Tag Archives: Nachusa Grasslands

Finding Hope in the November Prairie

“Do not go gentle into that good night…rage, rage against the dying of the light.”—Dylan Thomas

*****

November, shmo-vember.

Sure, a few hard-core “I love all months of the year” folks out there are going to give a high-five to November. But I’m going to come clean here.

I think November is the toughest month of the year.

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The elections are certainly a part of that.  I despise the mud-slinging, the he-said/she-said, the polarization of the world I find myself in today and the many places where hatred and suspicion are cultivated in public forums. I cast my vote early, feeling a bit like I do when I planted pasque flower seeds on the prairie this season. The odds seem long, but hope was there. The promise of something beautiful. Today, in November, there’s no sign of the pasque flowers.  But I haven’t given up hope. I’m trying to live in “prairie time.” Taking the long view.

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If you live in the Chicago region, our first few days of November have not been promising. Temperatures are cold enough to prompt extra blankets, but not cold enough for a Christmas card-worthy snowstorm.  Rain, desperately needed, came just in time to splash all the (finally) colorful autumn leaves off the trees. High winds decimated most of the rest of the foliage, which lies strewn across prairie trails like discarded party invitations.

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How do you feel about November? Does November give you the blues? If you’re tempted to hang up your hiking boots and sit this month out, here are five reasons to go outside and see the prairie this month. If you feel discouraged by the state of the world—or just discouraged by the month of November and all it brings—this hike’s for you.

1. The Good News About Bison

If you live in the Midwest, chances are you’re within driving distance of seeing bison on a prairie. In the Chicago region, I’m fortunate enough to have bison on three preserves within a two-hour driving distance. There’s something, well, reassuring about their sturdy presence, impervious to cold and rain amid the wind rippling the tallgrass in November. Bison remind me of  strength. Of continuity. Of hope. Here is a species that was almost extinct, and through the efforts of people who care, is now thriving again. We need this kind of inspiration, as the United Nations issued grim news about our natural world that made headlines this week. So hop in the car and drive to your nearest bison preserve. Bring a friend.  Feel your spirits lift?

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2. Encore Performances

Oddly enough, some native plants (and non-natives too!) put on a repeat bloom performance in November. To discover them is a bit of a bizarre scavenger hunt, worth traveling a trail or two to see what you can find. My backyard pond has pops of yellow right now; marsh marigolds which normally bloom in April are hosting a second-run performance. Other late bloomers in my prairie patch, like the obedient plant below, gave a last push of color against its deteriorating foliage this week. You can almost hear them whispering, “Do not go gentle into that good night… .”

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3. Cruising Without Guilt

I always feel a pang of remorse about driving around a natural area. After all, shouldn’t I be on foot, exploring trails, wading through wetlands looking for dragonflies, or sitting on top of a rocky knob, enjoying the breeze? Of course I want to hike this month. But in November, when pounding rain, wind gusts of 30 mph, and temps in the 40s are all in play, I can feel almost virtuous driving through a grassland, enjoying the views, without the shame that might normally accompany my gas-guzzling self. I’m outdoors! Sort of. Braving the elements.

Hey–turn the heater up, will you?

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4. Prairie Plants Take On New Personalities

In November, you can exercise your imagination to describe the familiar prairie plants of summer in new ways. Prairie dock, below, is my November favorite for its transition from flexible sandpaper-y green to a crackled surface. A little like those old decoupaged craft projects we did in the sixties; right down to the tiny beads of “glue.” Maybe you see a prairie dock leaf in November as an aerial view of Death Valley. Or perhaps you see the leaf as the back of an dry, aged hand, with pores, veins and tiny hairs. A mountain range, dotted with snow? Spiderwebs in the rain? Or? Go ahead, your turn!

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Other plants give up the above-ground life in tangled shoelaces slowly draining of color, a virtual jungle of still-green and long-past-the-sell-date leaves.

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And when is a square-stemmed plant not a mint? When it’s a cup plant! After focusing on the signature leaves and flowers of this vigorous, sometimes-aggressive native all summer, we get a good look at the scaffolding. Wonder what tiny critter made that hole?

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5. Those Spellbinding Seeds

It’s  almost worth facing November on the prairie to see how nature plans for the future. Diversity is on display in the form of prairie seeds in all colors, sizes, and shapes.

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Each seed is a possibility. The promise of restoration.

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I need that promise. You too? Of change, of hope, of restoration in the month of November. Especially on an election day, after another week of horrific shootings and dismal headlines. The prairie seeds remind me of all of those who have made a difference in the world. The stewards and site managers who are out there today, as you read this, cutting brush. Collecting seeds. Leading tours of the tallgrass. Painting prairie landscapes.

At the polls, voting to save our natural areas and fund them for the future.

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Doing their part to make sure change happens in the world.  Change doesn’t always come as quickly as we’d like. But the prairie reminds me—keep working toward restoring a  damaged world. It all starts with these small, simple actions that are ours to take.

“Do not go gentle into that good night…rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

You know, November isn’t so bad after all if it brings the opportunity of change—the hope of a better future—with it.  And at this point, I think I’ve talked myself into a hike. You too?

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Let’s go.

*****

Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) was a Welsh poet, whose lines that open this essay are from a poem of the same name. He told biographers he fell in love with words after learning nursery rhymes as a child. Thomas was a contemporary of T.S. Eliot, who helped bring him to the public’s attention as a very young man. Thomas was a high-school drop-out, an alcoholic, often homeless, hounded by creditors, and frequently cheated on his wife, Caitlin.  He died at age 39 from pneumonia, probably complicated by alcohol poisoning and drug use, and Caitlin was incarcerated for a time in an insane asylum. And yet—out of so much despair and damage—there are these beautiful poems. Click here to hear Thomas read Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.

****

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom):  Rice Lake-Danada, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Wheaton, IL; pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens or Anemone patens) in seed, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; red maple (Acer rubrum) leaves on the path, Kath Thomas’ prairie planting, Hinsdale, IL; bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; Stone Barn Road, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL: prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) and bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis) seeds, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: rosinweed  (Silphium integrifolium) seeds, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; Remic Ensweiller, prairie manager, leads a tour of the Russell Kirt Prairie at College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL; thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Hinsdale Prairie Remnant, Hinsdale, IL.

A Season of (Prairie) Change

“Change is inevitable—except from a vending machine.”  — Robert Gallagher

*****

When you think of change, how does it make you feel?  Excited? Confused? A sense of dread? Or, perhaps you feel as one of my adult natural history students does. She walked in on the second day of class, saw I had rearranged our seating, and her face fell. Annoyed, she grumbled: “I HATE change!”

Love it, hate it, try to ignore it—-change is inevitable (except as where noted in our opening quote). October smacks us with this fact, then teases us with changes in color and texture, sounds and scents. See-saw temperatures and strange weather phenomena.  Autumn is already flirting with winter here in the Chicago region. Hey, what happened to Fall? Where’s the transition?

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In my backyard, the first freeze of the season—-followed by an unexpected snowfall and high winds, with a side helping of graupel-–has put “paid” to the gardening account for the year.  Basil? Should have gotten out there to pick it last week. Too late now. The only tomatoes I’ll have onward are the ones I threw from my garden into my freezer, ready for chili and spaghetti sauce over the winter.  But I’m not quite ready to trade my iced coffee for hot. My short sleeves for sweaters. My long sunny days for short.

It doesn’t matter what I want.  Change is oblivious to my personal preferences. Ready or not, here the cold weather comes. My backyard prairie patch still sports a sizzle of asters but most of the zing has gone out of them. For the rest of the month, I’ll find pleasures in the structures; the white puffs of silk from Joe Pye weed and little bluestem; the contrasts of stem and seed.

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The rich tapestry of October is already hurtling toward the bleak starkness of November.

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Contrasts, I tell myself. Think about seasonal simplicity. A winter landscape free from distractions like wildflowers, or the dazzle of bright-colored birds in breeding plumage. It’s easier to focus in winter. Worthwhile to consider the forthcoming season as a time to reflect. I’ll catch up on my reading and  make my garden and prairie steward to-do lists for next year. I’ll scribble: Take out the honeysuckle coming into the north side of the prairie. Check pasque flower seeds—did they germinate? Try a new method to get rid of the birds-foot trefoil along Willoway Brook. Issue an ultimatum to the reed canary grass. Plan a teaching display garden at the Prairie Visitor Center. 

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The tallgrass is no stranger to transitions; the prairie dock leaves changing from chlorophyll green to brittle brown remind me of this. Change means possibilities. Gaining new perspectives on old problems. Transition seasons like October keep me  from getting too comfortable, too complacent in my routines. Mostly, this season means moving from doing to observing and reflection.

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Visible life drains from the supple juicy prairie plants, as the leaves crisp into new patterns and textures. The prairie slowly becomes something different. Kind of a Dorothy entering the land of OZ—but in reverse.

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The tallgrass has gone to seed; a blizzard of white silk in a sea of grass. The bison pull on their winter coats as autumnal cues signal winter ahead. As I watch the bison drift across the prairie in strong winds that toss the seedheads and swirl the grasses, I’m reminded, once again, why so much of the prairie literature compares tallgrass to the ocean. Bison NG 10-20-18WM.jpg

The prairie decrescendos. Butterflies? Dragonflies? Bright memories, mostly, although a few linger on.  Now that the last prairie wildflowers are mostly bloomed out, the solitary mated queen bumble bees are looking for their wintering sites, ready to out-last the coming cold until spring.  Just a month ago, the bumble bees amused me as they foraged in the gentians. I miss the bumble bees’ frenetic activity on the prairie. I guess I’ll have to content myself with listening to bumble bee-inspired music until spring.

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Meanwhile, bird activity has stepped up to fill in the insect gaps. Migrating flocks move through, stripping the backyard birdfeeders; invasive starlings perform their choreography each day, schooling across the skies in black particles like those old Etch-a-Sketch tablet drawings. Eerily beautiful.  Pert chickadees rap out their signature songs. Canada geese drag chains of “V’s” across the slanted light of October skies. Everything seems a little surreal; a little otherworldly.

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The warblers have done their autumn clothes shopping and appear at my bird feeders in disguise. Even the goldfinches have taken on the color of olive oil. Remember when they were a dazzling yellow?

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Crows ink their way around the prairie, a welcome sight after the dramatic population decline of a decade or so ago due to West Nile virus.  I never thought much about crows until they disappeared for a few years, then rebounded. The prairie skies were emptier for their absence.

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As the earth tilts toward the winter solstice, the prairie puzzle pieces rearrange themselves into new images. I give myself a pep talk. Change can be positive. Why not invite it in, rather than resist it?

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If nothing else, I can say that the changes October brings keep me on my toes as I try to  pay attention. Notice the change of light; the ebb and flow of the community of the natural world. Listen to the hush of grasses bending in the strong winds, and the tap-tap-tap of the first snowflakes pelting the prairie. Breathe in occasional bursts of the metallic tang of cold prairie air, beginning to replace the scent of autumn decay.

October is a post-it note to myself: Embrace change. Enjoy each moment as it comes. After all, without change, life would be pretty predictable and stale.

And who wants that?

****

Robert C. Gallagher, whose quote opens this post, is a sportswriter and author of The Express: The Ernie Davis Story. He lives in Virginia.

All photographs and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom) road marking transition from agriculture to prairie, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Franklin Grove, IL; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  tree line and prairie transition at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; skies over the Schulenberg Prairie in October, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) leaf, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bluebird house on the prairie, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bison (Bison bison) in October, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Franklin Grove, IL; unknown bumblebee (Bombus) in cream gentian (Gentiana flavida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; goldfinch (Spinus tristis) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; October skies, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Franklin Grove, IL; bison corral gates, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy of Illinois, Franklin Grove, IL.

The (Prairie) Butterfly Effect

“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.

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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…

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A viceroy butterfly occasionally mixed in. Everywhere we looked, there were monarchs nectaring on stiff goldenrod.

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The prairie was a shimmer of motion and color in the late afternoon light.

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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…

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…and the uncommon regal fritillaries, which I’ve seen there a few times in the summer. They take my breath away!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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This is why we collect native prairie seeds, then go to crazy lengths to dry them and reseed new prairie restorations.WMseeds drying at Nachusa Grasslands 918.jpg

This is why we set the prescribed fires to renew the tallgrass each spring.

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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.

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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.

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This is what can happen when volunteers and stewards and site managers and donors care for the beautiful world we’ve been given.

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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.

A September Prairie Soaking

“Life is one big transition.”– Willie Stargell

******

Thunder rattles the windows. Up north, tornado warning sirens blare. The news broadcasts footage of holiday passengers wading across flooded roads to get to O’Hare Airport, thinking only of returning home.

The deluge continues.

At last, in the early evening, a short break in the precipitation gives me time to go for a walk. I head to the prairie to check conditions.

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Trail puddles are necklaced with black walnut leaves, pulled loose from their tentative moorings by the pounding rain.

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A ruby-throated hummingbird shelters from the weather in an oak along the path. Just like the passengers at O’Hare, the thunderstorms have put a crimp in this bird’s travel plans.

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The hummingbirds are migrating. In my backyard, they wage fierce battles over the single feeder filled with sugar water, placed tantalizingly over the butterfly weed and little bluestem. The hummers are driven by instinct. Powered by nectar—or in the case of my backyard birds—faux nectar. In a few weeks, they’ll disappear completely; their entertaining antics only a memory.

On the prairie, the sun breaks through the clouds. The tall Indian grasses, with their lingering raindrops, become crystal-hung chandeliers.

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For a moment. Despite the glitter and bling of raindrops catching sunlight, the prairie still seems dark. Subdued.  The beginning of September is always a bit melancholy.  Perhaps it’s the lowering slant of light; shorter days, longer nights. Just some of the many signals Mother Nature sends her creatures that colder weather is on the way.

For migrating dragonflies—green darners, black saddlebags, wandering gliders, and others—those signals mean GO! GO! GO! They’ve massed together, then zipped away to warmer climes this past week. Their remaining kin, bedraggled and shopworn, are left to face the coming cold.

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The end-of-the-season butterflies I’ve seen this week are a study in contrasts. A few are bright and freshly emerged. Like this newly-minted American painted lady. Crisply colored, with unblemished wings, she’s probably the Midwest’s late season generation of her species.

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Oddly enough, according to University of Florida, instead of making a southward journey, American painted ladies, or “American ladies” as they are sometimes called, “overwinter in the southern U.S. and repopulate more northern areas each spring.” The report tells us the northern limit of their overwintering is unknown. Is Illinois too cold? Probably. Apparently, “in north central Florida, American ladies migrate northward during the spring, but there is no significant southward migration in the fall.” Why not, I wonder?

So much mystery!

This great spangled fritillary butterfly is only a bit worse for wear after the summer’s adventures.

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Perhaps it doesn’t have the worries of a cross-continental trip on its mind. Just nectaring, nectaring, nectaring until the cold weather sets in. That’s what thistles are for, right?

But this evening, on the rain-drenched prairie, there isn’t much butterfly—or dragonfly—movement. Both likely shelter in the rain-glazed trees…

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…or nestle deep in the big bluestem and grasses.

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Thunder rumbles. The clouds sweep in.

It’s Mother Nature’s signal to me! Go!

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The first raindrops splatter the trail. Tonight, the local news broadcast will tell us this was the Chicago region’s wettest Labor Day on record.  But the September rain, no matter flooding and postponed picnics, has its purpose.  It nourishes the prairie and its creatures for the last months of the prairie season.  Gives a last boost to the goldenrods and asters, needed by monarchs on their long migratory journey south to Mexico. Coaxes the gentians to open, fresh and vibrant in the grasses.

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The passage from summer to autumn is bittersweet. But the prairie knows how to ease the transition. Butterflies. Gentians. The daily surprises of migration.

Even thunderstorms.

*****

The opening quote is from Baseball Hall of Famer, Wilver “Willie” Stargell (1940-2001), who played his entire 21-year professional baseball career for the Pittsburgh Pirates (1962-82). During his farm club years, he was harassed, threatened at gunpoint, and denied lodging because of his race in many of the towns where he played. Stargell, an African-American, was tempted to quit. He persevered to become one of the most beloved players in the game. Stargell is one of only five players to hit a home run out of Dodger Stadium, and is known for his long-distance home runs. Said Cincinnati Reds second baseman Joe Morgan upon Stargell’s death, “He never made anyone look bad, and he never said anything bad about anybody.” A good way to be remembered.

****

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): video clip of rainfall, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; thunderstorm approaching the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  rain-drenched path, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) in the rain, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Halloween pennant dragonfly (Celithemis eponina) at the end of the season, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; American painted lady (Vanessa virginiensis), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; great spangled fritillary (Speyeria cybele) on pasture thistle, (Cirsium discolor), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; trees on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) with raindrops, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: bridge to the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie gentians (Gentiana puberulenta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Turn the (Prairie) Page

“Something in me isn’t ready to let go of summer so easily.”–Karina Borowicz

If you read the book of seasons closely, you’ll know it’s about time to turn the page to a new chapter. Summer wildflowers give way to asters and goldenrods; birds fuel at the feeders, storing up energy for their long migrations. Meteorological autumn arrives on Saturday. Meanwhile, August covers the prairie like a blanket that’s been in the dryer long enough to get hot, but not dry. Humidity reigns.

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The pale Indian plantain on the tallgrass prairie is lush and jungle-like this season; the combination of heat and early rains this spring pushing it skyward.

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Wingstem blooms nearby….

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…and the asters on the prairie pop open; soft blooms of lavender blue.

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At home, I step out the back door to admire my prairie patch. As I pass the vegetable bed, I notice the tomatoes are rioting. Pick me! Pick me! No me! Me! 

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I avert my eyes. Our kitchen counter is awash in fruit. I should can tomato sauce, or dry tomatoes in my food dehydrator, or do something in the face of all this lipstick red abundance…

tomatoes 818wm.jpg …but instead, I avoid the whole issue and go for a stroll around the yard. Ten tomato plants didn’t seem like enough for us in May. Yeah, right.

But wait! There’s a rustle, deep in the tomato leaves. Reluctantly, I turn. A dark red insect—almost brown—rests on one of my Roma tomato plants.

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It’s a red saddlebags dragonfly, cooling its wings in the shade of the tomato leaves. I’ve never seen this species at either of the prairies where I’m a steward. The two times I’ve seen it over the past 13 years I’ve monitored have been in my small suburban backyard, among the tomatoes. I wonder what it’s up to?

We know the black saddlebags dragonflies migrate; we speculate the red saddlebags may migrate as well, although very little is known about this.  We do know that migration on the prairie is an epic event. The past two weeks, I’ve watched the black saddlebags and common green darners massing and moving south, just as I have the past decade or so.

 

Perhaps this red saddlebags in my garden is headed south as well. Better hurry up!

I leave the dragonfly in peace. Now, by the porch, I notice movement in the mums and the roses. Someone else is out for an evening walk. She’s barely visible.

See that white plume?

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SKUNK! Uh, oh.

I avoid the porch, and detour to my prairie patch where the goldenrod is in full bloom. The monarch butterflies loved the swamp milkweed I planted for them this summer, but now, as they migrate to Mexico, they need fall-blooming wildflowers to nourish them on their way.  Scientists tell us that monarchs are looking for nectaring sources beyond milkweed. Goldenrod in my backyard prairie serves as a filling station for their long journeys. A beautiful—if a bit unruly—filling station, at that.

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Still keeping an eye on the skunk, which is now rummaging under the bird feeders for dropped seeds, I marvel over the prairie. What a year it has been for the Silphiums in my backyard! The compass plant, cup plant, and prairie dock have flourished. Compass plant is now in bloom, in seed, and in “sap.” Resin oozes from the hairy stem. Native American children chewed the resin like Wrigley’s spearmint, and although I’m not fond of it on my teeth (nor is my dentist fond of finding it there) I do love the piney smell. It’s one of the scents of summer. As I rub it stickily between my fingers, I feel a melancholy sense of something passing.

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Cautiously, I walk back to the porch. The skunk is gone, visiting the neighbor’s birdfeeders, no doubt. I notice the moonvine. It has yet to bloom this summer but finally, has its first buds.

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Moonflower is a night blooming species of morning glory. I like it, as it gives me another excuse to sit on the back porch after sunset and listen to the cicadas. Perhaps tonight I’ll see it swirl open, and have my first chance this summer to enjoy its fragrance.

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Fitting, perhaps, to see these first moonflower buds as the night sky this week has been full of wonders over my suburban neighborhood. Like the just-past-full moon last night, looking like an antique coin, or the juxtaposition of the Moon and Mars in the southeastern sky a few days ago.

moonmarsnighttime82318wm.jpgThe heat of the day gives way to a breath of cool; the relief of evening coming to the backyard. I glance up at the sky, darkening now, a few stars beginning to appear.

Goodnight, moon. So long, August.

It’s been swell.

*****

The opening quote is from September Tomatoes, a poem by Karina Borowicz. Her first poetry collection, The Bees are Waiting (2012), won numerous awards. Said Jeff McMahon in Contrary Magazine, “(She) captures the unbearable pulse of despair and hope in the world as its people pass across it, scarcely aware.”

****

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; pale Indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; smooth blue asters (Symphyotrichum laeve), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum), author’s kitchen, Glen Ellyn, IL; red saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea onusta), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; dragonfly migration swarm, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (from a few years ago, about this time in August); striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis) in the garden, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) oozing resin, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; moonflower vine (Ipomoea alba), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; moonflower vine buds (Ipomoea alba), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; Moon and Mars over author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Thinking in “Prairie Time”

“The strongest of all warriors are these two — Time and Patience.” — Leo Tolstoy

******

It’s a hot day for our prairie team to clear the main visitor trail.  The 90-plus humid mornings and torrential rains have resulted in lush vegetation. The path? Forbidding, overgrown. Visitors walk up to the trail entrance and turn away, put off by the idea of bushwhacking. Who would blame them? Trail clearing is overdue.

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For hours, volunteers work at a snail’s pace, bent over, carefully clipping back wildflowers and grasses to make an accessible path. At the end of the muggy, hot morning, it’s finally time to quit.

“Gosh, that was fun!” said one volunteer, cheerfully, drenched with sweat. Fun? 

She must have seen the look on my face, because she added, “Every week, when we pull weeds, I feel like I don’t see any results.  Sometimes, it seems like years on the prairie pass before we see any progress at all! But when we clear the trail, it’s instant gratification.”

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It’s true.  Instant gratification is unusual in the tallgrass. Sure, once in a while, a brush cutting day or big garlic mustard pull can yield tangible results. When we collect seeds of some prolific grasses or wildflowers, like pale purple coneflower, we have some momentary satisfaction. palepurpleconeflowerWM818

But the time it takes to develop a healthy, functioning prairie community—with all its associated insects, birds, and plants—is the work of decades, if not a lifetime.

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Thinking in “prairie time” requires recalibration of everything society primes us for. Post something on social media? Instantly, “Like! Like! Like!” follows. Too busy to cook? Drive-through restaurant windows put hot food in your hands in minutes. Not so on the prairie. On one tallgrass site where I am a steward supervisor, we battle an agricultural weed called sweet clover. I’ve pulled clover there for 15 years, and I’ve never seen an end to it. For the first time this season, the battle seems almost over. Because of this, our team was able to turn our attention to some other invaders. Giant ragweed. Curly dock. And lately, Japanese hedge parsley, which looks a lot like Queen Anne’s lace.

I’ve been pulling the Queen Anne’s lace from my backyard prairie this month as well, especially around a second-year planting that includes Kankakee mallow. For years, I’d admired it on the prairie….KankakeeMallowspma818wm copy

…and coveted it for my own backyard prairie plot. I found it at a local garden center specializing in natives. The first season, I had a few blooms. Beautiful!

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This year, the bunnies nipped it back until all I had were short, leafy stalks.

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Disappointing. But, as I often remind myself, thinking in “prairie time” is mostly about patience. Same with the cardinal flowers. That flaming color! I always anticipate it. Some summers, my pond and wet prairie has an abundance of screaming scarlet. The hummingbirds go wild! Then, thecardinalflowerCROSBYbackyard81318wm next season, the flowers disappear.

 

Ah, well. Wait until next year.

The prairie reminds me to think in terms of years, not just the immediate.  But, ironically, the prairie also reminds me that every moment is precious.  I know to stop and admire the wildflowers which change from day to day…

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… or pause in my work to marvel at a gathering of swallows, swooping and diving….

 

…or linger at Clear Creek to enjoy the bright blue of a springwater dancer damselfly.  If I rush off, thinking “I’ll look at that next time I’m here,” there is often no “next time.” I miss the moment.

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Then I think of “prairie time” as these moments; small snapshots of color and light and motion I can carry with me in my memory.

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How elastic time is! How odd it is, as well. Something we move through without conscious thought most days. Yet, how treasured time should be.  As I grow older, the idea of time has taken on new meaning. Want to aggravate me? Say you are “killing time!” Time is much too precious to waste.

The prairie teaches me different ways to think about time. It reminds me that the long-term results are worth forgoing instant gratification.  It also prompts me to remember the importance of paying attention to the moment—the fleeting nature of time. Two very different ways to understand the how I’m spending my life.

Two ways of thinking about living in “prairie time.”

***

Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) is a Russian writer who is widely regarded as one of the finest to ever wield a pen. The opening quote is from his 1869 epic, War and Peace. He believed in passive resistance; his ideas were said to have influenced Martin Luther King Junior and Gandhi. War and Peace is thought to be one of the great novels in literature; its title has passed into colloquial use. Tolstoy had a rather tumultuous life; he was excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church, and his marriage to his wife, Sophia, was generally considered to be desperately unhappy. They had 13 children, only eight of which survived to adulthood. Tolstoy died of pneumonia at 82.

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL;  pale purple coneflower seedheads (Echinacea pallida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Kankakee mallow (Iliamna remota) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Kankakee mallow (Iliamna remota) author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; Kankakee mallow  (Iliamna remota) author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) and sweet Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; video of barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) congregating on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; springwater dancer damselfly, male (Argia plana), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Honk if You Love Prairie

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

*****

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.

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.