beauty in silhouette.
I imagine what this prairie, savanna, and wetland preserve will look like in a few months. Covered with wildflowers. Limned with birdsong. Full of diverse color and motion. Still, seeing Wolf Road Prairie under a layer of snow in the sunshine has its own beauty.
We almost lost this prairie. Twice.
I’m grateful to hike it today.
In a time when so many of our natural areas are threatened, Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve stands as an example of what can happen when people care. What other prairies or natural areas should we speak up and protect today, which might otherwise be lost, underfunded, or developed? These are adventures in caring. Adventures in making a difference.
Somewhere, a new prairie adventure is waiting.
The opening quote is from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, a book in the series “The Chronicles of Narnia,” by C.S. Lewis. I love this series, and read it out loud to my adult children when they were growing up.
All photos this week are from Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL; copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): sky over the wetland; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) in the prairie display garden; hiking the north side of Wolf Road Prairie; small mouse or vole tracks in the snow; cattail (Typha latifolia, Typha angustifolia or Typha x glauca); unknown bird’s nest; possibly sunflower crown gall (a plant disease); goldenrod gall bunch or rosette—made by a goldenrod gall midge (Rhopalomyia solidaginis); prairie savanna with bur oaks (Quercus macrocarpa); old sidewalk under the snow in the savanna; snow shadows on the prairie; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium); pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) seedhead; Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum); goldenrod (possibly Solidago canadensis); sign for Wolf Road Prairie; trail headed south with little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), a rusty orange haze along the trail and in the distance.
Thank you to the members of the Save the Prairie Society and Heritage Project Committee who so generously pointed out trails, gave us a tour of The Franzosenbusch Prairie House Nature Center and Museum, and were warm and welcoming on our visit there. Check out their Facebook page and other social media.
“Since we go through this strange and beautiful world of ours only once, it seems a pity to lack the sense of delight and enthusiasm that merely being alive should hold.” — Sigurd Olson
As the days shorten, hurtling us toward the Winter Solstice Friday, a sunny day is especially welcome. A prairie hike seems in order. Where to go? On the edge of a subdivision not far from where I live, hedged in by apartment buildings, two interstates, and a golf course, lies the Belmont Prairie Preserve. A little unplowed prairie remnant, barely hanging on in the suburbs. Let’s go!
I move slowly on the overgrown path, recovering from knee surgery that will get me back in tallgrass action come spring. So I take the trail a little more deliberately than usual, which of course, has its own rewards. When you don’t rush, the prairie opens up more of her secrets to you. All around me, the morning frost evaporates. Ragged compass plants look otherworldly, backlit by bright sunshine.
The melting ice glitters on the grasses.
A few compass plant seedheads, with their seeds mostly stripped away, silhouette themselves against the deep blue winter sky.
Its last leaves are wearing away, barely attached to the stem.
Looking at them, I think of Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Dillard’s remark in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: “I am a frayed and nibbled survivor in a fallen world, and I am getting along. I am aging and eaten and have done my share of eating too. I am not washed and beautiful, in control of a shining world in which everything fits, but instead am wondering awed about on a splintered wreck I’ve come to care for…and whose beauty bats and shines not in its imperfections but overwhelmingly in spite of them.”
It’s difficult to imagine anything nibbling the sandpapery compass plant leaves in December. But all grasses and forbs are parsed down to their essence. I continue to study the compass plants. Rough, cracked stems are patched with resin. Scratch the patches, and you’ll inhale a tang of pine fragrance.
Compare the rough and ready compass plants to the fluidity and grace of big bluestem. Sure, big bluestem is dried out and desiccated now; most of its seeds disappeared into the beaks of birds. When green, its foliage is so delicious for wildlife, the plant is sometimes nicknamed “ice cream grass.” But its beauty is only enhanced as the focus shifts from waving turkey-foot seedheads to dry, ribbon-like leaves and hollow stems, flushed with subtle pastel colors.
Another contrast nearby: Pale purple coneflowers still hold their forbidding seedheads. You can see why the scientific name “Echinacea” means “hedgehog” or “sea urchin.” Handle with care! The seeds inside are mostly long gone, harvested by goldfinches and grassland birds.
More contrasts: Thimbleweed holds its soft clouds of seedheads aslant in the cold. I rub the cottony tufts between my fingers, admiring their softness. Like Q-tips.
The thimbleweed is echoed close by in the brushy, bristly seedheads of round-headed bush clover. A fun name to say out loud, isn’t it? Try it. Its scientific name, found at the end of this post, is just as enjoyable.
It’s these little nature preserves, like the Belmont Prairie remnant, that encapsulate the future of restoration. On a beautiful sunny winter’s day like this one, the future seems full of possibilities.
So many delights for the senses to be discovered on a remnant prairie in December! And in a world where so many of our natural resources are in jeopardy, isn’t it encouraging to know that here, at least, the tallgrass prairie will live on. As long as we continue to hike it, protect it, and share it with others so they will love and protect it, too.
What other delights will you find this month on the prairie? Go take a look, and find out.
Sigurd Olson (1899-1982) was the Chicago-born author of many books and key environmentalist instrumental in bringing attention to and preserving the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. His writings about wilderness, including the opening quote of this blog post taken from the chapter “Aliveness” in Reflections from the North Country, continue to inspire those who care about the natural world. Read more about Olson here.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby, and taken at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve in Downer’s Grove, IL: Belmont Nature Preserve in December; backlit compass plant (Silphium terebinthinaceum); grasses matted down after the blizzard and glistening with frost; compass plant (Silphium terebinthinaceum); compass plant (Silphium terebinthinaceum); compass plant (Silphium terebinthinaceum); big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) seedheads; thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica); round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata); Belmont Prairie in December.
“…I hear a sound, sometimes a little more than a whisper, of something falling, arriving, fallen, a seed …there is no trace of regret in the sound or in the stillness after the falling, no sound of hesitation on the way, no question and no doubt.” M.S. Merwin
I’ve been catching up on my thank-you notes this week, nudged by the upcoming holiday that reminds me to be grateful. Ironic, isn’t it? A week in the Midwest in which we dedicate ourselves to be thankful falls in one of the gloomiest seasons of the year.
What if Thanksgiving fell in July? Easy to get in a thankful mood.
Or May, when shooting star blooms carpet the prairie after a long, cold winter; everything seems bathed in joy and delight. Do I feel thankful then? You bet!
But November! Well, she makes no apologies for who she is. November’s given me a lot to be grateful for. So, as I write my thank-you notes to people in my life this week, I figure I should write a few to November as well.
Thanks, November–your gray days are a foil for aspects of the prairie I’d otherwise overlook. Would I notice the dangling seedpods of white wild indigo if they appeared this way in sunny July? Perhaps not. They seem to take on added charisma on gray, snow-spitting days. “Prairie bling” of a certain kind.
I appreciate how some of the less exciting plants get their moment in the spotlight this month, November. Late figwort isn’t a particularly glamorous plant, but this month, it gets a makeover. Without the pops of bright July wildflower color or distractions of butterflies and bees, the eye is drawn to figwort’s kitschy structure. Looks a bit like some management diagrams I’ve seen, or maybe an organizational flow chart.
Other flora and fauna of the prairie are worth a second look in November. Carrion flower, which twines its way through the prairie grasses without a lot of fanfare during the warm weather, is a show-stopper this month. (Nope, it’s not edible—unless you’re a bird or a mammal).
November even gives the humble bison track some seasonal flair. Glitzy!
Thanks for the unexpected, November. The rhythm of sandhill crane migration through prairie skies is an expected pleasure this month. But November bird life holds some surprises.
Like this little guy, above. Our friends, John and Trisha, had a varied thrush show up this week in their backyard, not far from their prairie patch. The varied thrush is an erratic migrant from the West Coast not normally seen in the Midwest. Its arrival here in the Chicago region is a November serendipity. People drove from around the Midwest to see and add this colorful thrush to their life lists. Who knows what other avian surprises might appear this month?
Hey, November, thanks for teaching me about adapting and surviving.
The hairs of the compass plant above speak of hard times. Each hair catches moisture and helps retain water, which keeps the compass plant alive through brutal Midwestern droughts. November peels away all the color and glam of a compass plant, and reminds me of how tough some of our prairie plants are. It’s a memo to myself, as well; a reminder that I have cultivated ways to navigate the difficult times of my life. Survival skills. Adaptations.
November reminds me, “You’ve got this.”
Thanks, November for the transition. Change is good, right? Well, maybe. But change is usually difficult. As much as I enjoy the change of seasons, I also have trouble letting go of whatever season I’m in. As I get older, it seems time moves more quickly, with less time to adjust. November, with its segue from autumn into meteorological winter, helps make the transition to the end of the year a little easier.
The photo above of Willoway Brook on the Schulenberg Prairie is a study in transitions. Snow has settled around the stream, which is just a breath away from freezing but still runs free and clear. High quality prairie on the left is juxtaposed with invasive reed canary grass along the shoreline, which prairie volunteers battled to a hard-fought draw this season. The partly-dead reed canary grass hangs over the brook, admiring its reflection, perhaps, and—in my mind—thumbing its proverbial nose at us. We’ve decided to let a certain amount of reed canary grass colonize the streambanks as we focus on other restoration activities on the prairie, a decision made simply from a time-management standpoint. The above photo tells many stories about persistence and patience; resistance and acceptance.
Which reminds me…
Thanks, November, for the people who care for prairie. People like the site managers and volunteers and stewards. People like the prairie donors and environmental activists who make a difference. Those who take a child out to see the prairie. The person who shares a photo of the tallgrass with a friend. People like you—who care about the natural world.
The curtain is coming down on another year in the tallgrass. As it does…
…I want to say thank you for reading. Thank you for being a part of the work that keeps the tallgrass prairie alive and thriving. Thank you for sharing your love of prairie with others. And, thank you for your part in keeping the tallgrass prairie visible, both in our communities and in people’s hearts and minds.
What about you? Is there a thank-you note you’d like to write to November? Leave it in the comments section below as a reminder of what we have to be thankful for this month.
The opening quote is from the poem, Garden Notes, from William Stanley “W.S.” Merwin’s collection, The Moon Before Morning (Copper Canyon Press). Twice a Pulitzer Prize winner, Merwin (1927-) was our 2010-11 United States Poet Laureate, and is known for writing his grief over our destruction of the natural world. Discover more about him at the Poetry Foundation. Click here to listen to him read his powerful and moving poem, Rain Light.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom) except for varied thrush as noted: monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), Nomia Meadow Farms prairie, Franklin Grove, IL; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia), Schulenberg Prairie in May, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla) with snowcap, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica) in November, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, carrion flower (probably Smilax lasioneura) in November, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; icy bison (Bison bison) track, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; varied thrush (Ixoreus naevius), photo courtesy John Heneghan, Kane County, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) seedhead, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale Indian plantain seeds (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; snowmelt on Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) in November, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; bench on the Schulenberg Prairie in November, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.
With grateful thanks to John Heneghen, who shared his varied thrush photo and story with me for this post, and reminded me of another reason to be thankful for the unexpected serendipities of November.
“Don’t you know, some people say, the winter is the best time of them all…”–Neil Young
I like a good challenge, don’t you? So this mid-November, I’m challenging myself to discover what’s lovable about my least favorite month of the year on the prairie.
Can there really be anything good about November? Every where I see signs of loss. Leaves dropping. Days shortening. Temperatures plunging. I’m not going to lie—I’ve been pretty grumpy about the whole change of seasons so far.
But what I found as I hiked reminded me of why this season has its own charms, its own distinctiveness. Need convincing? Read on….
The sounds of the November prairie… are so different than the sounds of late summer and early autumn. Sound travels farther and more clearly in cold weather if conditions are right; check out this interesting article here. Next time you’re hiking through the prairie on a frosty morning, listen. See if you agree.
The wildlife noises are also different than the summer orchestra of insect songs and bee-buzz. Woodpeckers suddenly become the stars of the savanna show after hovering in the background most of the summer. They hang out on the edge of the prairie; their sharp calls pierce the cold air and their drumming adds a staccato beat to the gray days. Nuthatches chatter companionably to each other. Their calls remind me of clown bicycle horns (listen here).
This week in the Chicago region, the sandhill cranes are scrawling their calligraphy across the skies, migrating south. Their appearance signals a seasonal transition. What are they saying to each other? Arguing over directions, maybe? If you have never heard sandhill cranes bugle from high overhead, it’s an other-worldly sound that speaks of movement and change. Intrigued? Listen to them here.
A touch-y, feel-y kind of season… November is a wonderful time to engage that tactile side of your personality. Consider a compass plant leaf. Rub your fingers across the rough surface. Notice the texture. The leaf gracefully arcs, bowing to the inevitable, concentrating its energy in the plant’s deep roots for winter.
Slide your fingers along the big bluestem “stem.” Feel that polished smoothness? It’s said that early settlers found these stems made a great substitute for lost knitting needles. No word on what gauge size.
Mmmm… those smells!… Go on, inhale. Wakes you up, doesn’t it? These damp, gray days of mid-November have their own particular scent. Earthy. The sharpness of cold. A whisper of plant decay. A tang of the last wild bergamot, which smells of a cross between Earl Grey tea and thyme. When I sniff the gray-headed coneflower seeds, it brings lemons to mind; maybe even a bit of licorice. The hot buttered popcorn scent of prairie dropseed is long gone; the sweet floral smell of the common milkweed is memory.
But November has its own perfumery.
Tasty! Ah, the last leaves of mountain mint. You can still find a few green-ish ones, if you look. They aren’t as pliable as they were back in July, but they retain a little minty zing. The crumbly rosin of compass plant is still pleasant in the mouth; a bit piney and not as problematically sticky.
And of course, there is plenty to see… for those who look closely. The first serious snowfall—you know, where there’s actual white stuff on the tallgrass and not just flakes in the air—can’t help but spark delight. Sure, you’ll hear people moan, “I’m not ready for this,” but seeing the first real snow on the ground is comforting. Despite politics, shootings, wildfires, and global tragedies, the seasons keep rolling along.
The often-gray skies of November are a foil for the metallic colors of the grasses, which are a backdrop for the silhouettes of spent seedheads
It’s a different way of seeing at this time of the year. More difficult to find the beauty. But it’s there.
Don’t forget…as you use your five senses to explore the November prairie, there is “the sixth sense.” Making the connection of the heart to what we experience. November reminds us of our own mortality—of the cycle of great abundance and heartbreaking loss; growth and rest—that we experience during our short time on this planet. November on the prairie is homely, humble, and quiet. It reminds us, as that great prairie writer Paul Gruchow wrote in Grass Roots: The Universe of Home, “the work that matters doesn’t always show.”
Like all months, November has its own experiences to offer. New things to teach me. A time for reflection.
If I have the courage to look November squarely in its seasonal face, instead of avoiding it, maybe I’ll learn something.
So. Bring it on, November. I’m really to learn from you, and experience all you have to offer.
What about you?
The opening epigram is from Neil Young’s song “Little Wing,” from his much-maligned album, Hawks and Doves. Despite mockery from my friends, this is one of my favorite Young albums. It will grow on you. Promise.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom) mixed November leaves, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; trail with light snow, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove Park District and The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove, IL; bench overlooking Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis), Schulenberg prairie edge, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) over author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; compass plant leaf (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; November grasses and forbs, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) rosin, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, United States Department of Agriculture/Forest Service and The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Wilmington, IL; prairie cinquefoil (Drymocallis arguta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.