“The prairie, in all its expressions, is a massive, subtle place, with a long history of contradiction and misunderstanding. But it is worth the effort at comprehension. It is, after all, at the center of our national identity.” — Wayne Fields
How do you begin to understand a prairie? Start by walking the tallgrass trails on a breezy day in September. See the boneset flowers sway and bend in the wind?
Count the number of bees you find nectaring in the flowers. Then consider—this is only one small stand of blooms! Imagine what remains unseen. Suddenly, your eyes open to the buzzing and crawling; sipping and chewing insects all around you. You begin to understand. The prairie world is not static. It is a living, moving, humming community.
From the blooms and bugs, you turn to the fall seed heads, in all their infinite variety. The spiky purple meadow rue.
Soft Indian grass seed plumes, a few yellow petals decorating them like confetti.
The parachute seeds of pale Indian plantain, ready for lift off.
You marvel at the variety. A prairie, you think, is about diversity. And yes, you’re getting closer to knowing.
How do you begin to understand a prairie? You notice how the plants change with the September slant of sun; cool nights, shorter days. See the butterfly weed in its fall colors, just before the seed pod bursts open. This milkweed’s work nurturing monarch butterflies is finished for this year. Now it must send out a new generation of plants to do the same next season.
Those September colors! Flowering spurge foliage glows pink under the grasses.
As you marvel at the pink, you catch your breath. Are those cream gentians you almost stepped on? Or wait—are they bottle gentians? The blooms seem to be both, yet neither. Perhaps this is the hybrid pale-blue gentian that you’ve heard about. You drop to your knees for a closer look.
And what is this plant, waving over your head, and flowering so late in the season?
You take photos, examine the leaves. It looks like one of the wild lettuces, but you can’t remember for sure. And it seems…different, somehow. So you take another photo; carefully imprint the details of the plant on your mind. Vow to look it up later.
Understanding a prairie means knowing that the more you discover, the less you’ll realize you know. And the more you know, the more you’ll forget. (Sigh.) Even when you do remember, the taxonomists may rename the plants you once knew by heart.
Perhaps this is what it means to understand a prairie. To look. To ask questions. To marvel. To imagine. To learn. To forget. To ask for help. To be humbled as you do, realizing there will always be more to comprehend. And to accept change.
Knowing you’ll never know or understand the prairie completely —isn’t that the best gift of all? Like a present you look forward to unwrapping… again and again.
Wayne Fields, whose quote opens this post, is the Lynne Cooper Harvey Chair Emeritus in English at Washington University in St. Louis, MO. As a child, he grew up in Missouri and Iowa before his family settled in Rock Island, IL. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Augustana College, then a masters and PhD at University of Chicago. Fields has been with Washington University since 1968. He lives in Iowa.
All photos in this week’s blog are from the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): tall boneset (Eupatorium altissimum); pasture thistle with insects (Cirsium discolor); purple meadow rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum); Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); pale Indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium); butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata) foliage; possibly pale-blue gentian (Gentiana x pallidocyanea); rough white lettuce (Prenanthes aspera or Nabalus aspera)–a “10” in Gerould Wilhelm’s & Laura Rericha’s Flora of the Chicago Region— thanks Illinois Botany FB page for help on the ID! a new lettuce for me; New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) whose latest name from taxonomists is so difficult to remember and to say.