“The strongest of all warriors are these two — Time and Patience.” — Leo Tolstoy
It’s a hot day for our prairie team to clear the main visitor trail. The 90-plus humid mornings and torrential rains have resulted in lush vegetation. The path? Forbidding, overgrown. Visitors walk up to the trail entrance and turn away, put off by the idea of bushwhacking. Who would blame them? Trail clearing is overdue.
For hours, volunteers work at a snail’s pace, bent over, carefully clipping back wildflowers and grasses to make an accessible path. At the end of the muggy, hot morning, it’s finally time to quit.
“Gosh, that was fun!” said one volunteer, cheerfully, drenched with sweat. Fun?
She must have seen the look on my face, because she added, “Every week, when we pull weeds, I feel like I don’t see any results. Sometimes, it seems like years on the prairie pass before we see any progress at all! But when we clear the trail, it’s instant gratification.”
It’s true. Instant gratification is unusual in the tallgrass. Sure, once in a while, a brush cutting day or big garlic mustard pull can yield tangible results. When we collect seeds of some prolific grasses or wildflowers, like pale purple coneflower, we have some momentary satisfaction.
But the time it takes to develop a healthy, functioning prairie community—with all its associated insects, birds, and plants—is the work of decades, if not a lifetime.
Thinking in “prairie time” requires recalibration of everything society primes us for. Post something on social media? Instantly, “Like! Like! Like!” follows. Too busy to cook? Drive-through restaurant windows put hot food in your hands in minutes. Not so on the prairie. On one tallgrass site where I am a steward supervisor, we battle an agricultural weed called sweet clover. I’ve pulled clover there for 15 years, and I’ve never seen an end to it. For the first time this season, the battle seems almost over. Because of this, our team was able to turn our attention to some other invaders. Giant ragweed. Curly dock. And lately, Japanese hedge parsley, which looks a lot like Queen Anne’s lace.
I’ve been pulling the Queen Anne’s lace from my backyard prairie this month as well, especially around a second-year planting that includes Kankakee mallow. For years, I’d admired it on the prairie….
…and coveted it for my own backyard prairie plot. I found it at a local garden center specializing in natives. The first season, I had a few blooms. Beautiful!
This year, the bunnies nipped it back until all I had were short, leafy stalks.
Disappointing. But, as I often remind myself, thinking in “prairie time” is mostly about patience. Same with the cardinal flowers. That flaming color! I always anticipate it. Some summers, my pond and wet prairie has an abundance of screaming scarlet. The hummingbirds go wild! Then, the next season, the flowers disappear.
Ah, well. Wait until next year.
The prairie reminds me to think in terms of years, not just the immediate. But, ironically, the prairie also reminds me that every moment is precious. I know to stop and admire the wildflowers which change from day to day…
… or pause in my work to marvel at a gathering of swallows, swooping and diving….
…or linger at Clear Creek to enjoy the bright blue of a springwater dancer damselfly. If I rush off, thinking “I’ll look at that next time I’m here,” there is often no “next time.” I miss the moment.
Then I think of “prairie time” as these moments; small snapshots of color and light and motion I can carry with me in my memory.
How elastic time is! How odd it is, as well. Something we move through without conscious thought most days. Yet, how treasured time should be. As I grow older, the idea of time has taken on new meaning. Want to aggravate me? Say you are “killing time!” Time is much too precious to waste.
The prairie teaches me different ways to think about time. It reminds me that the long-term results are worth forgoing instant gratification. It also prompts me to remember the importance of paying attention to the moment—the fleeting nature of time. Two very different ways to understand the how I’m spending my life.
Two ways of thinking about living in “prairie time.”
Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) is a Russian writer who is widely regarded as one of the finest to ever wield a pen. The opening quote is from his 1869 epic, War and Peace. He believed in passive resistance; his ideas were said to have influenced Martin Luther King Junior and Gandhi. War and Peace is thought to be one of the great novels in literature; its title has passed into colloquial use. Tolstoy had a rather tumultuous life; he was excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church, and his marriage to his wife, Sophia, was generally considered to be desperately unhappy. They had 13 children, only eight of which survived to adulthood. Tolstoy died of pneumonia at 82.
All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; pale purple coneflower seedheads (Echinacea pallida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Kankakee mallow (Iliamna remota) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Kankakee mallow (Iliamna remota) author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; Kankakee mallow (Iliamna remota) author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) and sweet Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; video of barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) congregating on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; springwater dancer damselfly, male (Argia plana), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.