Tag Archives: little bluestem

Prairie Lights

“This is the light of autumn; it has turned on us.”–Louise Glück

*****

I am preoccupied with light; the number of daylight hours is slipping through my fingers. Gradually lessening.

I rise in the dark, and eat dinner at dusk. Where has the light gone?

The trees at the edge of the prairie are alight.

The year is passing quickly.

Sunday evening, as I admired my backyard prairie patch, a white-crowned sparrow appeared. Its bright white striped helmet glowed in the twilight as it sampled seeds spilled from my feeders, under the wands of the blazing star.

This tiny bird has traveled thousands of miles– up to 300 miles in a single night. Now, it’s back from its summering grounds up north in the Arctic and subartic where it nested in the tundra among the lichens and mosses.

The appearance of the white-crowned sparrow tells me winter is only a whisper away.

This world of color won’t be with us long.

The prairie dock leaves are fallen awnings of opaque dotted swiss fabric.

Indian grass surrenders to the shortening days and its inevitable fate. Death above. Life remains, unseen, underground.

Horse gentian—sometimes called “wild coffee” —throws its orange orbs into the mix of prairie seeds as its leaves crumple. Insurance for the future.

The silvered leaves of leadplant fade into oblivion.

New england asters and goldenrod dance their last tango in the tallgrass.

Sumac refuses to go quietly. Look at that red!

The heath asters offer star-shine under arches of prairie cordgrass. Their days are numbered.

Listen! Can you hear the low husky lament of the katydids for a season about to end?

No matter how we cling to what we have, it will eventually be lost to us.

Better to turn the page. Practice release.

October is a bittersweet month; a month that catches fire and burns everything to ashes as it goes.

But oh, what a fire.

And oh, what a light the burning makes.

Store up October now.

Cherish that light.

It will be solace in the months to come.

******

The opening line is from poet Louise Glück (1943–), who won a well-deserved Nobel Prize in Literature this past week. It’s the latest of many major prizes she’s earned for her writing including the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for The Wild Iris, a good introduction to her work. Her poems are often harsh; exploring the meaning of suffering and mortality. Read about her life and writing here, or listen to her read some of her poems here.

All photos this week taken at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (top to bottom): view over the October prairie; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium); sugar maple (Acer saccharum) and staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina); bird’s nest; blazing star seeds (Liatris sp.); lichens, one is possibly gold dust (Chrysothrix candelaris) and another possibly hoary rosette (Physcia aipolia); Schulenberg Prairie in October; rose hips (Rosa carolina); prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); leadplant (Amorpha canscens); canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) and new england aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angeliae); bridge over Willoway Brook in October; heath aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides) and prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata); one of the katydids (possibly Scudderia sp.); illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis); common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) pappus; video of leaf fall, prairie looking into savanna; staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina); ladies’ tresses orchid (Spiranthes cernua); Schulenberg Prairie Savanna; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).

*****

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

Literary Gardens Online: Friday, Dec.4, 1-2:30 p.m.CST– Join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby from wherever you live in the world for a fun look at great (and not-so-great) gardens in literature and poetry. From Agatha Christie’s mystery series, to Brother Cadfael’s medieval herb garden, to Michael Pollan’s garden in “Second Nature,” to the “secret garden” beloved of children’s literature, there are so many gardens that helped shape the books we love to read. Discover how gardens and garden imagery figure in the works of Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Goudge, Rumer Godden, May Sarton, Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Gilbert, Henry Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver, and Lewis Carroll–and many more! This class is online. Register here through The Morton Arboretum.

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 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. 

The Peace of Prairie

“Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.” — Frederick Buechner

********

Take a deep breath.

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Let’s go to the prairie.

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Look around.

The natural world goes on. The sandhill cranes scrawl their way north, their annual aerial ballet and vocalizations announcing spring.

In the tallgrass this week, some of the prescribed burns may be delayed, but the warmth and light invite the first shoots out of the soil.

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The last seeds cling to their pods…

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…then drop to the ground, pummeled by March’s rain and snow-sleet.

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I walk the paths, pausing to check for new growth of the pasque flowers. None up yet. Or are they camouflaged? Pasque flowers are notoriously difficult to find at any stage of growth. But I enjoy the blush of little bluestem that lends its color to the sandier areas of the March prairie;…

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…and the tubed bee balm flowerheads waving in the wind.

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I remember walking this same prairie on 9/11. Quiet. So quiet! Later that frightening week, no contrails crisscrossed the sky as jet travel ground to a halt.

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Today, as I hike, I wonder. What will happen tomorrow? The next week?

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There’s no way to know what direction events will take.

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Nothing to do, really, but look out for each other. Keep walking. Move forward.

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Everywhere, the flattened prairie seems defeated.

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And yet.

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Underneath the dry grasses and battered wildflowers…

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…new life is waiting. Mostly invisible. But there.

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In a time when much of our normal routine is closed off to many of us—our work, the coffee shop, the banality of “normal”—we have the sky…

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…the beauty of clouds…

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…the sound of a stream running…

…and the return of birds.

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I feel a renewed sense of gratitude for what we have. Our families.

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Our friends, even when we don’t see them face to face. The joys of a sunrise. Longer daylight hours. The delights of the natural world, coming to life. Greening up.

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Each day is a gift. The days have never seemed more precious than now.

*****

The opening blog quote is from American writer and theologian Frederick Buechner (1926-). His books include Whistling in the Dark, and Telling Secrets. Thank you to my sister, Sherry, who shares this quote frequently. (Love you, sis.)

*****

All photos and videos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom):  Sunset after the burn, College of DuPage Russell Kirt Prairie, Glen Elllyn, IL; Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; new plant shoots on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; skies over the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; hiking the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis); Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; evening primrose (Oenothera clelandii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale prairie plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Willoway Brook and prairie skies, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Willoway Brook in March, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: empty bird’s nest, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; hiking the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: sunset on the College of DuPage Russell Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

*****

For current updates on Cindy’s speaking and classes, visit http://www.cindycrosby.com

5 Reasons to Hike the February Prairie

“…Some say that February’s name comes from an ancient and forgotten word meaning “a time that tries the patience.” — Hal Borland

*******

February is the shortest month of the year. But it may seem like the longest.

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Big, wet snowflakes fall outside. I welcome the snow—-it brightens up the seemingly endless gray skies that feature so prominently this month. Snow helps lift my mood. Hiking the prairie? Even more so.

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Let’s take a stroll on the prairie…

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…and find five good reasons to walk it in February.

1. Experience Weather Swings

Indecisive February!

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The weather shivers between rain, sleet, sunshine and snow. To hike the prairie this month is to experience shifts of temperature in real time. Feel the freezing sleet on your face. Admire the snowflakes that collect on your sleeve. Crystals play on a hundred thousand seedpods, as precipitation pelts the prairie plants.

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I love to discover transitions on the prairie as the temperatures plunge and rise.

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There’s the tension between freeze and thaw; sunshine and leaden skies; the snap of ice under our boots and the suck of mud. February is all about our impatience for the last month of meteorological winter to finish and the first month of meteorological spring to arrive in Illinois. Hurry up! Our minds are already turning to spring. But what a loss it would be, if we failed to enjoy what February has to offer.

2. Signs of the Unseen

I rarely glimpse the meadow voles, prairie voles, or white-footed mice during the warmer months in the tallgrass. Although once in a while I’m surprised, as Jeff and I were this spring when we reached into a prairie trail map box and found these tenants.

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In winter, these mostly-invisible members of the tallgrass community are betrayed by their tracks and tunnels. I think about them as I follow their progress across the prairie.  The collapsed snow tunnels. An occasional escape hole. And my favorite—the sewing machine “stitches” —-tiny tracks evenly spaced—that criss-cross the trails.

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As we hike, Jeff and I leave our tracks alongside their prints—and the tracks of geese, coyotes, deer, and other members of the prairie community. I like that. It reminds me that we’re all a part of this place.

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3.  Plant Silhouettes

The same gray skies that plunge some of us into seasonal affective disorder throw prairie plants into sharp relief this month. It’s a new perspective. Indian hemp pods swing in bundles, bereft of any seeds.

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I’m more aware of the ribbon-like curves of big bluestem leaves, shorn now of  their turkey-footed seadheads.

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I enjoy the rhythmic sway of Indian grass, pushed by periodic blasts of Arctic wind.

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Prairie cinquefoil takes on a ghostly aspect, blurred in the falling sleet.  Its silhouette makes me think of tulips. Of the bulbs beginning to spear through the garden in my backyard. Of spring.

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These grasses and wildflowers won’t be here long.

Fire is coming.

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4. Unexpected Gatherings

When I think “grassland birds,” mourning doves aren’t exactly what comes to mind. But hiking the College of DuPage’s Russell Kirt Prairie this weekend, that’s what turned up. Notice how this mob has fluffed out their feathers against the cold—like down vests, puffy and tinged with color. It reminds me of the down vests I wore in the 1970s.

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Why did they choose this tree on the prairie, and not another? What are they murmuring about? I wonder. After a bit of looking around on birding websites, I discover a group of doves is called a “dole” or “dule,” and sometimes, a “cote, a “bevy,” and even, a “flight.” Flight? Maybe not. These birds look like they’ve settled in for the long haul.

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Seeing them in the tree reminds me of one of my favorite scenes from the original 1967 Disney adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book.” Remember the four vultures, loosely modeled on the Beatles, talking to each other in a tree? “What do you wanna do?” one asks. “I dunno, what do you want to do?” And so it goes. I can imagine these mourning doves asking each other the same question, over and over. Makes me smile.

5. Snow Magic

Hike the prairie in February, and you’ll be aware of contrasts. Snow is the mitigator. A light dusting of snow makes everything softer, brighter, more appealing. Snowmelt softens the crisp edges of senescing plants, like this prairie dock leaf.

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Cup plants, cracked and brittle…

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…become a foil for the crystal flakes, their veins and wrinkles more obvious now than in the summer. This leaf looks like footed pajamas hung on a laundry line, doesn’t it?

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A sprinkling of snow makes February’s gray skies seem a little brighter.

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A little snow makes the month of February a little more do-able. More digestible. Beautiful. Why not go for a hike and see for yourself?

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February will be over before you know it.  The prairie is waiting.

*****

This winter, I’ve been enjoying the writing of Hal Borland (1900-1978), whose quote from A Sundial of the Seasons, 365 days of natural history observations, opens this post.  It was tough to find his books—all out of print, I believe— so I’m once again grateful to the marvelous Sterling Morton Library of the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL,  which carefully curates vanishing works of literature like Borland’s. Thanks to Mary Joan for introducing me to to his work. The original opening quote is prefaced by the caveat, “There’s no evidence to support it in the dictionaries, but some say… .” Ha!  If the actual etymology of the word “February” isn’t true, the supposed meaning certainly is.

*****

All photos this week are taken at College of DuPage’s Russell Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL, except where noted (top to bottom): Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum);  Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis); “Prairie Parking” sign with unknown lichens; snowy trail through the prairie; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca); COD pond; white-footed mice (Peromyscus spp.), Wolf Road Prairie, Westchester, IL (photo from 2019); mouse and vole trails through the snow;  top of the ridge on COD’s Russell Kirt Prairie; Indian hemp, sometimes called dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum); big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); prairie cinquefoil (Drymocallis arguta—us older prairie folks will remember it as Potentilla arguta); little bluestem (Schizachryium scoparium); mourning doves (Zenaida macroura); mourning doves (Zenaida macroura); prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum); cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum); tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima) and wild bergamot, sometimes called bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); snowy trail through the prairie.

*****

Please join Cindy for a class or talk!

Pre-Valentine’s Event! The Tallgrass Prairie: Grocery Store, Apothecary, and Love Shop: February 13 (Thursday) 8-9 p.m., Park Ridge Garden Club, Centennial Activity Center 100 South Western Avenue Park Ridge, IL. Free and open to the public! Book signing follows.

Wheaton Book Signing! Local Authors Event.  Sunday, 2-3 p.m., Prairie Path Books in Town Square, Wheaton, IL. Free and open to the public. Click here for details.

Nature Writing and Art Retreat, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, February 22 (Saturday) 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Cindy will be facilitating the writing portion. Sold Out. Waiting list –register here.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online begins March 26.  Details and registration here.

Nature Writing Workshop (a blended online and in-person course, three Tuesday evenings in-person) begins March 3 at The Morton Arboretum. For details and registration, click here.  

See more at http://www.cindycrosby.com   

A New Year in the Tallgrass

“Joy as I see it involves embracing life. … Joy isn’t the opposite of sorrow, but encompasses and transcends sorrow. You know you’re truly connected with yourself when you’re experiencing joy.” — Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge

*****

Where did 2019 go? The time passed so quickly.

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This year we saw changes on the prairies we love. After the prescribed burns that torched the tallgrass…

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… we marveled at the new growth soon after.

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Watched the early pasque flowers bloom….

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and then, set seeds for the future.

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We stood amazed at the constellations of shooting star, bent and humming with bumble bees.

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Then, were astonished at the July wildflowers. Sure, we seem them each summer. But each year seems like a miracle.

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Now, at the end of December, the prairie has its own sort of loveliness. The beauty of sky and clouds…

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…the delights of a single seedhead.

Pasture thistle.

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Bee balm.

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Blazing star.

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Each prairie plant has a different method of making seeds and ensuring its future. Each has  a story to tell.

Remembering the familiar cycle of prescribed fire, new growth, flushes of color, and fruition of seed are all comforting at the close of the year.

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It comforts us as we remember how, in 2019, we wrote our own stories. Some of us lost people we loved. Had surgery. Battled cancer. Made new friends. Laughed a lot. Cried a lot, too. Weeded, seeded. Planned and worked to make those plans—both on the prairie and off—a reality. Celebrated the successes. Resolved to learn from the failures.

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In 2019, there were the surprises and vagaries of weather. Remember the big snow in April? Then, the cold and wet through the middle of June. Blazing hot in July. Snow on Halloween. Sixty degree days in December. Through it all, the prairie sailed on. The tallgrass  prairie was built for these extremes.

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Woven through 2019 was joy. True joy. The kind that is hard-won. The prairie, with its glories and challenges, defeats and delights, reminds us of this. Fire brings growth. Deep roots hold firm, drawing from long-held reserves when unexpected events throw the season out of kilter. The prairie survives.

It survives, also in part, because of people with vision.  Each prairie is a story of sweat and joy; patience and persistence. Of survival. Like a Polaroid snapshot, stewards and volunteers bring struggling remnants back into sharp focus.

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2019 was the continuing story of people who care enough to preserve places that aren’t always easy—at first glance–to understand. When I drive by the roughly 105-acre Gensburg-Markham prairie on congested I-294, set aside in 1971, I wonder what most commuters whizzing by this precious remnant think about it. Do they know what was saved, and why it matters? Do they wonder why it was never developed? Or is it just a blur in their rear view mirrors as they speed to their destinations?

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Do the people who drive by the 91-acre Sundrop Prairie, dedicated in 2000 and part of the Indian Boundary Prairies in Markham, IL, know what a treasure these acres contain?

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The tallgrass grows and changes. Our understanding of their importance evolves. And yet, the prairies continue on, as they have for hundreds of thousands of years. There’s a comfort in knowing that when we’re gone, the prairies will continue to survive and thrive under the care of future generations.

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I think of these things as I hike a prairie trail at Fermilab in the last days of the year. According to the Chicago Tribune, “In 1975 when he heard that Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, near Batavia, was looking for suggestions on what to do with the thousands of acres it owned, Bob Betz sat down with then-director Robert Wilson and went over his vision of having a restored prairie on the property. ‘And when Dr. Wilson asked how long it was going to take, Dr. Betz said, ‘Ten, 20 or maybe 30 years,’ then Dr. Wilson said, ‘Well, we better get started this afternoon.’ ” From these beginnings, beautiful prairies were planted and now thrive at Fermilab.

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Prairie remnants like the Indian Boundary Prairies—Sundrop and Gensburg-Markham— require people to discover them, bring them to the attention of the rest of us, and then, care for them with prescribed fire and stewardship. They require organizations like the Nature Conservancy and Northeastern Illinois University and others, and the generous donations of individuals, to ensure their protection. They require vision. And action. I think of Bob Betz, and his work with the Indian Boundary Prairies, as well as with Fermilab’s natural areas.  I think of the volunteers who undertake a hundred different tasks to maintain prairies today.

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Other preserves, like Nachusa Grasslands in Franklin Grove, IL–which has both remnant and planted prairies—shows the rewards of focused funding and care since 1986 by the Nature Conservancy Illinois and later, joined in that care by Friends of Nachusa Grasslands. I think also of the 100-acre Schulenberg Prairie at the Morton Arboretum just outside of Chicago, and the volunteers, including myself, who dedicate time each season to cut brush, plant new natives, and collect seeds. Such different prairies! Each one irreplaceable.

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Now, it’s time to close another chapter in the life of the prairies. 2019 is a wrap.

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2020 is waiting. So much possibility!

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So much good work to do. So much joy to look forward to.

*****

The opening quote is included in the book, Poemcrazy: Freeing Your Life with Words by Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge. It’s one of my favorite books on writing; I re-read it at least once a year.

***

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Sundrop Prairie, Midlothian, IL: prescribed burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; greening up after the prescribed burn, top of Dot’s Knob, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL: pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens) in bloom, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; pasque flowers (Pulsatiilla patens) in seed, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; July at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; the end of December at Fermilab Natural Areas, interpretive trail, Batavia, IL; pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; blazing star (probably Liastris aspera), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Sundrop Prairie, Midlothian, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Sundrop Prairie, Midlothian, IL; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Sundrop Prairie, Midlothian, IL; backlit prairie plants (unknown), Sundrop Prairie, Midlothian, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; Illinois nature preserve sign, Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; Sundrop Prairie in December, Midlothian, IL; Gensburg-Markham Prairie with bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), grasses, and wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; Fermilab interpretive trail edges at the end of December, Batavia, IL; Carolina horsenettle (Solanum carolinense), Fermilab interpretive prairie trail, Batavia, IL: prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; Wilson Hall from the interpretive trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL;  interpretive trail at Fermilab Natural Areas at the end of December, Batavia, IL.

***

Please join Cindy at one of her upcoming classes or talks in the new year!

Nature Writing and Art Retreat, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, February 22 (Saturday) 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Cindy will be facilitating the writing portion. Register here.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online begins March 26.  Details and registration here.

Nature Writing Workshop (a blended online and in-person course, three Tuesday evenings in-person) begins March 3 at The Morton Arboretum. For details and registration, click here. 

Happy New Year! Thank you for reading. See you in 2020.

A Twilight Prairie Hike

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”  — Rachel Carson

******

December. The roads are choked with traffic; shoppers busy with the work of preparing for the holidays. Neighborhoods dressed in Christmas lights glow. Chicago radio stations swap out their playlists for Jingle Bell Rock and Frosty; Oh Holy Night and Santa Baby. The temperatures warm into the high 40s and then, plummet into the teens. We think of snow.

Under steel skies, the prairie is quiet, an impressionist study in golds, browns, and rusts.

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Sunday, Jeff and I drove to Crystal Lake, Illinois, where I gave a late afternoon talk on Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit.

signprairieview12819WM.jpg Afterwards, there was just enough light to go for a hike on the prairie, silent in the gathering dark. Mary, my delightful host, told me the prairie was originally a farm, run by Hazel and her husband, Otto Rhoades, president of Sun Electric Company. The 7,500 square foot education center was originally their home built in 1945.

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The McHenry County Conservation District purchased the property in 1993 and began converting the private home to an educational center.  Today, the center serves thousands of McHenry County children and families with low-cost nature programs, camps, and school field trips. These kids will grow up knowing that tallgrass prairie is something special.

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As the light fades on the prairie, so do the sounds. We move a short way down the path and realize the day is almost gone. Our hopes of hiking the  six and a half miles of hiking trails through the prairie and savanna restorations, culminating at the banks of the Fox River, won’t happen this time. This short walk will only be a taste of what this place has to offer.

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Just over the horizon a plume of smoke lifts, likely a neighbor burning leaves.

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In the gloaming, the grasses and wildflowers take on a mysterious aspect. The prairie has been called “a sea of grass” in literature, and I can imagine these wildflowers at the bottom of an ocean floor, waving gently in the current.

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As we hike, I think of the old farm and the lives spent in agriculture here. It would be a shock to Hazel and Otto to see these acres, likely wrestled from prairie at one time, turned back to tallgrass prairie again.

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John Madson, in his eloquent book, Where the Sky Began: Land of the Tallgrass Prairie, talks of visiting the area where his great-grandparents turned tallgrass into farm. He wrote: “What would they think in our time if they could stand in the Walnut Creek Refuge and look over a prairiescape again? They might deplore it as so much foolishness, feeling somehow betrayed by this replication of a wilderness they had been so proud to have tamed. Or would they see it for what it really is—a common ground between their lives and ours?”

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Walking through the tallgrass, I try to envision it as farm in the forties. My imagination fails. Prairie stretches across the horizon. In the dim light, the grasses  become waves crashing into the savanna.

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But the wildflowers have amazing detail and grace, like this goldenrod rosette gall on a goldenrod plant.

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Even the weedier prairie natives, like evening primrose, seem festive.

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A deer emerges from the tallgrass, shadowed, then motionless, so much that Jeff and I almost miss our “Illinois state animal.” The deer reminds me of the book I’ve been reading, Wilding: Returning Nature to Our Farm , by Isabella Tree. Set in Great Britain, Tree tells of the experiment her family undertakes to let their intensive agricultural venture go and then, watch the land recover. They add old English longhorns, fallow deer, red deer, and Exmoor ponies to their land to churn it and fertilize it. They withhold herbicides. Quit planting. Then, they watch the exhausted land become healthy again. As birds and insects return to their thousands of acres, the neighbors are aghast to see good cropland be “wasted.” Of the experiment, Tree writes: “It was an affront to the efforts of every self-respecting farmer, an immoral waste of land, an assault on Britishness itself.

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Reading Madson and Wilding reminds me that our ideas about how to use the land and what we value are always changing, always in transition. Land use isn’t always something we agree on. Prairie, because it is so nuanced, may be seen as land that is “wasted.” Couldn’t that land be better used? But when you build a relationship with prairie, you understand its true value.

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I wonder what my grandchildren will make of prairie, and how they will care for the landscape they’ve inherited. How they will change it. I think of the next generations. What will they value when they explore the prairie trails? Will they see the beauty and sense of history that permeates these places?

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Prairieview ‘s work—and the work of other prairie education programs for families and schoolchildren—gives me hope.  That we will invest in children and their prairie experiences. That we will let them absorb the beauty and mystery of the prairie through personal time spent hiking and exploring the tallgrass. That educators and parents will help them understand the value of its plants and its animals. Then, our children will have a reason to love the prairie community and care about its future.

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We’ve not gone very far into the tallgrass, but it’s time to turn around and head for the car. Dusk has turned to dark. Just a bit of light remains.

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We’ll be back.

******

The opening quote is from Rachel Carson’s (1907-1964) The Sense of Wonder. Begun as a magazine essay, the book is a stirring call to nurturing children’s sense of delight and marvel over the natural world.

******

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken this week at Prairieview Education Center, Crystal Lake, IL except where noted: prairie at Prairieview Education Center in December; welcome sign; Prairieview Education Center; little bluestem (Schizachyium scoparium); view from the education center; trails through the prairie; mostly bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca); switchgrass (Panicum virgatum); mixed grasses and savanna in the dusk; rosette gall, made by the goldenrod gall midge (Rhopalomyia solidaginis); evening primrose (Oenothera biennis); white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus);  compass plant (Silphium lacinateum); young child explores the prairie, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata); common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).

Thanks to Mary, Barbara, and the good folks at Prairieview who hosted the booksigning and talk on Sunday. And thank you to Dustin, who recommended “Wilding” to me.

*****

Please join Cindy at one of her upcoming classes or talks in the new year!

Nature Writing and Art Retreat, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, February 22 (Saturday) 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Cindy will be facilitating the writing portion. Register here.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online begins March 26.  Details and registration here.

Nature Writing Workshop (a blended online and in-person course, three Tuesday evenings in-person) begins March 3 at The Morton Arboretum. For details and registration, click here.

Prairie Tricks and Treats

“You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.” — Annie Dillard

******

Mother Nature pulled out her bag of tricks this weekend. First up: tropical storm Olga. She swept into the Chicago region Saturday, washing out roads and flooding creeks. Pools of water stand on the prairie. Wind decoupages the savanna trails with sifted leaves.

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Willoway Brook muscles over its banks, surging and submerging.

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Our resident great blue heron watches the weather unfold from a high bare branch.  Despite the bird’s great size, it weighs only five or six pounds. Why? Its bones are hollow.

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I watch the heron, and wonder. Male? Or female? Cornell, my favorite bird resource, tells me the female heron is smaller; otherwise, males and females look mostly similar.  Huh. Not much help, I’m afraid.

Olga, her temper tantrum spent, moves on and Sunday dawns to a scoured-blue sky. Jeff and I stroll the Belmont Prairie  to celebrate. The storm burnishes the Indian grass and big bluestem to bronze, copper, and golds; puffs of soaked seedheads soften the metallic stalks. The post-storm light so bright it almost hurts. It’s a treat after all that gloom and rain.

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Water-soaked rattlesnake master dries its seedheads in the sunshine.

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Its sharp-spined leaves are as striking as its seedheads, and makes it easy to spot in the tallgrass.

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Signs of recent restoration seed collection are everywhere. Clumps of Indian grass are lopped off. Some forbs show signs of positive pilfering. Belmont prairie volunteers have been busy! However, most thimbleweed seeds are still around, in all possible stages of seed production.

Tight and “green.”

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Q-tip topped.

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A few are full-blown. Ready for collection.

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All at once, or so it seems, the tall coreopsis leaves have turned the colors of a sunrise. A treat for the eyes.

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Tricks of the cold? Or of the shorter days? I’m not sure. I only know that autumn has come calling, and the prairie is transformed.

*****

Sunday’s sunshine gave way to fog on Monday. The Schulenberg Prairie is wreathed in mist.

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As I hike, the rising sun briefly lights the prairie.

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I watch it pull over the horizon, then sputter to a spark.

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It disappears behind the clouds. Poof! Gone.

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Even without much light, the prairie glows in the fog. Little bluestem and stiff goldenrod thread themselves into an impressionistic tapestry.

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The savanna offers its own colorful morning treats. Sumac. Boneset. Pale prairie plantain.

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Joe Pye weed and woodland sunflowers swirl seed-clouds under the changing leaves.

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Simple pleasures.

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Familiar seedheads, like these tall coreopsis, seem unfamiliar in the fog.

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Tricks of the light.

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The smell of sweet decay after the storm is oddly energizing. In less than a week, rain has soaked the prairie. Sun has baked it. Cold changed its colors. Now, the mist acts as a moisturizer. Fog dampens my skin. There’s a low hum of bird chatter low in the grasses; a nuthatch beeps its toy horn call from the savanna. My jeans are soaked.

I’m fully awake. Fully relaxed. Content.

The prairie at the end of October is a treat for the senses. It’s tough to see the month go.

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Goodbye, October.

We hardly knew ya.

*****

The quote that opens this post is from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. I reread this book every year, and learn something new each time I do so.

*****

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom):  leaves on the savanna trail, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Willoway Brook in flood, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; great blue heron (Ardea herodias), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Belmont Prairie at the end of October, Downer’s Grove, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccaolium), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccafolium), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; tall coreoposis (Coreopsis tripteris), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; Schulenberg Prairie in the morning fog, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  morning fog over bridge, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bridge to the sun, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunrise with tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; little bluestem (Schizochryum scoparium) and stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie Savanna at the end of October, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie Savanna at the end of October, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown sumac (Rhus spp.), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ritibida pinnata) with switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

*****

Join Cindy! Upcoming Speaking and Events

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology online wraps up this month! Watch for the next course in March. Registration opens on November 19 here.

Nature Writing continues at The Morton Arboretum, on-line and in-person through November 20. Next session begins March 3, 2020. Watch for registration soon!

Saturday, December 7, 1:30-3 p.m.: Join Cindy and The Morton Arboretum’s library collections manager Rita Hassert for Sterling Stories from the Arboretum Stacks, at the Sterling Morton Library, Lisle, IL.  Register here. A lovely afternoon enjoying little known Arboretum’s stories, and a quiet respite from the holiday hustle and bustle.

Sunday, December 8, 2-3:30 p.m.: Tallgrass Conversations at Prairieview Education Center, 2112 Behan Road, Crystal Lake, IL 815-479-5779 Book signing after the talk! Free and open to the public.

See more at www.cindycrosby.com   

October Prairie Adventures

“What day is it?” asked Pooh. “It’s today,” squeaked Piglet. “My favorite day,” said Pooh. ― A.A. Milne

*****

The trees blushed into their autumn hues seemingly overnight, delighting leaf-peepers in the Chicago region. Under an onslaught of 35 mph wind gusts and chilly rain on Monday, these same trees gleefully tore loose their red, gold, and copper leaves, sifting them into the streets and sidewalks.

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The rain drizzled to a stop. Sunlight shafted through big-bellied clouds moving fast across the sky.  Light glinted in the swirling leaves, littering the road. It feels like fall at last.

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Suddenly, the birds nests we hunted for all summer are starkly visible. There is the oriole’s nest-purse! Right over my head! And  —So that’s where the squirrel built her drey! Tree branches stand out in start relief, some with miniature worlds to discover.

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In the 1942 book, We Took to the Woods, Louise Dickinson Rich tells of living deep in the Maine forest. She writes that she doesn’t mind the long hike to town to get the mail, as she anticipates visiting with friends. And then — “There are the woods themselves, which I like better in winter than in summer, because I like the type of design that emphasizes line rather than mass,” she writes. “The bare branches of the hardwood trees look exactly like etchings.” In autumn, I feel the same as the trees strip down to silhouettes.

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Woolly bear caterpillars are everywhere, it seems, especially if you have the focus to find them. A good way to “see” them is to take a child with you. I hiked the Schulenberg Prairie this week with my six-year-old grandson Tony looking for the last dragonflies. Only a lone green darner was hanging around, but he found eight Woolly Bears in under an hour.

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Until this October, I didn’t know Woolly Bears climb plants! Tony and I found this one  below, that had “slinky-ed” its way up into a stiff goldenrod plant.

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Later last week, I took a lovely group of women out to collect little bluestem and stiff goldenrod seeds.

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They found at least two more Woolly Bears clinging to the tops of prairie plants, again, mostly stiff goldenrod. Maybe Wilhelm and Rericha’s massive reference work,  Flora of the Chicago Region, will need to add this “insect association” to its list!

Interesting. The Woolly Bear is folklore-famous for its ability to forecast the weather. Of course, its all in fun, but I always like to see if the prediction matches the actual weather that follows. All the Woolly Bears on the Schulenberg Prairie this season seem to have predominately rust-colored bodies, with a bit of black.

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According to Farmer’s Almanac, this means a mild winter. Further reading says the Woolly Bear’s direction of travel is also a factor; if they are moving south, it means a cold winter; north is a mild winter.

No word on what it means when they crawl upwards.

*****

Jeff and I hiked Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve this weekend, and while we didn’t find any Woolly Bears, we did find some other fauna. Jeff was looking for a map…..

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When he opened the box, there were none. But some enterprising prairie fauna had moved in.

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Sweet! A map mouse house. We carefully closed the lid and left the tiny critters to their naps. The prairie is always full of unexpected surprises.

This was our first time hiking Westchester, Illinois’ Wolf Road Prairie in the autumn, and it was a delight. Entering from the south, you find the celebrated old sidewalks left from the subdivision that was platted and partially laid out, then abandoned back in the late 1920s during the Great Depression.  The savanna breaks into the open prairie, with the city as a backdrop. So many remnants now have this juxtaposition; the urban and suburban with the last pieces of tallgrass untouched by the plow. It’s a celebration of the determined people who saved these precious patches from development.

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As you hike, you’re reminded of the relentless reclamation of nature, when She is given the chance. The sidewalks, now almost 100 years old, are breaking up under the slow pursuit of the grasses and in one spot, the more aggressive roots of a lone cottonwood.

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Everywhere you follow the sidewalks, you see the hard-won efforts of prairie restoration stewards in the diversity of native prairie plants spread out in all directions.

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We stripped some Indian grass of its seeds and took a moment to admire them before scattering them into the prairie.

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The prairie dock leaves showed the transition between the seasons.

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The rusts of little bluestem colored the tallgrass; the late morning sun backlit the seedheads, throwing sparks of light.

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Overhead, a half-moon shadowed us as we hiked back through the savanna to our car.

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The prairie moves from wildflowers to wisps and puffs and kernels of seeds.

Trees transform themselves from welcome shady refuges with blurred edges to stripped down, sharp-cut “etchings.”

I’m embracing the change.

****

Playwright and novelist A.A. Milne (1882-1956), whose quote opens this post, was a British author who penned the wildly popular Winnie the Pooh children’s books. He and his wife, Dorothy, had a son named Christopher Robin, who resented the Pooh books. The rift ended in his estrangement from his parents. The real-life Milnes are chronicled in the 2017 movie, Goodbye Christopher Robin.  Disney eventually acquired all rights for the Winnie the Pooh books and characters for $350 million in 2001. In 2005, Winnie the Pooh generated $6 billion dollars for Disney.

*****

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Unknown tree along the East Side route at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; road through the trees, East Side Route, Lisle, IL; mosses and fungi on an oak branch, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bison (Bison bison) at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (photo taken in 2017); chasing dragonflies, Schulenberg Prairie Visitor Station, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; woolly bear caterpillar (Pyrrharctia isabella) on stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; seed collecting on the Schulenberg Prairie in October, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; woolly bear caterpillar (Pyrrharctia isabella), Schulenberg Prairie path, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; map box, Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL; mouse family (maybe Peromyscus leucopus), Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL; skyline behind the Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL; sidewalk and eastern cottonwood tree (Populus deltoides), Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL; blazing star (Liatris spp,), Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) seeds, Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL; Jeff walks the sidewalks of the Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL; half-moon over the savanna at Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL.

*****

Thanks to Robert Helfer for connecting me to the weather.gov article on Woolly Bears! I really enjoyed it.

Thanks to the Save the Prairie Society, who has worked so hard to care for the precious Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve community. What an accomplishment!

******

Cindy’s upcoming classes and speaking events:

Saturday, December 7, 1:30-3 p.m.: Join Cindy and The Morton Arboretum’s library collections manager Rita Hassert for Sterling Stories from the Arboretum Stacks, at the Sterling Morton Library, Lisle, IL.  Register here. A lovely afternoon enjoying little known Arboretum’s stories, and a quiet respite from the holiday hustle and bustle.

Sunday, December 8, 2-3:30 p.m.: Tallgrass Conversations at Prairieview Education Center, 2112 Behan Road, Crystal Lake, IL 815-479-5779 Book signing after the talk! Free and open to the public.

October Prairie Wonders

“The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes.” — Sherlock Holmes

*****

A whisper of frost is in the air, with the hard slam of a freeze not far behind.

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Cold weather’s scythe hangs over the prairie. In response, the tallgrass flings itself into October, showcasing all the delights that autumn has to offer. So much to explore. So much to discover.

Let’s go look.

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The tallgrass hums along, closing up shop, its seed production mostly complete.

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Smooth Solomon’s seal leaves cling to their bright green draining away. Their fruits show the turn of the season.

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Lichens colonize the metal bridge which leads to the prairie, splotching it with color.

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Nodding ladies’ tresses orchids,  latecomers to the seed production party, throw out their final blooms. Their mild fragrance has vanished into the cold.

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Big bluestem and Indian grass stitch the prairie with slender threads of subtle color.

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Pale prairie plantain trims the landscape with seed lace and leaf rickrack.

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Lashes of goldenrod’s foamy seeds decorate the edges.

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Late figwort throws its seed pearls into the mix.

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Little bluestem launches its colorfest; you can find swatches of it patching the prairie in a rust-hued blur.

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Pincushions of pasture thistle send silky seed-notes into the air.

 

 

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Joy in the aggregate; beauty in the singular.

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Dragonfly season is mostly shot. That said, six green darners hover overhead, delayed, perhaps, in joining the migration masses. A lone American rubyspot damselfly clings to reed canary grass over Willoway Brook. Despite the name, this particular insect is mostly colorless on a gray, windy, October day.

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The sounds of the season have gradually changed from summer to autumn in the Chicago region.

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Walking Fermilab’s interpretive trail in high winds this weekend, I hear the scraping of prairie dock leaves, still morphing between juiced and brittle. The hiss of big bluestem and Indian grass; rusting leaves and switchgrass stems rubbing together. The sound is rain patter on a roof, or hot oil in sizzling in a skillet. What do you think?

This prairie dock leaf’s venation stands out like a topo map; all mountains and rivers and ridges.

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Nearby, the rosette galls are October’s last bouquet; beauty in the face of rampant decay.

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Even the Queen Anne’s lace takes on a new persona in October. I hesitate to say it’s “beautiful” as we prairie stewards and volunteers work so hard to eradicate Queen Anne’s lace from our natural areas. And yet…

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Among the lone trees that sprinkle the tallgrass, I hear unaccustomed chirps — the sounds of warblers moving south and sheltering here for a few hours. “Those confusing fall warblers” — an understatement, if ever there was one. Today, a few invasive starlings show up with the warbler crowd. These—at least—are easy to ID.

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Although I’m not much good at identifying fall birds, I can identify a pair of sandhill cranes wading through a nearby wetland at Fermilab. Hard to miss.

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Regal and comical at the same time. Seemingly impervious to the cold winds.

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There’s so much to see in October on the prairie. So much grace and color. So many simple wonders.

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So much to love.

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It’s waiting for you.

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*****

Sherlock Holmes, whose quote kicks off this post, was a fictional detective penned by British physician turned writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930). “Holmes” first appeared in print in the late 1880’s. Doyle also wrote poetry, science fiction, fantasy, plays, and romance.  Oddly enough, he also dabbled in architecture and designed a golf course and redesigned a hotel. Doyle, who had five children, died at 71; his last words were to his wife: “You are wonderful.” Now that’s sweet.

*****

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby except photo of children on bridge (courtesy Jennifer Buono): (top to bottom): stormy October skies over the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  exploring the prairie, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (Jennifer Buono, photographer);  Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; smooth Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum commutatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown lichens on the bridge over Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; nodding ladies’ tresses orchids (Spiranthes cernua), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: pale Indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; probably Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) and pale Indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasture thistles (Cirsium discolor), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; American rubyspot damselfly (Hetaerina americana), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Prairie Interpretive Trail in October, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; video of wind on the  Prairie Interpretive Trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Prairie Interpretive Trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; goldenrod gall rosette, Prairie Interpretive Trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), Prairie Interpretive Trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; European starling (Sturnus vulgaris), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis),  Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; sandhill crane (Antigone canadensis), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; woodland sunflower (Helianthus spp.), Interpretive Prairie Trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; possibly American hog-peanut vine (Amphicarpaea bracteata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bench on the Schulenberg Prairie in October, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

*****

Cindy’s nature writing class (online and in-person) begins Wednesday, October 16! Tomorrow is the last day to register —check it out here.

See more of Cindy’s speaking events and classes at www.cindycrosby.com

6 Reasons to Hike the October Prairie

“October is a fine and dangerous season in America . . . a wonderful time to begin anything at all.”  –Thomas Merton

*****

I hear them before I see them. Shielding my eyes against the afternoon sunshine, I scan the skies. Three sandhill cranes. A small wave headed south. Their chatter echoes long after they are folded into the deep blue sky and disappear.

More follow. They come and go throughout the afternoon.

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It’s bittersweet. Sandhill cranes moving south are a signal of change. Summer is gone,  and autumn, it seems, already passes too quickly. Seeing the first waves of cranes reminds me to open my eyes. Pay attention. To intentionally not miss a moment of the month. October is a time for walking the prairies and savannas slowly. For looking carefully. For soaking up whatever sunshine we can before cold weather hits.

Soon, October will be a dim but cherished memory.

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The woodlands are a magnet for paparazzi in October; visitors shooting photos of  the sugar maples aglow. Hickories and sweet gums change their green leaves to bright colors. But the prairie has its own autumnal palette.

Turn away from the woodlands for a moment, and consider six reasons to hike the tallgrass in October.

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1. Goodbye, Butterflies

In my backyard prairie patch and garden, the painted lady butterflies flutter wildly—drunk on nectar—-but not prepared to stop gorging themselves. Only frost will cut them off. Butterflies pile up, two to a bloom, jostling for the best positions, battling skippers and bees. The occasional monarch still floats across the prairie, but not in the numbers seen in September.

If you’re lucky, you’ll find some New England asters still in bloom as I did, with a few butterflies working the flowers. This cabbage white butterfly is a common one I see all summer on the prairie—and late into the fall. I love its pale, gold-dusted contrast with the  purple fringes of the aster.

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2. That Prairie Fragrance!

Breathe deep the newly-crisped air with its fragrance of cool damp earth and sweet decay.  Bee balm, Monarda fistulosa, still gives up its delicious fragrance when its leaves are broken. So does mountain mint. When I taste the leaves of both, the oils are a bit bitter and harsh in my mouth.  I content myself with rubbing the leaves between my fingers. Gray-headed coneflower seed heads, crushed in my hands, are my favorite fragrance of all. After a hike on the prairie, rubbing leaves, I’m scented with “the outdoors” for the rest of the day. Nature’s own prairie perfume.

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3. Seed Diversity

Walk the prairie and the prairie savanna this month and you’ll be astounded by the variety of seeds.

Pale Indian plantain, with its fluffy pinwheels.

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Tall compass plants, with their unique seedheads, bring the Statue of Liberty to mind, don’t you think?

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False Solomon’s seal brightens the prairie edges.

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Carrion vine’s mostly-inedible fruits will hang half-hidden in the Indian grass and big bluestem until almost spring.

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This week, I searched until I found the  quirky seeds of white turtlehead, almost invisible in the prairie now unless you know where to look. We don’t have very many turtleheads, so the seeds give me hope for more of this wildflower in the future.

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4. Structure 

Without the ka-POW of bright bloom colors blanketing the prairie, structure takes center stage.

Bottlebrush grass, with its skeletal spikes.

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You can see it it shares a Genus with Canada wild rye. They are both graceful and needle-like.

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5. Textures

Feel the rubbery leaves of pale Indian plantain.

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Then contrast them with the sandpapery surface of a compass plant leaf.

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6. Fall Color

The sumacs, woven into the prairie grasses, are touched with reds and chartreuse.

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Little bluestem sparks its seeds as its stems color up from greens to reds to rusts. The tallgrass prairie in October is just as startling and gorgeous in its own way as the colorful woodlands. Maybe better.

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Why not go see?

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Who knows who you’ll meet on your hike.

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It’s worth a trip to the tallgrass to find out.

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Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was best known for his spiritual memoir, The Seven Story Mountain (1948), the title of which refers to Purgatory in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Merton was an English literature teacher turned Trappist monk, who joined Kentucky’s Gethsemane Abbey. There, he wrote more than 50 books and promoted interfaith understanding. My favorite of Merton’s books is The Sign of Jonas.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken this week at the Schulenberg Prairie and Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, unless noted otherwise: Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) over author’s backyard prairie patch (this photo taken in 2016), Glen Ellyn, IL;  October in the savanna; prairie path; Small white butterfly or “cabbage white” (Pieris rapae) on New England aster  (Symphyotrichum novae-anglia), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL;  gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) with spider web; pale Indian plantain seedhead (Arnoglossum atriplicfolium); compass plant seedhead (Silphium terebinthinaceum); false Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosum); probably upright carrion vine (Smilax ecirrhata); white turtlehead (Chelone glabra) in seed; bottle brush grass (Elymus hystrix); Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis); pale Indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium); compass plant (Silphium terebinthinaceum); sumac (Rhus spp.); little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium); bridge in the October tallgrass; great blue heron (Ardea herodias).

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Join Cindy for a Nature Writing Workshop, online and in-person, through The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL. Click here for registration information. Or see http://www.cindycrosby.com for more classes and events.

Cindy’s forthcoming book is Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History with Northwestern University Press, illustrated by the talented Peggy Macnamara, artist-in-residence at The Field Museum, Chicago. Look for it in Spring, 2020.

The Rambunctious September Prairie

“Shall I not rejoice also at the abundance of weeds whose seeds are the granary of the birds?” — Henry David Thoreau

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September is in full swing. From my ring-side seat on the back porch overlooking the prairie, garden and pond,  the backyard is a jungle. I’ve been forbidden to pull weeds for the past four weeks (doctor’s orders), and I have another four weeks to go. The rambunctious garden is beautiful in its own way, I tell myself. Yup. Sure it is.

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The invasive sweet autumn clematis vines riot across the perennials—a remnant from a bad gardening decision I made years ago before I veered toward native plants. I’ve pulled out the vines each year and kept them in check. Until now. This season, the clematis has taken full advantage of their temporary reprieve.

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Hopefully, I’ll be green-lighted to weed in time to pull the clematis before it goes to seed. Until then, I breath in its wonderful fragrance and try not worry about the zillions of potential offspring it promises next season. Instead, I distract myself with the morning glories, which have gone rogue in purples and whites and blues. And are those asparagus fronds? Yes–presumably seed-dropped by the birds utilizing the feeder and looking quite healthy.

The overall effect is more impressionist than orderly; more Monet than Modrian.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” There’s a lot of undiscovered virtue here.

My tallgrass prairie, which borders the back edge of our suburban lot, soldiers on without needing much attention from me. Or so it seems at first glance. Joe Pye blooms, soaring over my head to eight feet tall, make the turn from flowers to seeds. Later this fall, the prairie patch will be covered with the feathery seed puffs of grasses, asters, and goldenrods.

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Cardinal flowers linger on, scarlet exclamation marks in the recesses of my backyard prairie grasses. Some flowers have gone to seed, but others flourish in this cooler weather. My fingers itch to pull the weeds which have crept in around the red blooms; give them some elbow room, open up space for the cardinal flower’s future progeny.  I resist the urge. Instead, I brush the petals with my fingertips. Good luck.

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Goldenrod limns the back edges of the yard with splashes and arches of mustard yellow, a nice foil to the prairie cordgrass and Culver’s root going to seed. The blazes of goldenrod are a filling station for monarchs migrating south.

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As I look more closely at my prairie patch, I see inroads from a host of weeds. Tiny maple tree sprouts lurk in the shade of the grasses, ready to make a break skyward. Queen Anne’s lace has woven its way into the edges, unnoticed until now. And what’s that? A tree is growing in here! Camouflaged in the cup plants. Goldfinches work the cup plants for seeds….cupplantCODprairie9719WM.jpg

…then get a drink from rainwater deep in the “cup” formed by the joined leaves.

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We have a saying in my prairie work group: “Friends don’t give friends cup plants.” A great prairie native, but in the home garden, cup plants often become thugs and bullies. I count the number of cup plants which have multiplied this summer and sigh.  A few months from now, I’ll be digging some out—and perhaps foisting them on another unwary gardener friend. Or putting a few in the compost pile. A native prairie plant—sure! But also potentially invasive in my home garden and prairie.

I’ll deal with it all at the end of October, I promise myself. Until then, I’ll try to relax and enjoy the show.

A newcomer to the prairie patch this season is devil’s beggarticks. What an unprepossessing name!  This weedy native must have ridden in with some of the new prairie plugs I planted this spring. Hmmm. I wonder how much it will spread? I guess I’ll find out.

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It’s not the only newcomer. Garlic chives appear throughout the garden; insidious, silent—and pretty. It turns out they are a magnet for pollinators. Who knew? Each bloom is busier than a runway at Chicago O’Hare International Airport.  The smaller bees and flies work the flowers overtime. Peck’s skippers (shown below) and fiery skippers, whose population has exploded this September, seem to love it.

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The name “skipper” is perfect for them. A perky word for a jaunty butterfly,. It fits these small fall fliers.  Their cousins, the silver-spotted skippers, love to nectar on my heirloom zinnias—welcome non-native flowers from Mexico—which are excellent for attracting pollinators and always have a place in my backyard.

I’ve never noticed skippers much before, but now I see them everywhere: along the sidewalks of the neighborhood when I take my short walk each day, or in the garden and prairie patch.  Is it a just a good year for them? Are some of the “weeds” I’ve let grow attracting them? Or am I just paying more attention to my own backyard?

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Some of our native prairie plants are a little rambunctious—perhaps a bit too rambunctious. I’m reminded of this when I go for a short hike five minutes from my house at College of DuPage’s beautiful Russell R. Kirt Prairie. Jeff drives me there for my sanctioned 10-minute walk one day this week on their wide, mowed paths.

It’s so good to be on the prairie again. I soak up everything I can. Even when it is right on the edge of the path, brushing my sleeves, the Illinois bundleflower’s diminutive flowers are easy to overlook.

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You can see from its leaves how it gets the nickname “Illinois mimosa” or “sensitive plant.” Looks like a mimosa, doesn’t it? (The plant, not the beverage!) This legume’s unusual seed pods are show-stoppers.

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The self-pollinating plants reproduce by seeds. On the Schulenberg Prairie, where I’m a steward, it is quickly taking over whole areas.  It supposedly has a poor tolerance for fire, and the Schulenberg Prairie is burned yearly. An enigma! Why is it doing so well? We don’t know. My prairie team picked the seeds defensively for a few years to keep it from spreading, but for this season, we’re letting the plants do their own thing. Two members of the team are tracking their movements to see what will happen. Will an animal, insect, or plant disease arrive to keep the bundleflowers in check? Or will we have a big showdown with a “bundleflower monoculture” in a year or two? We’ll find out. And make corrective decisions as we go.

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Illinois bundleflower is not supposed to be a “rambunctious” native plant. Go figure. Sometimes, plants have their own ideas about how they want to behave.

The September prairie palette at College of DuPage is whites and golds; rusts and tans. Indian grass is in full flower; each seed head drips with yellow petals.

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There’s a bit of chartreuse and burgundy in the prairie dock leaves turning from emerald to the color of crisp chocolate.

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Off trail, there’s a hint of pink in the gaura, a funky tall wildflower and prairie native.

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Illinois tick trefoil is bloomed out, but its Velcro-like seed pods, called “loments,” find their way onto my shirt, my pants, and my socks.  Tiny hooked hairs help the seeds hitchhike across the prairie—and into my laundry room.

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Most of the summer wildflowers are done for the season. Prairie cinquefoil seeds are ready for collection, like small brown bouquets.

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Big bluestem and Indian grass dominate, mixing in glorious disarray.

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September has arrived, with all its unruly, rough-and-tumble, rambunctious charm.

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Whether its the riot in the backyard garden and prairie “jungle”, or the fall free-for-all on the bigger local prairies, I’m glad to have a front row seat. I can’t wait to see what will happen next this month. You too?

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Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) is best known for his book, Walden and his essay, Civil Disobedience, which argues a government should not make its citizens commit acts of injustice. Thoreau’s contemporary, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), is also quoted in this post.

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All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): wild lettuce (Lactuca canadensis), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; invasive sweet autumn clematis (Clematis terniflora), author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; rambunctious garden, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium fistulosum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; monarch (Danaus plexippus) nectaring on stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; devil’s beggarticks (Bidens frondosa), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; corrected to Peck’s skipper (Polites peckius) on garlic chives (Allium tuberosum), author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; video of silver spotted skipper butterfly (Epargyreus clarus) nectaring on cut-and-come-again heirloom zinnias (Zinnia elegans), author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL: Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL: biennial guara (Guara biennis), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; Illinois tick trefoil (Desmodium illinoense), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie cinquefoil (Drymocallis arguta), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) with spiderweb, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

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Join Cindy online for Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online beginning September 17.  It’s a work at your own pace class, available through the Morton Arboretum. Registration is here.

Cindy’s other speaking events and classes will resume October 5. Check them out at www.cindycrosby.com.