Tag Archives: nature blogging

A Frosty Prairie Morning

“It’s possible to understand the world from studying a leaf. You can comprehend the laws of aerodynamics, mathematics, poetry and biology through the complex beauty of such a perfect structure.” — Joy Harjo

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We wake up to fire and ice.

Crosby’s backyard prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL .

Worn-out leaves are alight with dawn; brushed with frost.

Cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The grass crackles with freeze as the rising sun illuminates each blade, sparks of light on a frigid morning. Swamp milkweed’s silk seed tufts are tattered almost beyond recognition by the night’s sharp whisper.

Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Joe Pye weed becomes nature’s chandelier.

Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Prairie cordgrass arcs across my prairie planting, stripped bare of seeds.

Prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Our small suburban backyard, as familiar to me as my breath, is transformed into something mysterious.

Ironweed (Vernonia sp.), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Tallgrass prairie plant leaves, furred with frost, take on new personas.

Crosby’s front yard prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Seedheads bow under the weight of the cold snap.

Queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The ordinary becomes extraordinary.

New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Goodbye, November.

Queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL. See the heart?

What a wild weather ride you have taken us on!

Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

What a month of wonders you’ve given us to be grateful for.

Common evening primrose (Oenothera biennis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

See you next year, November.

*****

Joy Harjo (1951-) is our 23rd Poet Laureate of the United States. A writer of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, her words are often autobiographical, and incorporate myths and folklore. Her poetry makes you think (“I could hear my abandoned dreams making a racket in my soul”). Her books include Catching the Light, Poet Warrior, Crazy Brave, and An American Sunrise. I love this line from Secrets from the Center of the World where she writes, “I can hear the sizzle of newborn stars… .”

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Join Cindy for her last program of 2022!

Wednesday, December 7, 2022 (6:30-8:30 p.m.) 100 Years Around the Arboretum. Join Cindy and award-winning Library Collections Manager Rita Hassert for a fun-filled evening and a celebratory cocktail as we toast the closing month of The Morton Arboretum’s centennial year. In-person. Register here.

A Short Hike on a Prairie Kame

“What a large volume of adventures may be grasped within this little span of life, by him who interests his heart in everything.” — Laurence Sterne

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Say “dry gravel prairie” and it doesn’t sound too exciting, does it? But a visit to the Sauer Family/Prairie Kame Forest Preserve in October is a reminder of just how beautiful these gravel prairies can be.

Sauer Family/Prairie Kame Forest Preserve, Sugar Grove, IL.

On arrival, I spend a few moments reading about the site.

Interpretive sign, Sauer Family Prairie Kame Forest Preserve, Sugar Grove, IL.

The hill is about 30 feet high, and according to the forest preserve, is “situated on the leading edge of the great glaciers that moved through and retreated from this area” more than 10,000 years ago. It’s a stunning interruption of the flat prairies and cornfields all around.

Sauer Family/Prairie Kame Forest Preserve, Sugar Grove, IL.

Listen! Crickets sing. Big bluestem and Indian grass sieve the wind.

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Sauer Family/Prairie Kame Forest Preserve, Sugar Grove, IL.

A “marsh hawk”—also known as the northern harrier—flies over, looking for mice.

Northern harrier (Circus hudsonius), Sauer Family/Prairie Kame Forest Preserve, Sugar Grove, IL.

Planes from a nearby regional airport soar over too, their pilots looking for an afternoon’s adventure in the sky.

Plane over Sauer Family/Prairie Kame Forest Preserve, Sugar Grove, IL.

Other fliers hang out low in the tallgrass.

Eastern tailed-blue butterfly (Cupido comyntas ), Sauer Family/Prairie Kame Forest Preserve, Sugar Grove, IL.

Showy goldenrod bumps blooms with Canada goldenrod.

Showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) and Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), Sauer Family Prairie Kame/Forest Preserve, Sugar Grove, IL.

The prairie brims with fresh flowers…

Tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Sauer Family/Prairie Kame Forest Preserve, Sugar Grove, IL.

…and wildflowers going to seed.

Tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Sauer Family/Prairie Kame Forest Preserve, Sugar Grove, IL.

And such seeds!

Rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium), Sauer Family/Prairie Kame Forest Preserve, Sugar Grove, IL.

Watch out for rattlesnake master, with its bristling globes that prick inquisitive fingers.

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium ), Sauer Family/Prairie Kame Forest Preserve, Sugar Grove, IL.

Listen for white wild indigo, rattling its seedpods. What, no seeds inside? Tap a pod and watch the weevils spill out.

White wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), Sauer Family/Prairie Kame Forest Preserve, Sugar Grove, IL.

Crush the gray-headed coneflower seedheads. Inhale the lemony fragrance. Mmmm.

Gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata), Sauer Family/Prairie Kame Forest Preserve, Sugar Grove, IL.

A broad-headed bug patrols the bush clover.

Broad-headed bug (iNaturalist suggests it is Alydus eurinus ) on round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata), Sauer Family/Prairie Kame, Sugar Grove, IL.

Leadplant’s leaves catch the light, showing off the silvery hairs that give this plant its name.

Leadplant (Amorpha canescens ), Sauer Family/Prairie Kame Forest Preserve, Sugar Grove, IL.

It’s my first prairie hike since I was unexpectedly sidelined six weeks ago. What a wonderful feeling, to be out on a tallgrass trail! What a gorgeous day to be outside.

Sky blue aster (Symphiotrichum oolentangiense), Sauer Family/Prairie Kame Forest Preserve, Sugar Grove, IL.

What a beautiful day to be alive.

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Laurence Stern (1713-1768), whose quote opens today’s post, was a novelist and cleric whose work was included in 18th Century anti-slavery literature. He struggled with tuberculosis or “consumption” most of his life.


Save Bell Bowl Prairie!

Gravel prairies are rare in Illinois. It’s not too late to Save Bell Bowl Prairie, an important gravel prairie remnant in Rockford slated for demolition by the Chicago Rockford International Airport. Click here for simple things you can do to help protect this prairie from demolition.


Upcoming Programs this Autumn

Tuesday, October 11, 2022 (7-8:30 p.m.)—The Tallgrass Prairie; An Introduction hosted by Twig & Bloom Garden Club, Glen Ellyn, IL. This is a closed event for members. For information on joining the club, visit their Facebook page here.

Friday, October 14, 2022 (10-11 a.m.)—-A Brief History of Trees in America. Discover the enchanting role trees have played in our nation’s history. Think about how trees are part of your personal history, and explore trees’ influence in American literature, music, and culture. Hosted by the Elgin Garden Club and the Gail Borden Public Library District, Main Branch, 270 North Grove Avenue, Meadows Community Rooms. In person. Free and open to the public, but you must register. Find more information here.

Thursday, October 20, 2022 (10:15-11:30a.m.)—The Garden’s Frequent Fliers: Dragonflies and Damselflies, Lincolnshire Garden Club, Vernon Hills, IL. This is a closed event for members only. For information on joining this club, please visit their website here.

Nature Writing II –Four Thursdays–October 27, November 3, 10, and 17, 2022, (9 to 11:30 a.m., in-person). Offered by The Morton Arboretum. Experiment with a variety of styles and techniques as you continue to develop your own voice. The same qualities of good writing apply to everything from blogs to books! No matter your background or interest, become the writer you always dreamt you could be. Register here.

Thanks to John Heneghan for the Northern Harrier identification in this week’s post.

August in the Prairie and Garden

“Gardening is a long road, with many detours and way stations… .”–Henry Mitchell

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Listen? Can you hear it? It’s the sound of summer winding down. Crickets and cicadas. A school bus passing by. The chatter of children walking home from school. My first-year front yard prairie pollinator patch (try saying that three times fast) is full of bees and insects working the wildflowers.

Front yard prairie pollinator patch, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Common Mountain Mint is a popular hangout.

Western Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) on Common Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum), Crosby’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The bees whiz over the last few Butterfly Milkweed flowers. And look—seedpods! Not bad for a first-year planting.

Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) with an unknown bee, Crosby’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Blazing Star blushes color; it won’t be long before it bursts into bloom. Are those spider silks trailing along the buds? I’m not sure.

Blazing Star (Liatris aspera), Crosby’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

In the backyard, the garden shifts into high gear. The squirrels, chipmunks, and birds are ready for it. They wreak havoc on the tomatoes, eggplant, and anything else that catches their fancy. I find big, impudent bites out of my best, almost-ripe “Delicious” and “Supersteaks.” What to do?

This week, I covered green tomatoes and some of the eggplant with drawstring mesh bags to deter any furry or feathered noshers.

Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

We’ll see if it works. My yard is wildlife-friendly, and I like it that way. But this summer, it’s been a little too wildlife-friendly for the garden. Although the mesh bags make the garden look a little strange, hopefully this will slow hungry varmints down a little bit.

Meanwhile, I try to stay a day ahead of the critters by picking a little early. Sometimes, it works.

Tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum)—Delicious, Better Boy, Supersteak. (Glen Ellyn, IL)

Fortunately, the birds, bunnies, and squirrels don’t seem interested in okra. I would grow Burgundy Okra just for its flowers alone. I also love okra in soups and gumbo. And wait—is that a Yellow Jacket? Or a Paper Wasp? They are tough to tell apart.

Possibly an Eastern Yellowjacket (Vespula maculifrons) on Burgundy Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

This week, I’ve been reading Endless Forms: The Secret World of Wasps. As I’ve read, I’ve put aside a few of my prejudices against these varied and diverse insects. I learned there are tens of thousands of named wasp species in the world! My apprehensions about wasps are slowly being replaced by curiosity. There is so much to discover.

Next to the okra, the arugula is in bloom. It’s so…stripy! Attractive enough that I haven’t pulled it yet. Soon, I’ll need its garden spot for lettuce or beets. But for now I’m enjoying the flowers.

Arugula (Eruca vesicaria), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Nearby, the green beans tower six feet high over my head. This June, after the bunnies sheared off the early green bean leaves, I fenced my raised bed. The beans slowly put out new leaves and took off. Now, at the end of August, I finally see the results. Green beans for dinner! At last.

Kentucky Blue Lake Green Beans (Phaseolus vulgaris), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The backyard prairie patch is shorter this season, likely due to the lack of rain here. However, some of the toughest plants are flourishing. Joe Pye Weed is in full bloom.

Sweet Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium purpureum) with an unknown bee, Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Cup Plant thrives. (Although, when does Cup Plant not do well???)

Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The goldfinches love drinking the rain that collected in Cup Plant’s leafy “cups” after this weekend’s brief shower. Nearby, Obedient Plant is so short it is barely noticeable. But still the bumblebees, hummingbirds, and butterflies seem to find it.

Obedient Plant (Physostegia virginiana) with some tiny pollinators, Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Speaking of hummingbirds and butterflies, what’s that by the pond? Great Blue Lobelia is in bloom! One of our backyard’s prettiest August wildflowers.

Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Close to the Great Blue Lobelia I see our first Cardinal Flower of the season. What a beauty.

Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

It’s a lovely surprise. With the recent lack of rainfall, I wasn’t sure we’d see Cardinal Flower at all this summer. It makes me wonder—what other surprises will the prairie and garden offer this week?

I can’t wait to find out.

*****

The opening quote is by Henry Mitchell (1923-1993) from Henry Mitchell on Gardening. His sense of humor reminds me to keep smiling, even when the bunnies nibble my new native prairie plantings and the squirrels make off with the tomatoes…again. Mitchell was a columnist for the Washington Post for almost 25 years.

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Join Cindy for a Program in September!

Saturday, September 24 —In-Person Writing and Art Retreat at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: Spend a day immersed in nature with guided writing and art workshops. Set aside time to disconnect from the day-to-day and focus on the natural world through writing and art. Sessions will explore nature journaling, sketching, developing observation skills, and tapping into your creativity. Throughout the day, you will learn from professional writers and artists, take in the sites of the Arboretum, and explore nature with fellow creatives. Appropriate for all levels. Cindy will be teaching the morning sessions. Join me! Click here for more information and to register.

Of Prairie Wildflowers and Wily Weevils

“If I had my way, I’d remove January from the calendar altogether and have an extra July instead.” –Roald Dahl

We need…rain. I keep looking to the skies for any sign of it. No luck.

What we will see on Wednesday is the full “Super Buck Moon” , sometimes called the “Thunder Moon”. On Monday, not quite at peak, it was still stunning.

Almost to full moon over Crosby’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Despite the lack of rain, the prairie pours out flowers.

Leadplant (Amorpha canescens) and prairie cinquefoil (Drymocallis arguta), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Acre after acre of wildflowers.

Leadplant (Amorpha canescens), prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), new jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus) and other prairie species, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Not all is going smoothly in the grasslands, however. This is the season of the wonderful, wild, and wicked weevils. Two of the prairie’s evil weevils merit special attention: the sunflower head-clipping weevil and the wild indigo weevil. Let’s turn our attention first to the sunflower head-clipping weevil.

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL. (2020)

Looks innocent, doesn’t it? Then —see that compass plant with its flowerhead chopped off? 

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

That’s a signature weevil move. How about that prairie dock bloom? Or…was in bloom.

Prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Yup, the wily weevil was at work again.  Sometimes known by its nickname, “the head clipping weevil,” its scientific name is almost-almost!–unpronounceable: Haplorhynchites aeneus. Our wicked weevil is black, and about ⅓ inches long with a long, curved schnoz. Rather than knifing through the flower itself, the weevil severs the stem below the flower head. After the weevil applies the guillotine and girdles the flower’s peduncles (try saying that fast three times), the resiny sap of the compass plant bubbles to the surface and glistens in the sunshine. You can see the resiny sap on the plants in the winter, too, but it’s more crystalized.

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL (November 2021)

Now, swipe your finger over that sticky sap, and you’ll get a taste of Native American chewing gum. Note: Don’t get the resinous sap in your hair. If you do, you’ll star in a completely different kind of episode of “Chopped.”

White wild indigo (Baptisia alba) and brown-belted bumblebee (Bombus griseocollis), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

The sunflower head-clipping weevil is only one of many weevils on the prairie. The wild indigo weevil (Trichapion rostrum) is in the Family Brentidae, a group of straight-snouted weevils. This family is currently in flux—entomologists still haven’t decided who exactly is in it (#entomologicaldilemmas). This is a hungry, hungry weevil, which we find in the fall inside pods of white wild indigo. At only a quarter of an inch, the wild indigo weevil is (wait for it) the “lesser of two weevils.” (Da-da-dum).

Wild indigo weevils at work on white wild indigo seed pods, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL. (2021)

Weevils have many devoted fans. There are weevil blogs, weevils websites, and weevil specialists. You could say that weevils are some of the stars of the insect world! I’m glad they specialize. Imagine if they cut the flower heads off of all prairie flowers. Yikes!

Prairie milkweed (Asclepias sullivanti), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

It’s bad enough they attack some of the sunflowers and some of the coneflowers. Destructive? Yup. Fascinating? Absolutely. Perhaps the most famous weevil is the Boll Weevil (Anthonomus grandis), featured in Elvis Presley’s song, “Little Sister.” Rock on, weevils! But leave some of the other prairie wildflowers to the bees and other insects, okay? 

Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Who knows what other intriguing insects you’ll find in the tallgrass this week?

12-spotted skimmer (Libellula pulchella), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Wildflowers, too.

Illinois tick trefoil (Desmodium illinoense), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Why not go for a hike and see what you discover?

*****

The opening quote is by Roald Dahl (1916-1990), a British spy, fighter pilot, and the author of James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

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Join Cindy for a class or program this week!

Last call for Beginning Dragonfly and Damselfly ID offered as a blended class through The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL! Join Cindy on Zoom Thursday for an introduction to the fascinating world of dragonflies and damselflies. Then, meet your class on the prairie to discover some of these beautiful flying insects. Register here.

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Thanks to Teri P. for the Elvis Presley reference, and to the following sources on weevils: The Smithsonian online, the Chicago Botanic Garden (great blog post! check it out), North Carolina State extension, Wikipedia, and the Kansas State Extension, and many prairie mentors over the years who loved the “lesser of two weevils” pun, and shared it with me. I laughed every time.

A Tallgrass Summer Solstice

“Ah summer! What power you have to make us suffer and like it.” — Russell Baker

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Happy Summer Solstice! The longest day of the year.

Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

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.

Confused Eusarca Moth (Eusarca confusaria), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

We need rain. Despite this, the prairies overflow with flowers.

Summer on the Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

As I hike three prairies across two states this week, I chant the wildflower names to refresh my memory. Scurfy pea.

Scurfy pea (Psoralidium tenuiflorum), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Northern bedstraw.

Northern bedstraw (Galium boreale), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Leadplant.

Leadplant (Amorpha canescens), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Bumblebees work the white wild indigo as the air hums with humidity.

Black and gold bumblebee (Bombus auricomus) on white wild indigo (Baptisia alba), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Ants explore goat rue.

Unknown ant on goat rue (Tephrosia virginiana), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

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.

Lance-leaved (sand) coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata) with unknown insects, Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

I pause to admire a dragonfly, performing his balancing act.

Twelve-spotted skimmer dragonfly (Libellula pulchella), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

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…

Immature Dickcissel (Spiza americana), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

…which may look different than their parents.

Dickcissel (Spiza americana), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

I spot my first buckeye butterfly of the season. Those rich colors!

Buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

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 (Mirabilis nyctaginea), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

Wild four o’clocks! A non-native in Illinois. And this one?

Clasping (or “common”) Venus’ looking glass (Triodanis perfoliata), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

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.

Bison (Bison bison), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

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.

Half moon, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

So much waiting to be discovered.

Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

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.

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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.

Hello, October Prairie

The little bluestem was exquisite with turquoise and garnet and chartreuse; and the big bluestem waved its turkeyfeet of deep purple high against the October sky, past the warm russet of the Indian grass.” — May Theilgaard Watts

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Drip. Drip. Drip.

Rain at last. A welcome opening to October! Sure, we’ve had a few intermittent showers just west of Chicago in September, but rainfall is far below normal. The garden shows it. My prairie patch—so resilient—is also suffering. No amount of watering with the hose is quite the same as a good cloudburst.

Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

Ahhhh. The air smells newly-washed…as it is. As I walk the neighborhood, the leaves drift down, released by wind and water.

Fallen leaves, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Welcome, rain! Stay awhile. We need you.

Road through Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Dry conditions suit prairie gentians. They linger on, adding their bright color to an increasingly sepia landscape.

Prairie gentian (Gentiana puberulenta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Goldfinches work the pasture thistles.

Pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Bright male goldfinches of spring and summer are gradually changing to the olive oil hues of autumn and winter. When I see them working over the seed pods in my backyard, I’m glad I left my prairie plants and some garden plants in seed for them. They love the common evening primrose seeds.

American goldfinches (Spinus tristis), Crosby backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL. (File photo)

This past week, the dragonflies put on a last-minute show. Most will be gone in mid-October; either migrated south, or their life cycle completed. It’s been great to see meadowhawks again. Usually ubiquitous in the summer and autumn, this group of skimmers have gone missing from my dragonfly routes on both prairies where I monitor this season. Suddenly, they are out in numbers. Mating in the wheel position…

Autumn meadowhawks (Sympetrum vicinum) in the wheel position, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

…then flying to a good spot to oviposit, or lay eggs. Everywhere I turn, more autumn meadowhawks!

Autumn meadowhawks (Sympetrum vicinum) in “tandem oviposition”, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Ensuring new generations of meadowhawks to come on the prairie. A sign of hope. I love seeing that brilliant red—the bright scarlet of many of the species. Autumn meadowhawks have yellow-ish legs, which help separate them from other members of this difficult-to-identify group. The white-faced meadowhawks have, well…. you know.

White-faced Meadowhawk (Sympetrum obtrusum), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

The face is unmistakeable. Many of the meadowhawks are confusing to ID, so I was grateful to see my first band-winged meadowhawk of the year last week, with its distinctive amber patches.

Band-winged Meadowhawk (Sympetrum semicinctum), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

If only all meadowhawks were this easy to distinguish as these three species! It’s a tough genus. I’m glad they showed up this season.

Other insects are busy in different pursuits. Some skeletonize plants, leaving emerald cut lace.

Skeletonized riverbank grape (Vitis riparia) leaf, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

Northern leopard frogs, now in their adult stage, prepare for hibernation. As I hike through the prairie wetlands, looking for dragonflies, they spring through the prairie grasses and leap into the water.

Northern leopard frog (Lithobates pipiens), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Whenever I see them, I’m reminded of the Frog & Toad books I love to read to my grandchildren, and the value of true friendships, as evinced in those stories. Strong friendships, worth hanging on to.

Familiar bluet (Enallagma civile), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

As we begin to navigate our second pandemic autumn, I feel a renewed gratitude for close friends, an appreciation for family, and an appreciation for the peace and solace to be found in the natural world.

False solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosum),Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

I can’t wait to see what the prairie holds for us in October.

Schulenberg Prairie trail, Lisle, IL.

Why not go see for yourself?

*****

The opening quote is from Reading the Landscape of America by May Theilgaard Watts (1893-1975). Watts was the first naturalist on staff at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL, and a poet, author, and newspaper columnist. Her drawings and words continue to illuminate how we understand a sense of “place.”

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Join Cindy for a program or class!

Wednesday, October 13, 10-11:30 a.m. (CT): “A Cultural History of Trees in America” ONLINE! Offered through The Morton Arboretum. Join Cindy from the comfort of your couch and discover the way trees have influenced our history, our music and literature, and the way we think about the world. Register here.

Friday, December 3: WINTER PRAIRIE WONDERS–ONLINE10-11:30 a.m. (CT)Discover the December Delights of the Tallgrass! Make yourself a cup of hot tea, snuggle under a warm afghan, and join prairie steward and writer Cindy Crosby virtually for this interactive online immersion into the tallgrass prairie in winter. See the aesthetic beauty of the snow-covered grasses and wildflowers in cold weather through colorful images of winter on the prairies. Follow animal tracks to see what creatures are out and about, and see how many you can identify. Learn how birds, pollinators, and mammals use winter prairie plants;  the seeds for nourishment and the grasses and spent wildflowers for overwintering, protection, and cover. Then, listen as Cindy shares brief readings about the prairie in winter that will engage your creativity and nourish your soul. Registration information here.

The Prairie Whispers:”Spring”

“The afternoon is bright, with spring in the air, a mild March afternoon, with the breath of April stirring… .”—Antonio Machado

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It’s 63 degrees. I leave my heavy winter coat, gloves, and scarf in the closet and pull out my windbreaker for the first time in months.

Treeline in bright sun, East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Winter hasn’t quite let go. No mistake about it. But the five senses say a shift in seasons is underway.

Gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) and Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), Dick Young Forest Preserve Prairie, Batavia, IL.

In between the prairie dropseed planted along the edges of my backyard patio, the crocus and snowdrops have emerged from their dark sojourn underground.

Crocus (Crocus sp.) , Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

When I dug them in last October, the pandemic seemed to have gone on forever. Vaccination was only a dream. Spring seemed a long way off. Today, I count the flowers—10, 20, 40… . Look how far we’ve come.

Crocus (Crocus sp.) ,Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Cardinal song wakes us in the morning. The windows are cracked open to take advantage of the smell of clean, laundered air.

Tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

On the prairie trails I see a honey bee, flying low to the ground, looking for something blooming. Not much. Warm temperatures and hot sun have brought the earliest prairie fliers out today. My ears catch the buzz—a sound I haven’t heard in months. Soon, I won’t even register it when the pollinators are out in numbers. Today, that “buzz” is still new enough to catch my attention.

Gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Dick Young Forest Preserve, Batavia, IL.

In the afternoon, hundreds of sandhill cranes pass overhead, their cries audible even inside the house. We stand on the back porch, eyes shielded against the bright sun, watching.

Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), Cindy’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Waves upon waves upon waves. Heading north to the top of the world. Flying determinedly toward something they only dimly remember.

Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), Dick Young Forest Preserve, Batavia, IL.

On the prairie, ice still slicks the trails where shadows lie. We pull on knee-high rubber boots and slosh through slush.

Trail through Dick Young Forest Preserve prairie, Batavia, IL.

In spots the paths are springy like a mattress. The trail gives unexpectedly and I tumble down, sprawling, laughing. It’s like sinking into a pillow– although a cold, muddy one. In spring, there are so many new sounds and scents it’s easy to forget to watch your step.

Bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Burdock burs, grasping at their last chance to hitchhike a ride, catch our clothes. We spend a few minutes pulling them off. Ouch! I’d forgotten how sharp they are. Years ago, I remember our collie getting into a big patch of burdock. Impossible to remove. I spent a good long while with the scissors, cutting the burs out.

Dick Young Forest Preserve prairie blues, early March, Batavia, IL.

All around me are the last seeds of 2020; those that remain uneaten by voles, undisturbed by winter storms. Seed dispersal is so varied on the prairie! Wind and animals; people and birds—we all have a role to play in the continuing life of plants. Even now, the vanishing snow is filtering the fallen seeds into the soil, ready for a new life.

Indian hemp or dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum), East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Inhale. The smell of damp earth. Not the scent of fall’s decay, but something similar.

Goldenrod (Solidago sp.) “bunch gall”, East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The fragrance teases my nose. Tickles my memory. It’s the spring’s “prairie perfume.”

The sky begins to cloud with tiny popcorn cumulus. The warmth of the day takes on a bit of a chill. These are the last days of tallgrass.

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Any day now, fire will come to these prairies. Smoke-plumes will rise in the distance. The old season will be burned away.

After the prescribed fire, Fermilab Interpretive Trail, Batavia, IL. (2018)

Until then, the brittle grasses and battered wildflowers wait, tinder for the flames.

Nachusa Grasslands, prescribed fire on Big Jump Prairie (2016).

Today, spring seems like something exotic, something new.

Cattails (Typha sp.), East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

It’s not a shout yet. It’s barely a whisper.

Wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Dick Young Forest Preserve prairie, Batavia, IL.

But listen.

Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis), East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Can you hear it?

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The quote that opens this post is by Antonio Machado (Antonio Cipriano José María y Francisco de Santa Ana Machado y Ruiz) (1875-1939) from Selected Poems, #3. Machado is regarded as one of Spain’s greatest poets. Reflective and spiritual, his poems explore love, grief, history and the landscape of Spain. A longer excerpt (as translated by Alan Trueblood), reads: “The afternoon is bright, /with spring in the air, /a mild March afternoon,/with the breath of April stirring,/ I am alone in the quiet patio/ looking for some old untried illusion -/some shadow on the whiteness of the wall/some memory asleep/on the stone rim of the fountain,/perhaps in the air/the light swish of some trailing gown.”

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

Virtual Wildflower Walks Online: Section A: Friday, April 9, 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. CST Woodland Wildflowers, Section B: Thursday, May 6, 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. 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.

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.