“Ah summer! What power you have to make us suffer and like it.” — Russell Baker
Happy Summer Solstice! The longest day of the year.
And hello, first day of summer, astronomically speaking. We’re on track for one of the hottest days in the Chicago Region this year. Our local WGN weather bureau forecasts a high of 99 degrees and a heat index in the triple digits. Whew! Not a record, but close enough to make a little shade sound good.
We need rain. Despite this, the prairies overflow with flowers.
As I hike three prairies across two states this week, I chant the wildflower names to refresh my memory. Scurfy pea.
Bumblebees work the white wild indigo as the air hums with humidity.
Ants explore goat rue.
There are so many insects associated with these prairie wildflowers! So many insects unfamiliar to me. The more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know.
I pause to admire a dragonfly, performing his balancing act.
I love the male twelve-spotted skimmer; one of the easiest dragonflies to remember. It looks just as you’d expect from the name. As I get older, and my recall is less reliable, I’ll take any low hanging fruit I can get.
And don’t get me started on the juvenile birds…
…which may look different than their parents.
I spot my first buckeye butterfly of the season. Those rich colors!
Then I puzzle over some wildflowers whose name I struggle to remember. I snap a photo with iNaturalist, my phone app.
Wild four o’clocks! A non-native in Illinois. And this one?
I have to look it up with my app, then revisit Gerould Wilhelm and Laura Rericha’s Flora of the Chicago Region when I return home. Venus’ looking glass is a weedy native, but no less pretty for that.
Well, at least I can identify these mammals without an app. No problem with the scientific name, either.
I love the juxtaposition of the bison against the semis on the highway. A reminder of the power of restoration.
All these wonders under June skies.
So much waiting to be discovered.
Hello, summer. Welcome back!
Russell Baker (1925-2019) was a columnist for the New York Times who won the Pulitzer Prize for his book, Growing Up. He also followed Alistair Cooke as the host of Masterpiece Theater.
Join Cindy for a Class or Program this Month
Wednesdays,June 22 and June 29: “100 Years Around the Morton Arboretum” –with Cindy and Library Collections Manager and Historian Rita Hassert at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL. Enjoy stories of the past that commemorate this very special centennial. Join us in person June 22 from 6:30-8:30 pm (special exhibits on view for 30 minutes before the talk) by registering here (only a few spots left!); join us on Zoom June 29, 7-8:30 p.m. by registering here. Masks required for the in-person presentation.
“Nor does frost behave as one expects.” — Eleanor Perényi
Spring? We seemed to have missed it this year. Rather, it appears we are jumping from winter to summer in a week. Migrating birds are moving through, including this jelly-loving scarlet tanager. A first for our backyard!
With temperatures steady and warm—even hot—in the next few days, there is the annual gardener’s dilemma. To plant the tomatoes? Or not? It’s tempting. Meanwhile, they harden off on my covered front porch. I’m particularly excited about a new tomato called “Three Sisters,” which promises three types of tomatoes on one plant. Sort of a gee-whiz kind of thing, but that’s part of the fun of gardening.
Woodland wildflowers waited until the last possible moment to bloom this season, then threw themselves into the process. “Ephemeral” is right. Here today, gone tomorrow. So I go look. And soak up everything I can see to file away in my memory. Later, after they’ve disappeared, I’ll recall each one with joy.
I especially admire the native Virginia bluebells, now bursting into bloom in the woodlands. What a week for this wildflower! They vary in hue from a bluebird blue…
… to bi-colored…
Supposedly, this color variation is common with members of the borage family (of which bluebells are members). I imagine there is some normal color variation too, just as there are with other wildflower species. Depending on what you read, the color changes have to do with the acidity of the soil or whether or not the flowers have been pollinated. Hmmm. I’m not sure what to believe. All of these plants shown above were in the same general spot.
I can’t see Virginia bluebells without the lines of writer Anne Brontë ‘s charming poem The Bluebellrunning through my head (written in the early 1800s). She was likely writing about the English bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta), but I’ve appropriated her poem for our American species, Mertensia virginica.
A fine and subtle spirit dwells In every little flower, Each one its own sweet feeling breathes With more or less of power. There is a silent eloquence In every wild bluebell That fills my softened heart with bliss That words could never tell.
On our Mother’s Day weekend journey to the Indianapolis area, we made a quick detour to Kankakee Sands in Morocco, Indiana. Imagine—8.400 acres of prairie, wetlands, and savannas. Those big skies! The bison there are always a magnet for our attention.
And we almost—literally—ran into another member of the prairie community as we bison-watched.
Why did the snake cross the road? Likely to find some toads for dinner. I followed this one into the tallgrass until it disappeared into a watery ditch. I wasn’t brave enough to go any further.
Overhead, a flock of birds—perhaps a murmuration of starlings?—formed and reformed in the sky. But I’m not sure they were starlings. Aren’t those white wings in the center? Cornell says there is often a falcon near the edge of a murmuration.
I wasn’t able to ID these birds in the photo above, but the next ones (below) were unmistakeable. Turkey vultures! They checked us out, then decided we were too lively to be of much interest.
We left Kankakee Sands and continued driving home on backroads home to Chicago, with a brief get-out-and-stretch at the Biesecker Prairie in St. John, IN.
Someday, I’d love to spend time at this 34-acre remnant with someone who knows and loves it. We only had time for quick look around. Traffic cruised by, but the preserve was mostly empty, except for a red-winged blackbird that kept us company.
Amazing to think these wonderful prairies are less than two hours away from Chicago’s western suburbs. I’m grateful.
Mother’s Day. One of my garden goals is to have prairie represented in the front yard. It’s embarrassing to have our “Conservation at Home” sign among the hostas and daffodils. With that in mind, my Mother’s Day gift this year was a new prairie plant plot for pollinators. (Thank you, Jeff!)
We’re starting small, with less than two dozen prairie plugs: three golden alexanders (now in bloom), three pale purple coneflower plugs…
…one pint-sized pot of flowering spurge—barely up. Three blazing star, three Ohio goldenrod, three sky blue aster, and three showy goldenrod. I hope to add some butterfly milkweed from a native plant sale this week, and perhaps move some of my Culver’s root from the backyard to the front. Neighbors are already asking about it. Hopefully, this little patch will spark more conversations about native plants with dog walkers, parents with strollers, and our community.
I love new beginnings, no matter how small. We put our prairie pollinator garden where we can expand it a little bit each year. And now our “Conservation at Home” sign looks more “at home.” A little less turf grass. A better use of the space we’re responsible for. Of course, native prairie plantings in our suburban yard will never have the grandeur of wide open skies, such as we saw at Kankakee Sands, or the wildlife that these large-scale landscapes can provide for. But I think of Ray Schulenberg, an expert in prairie restoration who reconstructed the fourth oldest institutional prairie planting at The Morton Arboretum, 60 years ago.
In an interview before his death in 2003, Ray talked about the despair he felt over world events. He didn’t think anything would halt the destruction of our planet. But, he said, “I don’t let that stop me from doing what I can.”
That’s stuck with me in a week filled with news about war, Covid stats rising, inflation, and other woes. For now, I’m going to try to emulate Ray’s motto.
To do what I can.
The opening quote is from Eleanor Perényi (1918-2009) from Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden. She gardened on an estate in the present day Vynohradiv, Ukraine —formerly, Nagyszőlős, Hungary—and later, in her new home in Connecticut. Green Thoughts is an arrangement of short essays from “Annuals” to “Weeds,” and her wildly-ranging views as an amateur gardener. Many of her ideas on plants are not for us Midwestern gardeners (she mentions buckthorn as good for hedges, which will strike horror into the heart of any prairie steward), but I enjoy her take on everything from annuals to chicory to gardening failures. Perényi worked as managing editor at Mademoiselle and editor at Harper’s Bazaar, plus as a contributor to Harper’s, The Atlantic Monthly, and Esquire. Later in her life, she lived and gardened on the Connecticut coast.She is also the author of a biography of Franz Liszt (nominated for a National Book Award) and More Was Lost, a memoir of her marriage to a Hungarian baron. Green Thoughts is a charming classic, although I’m more a fan of her prose than her gardening advice.
Thank you, Dulcey Lima, for passing on the article about Ray.
Join Cindy for a program or class!
May 18, 12:30-2 pm:100 Years Around the Arboretum (With Rita Hassert), Morton Arboretum Volunteer Zoom Event (Closed to the public).
May 26, 10:30am-noon: Stained Glass Stories of the Thornhill Mansion,in person at The Morton Arboretum. Open to the public. Register here.
May 26, 6:30-8 pm: Add a Little Prairie to Your Garden, hosted by Old St. Patrick’s Church Green Team on Zoom. More information coming soon.
June 5, 2-3:30 pm: Illinois’ Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers, Downers Grove Public Library and Downers Grove Garden Club. Kick off National Garden Week with this in-person event! Open to the public. Click here for more information.
Time is running out for one of Illinois’ last prairie remnants. Save Bell Bowl Prairie! Find out what you can do to help at www.savebellbowlprairie.org
“Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under trees on a summer’s day, listening to the murmur of the water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time.”—John Lubbock
Mid-August is a beautiful time of year in the tallgrass. Big bluestem and switchgrass jostle for position. Prairie wildflowers pour their energy into fireworks of color. You might see a blue heron fishing in the creek…
…or hear the twitter of goldfinches, plucking seeds. Let’s get out there and take a look.
Not convinced? Here are three more reasons to hike the August prairie.
1. August is about late summer wildflowers. And aren’t they stunning! Tick trefoil, both the showy version and the Illinois version, scatter their lavender flowers across the prairie. After a prairie work morning or hike, I peel the flat caterpillar-like seeds off my shirt and pants. Even the leaves stick like velcro! My laundry room is full of tick trefoil.
Look at that spotted horsemint! You may know it by its other common name, spotted bee balm. It’s in the mint family, like its kissing cousin wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa). So many little pollinators swarm around it—and one biggie.
Deep in the tallgrass, the first gentians are in bloom.
After the cream gentians open, the blue gentians will soon follow. No sign of them yet. The low slant of light and the cooler morning temperatures seem to whisper: Anytime now. I think of the old poem, “Harvest Home,” by Arthur Guiterman:
The maples flare among the spruces, The bursting foxgrape spills its juices, The gentians lift their sapphire fringes On roadways rich with golden tenges, The waddling woodchucks fill their hampers, The deer mouse runs, the chipmunk scampers, The squirrels scurry, never stopping, For all they hear is apples dropping And walnuts plumping fast and faster; The bee weighs down the purple aster — Yes, hive your honey, little hummer, The woods are waving, “Farewell, Summer.”
I haunt the usual gentian spots, hoping for a glimpse of blue. What I see is purple, punctuating the prairie with its exclamation marks. Blazing star!
And these are only a few wildflowers in the mid-August prairie parade. What are you seeing? Leave me a note in the comments.
2. August is all about pollinators. Try this. Find a solid patch of prairie wildflowers. Sit down and get comfortable. Let your eyes tune in to the blooms. It’s amazing how many tiny insects are out and about, buzzing around the flowers. Wasps. Native bees and honeybees. Butterflies and skippers. I’ve exhausted my iNaturalist app, trying to put names to them. After a while, I put my phone away and just enjoy seeing them going about their work.
Pale Indian plantain is irresistible. Illinois Wildflowers tells us that in order to set fertile seed, the florets need insects like wasps, flies, and small bees to cross-pollinate them. Insects are rewarded with nectar and pollen.
Near the pale indian plantain is late figwort, swarming with bees, butterflies—and yes, even ruby-throated hummingbirds! The first time I saw a hummingbird nectaring on figwort, I questioned my eyesight. The blooms are so tiny! I’m not sure what this little insect is in the photo below (can you find it?), but it’s only got eyes for those last crazy little burgundy blooms, barely any left now as it goes to seed.
Figwort gets its name from its historical role as a medicinal use for “figs” (it’s old name) or what we call hemorrhoids today. The plant is toxic, so it’s not used much medicinally in contemporary times. One of my prairie volunteers told me figwort is also known by the name, “Carpenter’s Square.” Missouri Botanic Garden tells us the nickname comes from the grooved, square plant stems.
This tiny butterfly nectars at the vervain flowers.
I love the scientific name for vervain: Verbena hastata. It makes me want to break into song (listen here). Just substitute Verbena hastata for hakuna matata. “It means no worries… for the rest of your days… .” Doesn’t that sound comforting this week, when every news headline seems to spell some sort of disaster?
Leatherwings, sometimes called golden soldier beetles, seem to be having a banner year on the prairies I hike.
I watch them clamber over prairie wildflowers of all different species. Leatherwings are excellent pollinators, and eat lots of aphids. Two reasons to love this insect. I think it looks cool, too.
So much going on, right under our noses. Now, look up.
What do you see? Keep your eyes to the skies, and you might discover…
3. August is the beginning of dragonfly migration in Illinois. I spot them massing over my head on my prairie hikes—10, 20, 70 on one trip. Circling and diving.
In my backyard, I find a common green darner, fresh and likely emerged only a few hours before.
This last generation of green darners will begin the trek south, traveling thousands of miles to the Gulf Coast and beyond. In the spring, one of this dragonfly’s progeny will begin the long trek back to Illinois. No single darner will make the round trip. Other migrant species in Illinois include the wandering glider…
…the variegated meadowhawk, and the black saddlebags.
I see them too, along with the green darners, but in lesser numbers. What about you? Look for swarms of mixed migrating species on the prairie, moving south, through mid-September.
August is such an adventure! Every tallgrass hike offers us something new.
You won’t want to miss a single day of hiking the prairie in August. Who knows what you’ll see?
The opening quote is from John Lubbock, the 1st Baron Avebury (1834-1913). He was a polymath and and scientist. Lubbock helped establish archeology as a scientific discipline. The poem about the gentians, Harvest Home, is by Arthur Guiterman (1871-1943). Guiterman was co-founder of the Poetry Society of America in 1910.
Join Cindy for a class or program!
August 17, 7pm-8:30 pm —in person —“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Bloomingdale Garden Club, Bloomingdale, IL. Please visit http://www.bloomingdalegardenclub.org/events-new/ for more information and Covid safety protocol for the event, and for current event updates.
September 9, 9:30-11 am– in person–“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Oswego Hilltoppers Garden Club, Oswego Public Library. Please visit the club’s Facebook page for guest information, event updates pending Covid positivity in Illinois, and Covid protocol.
“I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order.”–John Burroughs
Jeff and I are returning from visiting family near Indianapolis. What makes a long car trip from Indianapolis to Chicago better? Our eyes meet. Bison!
We get off of I-65 with its semi trucks and heavy traffic, and slip over to U.S. 41. We need a hike on the prairies and savannas of Kankakee Sands in Morocco, Indiana.
Towering cumulonimbus pile up like cairns on the horizon. A few raindrops splat the windshield. The prairie sky seems to stretch forever.
Sections of the prairies have been recently burned. A mullein’s soft, fuzzy leaves are a contrast to the scorched earth. Look! Jeff points. A mourning cloak butterfly flutters by, so quick we almost miss the ID.
It seems as if you could hike for hours and never come to the end of the tallgrass.
Today, we hope to get a glimpse of the largest members of the tallgrass prairie.
When we reach the bison overlook, it’s quiet. Not a bison in sight. Just a big stretch of prairie and sheets of storm clouds.
We hike a bit, then jump in the car to drive around, hoping to spot them.
And then, there they are.
We pull over, get out of the car, and watch them for a while.
In the distance, sandhill cranes begin to call. A bird sings from a nearby tree, but as much as I try, I can’t identify it. The bison slowly move off to the west. We hop in the car and head for home.
But we’re not done yet. Jeff, who is a history buff, wants to take a quick hike at Conrad Station, a nature preserve trail through a savanna nearby. We’ve hiked it before in the autumn, but we’ve never seen it in the spring. We try to remember exactly where the road is, leading to it, but get lost on back roads. It begins to rain. We turn the windshield wipers on. Swish. Swish. Things don’t look promising.
Then, we see the sign marking the ghost town.
The rain has tapered off to dull pewter skies. We find the trailhead.
Here in the savanna, the old town of Conrad Station once stood. Ruins of shattered buildings are everywhere. Jeff’s a history buff, and is writing an essay about the history of this place for a journal. He walks, looks, and takes copious notes. I’m here for the hike and the plants. Cleft phlox is everywhere, sprinkled across the savanna in various hues of palest lavender, white, and purple.
While Jeff explores the old ruins, I try to ID the lichen on the logs. Even with iNaturalist, my trusty phone ID app, I can’t make a positive ID.
The wild lupine leaves are other-worldly, sparkling with raindrops.
History and plants. A good way to spend an hour. We are both so excited about our twin pursuits that we lose track of time. But as we drive back to the highway to return home in heavy traffic, we have no regrets.
An afternoon well spent.
John Burroughs (1837-1921) whose quote kicks off this post, was a conservationist, writer, and naturalist. The seventh of ten children, he grew up on a farm in the Catskill Mountains of New York, where he fell in love with the rural life and the natural world. His father refused to send him to college, so Burroughs taught school to earn money to further his education. The John Burroughs Medal is awarded each year in April to a distinguished book of natural history (rarely fiction). I’m trying to read through them all, beginning with the most current. It’s a very diverse collection of medal-winners, and I’m enjoying the journey.
Join Cindy for an upcoming program!
Online: Chasing Dragonflies: A Quick Look—Thursday, April 15, 12:30-1 p.m., Glen Ellyn Rotary Club. For information, visit www.glenellynrotary.org
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.
SPRING WILDFLOWERS OF PRAIRIES AND WOODLANDS ONLINE, Thursday, May 6, 6:30-8 p.m. The Morton Arboretum. 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.
“I want the experience of the butterfly.” — William Stafford
The first one flew just ahead of us, then disappeared. “Hey—was that a monarch?” my husband Jeff asked. I shaded my eyes against the sun, unsure.
We were at Kankakee Sands in northwestern Indiana, returning from visiting family down south. Needing to get off the mind-numbing, semi-rumbling Interstate 65 that connects Indianapolis with Chicago, we decided to take a more off-the-beaten path route. A stop at this 7,000-plus acres Nature Conservancy site along the way was a no-brainer.
As we pulled into the empty “Bison Viewing Area” parking lot, there was nary a hairy mammal in sight. All the bison were grazing far away in the preserve, oblivious to public relations and their responsibilities in promoting prairie at their assigned station. The light slanted low across the wildflowers. September days were shortening. The quiet was tangible, except for the hum of singing insects in the grasses.
Jeff broke the silence. “Look! There’s another one,” he said, pointing. Two more butterflies flew over. Monarchs! And then another. And another. As our eyes adjusted, we began to understand what was in front of us.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of monarch butterflies covered the prairie…
A viceroy butterfly occasionally mixed in. Everywhere we looked, there were monarchs nectaring on stiff goldenrod.
The prairie was a shimmer of motion and color in the late afternoon light.
Wave after wave of orange and black butterflies fluttered across the goldenrod. I began frantically snapping photos with my camera. Click! Click! Click! But…How do you capture the movement and motion of clouds of butterflies? After a few minutes, I put my camera down and tried videotaping them with my cell phone. I soon gave up. One random viceroy butterfly video later, I realized it was futile to try and freeze the magic.
Perhaps, this was a moment to tuck into your heart, instead of trying to capture it with images and technology. We put away the camera and our cell phones. Instead of frantically clicking away, both of us watched the butterflies in silence.
So many butterflies! We couldn’t stop talking about them as we drove home. We knew prairies were great habitat for these amazing insects. But still!
Nachusa Grasslands, a Nature Conservancy site where I’m a steward, has some beautiful butterflies. I love the buckeyes, which seem to be everywhere at Nachusa this month…
…and the uncommon regal fritillaries, which I’ve seen there a few times in the summer. They take my breath away!
The Schulenberg Prairie, where I’m a steward supervisor, constantly dazzles me with its frequent fliers. Like this black swallowtail butterfly nectaring on rattlesnake master just weeks ago.
Fermilab’s prairies, another great place to hike in the Chicago region, continue to delight me with a diversity of butterflies, including the common but charming little eastern tailed blues.
But seeing the massive monarch migration up close for the first time at Kankakee Sands this week brought all the other prairies like these into focus.
This, I thought, is what happens when we try to heal the earth.
This is why we collect native prairie seeds, then go to crazy lengths to dry them and reseed new prairie restorations.
This is why we set the prescribed fires to renew the tallgrass each spring.
This is why we sweat in summer temperatures nearing 100 degrees, caring for prairie. Stay up late at night reading about restoration methods. Help our children and grandchildren raise a few caterpillars that become butterflies to understand the cycle of life. This is why we hike the prairie trails with little ones, so that early on they will experience some of the miracles of the natural world.
This is why we scribble restoration plans and seed collection notes. Cut honeysuckle and buckthorn so it doesn’t encroach into the tallgrass. Go out and speak and teach about prairie and all its creatures. Pull weeds.
This is what can happen when volunteers and stewards and site managers and donors care for the beautiful world we’ve been given.
And, sometimes, on a magical day like this one, we see the tangible results.
William Stafford (1914-1993) is considered to be one of our finest, if sometimes uneven, nature poets. Wrote Steve Garrison of Stafford, “He offers a unique way into the heart of the world.”
All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): late afternoon at the bison viewing area of Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN: monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) and viceroy butterflies (Limenitis archippus) nectaring on stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN; trio of monarchs (Danaus plexippus) nectaring on stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN; late afternoon at Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN: video of viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) nectaring on stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN; buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia) on unknown aster (Asteracea), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; regal fritillary (Speyeria idalia) , Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) on rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; eastern tailed-blue (Cupido comyntas), Fermilab Inner Ring, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; September on Fame Flower Knob, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; drying seeds at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; prescribed burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; small toddler investigating flowers, Fermilab Interpretive Trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; weeds and work bucket, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Nachusa Grasslands in the rain, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.
Thanks to all the organizations that manage Kankakee Sands, including the Nature Conservancy of Indiana, Division of Fish & Wildlife, Division of Nature Preserves, Indiana Department of Environmental Management, Indiana Heritage Trust, Indiana Grand Company, Lilly Endowment, National Fish & Wildlife Foundation, and Natural Resources Conservation Services. Grateful for the butterfly magic this week.
“It’s spring fever. That is what the name of it is. And when you’ve got it, you want—oh, you don’t quite know what it is you do want— but it just fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so!” –Mark Twain
Spring? It’s giving us the cold shoulder on the prairie.
What a wacky, wicked April. Many prescribed burns were done late or not at all. Snowy days. Frigid nights. Wild winds. Plants stubbornly stay put under the blackened soil of the burned prairies. They know what’s good for them.
On the edges of the prairie, the trees look dormant and colorless. What happened to the flush of green buds, the chatter of birds? Looking and listening, you’d think it was November instead of April.
It’s enough to make you weep.
Look carefully, under the fallen autumn leaves moldering in the woodlands and savannas surrounding the prairie. You’ll see the seasons are changing. Spring beauties tentatively open in the infrequent sunny hours, pinstriped with pink. Euell Gibbons, best known for his books on wild food foraging and for appearing in Grape-Nuts commercials, lauded the joys of the edible tubers, known as “fairy spuds.” He also cautioned that they were much too pretty to eat. I agree.
Spring is in the half-dressed bloodroot blooms, unfurling cautiously, testing the air.
Spring is in the hepatica blooming along the edges of the prairie, its persistent leaves worn and ragged after being nibbled during the winter. First the furry buds appear.
Wow, that color!
We need hepatica in bloom this week! It’s a morale booster.
Spring is in the tender new leaves of Dutchman’s breeches.
The fringed growth promises delicate flowers, just days away.
Spring is in the pasque flowers which escaped the flames of a prescribed burn. The buds look furred against the cold.
In my backyard prairie planting, shooting stars green up, ready to take off…
…and skyrocket into bloom. Imagine that pink! Soon.
Sure, the April skies are gloomy. And we’re winter-weary.
Hang on to hope. Look for the clues. Bright spots in the landscape—if you pay attention.
Everything is about to change. Do you feel it? Spring is coming.
Mark Twain (1835-1910), whose quote opens this post, is the pen name for Samuel Clemens, an American writer, riverboat pilot, failed gold prospector, and inventor. He grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, on the Mississippi River, and his pen name, Mark Twain, is steamboat slang for “twelve feet of water.” One my favorite Twain quotes: “The secret to getting ahead is getting started.”
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Pasture thistles (Cirsium discolor) in the April snow, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; just-burned Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bare trees in April with an unknown hawk, Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN; spring beauties (Claytonia virginica), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot emerging, Schulenberg Prairie Visitor Station, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot in bloom, Schulenberg Prairie visitor Station, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; hepatica (Hepatica nobilis acuta) emerging, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; hepatica (Hepatica nobilis acuta) in bloom, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; hepatica (Hepatica nobilis acuta) in bloom, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) emerging, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) in bloom, Franklin Creek Natural Area, Franklin Grove, IL; pasque flowers (Pulsatilla pantens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia) emerging, author’s backyard prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia) in bloom, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Kankakee Sands in the middle of April, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN; goldfinch (Spinus tristis), Schulenberg Prairie, the Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Note: Please don’t pick, consume, or use wildflowers without permission and/or expert knowledge. Many are toxic and almost all are best left alone for us to conserve and enjoy. Happy spring!
“October is a hallelujah! reverberating in my body year-round.” ~John Nichols
September sings her last blues riff on the prairie.
The calendar pages over to October. We rush to embrace everything the season has to offer, ready for a change. Ready for something new.
The tallgrass crackles with static electricity, throwing off seed sparks in every direction. Do you feel the tingle?
A cool front moves in. Skies cloud over; turn bumpy metal. The bright greens of summer begin to drain into autumn’s palette of russet, copper, and cream.
Leaves loosen their grip. Let go. Let go. A free-fall transition.
You can feel surrender in the air. A beautiful loss, bittersweet. As Anatole France wrote, “All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy….”
Everywhere in the tallgrass, seeds blow away, fall to the ground, or are collected by volunteers. The seeds are the future; glimpsed but uncertain.
At dawn-break, sun lights the mist rising over the tallgrass. We hold our breath.
What will autumn have in store for us?
I can’t wait to find out.
The opening quote is from The Last Beautiful Days of Autumn by John Nichols (1940-). Nichols also wrote the well-known novel, The Milagro Beanfield War, which explores history, ethnicity, and land and water rights.
Anatole France (1844-1924), who wrote the other quote used in this essay, was a French poet and novelist who won the 1921 Nobel Prize in Literature.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby: (top to bottom) Mist rising in big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; you-pick pumpkin patch, Jonamac Orchard, Malta, IL; Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) , Conrad Station Savanna, The Nature Conservancy and DNR, Morocco, IN; road through the tallgrass, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; three leaves, Springbrook Nature Center, Itasca, IL; unknown milkweed (Asclepias spp.), Conrad Station Savanna, The Nature Conservancy and Indiana DNR, Morocco, IL; crescent moon over author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; mist rising with prairie plants and non-natives at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL.
Cindy Crosby is the author, compiler, or contributor to more than 20 books. Her most recent is "Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History" (Northwestern University Press, 2020). She teaches prairie ecology, nature writing, and natural history classes, and is a prairie steward who has volunteered countless hours in prairie restoration. See Cindy's upcoming online speaking events and classes at www.cindycrosby.com.