Tag Archives: Midwest

A Tallgrass Prairie Morning

“Thinking is generally thought of as doing nothing in a production-oriented culture, and doing nothing is hard to do. It’s best done by disguising it as doing something, and the something closest to doing nothing is walking.”–Rebecca Solnit

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High winds. Soaring temperatures. Sunshine and storms in the forecast. Let’s go for a hike and see what’s happening on the tallgrass prairie at the end of April.

Nachusa Grasslands at the end of April, Franklin Grove, IL.

Small clumps of sand phlox spangle the green.

Sand phlox (Phlox bifida), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

The pasque flowers, transplanted from the greenhouse only a few weeks ago, made it through the mid-April freeze. One plant puts out a tentative bloom.

Pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Look at all that growth, after the prescribed fire! The newly-minted wildflower leaves are up, as are the tiny spears of prairie grasses.

New growth on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Listen! Can you hear that buzzy rattle? Insects are out and about, dusted with pollen. I wonder what flowers they raided for all that gold plunder?

Unknown bee covered with pollen, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

A miner’s bee hangs out on Indian plantain leaves.

Possibly an Andrena bee, or miner’s bee, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Shooting star, deep pink at the base, prepares to launch its orgy of flowers. The prairies are full of these charmers, which mostly go unnoticed until they bloom. Soon! Soon.

Shooting Star (Dodecatheon meadia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Violets are everywhere in various color combinations: blue, purple, yellow, and white with purple centers.

Many homeowners and visitors to the prairie dismiss this humble but weedy plant, but I’m in awe of its delights—from giving us the makings of perfume, the joy of a candied flower on a cake, the treatment for a headache, or the edible, nutritious leaves, high in vitamin C. The violet can explosively shoot its seeds away from the mother plant, dispersing the seeds in a new location. It also relies on ants to move its seeds around (a process known as myrmecochory).

If you look closely—and with a bit of luck—you might find the native prairie violet (Viola pedatifida), a highly-prized member of the prairie community.

Prairie violet (Viola pedatifida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Look at that fan of distinctive leaves. So unusual.

Prairie violet (Viola pedatifida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

In late April, the wood betony leaves provide more color than some of the plant blooms.

Wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The trout lilies—with their trout-like speckled leaves–invite pollinators to check them out. What a banner year this prairie and woodland wildflower is having! I think the trout lilies look like sea stars—or perhaps, each one a parachuter about to land. What do you think?

A trout lily (Erythronium albidum) with an insect visitor, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, LIsle, IL.

A clump of wild coffee leaves (sometimes called “late horse gentian”) reminds me I’ve not yet had my cup of java this morning.

Wild coffee or horse gentian (Triosteum perfoliatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Time to head home and pour a mug.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, at the end of April.

A whole prairie season lies ahead. I’ll be back.

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The opening quote is from Rebecca Solnit (1961-), who has written more than 20 books on topics ranging from writing and wandering, the environment, western history, to feminism. If you haven’t read Solnit, try Wanderlust: A History of Walking (2001).

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Join Cindy for a program or class this spring!

A Brief History of Trees in America: Online, Wednesday, April 28, 7-8 pm CST Sponsored by Friends of the Green Bay Trail and the Glencoe Public Library. From oaks to sugar maples to the American chestnut: trees changed the course of American history. Discover the roles of a few of our favorite trees in building our nation as you remember and celebrate the trees influential in your personal history and your garden. Register here.

Spring Wildflowers of Prairies and Woodlands Online: Thursday, May 6, 6:30-8 p.m. Join Cindy for a virtual hike through the wildflowers of late spring! Hear how wildflowers inspire literature and folklore. Discover how people throughout history have used wildflowers as medicine, groceries, and love charms. Register here.

Plant A Backyard Prairie: Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm CST –Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Register here.

Three Reasons to Hike the April Prairie

“Little things make big things happen.”–John Wooden

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In the woodlands, the hepatica are opening. Have you seen them?

Sharp-lobed hepatica (Hepatica nobilis acuta), East Woods, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Toothwort, spring beauties, and prairie trillium keep them company. In the prairie wetlands, marsh marigolds ring in the spring.

Marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris), Cindy’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, IL (2017).

Is there a more exciting time in the Midwest than the first week of April? It’s too early for most prairie wildflowers in my northeast corner of Illinois. Give them a few more weeks, especially if the prairie was recently burned. But the prairie has other goodies to offer. Here are three reasons to go for a hike on the prairie this week.

1. In early April, some of the mostly unseen life of the prairie is made visible.

Meadow voles and prairie voles are cartographers, whose debossed maps across the tallgrass are mostly invisible the rest of the year under blankets of blooms and grasses. So much activity!

Meadow vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus) and prairie vole (Microtus ochrogaster) tunnels across the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Anthills, those towering structures that go unnoticed and unremarked (unless you stumble across one on a workday), are standouts this week. I’m reminded of how little I know about these important insects, and their role on the prairie. There is always so much more to learn.

Ant structure, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Hole, holes, everywhere. Hiking cross-country across the prairie, the cinders from the prairie burn crunch crunch crunch under my feet, I barely grasp the sheer numbers of holes I see. Who are the occupants? Likely a wide assortment of mammals, reptiles, and insects. I wonder at this hole—is it a crayfish home? Illinois has 23 species of crayfish; I know very little about them. But I’d like to know more.

Possible crayfish hole (species uncertain), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Many of the holes and burrows are strewn with detritus or slung about with spiderwebs.

Burrow for unknown mammal with evidence of its snacks, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Early April is full of reminders that the prairie always has more to discover. It’s a never-ending story for those who are curious. The life of the prairie underground is a vital part of understanding what makes a tallgrass prairie healthy and vibrant. And yet. So much of my attention is focused on the life above the surface. I need to go deeper.

2. The first identifiable prairie plants are up.

And what a joy it is to see those spears of spiked lime green and shout: “Rattlesnake master!”

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The porcupine grass shoots of prairie dropseed, slightly singed by the prairie burn, are enough to make anyone smile.

Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Walking the trails, I see small rounded leaves and whisper: Shooting star! My mind races ahead to the pink blooms to come.

Shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

April is only beginning to rev up her plant engine. Temperatures in the seventies and warm rains this week will invite more growth. These first small plants are a foreshadowing of the future.

3. Prairie ponds are open; prairie streams now run ice-free and clear.

Any day, common green darner dragonflies will return from the south or emerge from the prairie waterways. The first ones have already been sighted in the Chicago Region.

Common green darner (Anax junius), Nachusa Grassland, Franklin Grove, IL. (2020)

Along the shoreline of Willoway Brook, I spy mussel shells, likely discarded by raccoons. The ones I find on my hike today are each as big as my hand. I’m reminded that in the early to mid 1900s, Illinois had a thriving pearl button industry, fueled by freshwater mussels. Today, mussel-shell buttons are replaced by plastic.

Freshwater mussel shells (unknown species), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The mussel shells are nestled in green shoots. As a prairie steward, I’m aware of the verdant growth of invasive reed canary grass along the shoreline, already in process. I get the message. There is a lot of stewardship work to be done in the coming months.

The Schulenberg Prairie in early April.

Even in these early weeks of spring, I’m stunned by the prairie’s diversity. It’s a different awareness than in summer, when insects, blooms, and birds are center stage. Ants, crayfish, small mammals…the prairie burn aftermath briefly illuminates them for leisurely study. Soon, I’ll be distracted by the flying critters and colorful flowers of late spring and summer. Early April reminds me that there is so much more to the prairie than what can be seen in a single season.

By Willoway Brook, I stop for a moment and study the reflection of the trees beginning to leaf out in the savanna. The surface wobbles—now clear, then rippled—by the strong breezes which have swirled dust plumes across the ashes of the prairie this week.

Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

I reflect on the past year.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL (2018)

Then I think of the tallgrass season ahead. The life of the prairie unfolding.

So much to anticipate.

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After the NCAA basketball tournament final last night, it seems appropriate to kick off this blog with a quote from Coach John Wooden (1910-2010). The beloved “Wizard of Westwood” won ten—count ’em—ten NCAA basketball championships in a dozen years (and seven in a row). His teams also won a consecutive record 88 games–wow! Read more about John Wooden here.

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Join Cindy for an online class! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for a full list of upcoming talks and programs.

THIS WEEK! Virtual Wildflowers Walk Online: Section A: Friday, April 9, 11:30 am to 1:00 pm CST Woodland Wildflowers, Section B: Thursday, May 6, 6:30 to 8:00 pm CST Woodland and Prairie Wildflowers. Wander through the ever-changing array of blooms in our woodlands and prairies in this virtual walk. Learn how to identify spring wildflowers, and hear about their folklore. In April, the woodlands begin to blossom with ephemerals, and weeks later, the prairie joins in the fun! Each session will cover what’s blooming in our local woodlands and prairies as the spring unfolds. Enjoy this fleeting spring pleasure, with new flowers revealing themselves each week. Register here.

A Brief History of Trees in America: Online, Wednesday, April 28, 7-8 pm CST Sponsored by Friends of the Green Bay Trail and the Glencoe Public Library. From oaks to sugar maples to the American chestnut: trees changed the course of American history. Discover the roles of a few of our favorite trees in building our nation as you remember and celebrate the trees influential in your personal history and your garden. Registration here.

Plant A Backyard Prairie: Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm CST –Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Register here.

March on the Tallgrass Prairie

March winds and April showers, bring forth May flowers.Nursery rhyme inspired by Geoffrey Chaucer

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Tempestuous March opened meteorological spring yesterday with a whisper, rather than a shout. In like a lamb…

Twilight blues of the vanished prairies over DeKalb County, IL.

Does that mean March will go “out like a lion”?

Sunset over DeKalb’s vanished prairies.

Those of us in the tallgrass prairie region know that with March, anything is possible.

Willful, changeable, whimsical March.

Stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

March is thaw season. Mud season. Melt season. Even as the ice vanishes by inches in prairie ponds and streams…

Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…we know the white stuff hasn’t surrendered. Not really.

Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

March is the opening dance between freeze and thaw.

Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, IL.

Snow and rain. Fire and ice.

The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

It’s a teasing time, when one day the snow sparkles with sunlight, spotlighting the desiccated wildflowers…

Unknown aster, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…the next, howling winds shatter the wildflowers’ brittle remains.

Pale Indian Plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

March is shadow season. Light and dark. Sun and clouds.

Gray-headed Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

It’s been so long. So long since last spring. So many full moons have come and gone.

Full Snow Moon, West Chicago, IL.

We remember last March, a month of unexpected fear. Shock. Grief. Anxiety for what we thought were the weeks ahead…

Pale Purple Coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…which turned into—little did we know—months. A year. Hope has been a long time coming.

Unknown asters, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

But now, sunshine lights the still snow-covered prairie.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Deep in the prairie soil, roots stretch and yawn.

Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Seeds crack open.

Round-headed Bush Clover (Lespedeza capitata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

A new season is on the way.

Canada Geese (Branta canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

In March, anything seems possible.

Trail through the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Hope seems possible.

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The nursery rhyme “March winds and April showers, bring forth May flowers” is likely adapted from the prologue to Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. There, it reads a bit inscrutably for modern readers: “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote, The droghte of March hath perced to the roote… . ” Chaucer, who was born sometime between 1340-45, is called “the first English author” by the Poetry Foundation. Troubled by finances, he left The Canterbury Tales mostly unfinished when he died in 1400, possibly because “the enormousness of the task overwhelmed him.” Chaucer is buried in Westminster Abbey; the space around his tomb is dubbed the “Poet’s Corner.”

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Join Cindy online for a class or program this spring from anywhere in the world. Visit http://www.cindycrosby.com for more.

Sunday, March 7, 4-5:30pm CST: Katy Prairie Wildflowers, offered through Katy Prairie Conservancy, Houston, Texas. Discover a few of the unusual prairie wildflowers of this southern coastal tallgrass prairie. Register here

Thursday, March 11, 10am-noon CST: Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History is a book discussion, offered by Leafing through the Pages Book Club at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (Morton Arboretum members only) Registration information here.

Friday, April 9, 11:30a.m-1pm CST: Virtual Spring Wildflower Walk —discover the early blooming woodland and prairie plants of the Midwest region and hear their stories. Through the Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Register here.

Reading the Tallgrass Prairie

“It’s a story that continues to be written, on the page and in the earth.” — John T. Price

The polar vortex has clamped its icy claws on the Midwest.

Monarch Way Station, Cindy’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I find myself humming Christina Rossetti’s gorgeous Christmas poem/carol, “In the Bleak Midwinter.” Snow on snow, snow on snow.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

My hikes have gotten shorter and shorter this week. Even a trip to fill up the backyard birdfeeders…

Hairy Woodpecker (Dryobates villosus) and House Sparrow (Passer domesticus), Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

….is Brrrr!...enough to send me back inside to brew a mug of hot lapsang souchong tea, shrug on an afghan, and reach for a book about the gorgeous and—painfully cold this week—natural world.

Robin (Turdus migratorius) on Staghorn Sumac (Rhus hirta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

It’s prime reading weather. Time to investigate some prairie literature.

Let’s pull a few books off the shelf and spend some of this week “hiking” through the pages, immersed in prairie.

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Do you love a good story? A great place to begin a prairie literary exploration is with John Price’s edited volume, The Tallgrass Prairie Reader.

It’s an intentionally accessible nonfiction anthology with, as Price says in his introduction, “a variety of forms, voices, and approaches—including adventure narratives, spiritual reflections, literary ethnobotany, animal portraits, ‘personal’ natural history, childhood memoir, travel writing, humor, and reportage.” These are stories, rather than how-to restoration essays. Price groups the readings in three sections—19th, 20th, and 21st Centuries. You can skip around and dip into different readings, or, as he suggests, start at the earliest reading (Black Dog’s “Sun and Moon” creation story) and read it straight through to get a sense of how people at different points in history experienced the tallgrass prairie. Absorbing reading.

If you’re looking for more of a comprehensive natural history (from glaciers to present), one of the classic narratives of the tallgrass prairie is John Madson’s Where the Sky Began.

Madson’s dry wit, his encyclopedic facts narrated in lovely prose, and his passion for prairie make the 340 pages of this book fly by. Where the Sky Began was published in 1982; Madson passed away in 1995. When my new prairie volunteers ask me what book to read to understand what a prairie is and how it came to be, Madson’s book is the first one I recommend. A classic.

Memoir and prairie make good companions, and one of my favorites remains Nature’s Second Chance by Steven Apfelbaum.

After moving to Juda, Wisconsin, where he purchased an old 2.7 acre agricultural homestead, Apfelbaum began restoring it to health. Apfelbaum is founder and chairman at Applied Ecological Services, and has an expert knowledge of what it takes to create tallgrass prairie where it has been obliterated. His story tells how he gained an education in what it means to do so in a community where ecological restoration isn’t well understood. Chapter 10 is my favorite: “Getting to Know the Neighbors.” It will make you smile! This book is a great companion for frigid February evenings when you want a non-fiction prairie book that’s personal, and reads with the flowing narrative of a good novel.

For the same reasons, I love Paul Gruchow’s Journal of a Prairie Year ….

…and Gruchow’s Grass Roots: The Universe of Home.

Both books are collections of thoughtful essays on prairie, rural living, and the natural world. Grass Roots won the 1996 Minnesota Book Award, and contains an essay, “What the Prairie Teaches Us,” that I use in my tallgrass prairie ecology classes. Journal of a Prairie Year is arranged seasonally, and as Milkweed Editions (Gruchow’s publisher) notes, it is “both equal parts phenology and philosophy.” I read portions of Gruchow’s books all year round to remind myself to pay attention to what’s unfolding all around me.

Most prairie wildflowers and grasses are battered or buried under a foot of snow this week. Some are almost unrecognizable at this time of year. I’ve found that a great way to deepen my relationship with plants is to browse some of my ethnobotany books—discovering how people have used these native plants throughout history. Learning the plants’ stories, and how their stories are part of the human story, is an engaging way to pass the winter hours indoors.

Wildflowers of the Tallgrass Prairie: The Upper Midwest by Sylvan Runkel and Dean Roosa is now in its second edition with a new cover and much better photographs than my first edition shown above. The authors include fun snippets of information about the scientific names of more than 100 plants, and stories of how Native Americans and newcomers to the Midwest used native prairie plants medicinally, as groceries, and even for veterinary purposes. It’s easy to pick the book up for a few minutes and renew my acquaintance with a prairie grass or wildflower’s stories—then put it down. This suits my short attention span this month (which I blame on the pandemic). Read about a plant or two each day, and by the time warm weather and prescribed fire have readied the prairie for another growing year, you’ll be all set to greet the first spring wildflowers.

Bumblebee (Bombus sp.) on Wood Betony (Pedicularis canadensis), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Kelly Kindscher’s two seminal works on Kansas prairie plants, Edible Wild Plants of the Prairie and Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie include many stories of grasses and wildflowers native to my area of Illinois as well as further west. Drawings like these below are included, rather than photographs.

Illustration from Kelly Kindscher’s Edible Wild Plants of the Tallgrass Prairie.

Kindscher’s writing is lucid and enjoyable, and a deep dive into a plants ethnobotanical story. And, if these three books on prairie plants whet your appetite for more, immerse yourself in the doorstopper encyclopedic Native American Ethnobotany by Daniel Moerman (shown above with the other three books), a fairly exhaustive compilation of native plant use by specific Native American tribes in North America. It’s an amazing reference book no serious prairie enthusiast should be without.

Now that you know more about the prairie plants’ stories, wouldn’t it be nice to go see a few? Winter is a good time for planning visits to all the prairies I hoped to visit during warmer weather—but didn’t get around to. These three books below stimulate a lot of dreaming about road trips. The Prairie Directory of North America by Charlotte Adelman and Bernard Schwartz is an out-of-print oldie, but goodie. My first edition, published in 2001, has valuable lists of small, off the beaten track types of prairies in the United States and Canada. See if you can find a used copy of either the first or second edition. The directory has been the springboard for many of my prairie hikes.

Exploring Nature in Illinois by Susan Post and Michael Jeffords, while not focused solely on prairies, has some excellent destinations including Goose Lake Prairie State Park, Nachusa Grasslands, Kankakee Sands, and more. Hiking Illinois by Susan Post includes great prairie trips such as Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, McHenry County Conservation District’s 26-mile “The Prairie Trail,” and Winnebago County’s sand prairies.

So many books! So little time. As a former independent bookseller, I’d love to pull each of my prairie books off the shelf and tell you why it’s earned a place there.

Then, you could share your favorites with me (and please do so below in the comments). There are more books than I can name, or show in the photo above, or describe here. Books on prairie restoration, plant ID, bison, birds, blooms; coffee-table photography tomes and books of prairie spiritual reflections. And I have many more prairie books on my wish list. You, too?

Of course, reading about the prairie is no substitute for the prairie itself.

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

But when the wind chill drops to minus 20 degrees, and winter storms close many of the roads to the tallgrass preserves, “hiking” through the pages of these prairie books is the next best thing to being there.

Happy reading!

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John T. Price (1966-) earned his M.F.A. in Nonfiction Writing and Ph.D. in English from University of Iowa. He is the author of Daddy Long Legs: The Natural Education of a Father (2013) and Man Killed by Pheasant and Other Kinships (2008) and Not Just Any Land: A Personal and Literary Journey into the American Grasslands (2004). Price is Professor of English at the University of Nebraska.

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Join Cindy in 2021 for an online class! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for a complete list of virtual offerings. Need a speaker? Email me through my website. All classes and programs with Cindy this winter and spring are offered online only. Join me from your computer anywhere in the world.

February 24, 7-8:30 p.m. CST: The Prairie in Art and Literature– Online. The tallgrass prairie is usually thought of for its diverse community of plants, animals, and insects. Yet, it is also an inspiration for a creative community! In this interactive online talk, natural history author and prairie steward Cindy Crosby will explore historical and contemporary writers and artists, musicians, and other creatives working in the prairie genre: from Neil Young to Willa Cather to graphic comic artists, quilters, and jewelers expressing the prairie through their work. See the prairie in a new light! Come away inspired to appreciate and express your love of the tallgrass as you enjoy learning about this prairie “community.” Offered by The Morton Arboretum: Register here.

Readers, I hope you’ll “hunker down” this winter with my book, The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction and my book with awesome co-author Thomas Dean, Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit during this cold spell! Don’t forget your independent bookstores when you order Thanks for reading about and supporting prairie.

Honk if You Love Prairie

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

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

bigbluestem818wm.jpg

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

black swallowtail 2013 NG.jpg

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

paleIplantainjoepyeSPMA818.jpg

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

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

Honnnnnnnkkkkkkk!

I knew I needed a “prairie therapy” hike.

NachusaGrasslands817WMknob.jpg

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

trailthroughSPMAsavanna818WM.jpg

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

SPMAAugust818wm

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

rubyspotdamselWBSPMAwm818.jpg

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

floweringspurgeSPMA818wm.jpg

High-pitched sounds overhead cause me to look up.

Honk! Honk! Honk!

 

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

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

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

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All it took was a little prairie therapy.

*******

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

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

Finding Our Story in the Tallgrass

“Owning our story can be hard, but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it.” –Brene Brown

***

October is a good month for reflection.

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As I walk the two prairies where I monitor dragonflies, it’s quiet. A few common green darners still buzz drowsily about, but they are the exception. Most of the dragonflies–eastern amberwings, prince baskettails, blue dashers– have migrated south or laid eggs and finished out their brief lives in the tallgrass. The sky and creek banks seem emptier without them.

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At home, I collate my monitoring reports, doublecheck photos against ID’s, rejoice over new species added, and wonder why some of the dragonfly species I expected didn’t show up this season. Or was it me that didn’t show up to see them at the right time? Tough to know.

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I make plans for next year.

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Soak up the satisfaction of another year almost wrapped up, with all the joys and disappointments that it contained.

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It’s not just me that’s evaluating the year. At Nachusa Grasslands,  bison are assessed at an annual round-up this month. The rest of the 364 days, they are free to roam in the tallgrass.

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A round-up is a chance to check-in on their well-being; to count shaggy heads, and to vaccinate bison against potential diseases.

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The bison don’t care for the process much, but monitoring their health and taking a little preventative action ensures they have a more stress-free future. Sure, it takes time and energy to do these assessments –but in the long run, it pays off.

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In October, I find the prairie is a good place for personal reflection; a little self-assessment. Alone in the tallgrass, without the distractions of my cell phone, laptop, or work to be completed, my mind quiets. I think about how the year has unfolded so far. Look with more perspective at the rest of 2016 to come, with its busy rounds of holidays, family, and year-end tasks.

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The hot and sweaty hours I’ve spent on the prairie this season managing weeds, cutting brush, and putting in new prairie plants comes to fruition in the wash of color and foaming of seedheads across the tallgrass in October. The hours I’ve walked, and looked, and written down species and numbers of dragonflies, are finished. I begin wrapping up some projects, and plan what is next.

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What would I choose to do differently, if I could? What do I find difficult to change? What brought me joy?  Did I risk enough? Was I present when I needed to be? Did I show up?

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The seeds I’ve collected and the sheets of dragonfly data are a reminder of what I’ve accomplished…and didn’t accomplish.  How do I want to move forward into the next season?

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It’s easy to let life happen to us, instead of being intentional about life. Each year brings new joys, disappointments, and opportunities. There is so much more ahead.

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I want to be thoughtful about how I embrace each coming day.  Intentional. But open to whatever unfolds. Most of all, I want to be present. To show up.

*****

The opening quote is by Brene Brown (1965-) a research professor and the author of “The Gifts of Imperfection.” The full quote includes this line: “Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky, but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy–the experiences that make us most vulnerable.” Well said.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): sunrise, Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum) in big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) , Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), and little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum)  Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bison (Bison bison) roundup, Nachusa Grassland, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bison (Bison bison) roundup, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; great blue heron (Ardea herodias) watching for a fish, Fox River, Geneva, IL; October at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; upright carrion flower (Smilax lasioneuron), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; volunteers heading back to the barn with seeds, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bridge at Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. 

The Grassy Sea

“This dewdrop world  is a dewdrop world. And yet. And yet.” –Kobayashi Issa

****

September draws to a close. The prairie dreams;  wakens later each morning.

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You gaze at the grass, all waves, and wind, and water. A grassy sea.

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Foam is kicked up by the churning of the grasses.

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The clouds become the prows of ships, tossing on the tumultuous air…

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And you realize fences, no matter how strong, can never contain the tallgrass, washing up against the wires.

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Fungi cling like barnacles to dropped limbs on the edges of the grasses…

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You reflect on how, after almost being obliterated, the tallgrass prairie has hung on to life; survival by  a thread.

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It was a close call. Even today, prairie clings to old, unsprayed railroad right-of-ways in the center of industrial areas and landscaped lawns.

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Little patches of prairie, scrabbling for life, show up in unlikely places.

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Although the prairie’s former grandeur is only dimly remembered…

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…and in many places, the tallgrass prairie seems utterly obliterated from memory, gone with the wind…

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…the  prairie has put down roots again. You can see it coming into focus in vibrant, growing restorations, with dazzling autumn wildflowers…

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…and diverse tiny creatures.

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There is hope, glimpsed just over the horizon…IMG_8579.jpg

The dawn of a future filled with promise for a grassy sea.

*******

Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828), whose haiku opens this essay, was a Japanese poet regarded as one of the top four haiku masters of all time. He wrote this particular haiku after suffering tremendous personal loss.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): mist rising over prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; autumn at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Conrad Savanna, The Nature Conservancy and Indiana DNR, Newton County, IN; Nachusa Grasslands in September, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; purple love grass (Eragrostis spectabilis) and sweet everlasting (Pseudognaphalium obtusifolium), Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Newton County, IN; unknown fungi, Brown County State Park, Nashville, IN; marbled orb weaver in the grasses (Araneus marmoreus), Brown County State Park, Nashville, IN; big bluestem  (Andropogon gerardii) and other prairie plants along a railroad right-of-way, Kirkland, IN; prairie plants along an overpass, Bloomington, IN; thistles and grasses, Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Newton County, IN; wind farm, Benton County, IN; great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Newton County, IN;  Eastern-tailed blue (Cupido comyntas), Brown County State Park, Nashville,  Indiana; Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL. 

Prairie Passages

“The opposite of love is not hatred, but indifference.”–Paul Gruchow

The sun lobs her light into the early morning hours. Mist rises from the warmth of the tallgrass into the cool air. It’s quiet, except for the wake-up songs of a few migrating warblers, resting in the nearby trees.

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Dawn is later now. The autumn equinox is only days away. You feel the transition in the slant of the light, the scent of the breezes. The just-past-full harvest moon this week seemed to speak of the cold and dark to come.

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The prairie  year rushes toward its inevitable conclusion.

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Drive by the prairie in late September. The impression is a sea of grasses. It’s easy to be indifferent to the seeming sameness, if you don’t take time to pay attention and look carefully.  

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So. Get out of your car. Sit. Look up at the sunflowers. See the migrating monarch nectaring?

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Celebrate the grasshopper, the bee, the cricket. Each one with plant associations; each irreplaceable in the prairie community.

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Applaud the profusion of asters, dabbing the prairie with purple.

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Watch as the prairie, under the lessening light, gently puts on the brakes. Seeds ripen and fall; some gathered by volunteers, others fuel for grassland birds or tiny mice and voles.  Bison thicken up their hairy chocolate-colored coats.

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Admire the boneset, one of the last flushes of extravagant flowers before the frosts touch the grasses. Boneset was once valued for its medicinal qualities; its ability to alleviate pain. Discomfort is part of change, but there is always solace in unexpected places. The clouds of pale boneset are one of the comforts of a prairie in transition.

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Inhale, smell the buttery prairie dropseed, the lemony scent of gray-headed coneflower seeds, the dusty mint of bee balm.

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Are transitions difficult for you, as they are for me? Are you watching and listening as the tallgrass moves from the warm season; melds into the coming cold?

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Let the prairie remind  you that there is always something amazing waiting, just around the corner. Love the transitions. Embrace what is bittersweet. Don’t be indifferent. Or afraid of change. Keep moving forward with anticipation to the new season ahead.

You’ll see.

******

The opening quote is from Grass Roots: The Universe of Home, by Minnesota writer Paul Gruchow (1947-2004). Gruchow grappled with depression throughout his writing life; he found solace in the solitude of wild places, especially prairie.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby: (top to bottom): Prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; just past full harvest moon seen from author’s prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL;  Clear Creek, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on Maximilian sunflowers (Helianthus maximiliani), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; red-legged grasshopper (Melanoplus femurrubrum) on Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; silky asters (Symphyotrichum sericeum), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; tall boneset (Eupatorium altissimum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; mist over prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; September on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. 

Leaving Home

“Migration is a blind leap of faith… .” Scott Weidensaul

*****

September.

In a prairie pond, a turtle and a few ducks snooze in the late afternoon sun.

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A baby snapper ventures slowly out to explore the rocks.

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The last great blue lobelia flowers open and bloom amid the goldenrod. September’s colors.

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Deep in the tallgrass, a grasshopper takes a hopping hiatus from the heat.

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A cool breeze stirs. The tree leaves begin to rustle, then rattle. A sound like waves rushing to shore sweeps through the prairie. It ripples in the wind. Tall coreopsis sways.

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The prairie whispers, Go.

The black saddlebags dragonfly feels restless, deep down in its DNA. Orienting south, it joins the green darners, variegated meadowhawks, and wandering gliders to swarm the skies. Go. Go.

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The meadowhawk dragonfly hears, but doesn’t respond. It will be left behind. Only a few species of dragonflies answer the migration call. Why?

We don’t know. It’s a mystery.

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A flash of orange and black, and a monarch nectars at the zinnias that grow by my prairie patch.  Mexico seems a long way off for something so small. But this butterfly was born with a passport that includes a complimentary GPS system. This particular monarch will go. Just one more sip.

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A viceroy butterfly delicately tastes nectar from goldenrod. No epic trip for this look-alike. Although its days are numbered, the butterfly bursts with energy, zipping from prairie wildflower to wildflower. Go? I wish!

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A turkey vulture lazily soars through the air, headed south.  These Chicago buzzards won’t drift far. Once they hit the sweet tea and BBQ states, they’ll stay put until spring.

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Go? The red-tailed hawk catches the whispered imperative. She stops her wheeling over the prairie for a moment and rests on top of a flagpole, disgruntled. Go? NO! So many birds heading for warmer climes! She ignores the command. She’ll winter here,  in the frigid Chicago temperatures. Wimps, she says, disdaining the pretty warblers, flocking south.

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Meanwhile, the last blast of hummingbirds dive-bomb my feeders, slugging it out for fuel. Think of the lines at the pump during the oil embargo crisis of the 1970s –that’s the scene. Destination? Central America. You can feel their desperation as they drink deeply, then buzz away.

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Saying goodbye is always the most difficult for those left behind. Seeing those we know and care about leave home is bittersweet, fraught with loss.

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But, as the prairie brings one chapter to a close–with all of its colorful and lively characters…

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…another chapter is about to begin.

Meanwhile, we watch them go. Bon voyage. Safe travels.

 

*****

The opening quote is by Scott Weidensaul, the author of Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom):  painted turtle (Chrysemys picta) and mallard ducks ((Anas platyrhynchos) on the  prairie pond, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; baby snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) and Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; grasshopper (species unknown), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Glen Ellyn Public Library prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL; black saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata), James “Pate” Philip State Park, Illinois DNR, Bartlett, IL;  meadowhawk (Sympetrum spp.) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; monarch (Danaus plexippus), author’s backyard garden and prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) on Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; turkey vulture (Cathartes aura), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) , author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; sunset at Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL. 

Prairie Signs and Wonders

“By all these lovely tokens, September days are here, with summer’s best of weather, and autumn’s best of cheer.”–Helen Maria Hunt Jackson

*****

August slows, and puts on her turn signal. Autumn lies just ahead. The signs are all around us.

In my backyard prairie patch, the goldfinches work the cup plant seedheads–then sip a drink from yesterday’s rainwater, pooled in the leaves.

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Nearby, a lone monarch appears on the zinnias, delicately sourcing fuel for its migration flight to Mexico. Hasta la vista. What a tough year it’s been for you, monarchs.

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Hikes on the prairies after work end sooner. Shorter days. Earlier sunsets.

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The tallgrass is peppered with dark chocolate coneflower seedheads; limned with early goldenrod.

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In the first light of morning, deep in the dew, the white-faced meadowhawks appear. Harbingers of fall. Their kin, the green darners and wandering gliders, black saddlebags and variegated meadowhawks, have already taken wing and left the Midwest. What a wonder, that they can disappear into the winds to fly thousands of miles! The non-migratory dragonflies  are tied to this place, however, and wait helplessly for the cold.

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There is a more spare look to the landscape. It moves from cheerful to slightly melancholy. Lonelier.

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The jewelweed opens along the prairie’s creeks. Hummingbirds work the flowers for nectar, mindful that they’ll soon need energy to make the long trip south. Come on! You can almost hear the monarchs and dragonflies whisper to the hummers. It’s getting late. Go!

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Summer is ending. We see dimly ahead. Wonder what’s around the corner.

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Something new.

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Something different.

And always, adventures to anticipate.

*********

The opening quote is from Helen Maria Hunt Jackson (1830-1885), who was a novelist and tireless advocate for Native Americans. She was also a classmate of Emily Dickinson. She suffered many difficult losses during her life–parents, siblings, children, her husband. At the time of her death from cancer, Jackson was still advocating for Native American rights from her sickbed. Although some have criticized her prose as “middlebrow,” she used her words to change the world she lived in for the better.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby: (top to bottom):  cup plant (Silphium prefoliatum) with American goldfinches (Spinus tristis), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; monarch (Danaus plexippus), author’s backyard garden zinnias (Zinnia spp., certified Monarch Way Station), Glen Ellyn, IL; Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL; early goldenrod (Solidago juncea) and pale purple conehead (Echinacea pallida) seeds, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; white-faced meadowhawk, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), Clear Creek Unit, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) with tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris) and big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) also visible in the fog, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie,  The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.