“…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).
Or pick them up at your favorite indie bookstore such as the Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org or other book venues. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during these unusual times.