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Making Sense of November’s Prairie

“Don’t you know, some people say, the winter is the best time of them all…”–Neil Young

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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.

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But what I found as I hiked reminded me of why this season has its own charms, its own distinctiveness. Need convincing? Read on….

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The sounds of the November prairieare 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.

 

SPMAbench111218WM.jpg 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).

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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And of course, there is plenty to seefor 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.

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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

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It’s a different way of seeing at this time of the year. More difficult to find the beauty. But it’s there.

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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.”

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Like all months, November has its own experiences to offer. New things to teach me. A time for reflection.

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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.

Prairie Shadows; Prairie Promise

“Time flies over us, but leaves its shadow behind.” — Nathaniel Hawthorne

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It’s “shadow season” on the prairie, a time where everything seems a ghost of its former, vibrant self. I find it one of the most difficult times of the year in the tallgrass. Everything that remains at the turn of March to April is seemingly brittle. Ruined. Grasses are flattened. The prairie seems worn out.

Waiting for fire.

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Or maybe I’m just projecting my own winter-weary self on the prairie. The prairie—as always—has its gifts to give.  These gifts just aren’t that in-your-face, “wow-look-at-that-color!” good looks. No wildflowers. No juicy grasses. Few returning grassland birds.

There is a whole lot of animal scat and mud. Trash, small mammal bones, and flotsam and jetsam left behind after the snow melt.

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It’s discouraging. But sometimes, to see hope for the future—or even, just to give yourself a mental boost to get to next week—you have to look a little closer. Dig a little deeper. Take more time. Sit with things.

When you do, you find that with the prairie’s maturity comes a different sort of beauty. It’s nuanced.

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Some plants are crumpled and twisted. This one caught a plant virus. See that thick stem? It’s frayed a little around the stress points, but not broken…

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Prairie dock leaves are so wrinkled you have to look twice to recognize them.

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Much different from their beginnings just a year or so ago.

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All the knowledge of the past prairie season is encapsulated here in March. A shadow of what once was. You can’t help but be reminded of our own fleeting presence here.

 

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There’s promise. That promise will be more evident after the prescribed fires, when the prairie is once again lush and green and beginning to bloom.

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Despite the stands of dead foliage, what is important to the prairie is still here. Even if unseen. It’s right where you’re standing. Down deep where the fire can’t touch it, in the roots that plunge up to 15 feet or more into the earth.

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Martin Luther King, Jr., once said: “Everything we see is but a shadow cast by that which we don’t see.” He wasn’t talking about the prairie, but his words are applicable. Those unseen deep roots that grip the soil so tenaciously–and will remain untouched by fire—are the prairie’s future. They hold the history of the prairie–the soil—in their grasp. While the life of the prairie above the ground is finished—that fleeting shadow of wildflowers, grasses, and color—there is more to consider than what is visible to our eyes.

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Some prairies have already been burned as March comes to a close. But, without the right weather conditions, many of our local prairies are still in a state of anticipation. Waiting for the flames. For the prairie to flourish—for color and life and motion to be kindled again in the tallgrass—calls for something harsh, extravagant, and radical to happen.

There’s not much time left. March is almost over.

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Bring on the fire.

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*****

The opening quote is by dark romantic writer Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864), a neighbor of Ralph Waldo Emerson and a contemporary of Abraham Lincoln, Bronson Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville (who dedicated his novel Moby Dick to Hawthorne), and Louis Agassiz. To support his writing, and later his family, Hawthorne did everything from working as a surveyor to shoveling manure. He’s known for his short stories and his novels, such as The House of the Seven Gables. Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter was one of the first mass produced books in America, and required reading when I was in high school. Writer D.H. Lawrence said of The Scarlet Letter, “There could be no more perfect work of the imagination.” Hawthorne is buried at Authors Ridge in Concord, Massachusetts.

*****

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Schulenberg Prairie in March before the burn, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  unknown mammal bones, Prairiewoods Prairie, Hiawatha, IA; spoon in the tallgrass, Prairiewoods Prairie, Hiawatha, IA; prairie dock leaf (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Illinois DNR, The Nature Conservancy IL, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) (probably infected with a virus), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Illinois DNR, The Nature Conservancy IL; Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL; wrinkled prairie dock leaf (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Illinois DNR, The Nature Conservancy IL, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL; green prairie dock leaf (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Aldo Leopold Prairie Visitor Center prairie planting, Baraboo, WI; feather on prairie plant (both unknown species), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans)  at Prairiewoods, Hiawatha, IA; ball gall, Prairiewoods, Hiawatha, IA; unburned savanna and burned prairie at Prairiewoods, Hiawatha, IA; prescribed burn sign, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prescribed burn in the distance, viewed from The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Skunked at the End of Prairie Winter

“One sometimes finds what one isn’t looking for.” –Alexander Fleming

****

Lately, I’ve been hunting skunk cabbage. I’ve seen it around the marshy areas of the lakes and ponds, and I have it on good authority it should be in the swampy areas of the prairie wetlands where I’m a steward supervisor.

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Unfortunately, I keep getting (forgive me) skunked. We’re updating our prairie plant inventory, and we know skunk cabbage was sighted here in 2005. But…where? And so, I keep walking the banks of Willoway Brook, brushing aside leaves, scouring the prairie wetlands. No luck.

I love this elusive plant. Although it can poke through the snow as early as December in the Chicago region, seeing it emerge always says “spring” to me.

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Spring! It’s so close you can almost taste it. You can smell it in the air; feel it in the mud squishing under your hiking boots. March 20 is the vernal equinox—our astronomical spring.  But for those of us ready to rush the season a little, Thursday, March 1, stands in as the official day of meteorological spring.

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Astro-what? Meteorological? Huh?

There’s a great article from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) about the difference  here. A quick overview: meteorological spring—the March 1 kickoff—is  a way for scientists to have consistent statistics  from year to year, using the calendar months as a guide.

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I like using this earlier start date. Just thinking it is officially “spring” improves my attitude. Spring! It’s here Thursday! Well, sort of. Signs of it are everywhere on this almost 50 degree day as I hike the tallgrass. The snowdrops are blooming nearby.

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Out on the prairie, Willoway Brook runs free of ice and snow.

So what’s all the fuss about the other “spring” date? That sort of depressing, middle of March kick-off I mentioned? Why use it? Astronomical spring—based on the position of the Earth to the sun (that “vernal equinox”) means the days we count as the spring season will vary from year to year. Very simply put, an equinox means day and night are of the same duration, or equal.  Astronomical seasons, based on the Earth and Sun’s positions, vary from 89-93 days long each year, NOAA tells us. So if you’re a scientist, it wreaks havoc on your comparison statistics to use the changeable astronomical seasons. Using the months of March, April, and May as “spring” for comparison from year to year makes more sense.

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Of course there’s Leap Year, but hey! Let’s quit while we’re ahead and leave that explanation for another day.

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The Latin “ver” means spring. But many scientists prefer the term “March equinox” as it is more globally universal.

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Keep in mind that for my friends in New Zealand and in the Southern Hemisphere, it makes no sense to say they have a vernal equinox, nor is March the beginning of their spring, as the seasons are the reverse of what we in the Northern Hemisphere experience.

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Whew! Is your head spinning yet?

Mine is, a little.

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Meanwhile, the calendar may say spring this week, but I’m still hunting skunk cabbage in the prairie wetlands. Maybe it has disappeared since our last prairie plant inventory. More likely, I’m just not looking attentively enough.

The bonus is, of course, that as I look for the missing skunk cabbage, I see a lot of other  signs of spring on the way.

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Which makes getting “skunked” so worth it.

*****

Alexander Fleming (1881-1955), whose quote opens this post, was a brilliant Scottish scientist. After seeing many soldiers die from sepsis during World War 1, he researched the reason antiseptics (which were used to treat infection at the time) were ineffective. His untidy, cluttered lab led to penicillin’s accidental discovery. Fleming’s work is considered the beginning of modern antibiotics.

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; frost at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve prairie plantings, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; trail through the Schulenberg Prairie at the end of February, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; water running in Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Illinois DNR, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL;  acorn on ice, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; frost at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve prairie plantings, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Thanks to NOAA for the information on meteorological spring and astronomical spring.

Weathering the February Prairie

“You know what they say about Chicago. If you don’t like the weather, wait fifteen minutes.”– Ralph Kiner

***

Pick a card. Any card. The weather on the February prairie is as random as a shuffle of the deck. Who knows what each day will bring?

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This past week in the Midwest illustrates it. First, a glittering frost.

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Then snow, falling an inch an hour.

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Fog.

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Followed by floods of rain.

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Yo-yo weather. Keeping things interesting.

Brittle and weather-beaten; stripped of their leaves, seeds, and flowers,  prairie plants take on an unfamiliar look.

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Their identities keep you guessing; turning back for a second glance. Touching the plant, sniffing it for a sensory clue. Hmmmmm. 

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As the weather zigzags between snow and rain, freeze and thaw…

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…the last seedheads stand out on the prairie.

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Some of the seeds are whittled away by wind, weather, and critters.

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Others have stems which are completely bare.

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Changes in weather give the prairie plants one more chance to shine.

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Highlighted by sun, snow, and ice.

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As rain and flooding melt all the white stuff, and mud sucks our hiking boots at every step, you know the prairie is ready for change. You can hear the word whispered in the wind.

Fire. 

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In only days or weeks, we’ll light a match. What we see now will soon be archived as our memory of what once was. The scorched prairie will be ready for us—site managers and volunteers and stewards— to paint our hopes and dreams upon it. In our imagination, it will be a masterpiece of restoration. This will be the year.

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We study the forecasts, anticipating just the right weather conditions—humidity, temperature, wind direction— to set the prairie ablaze. Each day we shuffle the deck. Cut the cards. Turn one over. Rain. Snow. Fog. Ice.

We’re waiting for just the right card. The one that says Go!

I heard a cardinal sing his spring song this week, despite the heavy snows and other crazy weather changes.

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It won’t be long.

*****

The opening quote is by Ralph Kiner (1922-2014), a major league baseball player and outfielder with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Chicago Cubs, and Cleveland Indians. Kiner was an announcer for the New York Mets until his passing. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1975, and known as one of baseballs “most charming gentlemen.”

***

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Illinois DRN, Downer’s Grove, IL; frost at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; frost at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; snowy day, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Illinois DNR, Downer’s Grove, IL;  foggy morning near Danada Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Wheaton, IL; late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; compass plant (Silphium lacinatum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Illinois DNR, Downer’s Grove, IL; wild quinine (Parthenium integrafolium), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Illinois DNR, Downer’s Grove, IL;  stream through Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Illinois DNR, Downer’s Grove, IL; prairie cinquefoil (Drymocallis arguta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white vervain (Verbena urticifolia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Illinois DNR, Downer’s Grove, IL; rattlesnake master  (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Illinois DNR, Downer’s Grove, IL; prescribed burn sign, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; monarch (Danaus plexippus) on butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis ), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL. 

Once in a Blue (Prairie) Moon

“In winter, the stars seem to have rekindled their fires, the moon achieves a fuller triumph, and the heavens wear a look of a more exalted simplicity.”–John Burroughs

*****

Lately, I’ve been waking up much earlier than I’d like. For no good reason. Usually, when this happens, I’m frustrated.

But last Wednesday, I was glad I woke early.

lunareclipse13118 copy.jpgThe first customers were lined up for their java fix at the coffee shop when I arrived around 7 a.m. “Did you see the lunar eclipse?” I asked the barista. “Wasn’t it beautiful?” He looked puzzled. “Eclipse?” He had no idea what I was talking about.

It’s difficult to untangle ourselves from the web of responsibilities we have in order to pay attention to the natural world.

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There’s a lot going on in the night sky that we miss because we’re asleep.; for that matter, there is plenty we don’t see in the bright light of day because we’re not intentional about it. Sometimes, we see interesting things because we show up at the same place again and again.

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Or we were lucky: we were at the right place, at the right time. Woke up early. Which is how I experienced the “Super Blue Blood Moon Eclipse.”

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The moon—such a mysterious part of the night sky! It pulls tides. Casts shadows.  The Ojibwe gave each full moon a specific name appropriate to the season. Wolf Moon. Snow Moon. Hunter’s Moon. Cold Moon.

Made of green cheese, right? Or hum along: Shine on Harvest Moon. Try to find the “man in the moon.” Or shiver as you hear, “Cold hearted orb, that rules the night, removes the colours from our sight… .”

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So…what’s all the hype behind last week’s event? After the fact, I wanted to deconstruct “Super Blue Blood Moon Eclipse” to understand what I saw. I discovered super refers to the the moon’s proximity to earth. Its size on the horizon this past week was gasp-worthy. There’s a term for this phenomenon—perigee—which simply means it’s the point in time when the moon is the closest to the Earth in its orbit.

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Blue moons are just a name for full moons that occur twice in a calendar month.  This happens more than you might think. We’ll have two blue moons this year; the one last Wednesday, January 31, and another March 31. It’s common to have one blue moon in a year; two blue moons in a year occur about every 19 years. I found these facts and more on www.earthsky.org; there’s a list with all the forthcoming blue moons.

Back to “Super Blue Blood Moon Eclipse.”

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Blood refers to the coloration of the moon as the moon passes through the Earth’s shadow.  For a few hours last week, the moon appeared reddish orange, rather than pale blue or gold.  And eclipse refers to the darkening of a celestial object by another in the eyes of the viewer; in this case, the moon was darkened by the Earth’s shadow, cast by the sun.

One more quick bit: The term for three celestial objects that line up for an eclipse is syzygy.   Great word.

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For a blue moon and a lunar eclipse to occur together as they did is a rarity.  The website  www.space.com tells us that before last week’s eclipse, the last occurrence happened 150 years ago.

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Did you miss it? Catch another “blood moon eclipse” January 21, 2019.  Not a super blue one, but still. Check it out here.

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The prairie sky is always full of wonders, some dramatic like an eclipse, others less so. But of course, we have to make time to look.

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“…Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there,” writes Annie Dillard.

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Why not mark some of these eclipse dates on your calendar right now so you don’t miss them? Better yet, whatever time of day or night you are reading this, go outside and take a look at the sky. See what’s happening. Marvel.

Show up. Be there.

*****

The opening quote is from John Burroughs (1837-1921),  a “literary naturalist” who was born in New York state. He briefly taught school in Buffalo Grove, IL, and later worked in finance in New  York. Burroughs was a contemporary of Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Edison, and John Muir. The  “John Burroughs Medal” is awarded to an outstanding book of natural history each year by an Association bearing his name. Take a look at some of the winners here.

The Moody Blues, whose poem/lyrics from “Morning Glory–Late Lament” appear in this post, will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in April, 2018. Annie Dillard’s quote about “being there” is from Pilgrim at Tinker CreekIt won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby: (top to bottom): super blue blood moon eclipse, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County headquarters prairie, Naperville, IL; orb weaver spider (Neoscona spp.), Asheville, North Carolina; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and  the moon, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; super blue blood moon eclipse, author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; road to Thelma Carpenter Prairie, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; moon in daylight, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; super blue blood moon eclipse, Forest Preserve District of DuPage county headquarters prairie, Naperville, IL; full moon, author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; ball gall, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove Park District, Illinois DNR, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) leaf, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove Park District, Illinois DNR, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove, IL; prairie skies, Schulenberg prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; grasses and clouds, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. 

Note: If you want to keep up on eclipses and other fun sky happenings, I like these websites. Much of the eclipse information today came from them: Sky and Telescope (skyandtelescope.com), EarthSky (earthsky.org), and Space (space.com). Check them out!

Prairie Maintenance

“Ain’t no use jiving. Ain’t no use joking. Everything is broken…” — Bob Dylan

***

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a prairie steward in possession of a car she believes is reliable will soon be disillusioned.

My 2004 Honda CR-V just turned over 208,000 miles. The mileage doesn’t trouble me much. Until something conks out. This week, it was the driver’s side window that no longer powered down.

Honda at Nachusa autumn 2017

I didn’t really notice that window function until I didn’t have it anymore. Suddenly, driving through the java shop for my morning coffee, picking up a prescription at the drugstore drive-through window, or going by the gatehouse at the arboretum where I’m a prairie steward became awkward. Opening the door to offer money or information or an admission pass back and forth, especially when temperatures are zero-ish, can herd your thoughts into a bad mood for the day.

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Of course, car repair problems are never solo. They swirl in like sandhill cranes, one following the other…ever multiplying before your eyes.

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The gas cap swing door now refuses to flip out, and I find myself manually prying it open whenever my tank registers “E.” A brake light gave up the ghost. And—what’s this? The bright “check engine” light stares back at me from the dash. Bob Dylan’s song “Everything is Broken,” plays continually on my mental soundtrack.

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It’s time to trade it in. This, from my husband, who has been patient with the repairs we’ve done over the past 14 years. I’ve always prided myself on not getting attached to “stuff.” But I admit it—I’m sentimental about my car. It’s the first new vehicle I ever bought especially for myself. I haggled over the price with the dealer, customized it with a roof rack for my kayak, and waited until it was available in my favorite color, blue. It regularly  hauls a dozen seed collection buckets, weeders, dragonfly nets, loppers, large thermoses of coffee, a giant orange cooler of water,  tarps, and other accouterments of a prairie steward for countless volunteer work mornings.

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Of course, as a prairie steward hauling tools around,  I’m responsible for a different set of repairs. The tallgrass site I help supervise is always, it seems, in need of some sort of maintenance.

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This season, we’ll tackle the usual problems: cutting buckthorn and honeysuckle creeping around the prairie edges; pulling Queen Anne’s lace, garlic mustard, and yellow rocket where it pops up in our high-quality plantings. It doesn’t take long for sweet clover and crown vetch to creep in and plot their take-over strategies. Birds-foot trefoil? Always ready to slip in under the radar.  Fixing the trouble spots calls for a series of small, necessary “repairs” that require vigilance and continual maintenance.

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Occasionally, the warning light trips on. Check the engine. Last season, it was an infiltration of reed canary grass that stormed a high quality area and suddenly seemed everywhere. Ditto for some rogue brambles that shaded out a previously diverse section of wildflowers while going mostly unnoticed. These started as small problems, but neglected, got steadily worse. Now, both are major repair jobs.

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Some of the repairs I can tackle on my own. Others require a team of volunteers or staff. We all work together, keeping the tallgrass prairie engine humming.

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The prairie, like my old CR-V, is always going to be in need of management. It will always need a certain amount of routine maintenance, like prescribed fire, even when there are no obvious “repairs” to be done. It’s a work in progress.

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Which brings me back to my Honda. At some point, the repairs will become too much. We’ll trade in my old CR-V for a vehicle with less mileage on it. Cars, no matter how many times you repair and carefully maintain them—and no matter the nostalgia you feel for the roads you’ve traveled together—eventually give out.

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Which is, perhaps, where the comparison of prairie and beloved Honda ends.

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My vehicle will eventually tick off its last odometer mile.  But the more mileage the prairie has on it, the more promise it holds. The older the prairie, the richer its history.  The deeper, more tenacious, the roots. The stronger the ties to the land.

The maintenance and care we give it each year helps it become more beautiful with age. It encourages me to know this. As I keep making the repairs.

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Bob Dylan (1941-), whose words kick off this post, is an award-winning songwriter and musician. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016. “Everything is broken” is a good song for every car owner—or any prairie steward struggling with a restoration—to give a listen to. It makes me smile—and I hope it makes you smile, too. If you’re a Jane Austen fan, you probably also noticed the “wink wink” reference to the opening lines of Pride and Prejudice.  One of the most famous lines in literature! I’m sure Austen never envisioned her words referring to a car.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom) Honda at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bison (Bison bison) at Nachusa Grasslands, the Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area, Department of Natural Resources, Medaryville, Indiana;  broken compass plant (Silphium terebinthinaceum) blooms, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove Park District, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL; compass plant (Silphium terebinthinaceum) leaf, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove Park District, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove, IL;  late summer at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; volunteers hauling brush and grasses, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Belmont Prairie in January, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove Park District, The Nature’s Conservancy, Downer’s Grove, IL; Honda at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; sunset, Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Practicing Prairie Patience

The prairie is patient. When drought sets in, as it inevitably does, prairie grasses bide their time. They do not flower without the nourishment to make good seed. Instead, they save their resources for another year when the rains have fallen, the seeds promise to be fat, and the earth is moist and ready to receive them. The prairie teaches us to save our energies for the opportune moment.” –Paul Gruchow

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I love to read. But I just put down Thomas Friedman’s new book, Thank You for Being Late about the too-rapid, frenzied acceleration of climate change, technology, and globalization in the world because—I confess—I felt  it was too slow-paced.  I was impatient.

The irony of this is not lost on me.

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If I slow down and pay attention to my life closely enough, I see particular patterns emerge. If I listen to my life, certain messages are repeated. Lately, the messages and patterns are all about my need to relearn patience. Take things slowly. Sit with decisions. Wait.

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Two years ago, I blew out my knee while hiking in the snow and ice on the 606, Chicago’s terrific new urban trail. Since then, I’ve become much more aware of my own limitations. Because I have to physically slow down, it’s forced me to slow down in other ways. To become more attentive. More patient with myself. More patient—hopefully—with others.

But I can’t say it’s been easy.

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Until I was forced to slow down, I thought I was a pretty patient person. But there’s nothing like congratulating yourself on a virtue you think you have to discover how pitiful your abilities really are. Patience? Let’s see what she’s got. You quickly realize your illusions about yourself.

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In the last few months,  I’ve been invited to practice patience. Sitting in hospital waiting rooms. Long hours of car travel. Trains that didn’t run as scheduled. Cancelled flights. Jets that sat on the tarmac without taking off. Listening to endless loops of “on hold” music on the phone while watching time tick away. Anxious hours waiting for our new granddaughter to be born. Waiting for a response from someone I e-mailed weeks ago about a project.  Waiting for the temperature to warm up past zero so I can hike longer than 20 minutes at a stretch. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting.

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Those of us who love the tallgrass and work with prairie restoration are well acquainted with patience.  We know the power of waiting. Nothing worthwhile happens on the prairie without it.

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And yet. Our world values speed. It values brevity. It promotes instant gratification. One click! Is “next day” not soon enough? How about the same day, then? Faster! Faster! 

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The prairie reminds me that many good things take patience. The pale purple coneflower seedhead below is an echo of numerous cycles of  freeze and fire; sprout and leaf; bud and bloom.

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In only weeks, the prairie will be touched by flames again. Floods of flowers will follow.

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None of this can be rushed. That’s part of the beauty of the whole. What makes it so meaningful.

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Think about it. Slow might be the way to go. Take a minute and look.  Don’t be in such a hurry.

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With the prairie as my model, I’ll keep trying to practice patience.

Difficult. But worth it.

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Paul Gruchow (1947-2004) was a Minnesota writer who wrote such beautiful books as Travels in Canoe Country; The Boundary Waters: Grace of the Wild; Journal of a Prairie Year; The Necessity of Empty Places; and Grass Roots: The Universe of Home from which this opening quote was taken.

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All photographs copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Belmont Prairie Preserve at sunset, six degrees, Belmont Prairie Preserve, Illinois DNR, The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Belmont Prairie Preserve Association, Downer’s Grove, IL; thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Belmont Prairie Preserve, Illinois DNR, The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Belmont Prairie Preserve Association, Downer’s Grove, IL; old apple tree (Malus unknown species), Schulenberg Prairie Visitor Station, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; shadows in the snow, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock leaf (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; probably Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), Belmont Prairie Preserve, Illinois DNR, The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Belmont Prairie Preserve Association, Downer’s Grove, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie Preserve, Illinois DNR, The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Belmont Prairie Preserve Association, Downer’s Grove, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) seedhead, Belmont Prairie Preserve, Illinois DNR, The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Belmont Prairie Preserve Association, Downer’s Grove, IL; pale purple coneflowers (Echinacea pallida) (foreground), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) seedhead, Belmont Prairie Preserve, Illinois DNR, The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Belmont Prairie Preserve Association, Downer’s Grove, IL;sunset on the Belmont Prairie Preserve, six degrees, Illinois DNR, The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Belmont Prairie Preserve Association, Downer’s Grove, IL.