Tag Archives: cream gentian

A Season of (Prairie) Change

“Change is inevitable—except from a vending machine.”  — Robert Gallagher

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When you think of change, how does it make you feel?  Excited? Confused? A sense of dread? Or, perhaps you feel as one of my adult natural history students does. She walked in on the second day of class, saw I had rearranged our seating, and her face fell. Annoyed, she grumbled: “I HATE change!”

Love it, hate it, try to ignore it—-change is inevitable (except as where noted in our opening quote). October smacks us with this fact, then teases us with changes in color and texture, sounds and scents. See-saw temperatures and strange weather phenomena.  Autumn is already flirting with winter here in the Chicago region. Hey, what happened to Fall? Where’s the transition?

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In my backyard, the first freeze of the season—-followed by an unexpected snowfall and high winds, with a side helping of graupel-–has put “paid” to the gardening account for the year.  Basil? Should have gotten out there to pick it last week. Too late now. The only tomatoes I’ll have onward are the ones I threw from my garden into my freezer, ready for chili and spaghetti sauce over the winter.  But I’m not quite ready to trade my iced coffee for hot. My short sleeves for sweaters. My long sunny days for short.

It doesn’t matter what I want.  Change is oblivious to my personal preferences. Ready or not, here the cold weather comes. My backyard prairie patch still sports a sizzle of asters but most of the zing has gone out of them. For the rest of the month, I’ll find pleasures in the structures; the white puffs of silk from Joe Pye weed and little bluestem; the contrasts of stem and seed.

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The rich tapestry of October is already hurtling toward the bleak starkness of November.

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Contrasts, I tell myself. Think about seasonal simplicity. A winter landscape free from distractions like wildflowers, or the dazzle of bright-colored birds in breeding plumage. It’s easier to focus in winter. Worthwhile to consider the forthcoming season as a time to reflect. I’ll catch up on my reading and  make my garden and prairie steward to-do lists for next year. I’ll scribble: Take out the honeysuckle coming into the north side of the prairie. Check pasque flower seeds—did they germinate? Try a new method to get rid of the birds-foot trefoil along Willoway Brook. Issue an ultimatum to the reed canary grass. Plan a teaching display garden at the Prairie Visitor Center. 

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The tallgrass is no stranger to transitions; the prairie dock leaves changing from chlorophyll green to brittle brown remind me of this. Change means possibilities. Gaining new perspectives on old problems. Transition seasons like October keep me  from getting too comfortable, too complacent in my routines. Mostly, this season means moving from doing to observing and reflection.

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Visible life drains from the supple juicy prairie plants, as the leaves crisp into new patterns and textures. The prairie slowly becomes something different. Kind of a Dorothy entering the land of OZ—but in reverse.

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The tallgrass has gone to seed; a blizzard of white silk in a sea of grass. The bison pull on their winter coats as autumnal cues signal winter ahead. As I watch the bison drift across the prairie in strong winds that toss the seedheads and swirl the grasses, I’m reminded, once again, why so much of the prairie literature compares tallgrass to the ocean. Bison NG 10-20-18WM.jpg

The prairie decrescendos. Butterflies? Dragonflies? Bright memories, mostly, although a few linger on.  Now that the last prairie wildflowers are mostly bloomed out, the solitary mated queen bumble bees are looking for their wintering sites, ready to out-last the coming cold until spring.  Just a month ago, the bumble bees amused me as they foraged in the gentians. I miss the bumble bees’ frenetic activity on the prairie. I guess I’ll have to content myself with listening to bumble bee-inspired music until spring.

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Meanwhile, bird activity has stepped up to fill in the insect gaps. Migrating flocks move through, stripping the backyard birdfeeders; invasive starlings perform their choreography each day, schooling across the skies in black particles like those old Etch-a-Sketch tablet drawings. Eerily beautiful.  Pert chickadees rap out their signature songs. Canada geese drag chains of “V’s” across the slanted light of October skies. Everything seems a little surreal; a little otherworldly.

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The warblers have done their autumn clothes shopping and appear at my bird feeders in disguise. Even the goldfinches have taken on the color of olive oil. Remember when they were a dazzling yellow?

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Crows ink their way around the prairie, a welcome sight after the dramatic population decline of a decade or so ago due to West Nile virus.  I never thought much about crows until they disappeared for a few years, then rebounded. The prairie skies were emptier for their absence.

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As the earth tilts toward the winter solstice, the prairie puzzle pieces rearrange themselves into new images. I give myself a pep talk. Change can be positive. Why not invite it in, rather than resist it?

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If nothing else, I can say that the changes October brings keep me on my toes as I try to  pay attention. Notice the change of light; the ebb and flow of the community of the natural world. Listen to the hush of grasses bending in the strong winds, and the tap-tap-tap of the first snowflakes pelting the prairie. Breathe in occasional bursts of the metallic tang of cold prairie air, beginning to replace the scent of autumn decay.

October is a post-it note to myself: Embrace change. Enjoy each moment as it comes. After all, without change, life would be pretty predictable and stale.

And who wants that?

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Robert C. Gallagher, whose quote opens this post, is a sportswriter and author of The Express: The Ernie Davis Story. He lives in Virginia.

All photographs and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom) road marking transition from agriculture to prairie, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Franklin Grove, IL; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  tree line and prairie transition at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; skies over the Schulenberg Prairie in October, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) leaf, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bluebird house on the prairie, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bison (Bison bison) in October, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Franklin Grove, IL; unknown bumblebee (Bombus) in cream gentian (Gentiana flavida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; goldfinch (Spinus tristis) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; October skies, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Franklin Grove, IL; bison corral gates, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy of Illinois, Franklin Grove, IL.

Our National Tallgrass Treasure

“Tallgrass prairie is a national treasure. Prairie reconstructions and restorations require a commitment of time, resources, and ongoing management. Progress may be slow, but the processes and product are exciting, fulfilling, and perhaps, life changing. –Dr. Daryl Smith

***

It’s sunset. The small patch of prairie remnant glows.

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The Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve is a wedge of about 10 acres of tallgrass tucked into an unlikely spot between a golf course, freeways, and subdivisions, deep in the Chicago suburbs. Look west across the prairie, and you can’t help but think of a more subdued Albert Bierstadt painting in the Hudson River School style, or perhaps the shadowy drama of an Andrew Wyeth rural landscape.

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Turn in another direction, and the view is more “Chicago Suburban School of Realism.”

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As I walk these and other pockets of remnant prairie in the Chicago suburbs, I wonder how these tiny prairie acres hung on by a thread when others were destroyed. Each has a story. Most revolve around a person who recognized the value of a plant or bird or butterfly and called it to someone’s attention before the land was bulldozed.

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Oh, the stories these plants that remain could tell us! Tales of a time when Illinois was covered with 22 million acres of tallgrass prairie. Survival despite the odds. And yet, so much of what was once here is lost. Gone forever, never to be replaced.

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Although only a few thousand of those original acres remain, the ink has not completely faded from the original prairie pages. We read what we see there.

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Inspired—we continue to plant and reconstruct new prairies for the future.

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Yet, no matter how many new acres of tallgrass we plant, we can’t seem to replicate the original remnants. To come close will require genius, research, and ingenuity— know-how that we don’t have yet. And even so, our efforts  may not be enough. The planted prairies are similar, yet not the same. They are missing some of the insects. Some of the “words” from the original prairie pages. And also…

If you walk a remnant prairie at sunset, do you feel a different sense of place there than you feel when you walk a planted prairie, or a reconstructed prairie? And you wonder… can we ever replicate that?

Perhaps this is not a question any scientist would care to tackle.

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We do know this: The remnants we cherish may be the last of their kind. Irreplaceable.

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And so, they are almost dreamlike in their tenuous grasp on the land…and in their hold on our imagination.

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That’s why I hike the trails of the prairies this month. To see the remnants. To think about what was lost. To feel that irreplaceable sense of place. To treasure what is left. And to remember.

At the end of November.

***

Dr. Daryl Smith is one of four authors (with Dave Williams, Greg Houseal, and Kirk Henderson) of the iconic book, The Tallgrass Prairie Center Guide to Prairie Restoration in the Upper Midwest (University of Iowa Press). Anyone who is interested in prairie would benefit from having this comprehensive manual on their bookshelf.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom) pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) seedheads, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove Park District, The Nature Conservancy of Illinois, Belmont Prairie Preservation Association, Downer’s Grove, IL; trail at sunset, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove Park District, The Nature Conservancy of Illinois, Belmont Prairie Preservation Association, Downer’s Grove, IL; homes and buildings at the prairie’s edge, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove Park District, The Nature Conservancy of Illinois, Belmont Prairie Preservation Association, Downer’s Grove, IL; unknown seedhead with spiderweb thread, Danada Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Wheaton, IL;  cream gentian seedheads (Gentiana alba) Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove Park District, The Nature Conservancy of Illinois, Belmont Prairie Preservation Association, Downer’s Grove, IL;, sunset on the Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild quinine seedheads (Parthenium integrifolium), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove Park District, The Nature Conservancy of Illinois, Belmont Prairie Preservation Association, Downer’s Grove, IL; thimbleweed seedhead (Anemone virginiana), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove Park District, The Nature Conservancy of Illinois, Belmont Prairie Preservation Association, Downer’s Grove, IL; leaf at sunset, Danada Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Wheaton, IL; Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove Park District, The Nature Conservancy of Illinois, Belmont Prairie Preservation Association.