“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.
“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
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.
Ahhhh. The air smells newly-washed…as it is. As I walk the neighborhood, the leaves drift down, released by wind and water.
Welcome, rain! Stay awhile. We need you.
Dry conditions suit prairie gentians. They linger on, adding their bright color to an increasingly sepia landscape.
Goldfinches work the pasture thistles.
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.
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…
…then flying to a good spot to oviposit, or lay eggs. Everywhere I turn, more autumn meadowhawks!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Whenever I see them, I’m reminded of the Frog & Toadbooks I love to read to my grandchildren, and the value of true friendships, as evinced in those stories. Strong friendships, worth hanging on to.
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.
I can’t wait to see what the prairie holds for us in October.
Why not go see for yourself?
The opening quote is from Reading the Landscape of Americaby 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.”
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–ONLINE, 10-11:30 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 afternoon is bright, with spring in the air, a mild March afternoon, with the breath of April stirring… .”—Antonio Machado
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.
Winter hasn’t quite let go. No mistake about it. But the five senses say a shift in seasons is underway.
In between the prairie dropseed planted along the edges of my backyard patio, the crocus and snowdrops have emerged from their dark sojourn underground.
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.
Cardinal song wakes us in the morning. The windows are cracked open to take advantage of the smell of clean, laundered air.
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.
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.
Waves upon waves upon waves. Heading north to the top of the world. Flying determinedly toward something they only dimly remember.
On the prairie, ice still slicks the trails where shadows lie. We pull on knee-high rubber boots and slosh through slush.
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.
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.
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.
Inhale. The smell of damp earth. Not the scent of fall’s decay, but something similar.
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.
Any day now, fire will come to these prairies. Smoke-plumes will rise in the distance. The old season will be burned away.
Until then, the brittle grasses and battered wildflowers wait, tinder for the flames.
Today, spring seems like something exotic, something new.
It’s not a shout yet. It’s barely a whisper.
Can you hear it?
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.”
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.
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.