“Young prairie plants put down deep roots first; only when these have been established do the plants invest much energy in growth above ground. They teach us that the work that matters doesn’t always show.” -Paul Gruchow
The cold, gray days of November are here. Beautiful? Yes, in their own way. They offer time for reflection on a year mostly past.
The sky becomes a slate backdrop to plants which spike and angle and curve. Like silhouette cut-outs.
Grace notes. Some more interesting now in seed and shape than they were in bloom.
It’s easy for me to overlook what’s good about November. Easier to long for sunshine and warmth; for the fireworks of July wildflowers—purple leadplant spikes and bright orange butterflyweed and lemon-yellow coreopsis. The fresh emerald spikes of grasses pushing through the dark prairie soil in spring. Or even the golds and violets of the autumn prairie.
Seems like we missed part of that season with our early snows.
As I walk, I think of John Updike’s poem, November:
The stripped and shapely
The loss of her
The ground is hard,
As hard as stone
The year is old
The birds are flown…..
Much of what I see on the prairie is a matter of focus. In November, I have to remind myself that beauty is here. That the work of restoration is moving forward. It’s a more difficult season than spring when everything is full of promise and possibility. The “prettiness” and promise of the prairie is more obvious in the warmer months. November’s calibration of what constitutes headway, success on a prairie, is different.
Gray. Beige. Black. Brown. The prairie smells of wet earth. Snowmelt. Decay. You’d think this would be distressing, but it’s strangely pleasant. Invigorating. It’s the fragrance of a work in progress. The cycling of nutrients. The prairie finishes its work of the growing season, then lays the groundwork for the future.
Sometimes, I look at the November prairie and all I see is the unfinished work of a prairie steward. The native brambles taking over, arcing their spiny branches across the prairie and shading out wildflowers.
It’s discouraging. Impatience surges. Are we really making a difference here? Or are we like Sisyphus, rolling a boulder uphill, only to have it roll back.
Then, I remember. There was a time when I didn’t think about these “brambles” because the invasive buckthorn, honeysuckle, and sweet white and yellow clovers were consuming all my stewardship hours. It’s a luxury now to have most of these problem plants licked (Hubris, don’t strike me down!) and room to think about how to tackle new management issues.
Despite my self-reassurance, as I hike I see other potential issues. Are the native grasses dominating the wildflowers? Is the false sunflower spreading too aggressively in the corner by the bridge?
I tuck my cold fingers into my pockets and stand on the bridge over Willoway Brook. Reed canary grass chokes the shoreline. A never-ending problem. Then I look closer. I’m missing the lovely configurations of ice and stream; leaf and stone.
Just across the bridge is a new “menace.” The past several years I’ve moaned about Illinois bundleflower making inroads into the prairie; it has become a monoculture in spots. Is it a desirable plant? Sure. It belongs on the prairie. But how much is too much? Decisions about how to manage it causes me some frustrating hours. But today, I take a few moments to admire it. Wow. Look at those seed pods.
There are plants that “don’t belong” on a prairie restoration, and other plants that do, yet get a bit rambunctious. It’s so easy to focus on what’s wrong. Sometimes its tougher to remember what we’ve done well. To focus on the beauty, instead of the chaos.
Nearby are ruined choirs of cup plants; taller than I am, growth-fueled by rain. Cup plants are the bane of my backyard prairie patch—aggressive thugs that elbow my Culver’s root and spiderwort out of the way.
But here, on the 100-acre prairie, they are welcome. When I think about it, I realize I’ve not seen them in this area before. They are part of the first waves of prairie plants making inroads in an old field we’re restoring by the Prairie Visitor Center. A sign of success. A sign of progress.
Among the rusts and tans, there are bright bits of color. Carrion flower, now gone to inedible seeds.
The last flag-leaves of sumac.
Sumac is also an issue in parts of this prairie. But for now, I relax and enjoy the color.
Nuthatches call from the savanna. The breeze rustles the grasses. Looking over the prairie, focusing on its draining colors and dwindling seedheads…
… I remember what Paul Gruchow wrote about the tallgrass prairie: “…The work that matters doesn’t always show.”
The day suddenly feels brighter.
Paul Gruchow (1947-2004) was a Minnesota writer who wrote such beautiful books as Travels in Canoe Country; The Boundary Waters: Grace of the Wild; Journal of a Prairie Year; The Necessity of Empty Places; and Grass Roots: The Universe of Home from which this opening quote was taken. There’s nothing like the power of a good book—especially those passages that stick in your mind and are available when you need them the most.
John Updike’s lovely poem “November” is found in A Child’s Calendar, first published in 1965. If you’re unfamiliar with his poetry, check out Facing Nature: Poems, Collected Poems: 1953–1993, and Americana and Other Poems (2001).
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken on the Schulenberg Prairie and Savanna at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, unless noted: Willoway Brook in November; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); maple leaf (Acer saccharum) by the Prairie Visitor Station; silky wild rye (Elymus villosus) and log; prairie under snow in November; common blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis); prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides); Willoway Brook; Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) and unknown asters; cup plants Silphium perfoliatum); carrion vine (probably Smilax ecirrhata); staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina); false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides).
Please join Cindy for one of these upcoming classes or talks:
Saturday, December 7, 1:30-3 p.m.—Sterling Stories from the Arboretum Stacks: Grab a friend and spend a lively hour together sipping hot beverages while you enjoy little-known stories about the Morton Arboretum. What’s that old fountain doing in the library? Why was there a white pine planted in the May Watts Reading Garden? Who is REALLY buried in the Morton Cemetery—or not? What book in the Sterling Morton Library stacks has a direct relationship to a beheading? Why does the library have glass shelves? How has salt been a blessing —and a curse—to the Arboretum over its almost 100 years? Listen as 33-year Arboretum veteran library collections manager Rita Hassert and Cindy Crosby spin entertaining tales of a place you thought you knew….until now. A lovely afternoon enjoying little known Arboretum’s stories, and a quiet respite from the holiday hustle and bustle. Register here.
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.
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!
Find more at www.cindycrosby.com