Tag Archives: gray-headed coneflower

Evening of a Prairie Year

“Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” — Marie Curie.

Lately I’ve been reading the poetry of Jane Kenyon, which somehow seems to match these gloomy November days. “Let evening come,” she wrote in a poem by the same name, and it does come, doesn’t it? Whether you welcome it or not, we’re hurtling toward the winter solstice on December 21. Now, in November, it feels like the evening of the year is here.

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In this seasonal twilight, November on the prairie can seem a desolate month. Perhaps the vivid color and bright birdsong of late summer and autumn are still freshly imprinted on our minds.

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There is plenty of beauty in the November prairie. But it has a different sort of allure than previously found. It’s more of the way you feel drawn toward a much-loved person, all wrinkled and worn, and call her beautiful, even though others may call her plain.

It’s in the spirit of the place…

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…the familiarity of that place; its grace—perhaps more evident now in this season, without the fripperies of wildflowers or pageantry of butterflies; with less of a backdrop of birdsong.

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November is more about the beauty that comes from the love you have for a place that you’ve invested in. A place that has given back to you in a thousand intangible ways. This is, perhaps, what makes the prairie enchanting in your eyes, even in November.

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I remind myself of this as I walk the tallgrass trails in that classic November weather which makes it so difficult to be outside this month. The paths are by turn limned with ice or sloppy with mud depending on the vagaries of the temperature. Big snow flurries slapped us in the face with winter last week. Quickly melted.  Winds—cold winds that slice through your warmest jacket—made a howling appearance. Sunshine warms up the day for a few hours then disappears.

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Oh, November. At times, the gray days bring with them an unshakeable gloom. As the daylight hours become shorter, so does my temper. I have less margin. Motivation dwindles. Hibernation begins to sound attractive. Tallgrass-WBHHprairieIowa11917

November will never be July, or May, or even September, no matter how much I wish it to be sometimes. I love the sun! These gray days try the spirit.

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But experiencing November will take me a long ways into understanding December and January… and these experiences will make me a different person — one that is tougher, more appreciative, more open to change. More resilient.

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November has its own rhythms.

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Its own astonishments.

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Its particular slants of light and patterns.

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Rather than sigh and tuck myself indoors with a book, I’m going to meet November halfway.

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Off I go. Unafraid of the gloom and even darker days ahead. Trying to embrace November.

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How about you?

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Scientist Marie Curie (1867-1934), whose quote opens this post, was Polish in a time when being Polish was to be persecuted, and a scientist in a time when women were not welcomed as scientists. Unable to pursue higher education as a woman in her home country, she completed a PhD in France, and became the first person to win two Nobel prizes.

Jane Kenyon (1947-1995), whose poem “Let Evening Come” is mentioned in this post, writes unsparingly about the joys and terrors of the world. To read more about her and her work, look here.

All photographs copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Herbert Hoover Historic Site Tallgrass Prairie, West Branch, Iowa; Nachusa Grasslands in late summer, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Herbert Hoover Historic Site Tallgrass Prairie, West Branch, Iowa; big bluestem (Andropogon geraradii) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Herbert Hoover Historic Site Tallgrass Prairie, West Branch, Iowa; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Herbert Hoover Historic Site Tallgrass Prairie, West Branch, Iowa; gray-headed coneflower seedhead (Ratibida pinnata), Herbert Hoover Historic Site Tallgrass Prairie, West Branch, Iowa; leaves and acorns on the trail, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) pod, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima) Herbert Hoover Historic Site Tallgrass Prairie, West Branch, Iowa;  bluebird house with tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Herbert Hoover Historic Site Tallgrass Prairie, West Branch, Iowa; Schulenberg Prairie Savanna , The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.SaveSaveSaveSave

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Thorny Prairie Issues

“Our goals can only be reached through a vehicle of a plan, in which we must fervently believe, and upon which we must vigorously act. There is no other route to success.” –Pablo Picasso

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Although traditionally the New Year is when we set goals, October seems a good time to begin thinking about what’s next.

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This week finds me thinking about the management plan for the 100 acre prairie where I’m a steward supervisor. It’s a chance to work with the staff and consider what was accomplished or still needs finished as I wind things up in autumn.

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Much of the plan was made at the beginning of the year and concerns invasive plant removal—particularly, non-native plants. To name a few: sweet clover (Melilotus spp.), reed canary grass (Phalaris arundinacea), and garlic mustard (Alliara petiolata). There are others, of course.  But this trio comprises the chief invaders that threaten the diversity of this particular prairie.

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In the early years of stewarding, weeding out these three invaders pretty much comprised the whole of my management plan. But with the maturing of the prairie (55-plus years!) and the hard work over time by volunteers and staff, this season was different. No, we  didn’t conquer those three. But at last, they were knocked back enough that I could turn my eyes to some other problem plants that threatened the tallgrass.

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A “native plant” — one that evolved in Illinois—is usually thought of as a “good plant.” However, even good plants can go bad. Given our vigorous removal of non-natives over the years, a few native plants became bullies.  The extent of their rogue advancement across the prairie took me by surprise. It was so gradual, I hadn’t noticed.

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So. Out they came. Wild plum (Prunus americana).  Gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa). I discovered Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus Illinoensis) had conducted a stealth slide along the banks of Willoway Brook, then slithered across the stream. Once I noticed, I found a solid wave of ferny leaves. We attempted to slow this species down by defensive seed collection; stripping the plants so they couldn’t add to their numbers. We’ll find out next season just how successful our efforts were.

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Today, I’m wrestling with brambles. Wild raspberries and blackberries are native to this part of Illinois where I’m a prairie steward. Normally, they are not a big deal, just a prickly part of the prairie landscape. But in the past several years, they’ve sent cane tentacles across the tallgrass, spreading throughout an area previously full of diverse, high-quality plants and shading them out. In short, becoming undesirable.

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Removing native brambles is a difficult proposition. Because they are surrounded on this prairie by high-quality native prairie plants—butterflyweed, gentians, prairie sundrops— no collatoral damage is acceptable.

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So, our prairie volunteers cut each bramble cane by hand. An applicator then paints the raw cut on the cane with the minimum amount of herbicide to knock it back. Our goal is not to completely eliminate the brambles, rather, to halt their aggressive spread.

This opens up room for other prairie plants to grow.

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Work like this is always part of a bigger plan on a restored or reconstructed tallgrass prairie. Each season, stewards and staff evaluate the prairie community. Are we allowing a wide variety of plants to become established? How are our prescribed burns affecting the insect and bird community?

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Is there a particular invasive plant—native or non-native—on which we should focus our efforts? If so, can we accomplish its removal by hand weeding? Or do we need to consider other methods?

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These are the conundrums that will keep us flexible, constantly making adjustments in management as we care for a vanishing biological community. One that we hope to keep vigorous and healthy for future generations.

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Setting goals. Having a plan.

Reflecting on the past. Thinking about the future.

All good occupations for anyone in the month of October.

***

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), whose quote opens this blog essay,  was a writer and artist from Spain. One of his many notable works is The Old Guitarist from his Blue Period, owned by The Art Institute of Chicago:  “… the image reflects the struggling twenty-two-year-old Picasso’s sympathy for the plight of the downtrodden; he knew what it was like to be poor, having been nearly penniless during all of 1902. ”

This week’s photos copyright Cindy Crosby all taken on the Schulenberg Prairie at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL  (top to bottom): common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca); carrion flower (Smilax spp.) fruit; October on the Schulenberg Prairie; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); October on the Schulenberg Prairie; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) seedhead;  black raspberry cane (Rubus occindentalis); gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata); compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); white wild indigo seedpods (Baptisia alba macrophylla); two jagged assassin bugs (Phymata spp.) eating an unknown fly on a pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor); Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans);  little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium). 

America’s Favorite (Prairie) Pastime

“A baseball weighted your hand just so, and fit it…When you hit it with a bat it cracked – and your heart cracked, too, at the sound. It took a grass stain nicely….” — Annie Dillard

 

For baseball fans, July means the season is building to a crescendo. So it is also in the tallgrass.

July throws out every possible pitch on the prairie: thunderstorms, scorching hot days, high winds, foggy mornings, cool evenings. It keeps you slightly off-balance. Guessing. Unsure of what the next day or—even hour—in the tallgrass might bring.

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In the prairie wetlands, egrets crouch; umpire the prairie ponds and streams.

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Cup plants have hit their stride. Towering and aggressive–up to 10 feet tall—their cheerful flowers team up with compass plant and prairie dock blooms to splash yellow across the prairie.

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Their perfoliate sandpapery leaves catch rainwater for thirsty goldfinches and other birds. Think of a scratchy catcher’s mitt.

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Big bluestem shoots up overnight, waving its turkey-footed seed heads. As Illinois state grass, it deserves an all-star role on the July prairie.

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Cordgrass blooms, subtle and easy to miss.

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But with the prairie roster overflowing with wildflowers…

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…big bluestem and the other grasses are sometimes overlooked, just as utility players often are beside their flashier teammates. Just wait until October, they seem to whisper.

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Gray-headed coneflowers shake out their lemon petal pennants, cheering on the season.

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In a few weeks, their gray seed heads will become dry and brittle with an amazing scent: an anise-citrus prairie potpourri. Mmmm.

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Joe Pye weed fills the prairie savanna with clouds of pale lavender. Their floral scorecards are marked with yellow tiger swallowtails and other butterflies, crazy for the nectar.

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Buckeyes surf the grasses; pop up along the paths.

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And every prairie clover bloom seems to sport a bee or butterfly.

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America’s favorite pastime might be baseball.

But the prairie in July knows how to hit a home run.

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The opening quote is from Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood (1987), her memoir of growing up in Pittsburgh. Among the awards Dillard has won for her writing is the Pulitzer Prize for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), a sustained non-fiction narrative about the beauty and terror of the natural world.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): fog over the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; great egret (Ardea alba), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), with unknown bee, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie blooms, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; Schulenberg prairie grasses at sunset, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; gray-headed coneflower seed heads (Ratibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  white prairie clover (Dalea candida) with wild indigo duskywing butterfly (Erynnis baptisiae most likely, although this is a difficult genus to ID), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

A Little Prairie Flower Power

Flowers always make people better, happier, and more helpful; they are sunshine, food and medicine for the soul. –Luther Burbank
If you need light for dark days––
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Try a little prairie flower power.
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Discover a joyous chorus of bee balm….
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…and blazing stars that pack a purple punch. Sock it to me!
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Drink in a little pink…
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…then soak up the colors of  July in the tallgrass.
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Feel the buzz yet?
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Braving the heat and humidity of the prairie in late July is a tall order.
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But doing so offers rare surprises.
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Slow down; sit for a while. Look around you.
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Let the prairie flowers be “food, sunshine, and medicine” today for your soul.
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Was Burbank right– Do you feel a little happier?
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The opening quote–– is by Luther Burbank (1849-1926), an American botanist who developed more than 800 different kinds of flowers, fruits, and vegetables. Said Burbank, “What a joy life is when you have made a close working partnership with Nature, helping her to produce for the benefit of mankind new forms, colors, and perfumes in flowers which were never known before… .”
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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom):  full thunder moon over author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blazing star (Liatris) and rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) , Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  gaura (Gaura biennis), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  swamp milkweed (Asclepis incarnata), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; sweep of flowers and grasses at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; false sunflower  (Heliopsis helianthoides), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; tall bellflower (Campanulastrum americanum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Kankakee mallow (Iliamna remota), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; log bench, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: false sunflower at the prairie’s edge (Heliopsis helianthoides), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. 

Beauty for Ashes

The first day of spring has come and gone.

Bees buzz about. Gardens green up. Blooms open.

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While out in the tallgrass, volunteers burn the prairies.

Do you hear it? The crackle of flames, the pop-pop-pop of tallgrass igniting.

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Do you feel the heat? A line of fire that licks along the edges of the charred prairie.

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Do you smell the smoke?  It rises from  tinder of last year’s grasses and flowers. The prairie as we once knew it  is gone in a matter of minutes.

The ashes and destruction of all we have known come before resurrection.

And with it: Beautiful blooms…

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Lush growth…

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And wings to fly.

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Look! Something new is on the way. Built upon the work of years before; it begins to push up out of the scorched earth. It’s familiar, yet not quite the same.

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There are surprises in store. Adventures, just around the corner.

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Will you be there for them?

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The prairie is waiting.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby: (Top to bottom) viburnum (Viburnum farreri) with bee, Ground Cover Garden, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  prescribed burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prescribed burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata); prairie coreopsis (Coreopsis palmata) and common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) with insect, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboreum, Lisle, IL; bees and beetles on prairie blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;   fritillary on rosin weed (Silphium integrifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; reflections of prairie grasses on Meadow Lake, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sandhill cranes migrating across sun halo, author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; interpretive prairie trail, Fermilab, Batavia, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) and vervain (Verbena hastata) Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

The Message of the Cranes

Last week, I dreaded picking up a newspaper; despaired of the suffering and unkindness that seemed to permeate the world. Everything seemed off-kilter. Unpredictable.

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And then, they came. Waves and waves of sandhill cranes.

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Each spring, they cover Chicago’s skies, headed north. Late each year, often after the snow flies, they wing their way back south.

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The cranes bookend the prairie growing season.

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They arrive at the same time as fire; the prescribed burns that sweep the tallgrass clean, and create a clean slate…

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…ready for the sums of a new year to be chalked upon it.

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As I struggle to count the cranes flying over this week– 25, 50, 100, 2,000–I feel the excitement of what lies ahead.

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But I know when they leave, I’ll feel a sense of loss.  In some ways I take them for granted.

There was a time when I thought of the ash trees in the woodlands around the prairies as merely part of the landscape. I believed they would stand, year after year.

Today, decimated by a tiny insect, they are cut down and piled up as rubble: wiped from woodlands, streets, and our part of the world.

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Only the scribbled messages left by the emerald ash borers remain.

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My grandchildren will never know a world with ash trees. And I wonder. Like the ash trees, will the cranes be here one season, then suddenly gone? Leaving an empty sky behind?

 

The cranes are something we count on in Illinois. Like the sunrise and sunset; the blooming of spring bulbs…

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…and the coloring of autumn leaves.

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We depend on the cranes to mark the passing of the seasons.

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Rather than worry about their loss, I’m going to store away the magical moments they bring. When I hear the loud cries of the cranes–like the erratic purr of a cat magnified thousands of times– I’ll remember to listen for the harmony around me, not the discord. The kind voices; not the strident or cruel.

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Despite their whirlwind choreography, the cranes know where they are going. The present disorder of the world, I tell myself, doesn’t mean we’re headed for long-term chaos.

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I’ll let the cranes remind me to be grateful for  beauty, compassion, and grace; even when those things seem difficult to find in the world.

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And I’ll count the days. Until the return of the cranes.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Meadow Lake, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sandhill cranes, prairie interpretive trail, Fermilab, Batavia, IL; sandhill cranes, author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; lupine (Lupinus perennis), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; grasses in prairie planting, Meadow Lake, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; hiking the prairie interpretive trail at Fermilab, Batavia, IL; great St. John’s wort (Hypericum pyramidatum), switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Meadow Lake, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL;  pile of ash logs and other trees, prairie interpretive trail, Fermilab, Batavia, IL; ash log with emerald ash borer gallery, prairie interpretive trail, Fermilab, Batavia, IL;  yellow crocus, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; purple and white spring crocus, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; autumn color, East Woods, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; tree and shrub, prairie interpretive trail, Fermilab, Batavia, IL; red-winged blackbird, Meadow Lake, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sandhill cranes migrating north over the prairie interpretive trail, Fermilab, Batavia, IL; prairie interpretive trail, Fermilab, Batavia, IL.

‘Round the December Prairie

A heavy November snow steamrolled the prairie into submission. A 50 degree day or two then melted the snow into invisibility. What’s left behind around Willoway Brook looks as if a giant paperweight has pressed the tallgrass flat.

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December on the prairie opens with a brand new look. Before the deep snow, the prairie grasses brushed my shoulders, towered over my head; a thick, vertical wall. Now, in many places, a springy carpet of grasses lies under my feet.

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For most of the autumn, the prairie has been drawn by an artist who loved vertical lines.

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But now, with the verticals knocked to the ground, a new shape takes prominence.

Circles. One of the simplest shapes in geometry. I see them everywhere.

The prairie dock leaves, drained of their chlorophyll, remind me of a dress I once owned made of dotted swiss material.

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The globes of bee balm repeat the circular pattern; clusters of tiny yawning tubular tunnels.

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Sunken balls of carrion flower catch the afternoon light.

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Tall coreopsis seeds dot the sky like beads suspended on wires.

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Overhead, thousands of cranes are migrating south, punctuating the quiet with their cries. They circle and loop; circle and loop.

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The gray-headed coneflower seeds have half-circle pieces missing.

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Crinkled round ball galls look like they’ve dropped from another planet. Anybody home?  No sign of life inside.

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Even the downy leaves of ashy sunflowers echo the pattern; try to loop  into circles.

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The compass plant leaves curl into ringlets, stippled with tiny full moons.

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Freckled and fanciful.

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I miss November’s bold, vibrant tallgrass, upright and waving in the wind from horizon line to horizon line. A flattened prairie seems defeated, somehow. Beaten down by the elements.

But I’m glad for the unexpected gift of seeing a prairie pattern I might have otherwise missed. Losing a familiar way of viewing the world opens up a different perspective. Today, I’m seeing the prairie in the round.

Who knows what else I’ll learn to see in a new way before the year is done?

 

All photos by Cindy Crosby taken at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL except where noted  (top to bottom): Willoway Brook; prairie grasses, prairie clover (Dalea purpurea, Dalea candida) , prairie dock leaf (Silphium terebinthinaceum), bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) ,carrion flower, tall coreopsis; sandhill cranes; Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata; ball gall; ashy sunflower (Helianthus mollis); compass plant  (Silphium laciniatum);  compass plant(Silphium laciniatum).