Tag Archives: flowering spurge

The September Prairie’s Greatest Hits

“The small things of life were often so much bigger than the great things . . . the trivial pleasures like cooking, one’s home, little poems–especially sad ones, solitary walks, funny things seen and overheard.” –― Barbara Pym

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Open windows. Cool breezes. That low slant of light. Autumn is here.

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After dragonfly migration is finished, I always feel a bit of a letdown, as you might after the end of a long-anticipated party.  Summer is over.  But it’s impossible to feel too melancholy as the prairie ramps up its fall extravaganza. This year, the Indian grass, big bluestem, Maximilian sunflowers and tall coreopsis loom high, shooting toward the sky. Lush. Lanky. Resplendent. Many tallgrass trails are impassible and choked with thick vegetation. The recent deluge of rain left sunflowers too top-heavy to stand upright. Gold spills into the mowed paths.

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The smell of prairie dropseed and damp earth permeates the air. The soundtrack of goldfinch chirps and blue jay calls is augmented by the insects tuning up each evening, a static that I sometimes don’t notice until it goes silent. The cacophony is already winding down; soon, we’ll lose this chorus altogether. Goldfinches are ravenous. It seems they can’t get their fill. They work over the prairie patch in my backyard like a bus full of tourists at an all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant.

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An occasional crow inks its way across a mackerel sky, and I’m reminded to be grateful for each bird I see and hear, on the prairies and in my backyard. Bird conservation news has been dismal this week, and birds of the grasslands are faring the worst of all. It’s another reason to encourage establishments of new prairies, and to care for existing remnants and restorations.

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September is arguably one of the most enjoyable months in the tallgrass. Have you been for a hike on the prairie this month? Do you need motivation to go? Consider a few of the September prairie’s “Greatest Hits.” Maybe one of them will give you a push out the door.

Compass Plants and Other Silphiums

As I wandered through my backyard prairie patch this week, I suddenly realized my prairie dock and compass plants failed to flower this season. Why didn’t they flower? I’m not sure.  This flower-less state is not unprecedented, both in my backyard and on the prairie. Some years, they just… don’t flower! Anecdotally, it seems like the compass plants and prairie dock take a “rest” every few years from making flowers and seeds, the production of which is a huge output of energy.

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I missed the tall bloom stalks of compass plant and prairie dock this summer, with the occasional goldfinch or hummingbird resting on top. The hummingbirds that sojourned through my backyard had to settle for the tall zinnias as surveillance platforms instead.

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There are four members of the Silphium genus most prairie stewards concern themselves with: compass plant, prairie dock, rosinweed, and cup plant. (Read more about cup plant in a previous post here.) On Sunday, I went for my first big prairie hike since my surgery six weeks ago, visiting Belmont Prairie in Downer’s Grove for a half an hour. I compared their compass plants and prairie dock with my own backyard plants. The trails were cut back, making it easy to hike (thank you, Belmont prairie stewards and volunteers!) Woven compass plant leaves ranged from vibrant green to various stages of senesce.

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Some leaves have already turned crisp and brown, curling into base clefs. Or perhaps, chocolate shavings.

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Others were somewhere inbetween “vibrant” and “crunchy.”

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I looked for prairie dock seedheads and came up empty.  I only found desiccated leaves.

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I did find rosinweed—the less showy of the Silphiums—which had flowered and gone to seed.

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Click here and you can see what rosinweed looks like in bloom. Pretty. But I love it in the seed stage, each September seed cluster more intricate than its straightforward bright yellow flowers of summer.

The other three Silphiums are always show-stoppers; in bloom or in seed, or —if blooms fail—just for their changing leaves. Each member of the quartet has its individual charms. Especially this month.

Dazzling Asters and Glorious Goldenrods

September is peak time for asters and goldenrod. Yes—as I wrote last week—aster ID can be frustrating. It’s nice to be on the prairie, where many of the asters are easily identifiable. Tiny leaves help ID the pearly white flowers of heath aster (now with its unwieldy new genus name of Symphyotrichum ericoides).

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The smooth blue asters have—as you’d expect—smooth stems and leaves. Here, they mix with the vibrant and colorful spent stems of flowering spurge. More about that plant in a minute.

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September is the month for the eye-popping purple haze of the familiar New England asters , which to me signals the prairie bloom season’s grand finale.

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The yellows of goldenrod are a worthy pairing for the asters. Ask any quilt maker, and they’ll tell you purple and yellow are complementary colors, great for contrast. The prairie liberally juxtaposes the two in September. What a show!

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I’m imagining the faces of some of the prairie stewards and volunteers reading this right now. Goldenrod is a pain in the neck! you might say, shaking your head. I know, I know. When I began volunteering in natural areas almost 20 years ago, my first question to the steward was: “I should pull all this goldenrod, right?” I was surprised when the answer was “No!”, and to learn goldenrod was native to the Midwest.

If you spend time on a prairie or create a prairie in your backyard as I have, you may find goldenrod is—shall we say—a bit rambunctious.  Sure, you might end up weeding out some of this native plant that is also a take-over specialist to make room for more diversity. But think of the nectar goldenrod provides for bees and butterflies!  I became a goldenrod enthusiast when Jeff and I visited Kankakee Sands‘ prairies in September a few years ago, and we happened upon a monarch migration in progress. The butterflies were fueling up on stiff goldenrod.

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Not convinced about goldenrod? A short visit to Belmont Prairie this month is enough to convert even the staunchest goldenrod hater.

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Like all good things, goldenrod is perhaps best in moderation. But the insects love it. Which brings us to…

A Sweet Buzz

The bees are still with us. Bumble bees. Honey bees. Native bees in all patterns, sizes, and colors. In Illinois alone, there are 400-500 species of native bees!  Hiking the September prairie, or standing in my backyard prairie patch, it’s difficult to imagine that in a few short months, the buzz will go mostly silent.

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This week, I was reading a novel by British writer Barbara Pym when  I ran across the phrase, “Tell the bees… .” What was this?  I turned to Wiki for more information. Evidently, a European beekeeping custom is to let your bees know when important life events such as births, marriages, and deaths happen. If you fail to do so, so the folklore goes, the bees may leave their hive or fall into decline. You might also drape your bee hives in black if someone dies, or leave a slice of wedding cake next to the hives when a marriage takes place in the family.  John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892) wrote a melancholy poem about this tradition, “Telling the Bees.”

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I’m considering what I might “tell the prairie bees” this week. Be strong. Multiply. We need you to keep our prairies healthy. Thank you.

Skipper Fiesta

The fiery skippers have thrown themselves into September with a zeal I’ve not experienced before. They hang out around the prairie patch; perch and nectar on the zinnias in the garden.

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The best way to see the skippers, I’ve discovered, is to sit somewhere close to a nectar source and pay attention.  Not rocket science, is it? But how often I seem to be too busy to just sit and look! In September, the skippers are a reminder to do just that.

Unexpected Prairie Fall Color

Who needs autumn leaves when you have the prairie? The golds of Indian grass, the wine-blue Andropogon gerardii—big bluestem, the copper-colored little bluestem. Together, they make the September prairie breathtaking. I also anticipate the flowering spurge’s post-bloom color each year; the leaves and stems are every bit as pretty as the sugar maple’s leaves.

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You can find these bright spots all across the tallgrass.

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From a distance, they look almost pink. A startling color, in September.

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Color. Textures. Buzz. Blooms. These are only a few of the September prairie’s greatest hits. What are your favorite sightings on the September prairie? Drop me a note, and let me know.

There is so much to enjoy on the prairie in September. So much to marvel about. The month is sliding to a close.

Why not go see?

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Barbara Pym (1913-1980), whose quote opens this week’s post, was a British writer referred to as “the most underrated novelist of the century.” Her novel, Quartet in Autumn, was nominated for the Booker Prize. Another great quote from Pym; ““Virtue is an excellent thing and we should all strive after it, but it can sometimes be a little depressing.”  I also love, “Of course it’s alright for librarians to smell of drink.” Pym died of breast cancer at 67.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): trail through Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve in September, Downer’s Grove, IL; Maximilian sunflowers (Helianthus maximiliani), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; goldfinches (Spinus tristis) enjoying evening primrose seeds, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; mackerel sky over author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; compass plant in bloom (Silphium lacinatum), Fermilab Interpretive Trail, Batavia, IL (from 2018); ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) on cut-and-come-again heirloom zinnias (Zinna elegans), author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; compass plant (Silphium lacinatum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; compass plant (Silphium lacinatum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; compass plant (Silphium lacinatum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceaum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; rosinweed (Silphium integrafolia), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL; heath aster (Symphotrichum ericoides), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; sky blue asters, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; New England asters (Symphotrichum novae-angliae) with unknown aster (Symphotrichum spp.), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima) with New England asters (Symphotrichum novae-angliae), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (previously taken); monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) on stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum) at Kankakee Sands in September 2017, Kankakee Sands Preserve, The Nature Conservancy Indiana, Newton, IN; asters and goldenrods in September, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; unknown aster (Symphotrichum spp.) with honeybee (Apis mellifera) and unknown bumblebee (Bombus spp.), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL;  unknown bumblebee (Bombus spp.) on New England aster (Symphotrichum novae-angliae), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; fiery skipper (Hylephila phyleus) on cut-and-come-again heirloom zinnias (Zinna elegans), author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata) in September, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata) in September, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata) in September, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL.

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Join Cindy for a speaking event or class! Visit www.cindycrosby.com to learn more.

Tallgrass Prairie Adventures

 “Let us go on, and take the adventure that shall fall to us.” — C.S. Lewis

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If there’s one phrase my family knows I can’t stand, it’s this one: “Killing time.” Why? Time is precious. It’s irreplaceable. Each day is an adventure, if you let it be so. Why waste a moment?

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I think of this as I walk my dragonfly monitoring routes on the prairie this week. The wind has come up. Instead of gazing over my head for patrolling green darners and black saddlebags, I’m looking lower, in the grasses and prairie wildflowers. There, many of the regular high flying dragonflies hunker down, sheltering from the breezy heat.

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Each season, dragonfly monitors—people like you and me—go to a city park, prairie restoration, forest preserve pond, or local wetland with the intention of regularly collecting data about Odonates. Monitors—dragonfly chasers—spend a good chunk of their summer hours in mosquito-filled areas, counting dragonflies and damselflies and making hash marks on a clipboard. We note what species we see, and how many of each species appears on a certain day in a particular place.

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It sounds a little nutty, perhaps, to spend our days counting insects. But dragonflies and damselflies are a good thermometer for the state of our waterways. Their numbers and species diversity have messages for us about the health of our natural world. All we have to do is listen. Pay attention. Show up.

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Speaking of thermometers: It’s hot. Sweat trickles between my shoulder blades. I check my phone and see the temperature is 88 degrees. The relative humidity of the Midwest makes it seem even hotter, keeping most visitors off of the prairie trails.

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The dragonflies, which maintain body temperature through thermoregulatory behavior, have various gymnastics to help them stay cool.  This female eastern amberwing dragonfly below is obelisking.

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By positioning her abdomen straight up, she reduces some of the direct summer heat hitting her body. Sometimes, you’ll see dragonflies point their abdomens downward for the same reason. Or, if it’s cooler, they’ll use their wings as solar collectors, like this 12-spotted skimmer below. Gathering sunshine.

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This season, I find the blue-fronted dancer damselfly population has erupted out of all imagining. I walk, and I look, and I try to keep track of what I’m seeing. Hash mark, hash mark, hash mark… . I can barely keep track of them, emerging from the grasses on both sides of the prairie trail; a virtual ambush of bright blue insects. Under my feet. Hovering knee high. Blue-fronted dancer damselflies everywhere! Hash mark. Hash mark. I finally quit tallying them at 88 individuals.

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So much dazzling blue! The danger is that as I see so many of one species, I overlook some of the other species that aren’t as prolific. Like this violet dancer, mixed in with the blue-fronteds.

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Or an American rubyspot damselfly, hanging out by the stream.

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Damselflies are so darn tiny. Part of the day’s adventure is to slow down and really look. Carefully. Closely. But I’m always aware of what I’m missing, even as I see so much. All these incredible dragonflies and damselflies! But–that bee over there. What species is it? And what about that butterfly? What’s moving in the grass by the stream? The July prairie explodes with wildflowers all around me as I hike. How can I focus?

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It’s easy to be diverted. On one route,  I narrowly avoid stepping on a bee fly sunning itself on the gravel two-track.

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On another trail, I kick up little puffs of butterflies—maybe pearl crescents? Tough to ID. They rise, then settle back into the clover as I pass.

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I stop to watch a ruby-throated hummingbird swoop across the trail, then hover, sipping nectar from the dark reddish-brown flowers of a tall late figwort plant, towering over my head.  I didn’t know hummingbirds visit these tiny blooms! In the gusty breeze, the oddball flowers rocket wildly back and forth, but the hummingbird maneuvers right along with them. Later, I visit the Prairie Moon Nursery website and read more about this wildflower’s value to butterflies, bees, and—yes—hummingbirds. Who knew?

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There’s always something different and exciting to learn as I walk my dragonfly monitoring routes on the prairie. Always a small adventure of some sort, waiting to happen.

In rain-rutted puddles, bullfrogs leap across the water with an EEK!”

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The common yellowthroat sings his wichety-wichety-wichety from the walnut tree by the wooden bridge over Willoway Brook. I inhale the scent of a hundred thousand wildflowers and grasses; the smell of prairie soil that’s alternately been baked in a hot summer oven and soaked with rain.

As I finish my route near the stream, a red-winged blackbird hovers menacingly over my head, daring me to come closer. Are they still nesting? Must be! He shrieks loudly as I cover my head with my clipboard—just in case—and hurry a bit toward the path leading to the parking lot.

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So much to think about. The writer Paul Gruchow once observed, “Curiosity, imagination, inventiveness expand with use, like muscles, and atrophy with neglect.” One of the pleasures of dragonfly monitoring is the practice of paying close attention to everything on the July prairie. Flexing the muscles of my imagination. Resisting the urge to become jaded and cynical—all too easy in the world we find ourselves in today. Trying to choose where I focus.

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Even a simple hike on the prairie, counting dragonflies, can be an adventure. The writer Annie Dillard penned one of my favorite quotes: How we spend our days, is, of course, how we spend our lives.  I think of this as I watch a black saddlebag dragonfly cruise over my backyard prairie patch, or admire the way the cup plants cradle water in their joined leaves after a torrential downpour, inviting goldfinches to take a drink. I try to ask myself regularly: How am I spending my hours? How am I spending my life?

Every day I struggle to be intentional. To make room for curiosity. Imagination. The life of the spirit. The poet Mary Oliver wrote, When it’s over, I want to say: all my life/ I was a bride married to amazement/ I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

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Instead of “killing time,” I want to cultivate a sense of wonder. To look at every moment as an adventure. To make room for reflection. To walk, and always—always! —be astonished at what I see.

And how can we not be astonished? Look at those dragonflies, those wildflowers!  Listen to that birdsong. Watch the tallgrass ripple in the breeze.

What a beautiful world.

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British writer C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) penned the opening words in this blog from The Chronicles of Narnia, a series of classic children’s books. My favorite book in the series (although it is tough to choose!) is Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Lewis was a contemporary and friend of J.R.R. Tolkien, and part of a writers group known as The Inklings. The books are great for read-aloud, if you have children or grandchildren elementary age and up.

Minnesota writer Paul Gruchow (1947-2004) who wrote one of the quotes that appears in this post, is one of my favorite writers about the natural world. If you haven’t read Gruchow, try Journal of a Prairie Year, or Grass Roots: The Universe of Home. Both terrific reads. I also love his Boundary Waters: The Grace of the Wild.

The late poet Mary Oliver (1935-2019) penned the beautiful poem, When Death Comes, quoted at the end of this post.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): bridge over Willoway Brook at the end of July, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata) with unknown grass, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; rattlesnake master (Eyrngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; female blue dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis) on rough blazing star (Liatris aspera), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; female eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; 12-spotted skimmer (Libellula pulchella) on prairie blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya), author’s backyard and prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL;  blue-fronted dancer damselfly (Argia apicalis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; violet (or variable) dancer damselfly (Argia fumipennis  var. violacea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; American rubyspot (Hetaerina americana), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Nachusa Grasslands in July, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bee fly (possibly Bombylius major), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; tough to ID, but possibly pearl crescent butterfly (Phyciodes tharos), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; American bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus or Rana catesbeiana), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Culver’s root in mid July (Veronicastrum virginicum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; looking back at a dragonfly monitoring route at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

More about Cindy’s speaking and classes at www.cindycrosby.com 

Honk if You Love Prairie

“The petty entanglements of life are brushed aside (on the trail) like cobwebs”–Grandma Gatewood

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It’s August. Big bluestem is tassling out, waving its turkey-footed seedheads against the sky. You understand why we call our Midwestern grasslands  the “tallgrass prairies” after a summer like this one, filled with heat and rain. Everything on the prairie is lush.

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The butterflies are putting on a show this summer. Yellow swallowtails and  black swallowtails…

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…flock to the Joe Pye weed, now blooming cloud-like with pale Indian plantain under the oaks in the savanna.

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It’s hot on the prairie. Tempers are hot, too, in the suburbs where I live.  Earlier in the week, as I waited at an intersection for a light to change, the driver behind me laid on her horn. Honk! Honk! Honk! She wanted to turn right. My car, going straight ahead, blocked her way.  I made the mistake of looking in the rear view mirror and saw her red face. She was shouting. I quickly looked away and prayed for the light to change. Turned up my Paco de Lucia CD (yes, I still have a CD player in my old Honda) and hoped the chords of Paco’s guitar would drown out her honking.

Honk! Honk! Honk! Finally, an eternity later, the light turned green. My car moved through the intersection, and with a squeal of rubber, she turned right, still laying on her horn.

Honnnnnnnkkkkkkk!

I knew I needed a “prairie therapy” hike.

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Not that I need a reason to go to the prairie. But for 20 years now, I’ve found that an hour of walking a prairie trail or two siphons off built-up stress and alleviates a looming tension headache.  The song of the common yellowthroat that hangs out in a tree by the prairie savanna trail, singing his “wichety, wichety, wichety,” is enough to erase some of that miserable “Honk! Honk! Honk!” from the soundtrack playing in my mind.

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And, oh, that August sky on the prairie! I’m reminded that, just a few days ago, one of my six little grandkids asked me if I’d cloud-watch with him. We lay back on the grass and watched the sky change from moment to moment,  comparing clouds to other objects—a ship, a turtle—in the same way people have cloud-watched from time beyond memory. I think of this as I hike the prairie now, watching the cumulus clouds floating lazily overhead, casting shadows on the tallgrass.

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I stop on the bridge over Willoway Brook and look into the stream. The dragonflies and damselflies are in a frenzy of reproduction. Do they sense the downward seasonal slide toward autumn? Maybe. The American rubyspot damselflies hang low over Willoway Brook on blades of grass, waiting for potential mates. Such anticipation! Like speed dating.

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The grasses are slipping into their late summer colors. Switchgrass, big bluestem, and Indian grass ripple in the wind, with a sound like rustling silk. The flowering spurge mists the grasses with its delicate white blooms.

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High-pitched sounds overhead cause me to look up.

Honk! Honk! Honk!

 

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It’s the  Canada geese, flying to a 18-hole course nearby to terrorize the golfers. These are kind of “honks” that don’t raise my blood pressure.

As I pass the bench that overlooks the prairie trail, I see a pile of coins, mostly quarters. Doubtless, someone has paused to rest, and their change has spilled from a back pocket.  I leave the coins. Maybe they’ll realize their loss, and backtrack, looking for their cash.  Or perhaps some other hiker having a bad day will pocket the change, and feel a bit more cheerful.

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I don’t need a cash windfall to improve my mood. The prairie hike has already worked its magic . My day is transformed. My blood pressure is lowered, my perspective is more positive.

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All it took was a little prairie therapy.

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Emma “Grandma” Gatewood (1887-1973) lived a difficult life. After brutal abuse by her husband—and raising eleven children under tough circumstances—she decided to go for a walk at age 66 on the Appalachian Trail. She became the first woman to hike it solo in one season. By age 77, she had hiked the 2,000-miles-plus AT three times through, plus the Oregon Trail. She wore tennis shoes for most of her hikes. Gatewood was the quintessential ultralight backpacker, with a simple bag she sewed herself holding very few supplies. Gatewood often relied on the kindness of strangers, who sometimes fed and sheltered her for the night. But, she also spent time sleeping under a shower curtain (her tent) and picnic tables along the way. “After the hard life I lived, this trail isn’t so bad,” Gatewood told reporters. Ben Montgomery’s book, Grandma Gatewood’s Walk, is well worth the read to follow the grit and willpower of an inspirational woman.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL: Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum) and pale Indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sky over Nachusa Grassland, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Schulenberg Prairie Savanna trail, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; August skies on the prairie, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; American rubyspot damselfly (Hetaerina americana), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Canada geese (Branta canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; cash on the bench, Schulenberg Prairie, the Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; the prairie in August, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

To Understand a Prairie

“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

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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?

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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.

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From the blooms and bugs, you turn to the fall seed heads, in all their infinite variety. The spiky purple meadow rue.

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Soft Indian grass seed plumes, a few yellow petals decorating them like confetti.

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The parachute seeds of pale Indian plantain, ready for lift off.

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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.

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Those September colors! Flowering spurge foliage glows pink under the grasses.

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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.

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And what is this plant, waving over your head, and flowering so late in the season?

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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.

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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.

August’s Opening Day on the Prairie

“The first week of August hangs at the very top of the summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning.” Natalie Babbitt

***

You can feel summer pause for a moment, catch its breath.

July is over.

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August is here.

The fireflies wink their Morse Code at night. On. Off. On. Off. They’re abundant this summer. People talk about it, wonder out loud. Speculate: “I haven’t seen this many fireflies since I was a kid. Must have been the wet spring? Maybe all the rain?”

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The fireflies light up the yard, the old field by the railroad tracks, the parks after dark.  Listen! The soundtrack for the fireflies is the buzz saw and hum of the invisible cicadas, crickets, and other fiddling insects tuning up in the dark.

 

We sit on the back porch and watch the fireflies twinkle in the prairie patch. Remember catching them as kids? The mason jars with a bit of grass tucked in and holes punched in the lids. Fireflies. We’ll enjoy them while they last.

On the bigger prairies, the more delicate wildflowers back off a bit as the grasses push themselves skyward and elbow them out of the way.

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Some of the heavyweight bloomers are tough enough to compete with the grasses:  stocky cup plant, rough-and-tumble rosin weed,  bristly compass plant.

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The curiously smooth prairie dock stems throw periscopes of flowers across the prairie eight feet high.  Its fists of blooms uncurl at last. They vie with the compass plants for supremacy.

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If it wasn’t for its eye-popping purple color, you might miss the low-growing prairie poppy mallows.

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Also short but eye-catching is the bright white whorled milkweed. Doesn’t look much like milkweed at first glance, but check out the individual flowers. Yes! That’s milkweed, all right.

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The bison move slower in the heat, graze a little, then look for a shady spot to cool off. The spring babies are getting bigger. They seem to put on weight as you watch.

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The prairie ponds shimmer under the August sun. July rains have filled them to overflowing. Dragonflies fly across the water in a frenzy. It’s now or never for laying eggs to make future generations happen. Everywhere, it seems, there are insect hook ups; winged romance on the fly.

The purple and white prairie clover has gone to seed and created perches for the eastern amberwing dragonflies.

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Blue dashers, too.

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The wings and bodies of the widow skimmer dragonflies take on a blue-ish powdery look that indicates age, called “pruinosity.” Old age, for a dragonfly, is a matter of weeks. If they are lucky, a few months. And with age and pruinosity, the widow skimmers become more beautiful.

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Flowering spurge has gone crazy this summer.

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It fills in the spaces between the grasses like baby’s breath in an FTD floral arrangement.

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The first breath of silky prairie dropseed grass in bloom scents the air with the smell of buttered popcorn.

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Blazing stars spike across the prairie. With their flowers comes a sense of inevitability.  Asters and goldenrods will be right on their heels, and with them, the close of the warm weather season.

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Everything on the prairie is poised for the downward plunge into autumn. But for now, summer in the tallgrass reigns supreme.

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August’s opening day on the prairie is here.

***

The opening quote is from “Tuck Everlasting,” a novel by Newbery Medal Award-winning children’s book writer and illustrator Natalie Babbitt (1932-2016). It’s worth reading the lines in context, reprinted here: “The first week of August hangs at the very top of the summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning. The weeks that come before are only a climb from balmy spring, and those that follow a drop to the chill of autumn, but the first week of August is motionless, and hot. It is curiously silent, too, with blank white dawns and glaring noons, and sunsets smeared with too much color.”

***

All photographs and audio clip copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): sunset on Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL; flood debris on a tree by Clear Creek, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; crickets and other fiddling insects audio clip, author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL;  grasses, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL: purple poppy mallow (Callirhoe involucrata) , Kickapoo Nature Center, Oregon, IL: whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; herd of bison (Bison bison),  Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL: eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  blue dasher dragonfly (female) (Pachydiplax longipennis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  widow skimmer (Libellula luctuosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata) in the tallgrass, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blazing star (Liatris spp.), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; tallgrass prairie, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

Of Bison and Butterflies

Today’s prairie post is brought to you by the letter “B.”       

“B” is for bison, big, bored, and brown.

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“B” is for barns; the prairie’s “downtown.”

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“B” is for butterflies that brighten the blooms.

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Monarch 816 My backyard

 

“B” is for bugs; they “zips” and they “zooms.”

 

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“B’ is for bluestem, both big…

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…and so small.

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“B” is for beaten path, the trail through it all.

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“B” is for brave, brawny, and bold…

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And “B” is for beautiful; 

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My tale is now told.

******

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby(top to bottom): bison (Bison bison) Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; old barn, Dixon, IL; black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) on gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) with flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata) in the background, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; monarch (Danaus plexippus), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; band-winged meadowhawk (Sympetrum semicinctum) with a stink bug (Halyomorpha halys), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) with flowering spurge in the background (Euphorbia corollata), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL;  trail through the tallgrass, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL.

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Prairie Peace for Troubled Times

It’s a scary world out there, as this past week has shown.

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If you need a lift for your spirits…

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…a reminder that the world is beautiful, as well as broken, if we have eyes to see.

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A promise that the future can be unexpectedly joy-filled,

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And that there is hope for change.

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Come take a walk with me in the tallgrass.

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For a few moments, rest  your mind from all the violence and ugliness.

 

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Think about the color and life that even now, is all around you if you look for it.

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Some of it loud, pink, and glorious.

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Some of it quiet and nuanced.

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Do a little soul restoration,

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while contemplating prairie restoration.

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Better yet, when  you’re done reading this–

 

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Go for a walk on the prairie, and let your spirit soak up the quiet of the natural world.

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Whatever frame of mind these words and images  find you in…

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I wish you a moment of quiet reflection. A rest from the chaos.

Peace.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): compass plant buds broken by a weevil (Silphium laciniatum and Haplorhynchites aeneus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ; Halloween pennant (Celithemis eponina), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; American bullfrog in Willoway Brook (Lithobates catesbeianus) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bison calf (Bison bison) on the July prairie, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; the Schulenberg Prairie in July, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; chicory (Cichorium intybus) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  compass plant (Silphium lanciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra) East Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea) and a bee (species unknown) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  Michigan lily (Lilium michiganense), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  prairie parsley (Polytaenia nuttallii) going to seed, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  bison herd (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bottle brush grass (Elymus hystrix), savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.