Tag Archives: equinox

A Prairie Fall Equinox

“It’s the first day of autumn! A time of hot chocolatey mornings, and toasty marshmallow evenings, and, best of all, leaping into leaves!”—Winnie the Pooh

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Happy autumnal equinox! It’s the first day of astronomical fall. Daylight hours shorten. The air looks a little pixeled, a little grainy. Soon, we’ll eat dinner in the dark, sleep, and rise in the mornings to more darkness. Some of us will embrace this change, in love with the season. Others will count the days until December 21, the winter solstice, to see the daylight hours lengthen again.

Wait, you might ask. Cindy—didn’t you say it was the first day of fall back on September 1? Yes indeed, I did—the first day of meteorological fall! There are two ways of calculating when the seasons begin. Meteorological fall begins on the first of September each year. Astronomical fall begins on the fall equinox. Read more about the way scientists calculate the seasons here.

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The knowledge that these warm days full of light are fleeting sends Jeff and me to hike Belmont Prairie in Downers Grove, Illinois. The parking lot is full, but the prairie is mostly empty. We love this prairie remnant for its solitude; its timeless grace in the midst of suburbia.

The prairie is dusty. Crisp. Once again, we need a good, steady rain, with none in the forecast for the next ten days. Overhead it’s cloudless; a blank blue slate. I was scrolling through paint samples online this week, and came across the exact color of the sky: “Fond Farewell.” Exactly.

Although the prairie is awash in golds, it won’t be long until the flowers fade and the brightness dims. I remind myself to take joy in the moment.

Big bluestem, blighted by drought, still flashes its gorgeous colors. I love its jointed stems. No wonder it is Illinois’ state grass!

The brushed silver joints are not the only silver on the prairie. Along the trail are the skeletal remains of plants, perhaps in the Brassica family. What species are they? I’m not sure. Whatever these were, they are now ghosts of their former selves.

Gold dominates.

The flowers of showy goldenrod are busy with pollinators, such as this paper wasp (below). The wasps don’t have the smart publicity agents and good press of monarchs and bees, so are often overlooked as a positive presence in the garden.

Then again, if you’ve ever been chased by wasps as I have after disturbing a nest —and been painfully stung—you’ll give them a respectful distance.

Tall coreopsis is almost finished for the season, but a few sunshiny blooms remain.

Sawtooth sunflowers, goldenrod, and tall boneset wash together in a celebration of autumn, now at crescendo.

So much yellow! Sumac splashes scarlet across the tallgrass, adding a dash of red. As a prairie steward on other tallgrass sites, I find this native sumac a nuisance. It stealthily infiltrates the prairie and displaces some of the other species I want to thrive. However, toward the end of September, I feel more generous of spirit. Who can resist those leaves, backlit by the low slant of sun, that echo a stained glass window?

The withering summer prairie blooms are now upstaged by the stars of autumn: asters in white and multiple hues of pink, lavender and violet. New England aster provides the best bang for the buck. That purple! It’s a challenge to remember its updated scientific name: Symphyotrichum novae-angliae. Try saying that three times quickly! A real tongue twister. I miss the simpler name, Aster novae-angliae. So easy to remember. But everything changes as science discovers more about the world. It’s up to us to choose to listen, learn, and adapt rather than just doing what is easy.

The periwinkle hues of the smooth blue aster are unlike any other color on the prairie. I stop to caress its trademark smooth, cool leaves.

Every time I look closely at the asters, I see pollinators. And more pollinators. From little flying insects I can’t identify to the ubiquitous cabbage white butterflies and bumblebees, heavy with pollen. And, yes—those ever-present wasps.

Delicate pale pink biennial gaura, with its own tiny pollinators, is easily overlooked, out-glitzed by the prairie’s golds and purples, but worth discovering. Flies, like this one below stopping by the gaura, are also pollinators, but like the wasps they get little respect for the important work they do.

Soon, the glory of the prairie will be in scaffolding and bone: the structure of the plants, the diversity of shape. You can see the prairie begin its shift from bloom to seed, although blooms still predominate.

Breathe in. September is the fragrance of gray-headed coneflower seeds, crushed between your fingers.

September is the pungent thymol of wild bergamot, released by rubbing a leaf or a dry seedhead.

Inhale the prairie air; a mixture of old grass, wood smoke, with a crisp cold top note, even on a warm day. Chew on a mountain mint leaf, tough from the long season, and you’ll get a zing of pleasure. Listen to the geese, honking their way across the sky, or the insects humming in the grass.

Then, find a milkweed pod cracked open, with its pappus —- silks—just waiting to be released. Go ahead. Pull out a few of these parachute seeds. Feel their softness. Imagine what one seed may do next season! I try to think like a milkweed seed. Take flight. Explore. Plant yourself in new places. Nourish monarch butterflies. Offer nectar to bumblebees. Lend beauty wherever you find yourself.

Close your eyes. Make a wish.

Now, release it to the wind.

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The opening quote is from Pooh’s Grand Adventure by A.A. Milne. Before he penned the popular children’s book series about a bear named Winnie the Pooh, Milne was known as a playwright and wrote several mystery novels and poems.

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All photos are from Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve in Downers Grove, IL, this week unless otherwise noted (top to bottom): bee or common drone fly (tough to tell apart) on panicled aster (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; Belmont Prairie sign; wildflowers and grasses in September; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); something from the Brassica family maybe? Genus and species unknown; Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis); and other goldenrods; dark paper wasp (Polistes fuscates) on showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa); tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); wildflowers of Belmont Prairie in September; staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina); new england aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae); smooth blue aster (Symphyotrichum laeve); dark paper wasp (Polistes fuscates) on panicled aster (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; biennial gaura (Gaura biennis); blazing star (Liatris sp.); gray-headed coneflower seedheads (Ratibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (2019); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (2018); common mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum), Afton Prairie, DeKalb, IL (2017); butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa).

Join Cindy for a class—or ask her to speak virtually for your organization this autumn!

“Nature Writing Online” begins Monday, October 5, through The Morton Arboretum. Want to commit to improving and fine-tuning your writing for six weeks? This is a great opportunity to jump start your blog, your book, or your journal writing while working online from home, supplemented with three evenings of live evening Zoom classes on alternate weeks. Class size is limited; register here.

Just released in June! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History.

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Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Morton Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org, direct from Northwestern University Press (use coupon code NUP2020 for 25% off), or other book venues. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during these unusual times.

Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction. 

Skunked at the End of Prairie Winter

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

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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.

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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.