Tag Archives: November

November Prairie Focus

“Young prairie plants put down deep roots first; only when these have been established do the plants invest much energy in growth above ground. They teach us that the work that matters doesn’t always show.” -Paul Gruchow

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The cold, gray days of November are here. Beautiful? Yes, in their own way. They offer time for reflection on a year mostly past.

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The sky becomes a slate backdrop to plants which spike and angle and curve. Like silhouette cut-outs.

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Grace notes. Some more interesting now in seed and shape than they were in bloom.

It’s easy for me to overlook what’s good about November. Easier to long for sunshine and warmth; for the fireworks of July wildflowers—purple leadplant spikes and bright orange butterflyweed and lemon-yellow coreopsis. The fresh emerald spikes of grasses pushing through the dark prairie soil in spring. Or even the golds and violets of the autumn prairie.

Seems like we missed part of that season with our early snows.

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As I walk, I think of John Updike’s poem, November:

The stripped and shapely

Maple grieves

The loss of her

Departed leaves.

The ground is hard,

As hard as stone

The year is old

The birds are flown…..

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Much of what I see on the prairie is a matter of focus. In November, I have to remind myself that beauty is here. That the work of restoration is moving forward. It’s a more difficult season than spring when everything is full of promise and possibility. The “prettiness” and promise of the prairie is more obvious in the warmer months. November’s calibration of what constitutes headway, success on a prairie, is different.

Gray. Beige. Black. Brown. The prairie smells of wet earth. Snowmelt. Decay. You’d think this would be distressing, but it’s strangely pleasant. Invigorating.  It’s the fragrance of a work in progress. The cycling of nutrients. The prairie finishes its work of the growing season, then lays the groundwork for the future.

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Sometimes, I look at the November prairie and all I see is the unfinished work of a prairie steward. The native brambles taking over, arcing their spiny branches across the prairie and shading out wildflowers.

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It’s discouraging. Impatience surges. Are we really making a difference here? Or are we like Sisyphus, rolling a boulder uphill, only to have it roll back.

Then, I remember. There was a time when I didn’t  think about these “brambles” because the invasive buckthorn, honeysuckle, and sweet white and yellow clovers were consuming all my stewardship hours. It’s a luxury  now to have most of these problem plants licked (Hubris, don’t strike me down!) and room to think about how to tackle new management  issues.

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Despite my self-reassurance, as I hike I see other potential issues. Are the native grasses dominating the wildflowers? Is the false sunflower spreading too aggressively  in the corner by the bridge?

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I tuck my cold fingers into my pockets and stand on the bridge over Willoway Brook.  Reed canary grass chokes the shoreline. A never-ending problem. Then I look closer. I’m missing the lovely configurations of ice and stream; leaf and stone.

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Just across the bridge is a new “menace.” The past several years I’ve moaned about Illinois bundleflower making inroads into the prairie; it has become a monoculture in spots. Is it a desirable plant? Sure. It belongs on the prairie. But how much is too much? Decisions about how to manage it causes me some frustrating hours. But today, I take a few moments to admire it. Wow. Look at those seed pods.

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There are plants that “don’t belong” on a prairie restoration, and other plants that do, yet get a bit rambunctious. It’s so easy to focus on what’s wrong. Sometimes its tougher to remember what we’ve done well. To focus on the beauty, instead of the chaos.

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Nearby are ruined choirs of cup plants; taller than I am, growth-fueled by rain. Cup plants are the bane of my backyard prairie patch—aggressive thugs that elbow my Culver’s root and spiderwort out of the way.

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But here, on the 100-acre prairie, they are welcome. When I think about it, I realize I’ve not seen them in this area before. They are part of the first waves of prairie plants making inroads in an old field we’re restoring by the Prairie Visitor Center. A sign of success. A sign of progress.

Among the rusts and tans, there are bright bits of color. Carrion flower, now gone to inedible seeds.

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The last flag-leaves of sumac.

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Sumac is also an issue in parts of this prairie. But for now, I relax and enjoy the color.

Nuthatches call from the savanna. The breeze rustles the grasses. Looking over the prairie, focusing on its draining colors and dwindling seedheads…

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… I remember what Paul Gruchow wrote about the tallgrass prairie: “…The work that matters doesn’t always show.”

The day suddenly feels brighter.

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Paul Gruchow (1947-2004) was a Minnesota writer who wrote such beautiful books as Travels in Canoe Country; The Boundary Waters: Grace of the Wild; Journal of a Prairie Year; The Necessity of Empty Places; and Grass Roots: The Universe of Home from which this opening quote was taken. There’s nothing like the power of a good book—especially those passages that stick in your mind and are available when you need them the most.

John Updike’s lovely poem November” is found in A Child’s Calendar, first published in 1965. If you’re unfamiliar with his poetry, check out Facing Nature: Poems, Collected Poems: 1953–1993, and Americana and Other Poems (2001).

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken on the Schulenberg Prairie and Savanna at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, unless noted:  Willoway Brook in November; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); maple leaf (Acer saccharum) by the Prairie Visitor Station; silky wild rye (Elymus villosus) and log; prairie under snow in November; common blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis); prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides); Willoway Brook; Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) and unknown asters; cup plants Silphium perfoliatum); carrion vine (probably Smilax ecirrhata); staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina); false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides).

Please join Cindy for one of these upcoming classes or talks:

Saturday, December 7, 1:30-3 p.m.—Sterling Stories from the Arboretum Stacks: Grab a friend and spend a lively hour together sipping hot beverages while you enjoy little-known stories about the Morton Arboretum. What’s that old fountain doing in the library? Why was there a white pine planted in the May Watts Reading Garden? Who is REALLY buried in the Morton Cemetery—or not? What book in the Sterling Morton Library stacks has a direct relationship to a beheading? Why does the library have glass shelves? How has salt been a blessing —and a curse—to the Arboretum over its almost 100 years? Listen as 33-year Arboretum veteran library collections manager Rita Hassert and  Cindy Crosby spin entertaining tales of a place you thought you knew….until now.    A lovely afternoon enjoying little known Arboretum’s stories, and a quiet respite from the holiday hustle and bustle. Register here.

Sunday, December 8, 2-3:30 p.m.: Tallgrass Conversations at Prairieview Education Center, 2112 Behan Road, Crystal Lake, IL 815-479-5779 Book signing after the talk! Free and open to the public.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology online wraps up this month! Watch for the next course in March. Registration opens on November 19 here.

Nature Writing continues at The Morton Arboretum, on-line and in-person through November 20. Next session begins March 3, 2020. Watch for registration soon!

Find more at www.cindycrosby.com  

Walking the November Prairie

“To put one foot in front of the other is one of the most important things we do.” — Erling Kagge

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Last night, the “Frost Moon” or “Beaver Moon” rose in newly-clear skies, bringing with it plunging temperatures and blue shadows across the snowy backyard prairie patch. I stepped outside to breathe the brittle air.

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I’d forgotten what it felt like to be cold—really cold.

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Watching the winter weather advisory unfold Monday from behind the windows at home had left me vaguely dissatisfied.  I wanted to be outside.  So, I drove to the Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, a few precious remnant acres saved from development and the plow; sandwiched between I-88, a subdivision, and railroad tracks.

Gusts of winds blew snow into my face and dotted my camera lens.

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The prairie had been transformed. Overnight.

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On Sunday, almost 24 hours before, Jeff and I strolled the Belmont Prairie together under gray skies. The smell of snow was in the air—-a promise of what was to come. For now, temps were in the 40s.  Milkweed pods sent their seeds aloft in the breezes.

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Cooling temperatures had sucked most of the vivid colors from the plants. A few, such as these tall coreopsis, were bruised out of their summer greens by the elements.

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The last sunset hues were still in evidence on stiff goldenrod stems and foliage.

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Although I walk the prairies from week to week, year-to-year, I’m always surprised when the bright colors are drained seemingly overnight by a wave of cold. Without so much color—and the motion and buzz of dragonflies and butterflies–your eyes adjust to a new prairie reality. Lovely in its own way. But different.

So much of the November prairie is about the simplicity of line.

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The sharp relief of form.

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The grace of silks and seeds.

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The essence of the prairie season is distilled in its November plants, now winding down to an inevitable conclusion.

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As we hiked Belmont’s trails in the late afternoon’s burgeoning dark, a great-horned owl called from the trees. The perfect ending to our walk. We hurried back to the car.

Cold was coming. A wintery mix….just hours away.

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Monday, we woke up to snow, snow, beautiful snow.  I drove to the Belmont Prairie, this time alone.

What a difference 24 hours makes.

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The snow-sugared milkweed pod still holds seeds, but now they’re wet and matted. The goldenrod behind it bends under the weight of the white stuff.

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The sky sifts snow; softens the blunt edges of the prairie, outlines its structures…

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…blurs the jagged silhouettes of seed heads.

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We have entered the season of frosty geometry.

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Even the sounds have changed.  The snow dampens the rustle and hiss of grasses in the wind. I listen for the owl. Nothing. All I hear is the hum of traffic moving on nearby I-88.

Until. The sandhill cranes.

Their cries are faint—oh so faint—but unmistakable. They are headed south, toward warmth and sunshine. I shield my eyes in the snow, watching them go. It’s melancholy. But joyful as well. Another season is ending. A new one is beginning.

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As I head back to the car, I see  lights in the windows of houses sprinkled around the prairie. A woman, bundled to the eyes, shovels her driveway. The scrape-scrape-scrape is sharp and loud across the snow-blanketed landscape. Down the street that runs next to the prairie, a police cruiser pauses, idles.

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My cheeks are red; my hands are glove-less and sting and ache.  The wind whips ice crystals in my eyes. Each step I take on the narrow trails is uncertain. And yet.

When we put one foot in front of another, it changes us.

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In his book, Walking, Erling Kagge writes,  “Making things a little bit inconvenient gives my life an extra dimension.” I feel this tug all the time; the desire to be comfortable and the nagging knowledge that discomfort is often the gateway to discovery.  There is a longing to be a participant in the prairie community, as well as an observer.

Kagge writes, “So much in our lives is fast-paced. Walking is a slow undertaking. It is among the most radical things you can do.” Its rare that I’m not rewarded when I push myself out of my comfort zone.

The radical rewards of prairie walking keep me going back for more.

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Erling Kaage (1963-) is the author of Silence and also, Walking: One Step at a Time, from which the opening quote is taken. He has walked to the North Pole, the South Pole, and to the summit of Mt. Everest.

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All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): almost full “Frost Moon,” —sometimes called “Beaver Moon”— over author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; west side prairie planting and the European collection, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve in the snow, Downer’s Grove, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; prairie grasses, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL;  common milkweed pappus (Asclepias syriaca), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; blazing star (Liatris aspera), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; snowy Belmont Prairie in mid-November, Downer’s Grove, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) under snow, Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; the edge of Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) over Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris) seedheads, Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris) leaves, Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; Belmont Prairie in the snow, Downer’s Grove, IL.

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Please join Cindy for one of these upcoming classes or talks:

Saturday, December 7, 1:30-3 p.m.—Sterling Stories from the Arboretum Stacks: Grab a friend and spend a lively hour together sipping hot beverages while you enjoy little-known stories about the Morton Arboretum. What’s that old fountain doing in the library? Why was there a white pine planted in the May Watts Reading Garden? Who is REALLY buried in the Morton Cemetery—or not? What book in the Sterling Morton Library stacks has a direct relationship to a beheading? Why does the library have glass shelves? How has salt been a blessing —and a curse—to the Arboretum over its almost 100 years? Listen as 33-year Arboretum veteran library collections manager Rita Hassert and  Cindy Crosby spin entertaining tales of a place you thought you knew….until now.    A lovely afternoon enjoying little known Arboretum’s stories, and a quiet respite from the holiday hustle and bustle. Register here.

Sunday, December 8, 2-3:30 p.m.: Tallgrass Conversations at Prairieview Education Center, 2112 Behan Road, Crystal Lake, IL 815-479-5779 Book signing after the talk! Free and open to the public.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology online wraps up this month! Watch for the next course in March. Registration opens on November 19 here.

Nature Writing continues at The Morton Arboretum, on-line and in-person through November 20. Next session begins March 3, 2020. Watch for registration soon!

Find more at www.cindycrosby.com  

Tallgrass Thank You Notes

“…I hear a sound, sometimes a little more than a whisper, of something falling, arriving, fallen, a seed …there is no trace of regret in the sound or in the stillness after the falling, no sound of hesitation on the way, no question and no doubt.” M.S. Merwin

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I’ve been catching up on my thank-you notes this week, nudged by the upcoming holiday that reminds me to be grateful. Ironic, isn’t it? A week in the Midwest in which we dedicate ourselves to be thankful falls in one of the gloomiest seasons of the year.

What if Thanksgiving fell in July? Easy to get in a thankful mood.

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Or May, when shooting star blooms carpet the prairie after a long, cold winter; everything seems bathed in joy and delight. Do I feel thankful then? You bet!shootingstarSPMA51918wm

But November! Well, she makes no apologies for who she is.  November’s given me a lot to be grateful for. So, as I write my thank-you notes to people in my life this week, I figure I should write a few to November as well.

Here goes…

Thanks, November–your gray days are a foil for aspects of the prairie I’d otherwise overlook.  Would I notice the dangling seedpods of white wild indigo if they appeared this way in sunny July? Perhaps not. They seem to take on added charisma on gray, snow-spitting days.  “Prairie bling” of a certain kind.

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I appreciate how some of the less exciting plants get their moment in the spotlight this month, November. Late figwort isn’t a particularly glamorous plant, but this month, it gets a makeover. Without the pops of bright July wildflower color or distractions of butterflies and bees, the eye is drawn to figwort’s kitschy structure. Looks a bit like some management diagrams I’ve seen,  or maybe an organizational flow chart.

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Other flora and fauna of the prairie are worth a second look in November. Carrion flower, which twines its way through the prairie grasses without a lot of fanfare during the warm weather, is a show-stopper this month. (Nope, it’s not edible—unless you’re a bird or a mammal).

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November even gives the humble bison track some seasonal flair. Glitzy!

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Thanks for the unexpected, November. The rhythm of sandhill crane migration through prairie skies is an expected pleasure this month. But November bird life holds some surprises.

John Heneghen's Varied ThrushWM2 111918 Like this little guy, above. Our friends, John and Trisha, had a varied thrush show up this week in their backyard, not far from their prairie patch. The varied thrush is an erratic migrant from the West Coast not normally seen in the Midwest. Its arrival here in the Chicago region is a November serendipity. People drove from around the Midwest to see and add this colorful thrush to their life lists. Who knows what other avian surprises might appear this month?

Hey, November, thanks for teaching me about adapting and surviving.

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The hairs of the compass plant above speak of hard times. Each hair catches moisture and helps retain water, which keeps the compass plant alive through brutal Midwestern droughts. November peels away all the color and glam of a compass plant, and reminds me of how tough some of our prairie plants are. It’s a memo to myself, as well; a reminder that I have cultivated ways to navigate the difficult times of my life.  Survival skills. Adaptations.

November reminds me, “You’ve got this.” 

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Thanks, November for the transition. Change is good, right? Well, maybe. But change is usually difficult. As much as I enjoy the change of seasons, I also have trouble letting go of whatever season I’m in. As I get older, it seems time moves more quickly, with less time to adjust. November, with its segue from autumn into meteorological winter, helps make the transition to the end of the year a little easier.

willowaybrookSPMA118The photo above of Willoway Brook on the Schulenberg Prairie is a study in transitions. Snow has settled around the stream, which is just a breath away from freezing but still runs free and clear. High quality prairie on the left is juxtaposed with invasive reed canary grass along the shoreline, which prairie volunteers battled to a hard-fought draw this season. The partly-dead reed canary grass hangs over the brook, admiring its reflection, perhaps, and—in my mind—thumbing its proverbial nose at us. We’ve decided to let a certain amount of reed canary grass colonize the streambanks as we focus on other restoration activities on the prairie, a decision made simply from a time-management standpoint. The above photo tells many stories about persistence and patience; resistance and acceptance.

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Which reminds me…

Thanks, November, for the people who care for prairie. People like the site managers and volunteers and stewards. People like the prairie donors and environmental activists who make a difference. Those who take a child out to see the prairie. The person who shares a photo of the tallgrass with a friend. People like you—who care about the natural world.

The curtain is coming down on another year in the tallgrass. As it does…

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…I want to say thank you for reading. Thank you for being a part of the work that keeps the tallgrass prairie alive and thriving. Thank you for sharing your love of prairie with others. And, thank you for your part in keeping the tallgrass prairie visible, both in our communities and in people’s hearts and minds.

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What about you? Is there a thank-you note you’d like to write to November? Leave it in the comments section below as a reminder of what we have to be thankful for this month.

Thank you.

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The opening quote is from the poem, Garden Notes, from William Stanley “W.S.” Merwin’s collection, The Moon Before Morning (Copper Canyon Press). Twice a Pulitzer Prize winner, Merwin (1927-) was our 2010-11 United States Poet Laureate, and is known for writing his grief over our destruction of the natural world. Discover more about him at the Poetry Foundation. Click here to listen to him read his powerful and moving poem, Rain Light.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom) except for varied thrush as noted: monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), Nomia Meadow Farms prairie, Franklin Grove, IL; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia), Schulenberg Prairie in May, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla) with snowcap, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica) in November, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, carrion flower (probably Smilax lasioneura) in November, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  icy bison (Bison bison) track, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; varied thrush (Ixoreus naevius), photo courtesy John Heneghan, Kane County, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) seedhead, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale Indian plantain seeds (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; snowmelt on Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) in November, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; bench on the Schulenberg Prairie in November, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

With grateful thanks to John Heneghen, who shared his varied thrush photo and story with me for this post, and reminded me of another reason to be thankful for the unexpected serendipities of November.

Making Sense of November’s Prairie

“Don’t you know, some people say, the winter is the best time of them all…”–Neil Young

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I like a good challenge, don’t you? So this mid-November, I’m challenging myself to discover what’s lovable about my least favorite month of the year on the prairie.

Can there really be anything good about November? Every where I see signs of loss. Leaves dropping. Days shortening. Temperatures plunging. I’m not going to lie—I’ve been pretty grumpy about the whole change of seasons so far.

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But what I found as I hiked reminded me of why this season has its own charms, its own distinctiveness. Need convincing? Read on….

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The sounds of the November prairieare so different than the sounds of late summer and early autumn. Sound travels farther and more clearly in cold weather if conditions are right; check out this interesting article here. Next time you’re hiking through the prairie on a frosty morning, listen. See if you agree.

 

SPMAbench111218WM.jpg The wildlife noises are also different than the summer orchestra of insect songs and bee-buzz. Woodpeckers suddenly become the stars of the savanna show after hovering in the background most of the summer. They hang out on the edge of the prairie; their sharp calls pierce the cold air and their drumming adds a staccato beat to the gray days. Nuthatches chatter companionably to each other. Their calls remind me of clown bicycle horns (listen here).

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This week in the Chicago region, the sandhill cranes are scrawling their calligraphy across the skies, migrating south. Their appearance signals a seasonal transition.  What are they saying to each other? Arguing over directions, maybe? If you have never heard sandhill cranes bugle from high overhead, it’s an other-worldly sound that speaks of movement and change. Intrigued?  Listen to them here. 

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A touch-y, feel-y kind of season… November is a wonderful time to engage that tactile side of your personality. Consider a compass plant leaf. Rub your fingers across the rough surface.  Notice the texture. The leaf gracefully arcs, bowing to the inevitable, concentrating its energy in the plant’s deep roots for winter.

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Slide your fingers along the big bluestem “stem.” Feel that polished smoothness? It’s said that early settlers found these stems made a great substitute for lost knitting needles. No word on what gauge size.

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Mmmm… those smells!… Go on, inhale. Wakes you up, doesn’t it? These damp, gray days of mid-November have their own particular scent. Earthy. The sharpness of cold. A whisper of plant decay. A tang of the last wild bergamot, which smells of a cross between Earl Grey tea and thyme. When I sniff the gray-headed coneflower seeds, it brings lemons to mind; maybe even a bit of licorice. The hot buttered popcorn scent of prairie dropseed is long gone; the sweet floral smell of the common milkweed is memory.

But November has its own perfumery.

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Tasty!  Ah, the last leaves of mountain mint. You can still find a few green-ish ones, if you look. They aren’t as pliable as they were back in July, but they retain a little minty zing.  The crumbly rosin of compass plant is still pleasant in the mouth; a bit piney and not as problematically sticky.

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And of course, there is plenty to seefor those who look closely.  The first serious snowfall—you know, where there’s actual white stuff on the tallgrass and not just flakes in the air—can’t help but spark delight. Sure, you’ll hear people  moan, “I’m not ready for this,” but seeing the first real snow on the ground is comforting. Despite politics, shootings, wildfires, and global tragedies, the seasons keep rolling along.

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The often-gray skies of November are a foil for the metallic colors of the grasses, which are a backdrop for the silhouettes of spent seedheads

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It’s a different way of seeing at this time of the year. More difficult to find the beauty. But it’s there.

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Don’t forget…as you use your five senses to explore the November prairie, there is “the sixth sense.” Making the connection of the heart to what we experience. November reminds us of our own mortality—of the cycle of great abundance and heartbreaking loss; growth and rest—that we experience during our short time on this planet.  November on the prairie is homely, humble, and quiet. It reminds us, as that great prairie writer Paul Gruchow wrote in Grass Roots: The Universe of Home,the work that matters doesn’t always show.”

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Like all months, November has its own experiences to offer. New things to teach me. A time for reflection.

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If I have the courage to look November squarely in its seasonal face, instead of avoiding it, maybe I’ll learn something.

So. Bring it on, November. I’m really to learn from you, and experience all you have to offer.

What about you?

******

The opening epigram is from Neil Young’s song “Little Wing,” from his much-maligned album, Hawks and Doves. Despite mockery from my friends, this is one of my favorite Young albums. It will grow on you. Promise.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom) mixed November leaves, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; trail with light snow, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove Park District and The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove, IL; bench overlooking Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis), Schulenberg prairie edge, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  sandhill cranes  (Antigone canadensis) over author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; compass plant leaf (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; November grasses and forbs, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) rosin, Schulenberg Prairie,  The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, United States Department of Agriculture/Forest Service and The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Wilmington, IL; prairie cinquefoil (Drymocallis arguta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL;  bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Evening of a Prairie Year

“Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” — Marie Curie.

Lately I’ve been reading the poetry of Jane Kenyon, which somehow seems to match these gloomy November days. “Let evening come,” she wrote in a poem by the same name, and it does come, doesn’t it? Whether you welcome it or not, we’re hurtling toward the winter solstice on December 21. Now, in November, it feels like the evening of the year is here.

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In this seasonal twilight, November on the prairie can seem a desolate month. Perhaps the vivid color and bright birdsong of late summer and autumn are still freshly imprinted on our minds.

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There is plenty of beauty in the November prairie. But it has a different sort of allure than previously found. It’s more of the way you feel drawn toward a much-loved person, all wrinkled and worn, and call her beautiful, even though others may call her plain.

It’s in the spirit of the place…

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…the familiarity of that place; its grace—perhaps more evident now in this season, without the fripperies of wildflowers or pageantry of butterflies; with less of a backdrop of birdsong.

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November is more about the beauty that comes from the love you have for a place that you’ve invested in. A place that has given back to you in a thousand intangible ways. This is, perhaps, what makes the prairie enchanting in your eyes, even in November.

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I remind myself of this as I walk the tallgrass trails in that classic November weather which makes it so difficult to be outside this month. The paths are by turn limned with ice or sloppy with mud depending on the vagaries of the temperature. Big snow flurries slapped us in the face with winter last week. Quickly melted.  Winds—cold winds that slice through your warmest jacket—made a howling appearance. Sunshine warms up the day for a few hours then disappears.

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Oh, November. At times, the gray days bring with them an unshakeable gloom. As the daylight hours become shorter, so does my temper. I have less margin. Motivation dwindles. Hibernation begins to sound attractive. Tallgrass-WBHHprairieIowa11917

November will never be July, or May, or even September, no matter how much I wish it to be sometimes. I love the sun! These gray days try the spirit.

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But experiencing November will take me a long ways into understanding December and January… and these experiences will make me a different person — one that is tougher, more appreciative, more open to change. More resilient.

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November has its own rhythms.

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Its own astonishments.

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Its particular slants of light and patterns.

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Rather than sigh and tuck myself indoors with a book, I’m going to meet November halfway.

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Off I go. Unafraid of the gloom and even darker days ahead. Trying to embrace November.

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How about you?

****

Scientist Marie Curie (1867-1934), whose quote opens this post, was Polish in a time when being Polish was to be persecuted, and a scientist in a time when women were not welcomed as scientists. Unable to pursue higher education as a woman in her home country, she completed a PhD in France, and became the first person to win two Nobel prizes.

Jane Kenyon (1947-1995), whose poem “Let Evening Come” is mentioned in this post, writes unsparingly about the joys and terrors of the world. To read more about her and her work, look here.

All photographs copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Herbert Hoover Historic Site Tallgrass Prairie, West Branch, Iowa; Nachusa Grasslands in late summer, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Herbert Hoover Historic Site Tallgrass Prairie, West Branch, Iowa; big bluestem (Andropogon geraradii) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Herbert Hoover Historic Site Tallgrass Prairie, West Branch, Iowa; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Herbert Hoover Historic Site Tallgrass Prairie, West Branch, Iowa; gray-headed coneflower seedhead (Ratibida pinnata), Herbert Hoover Historic Site Tallgrass Prairie, West Branch, Iowa; leaves and acorns on the trail, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) pod, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima) Herbert Hoover Historic Site Tallgrass Prairie, West Branch, Iowa;  bluebird house with tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Herbert Hoover Historic Site Tallgrass Prairie, West Branch, Iowa; Schulenberg Prairie Savanna , The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.SaveSaveSaveSave

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Advice from John Muir

“Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” –John Muir

 

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You might not be able to climb a mountain, or spend a week in the woods in December, as the opening quote from John Muir advocates. But, a short walk in the winter prairie savanna does “wash your spirit clean.” Come hike with me and see why.

What is a prairie savanna, anyway? Very simply put, it’s a place that’s less dense than a forest, and has its own suite of plants. You may see tallgrass prairie plants, animals, birds, or critters you recognize here, as well. Especially on the edges.

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Look around. In Conrad Station’s black oak savanna at Kankakee Sands in northwestern Indiana, there are traces of human habitation. People once remade this landscape into a place for commerce. But now — with the help of volunteers  and caring people –nature has reclaimed the savanna.

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Dried fern fronds arch over the crunchy fallen leaves.

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A recent rain beads mullein leaves with water drops.

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Oaks, shorn of their fall finery, are decorated with shelf fungi. Elf staircases?

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Seeds…so many seeds. The plant leaves curl as they dry, perhaps more beautiful in death than in life.

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Towers of fungi rise from the savanna floor.

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There are “muffins” everywhere. Mystery mushrooms? What could they be?

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These kinds of questions  will give you many happy hours flipping through ID books later at home. After much searching in field guides, the “muffins” turned out to be purple-spored puffballs.

Moss spangles the trail.

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Oak apple galls dangle from trees, their wasp-y occupants long since fled.

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Open one,  and marvel at the “web” that once held a tiny developing oak apple gall wasp safely inside.

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On your prairie savanna hike, you’ll see things you know. You’ll also discover new plants and other living things you can’t easily find names for. All it takes to “clean your spirit” is a little curiosity; a little energy.

You don’t have to hike alone — ask a friend or two to explore with you. Talk about what you discover.

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Who knows what is waiting for you on your December walk in the prairie savanna?

Wherever you are — make time to go see. Take John Muir’s advice. It will “wash your spirit clean.”

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John Muir (1838-1914)  is known as the father of our National Parks. His love for the outdoors and activism on behalf of natural areas have been formative and inspirational for many naturalists, including myself. Although some find his superlatives heavy slogging, his books have been read by millions and have decorated many a dorm room poster. His words continue to inspire people today to develop a relationship with the outdoors, and care for the natural world.

Read more about the history of Conrad Station Savanna at The Nature Conservancy’s website:

http://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/northamerica/unitedstates/indiana/placesweprotect/conrad-station-history.xml

***

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby; taken at Conrad Station’s black oak sand savanna at Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Newton County, IN (top to bottom): starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) lifting off on the savanna’s edge; sweet fern (Comptonia peregrina) fronds; common mullein (Verbascum thapsus) leaves; various polypore (bracket) fungi (Family: Polyporaceae); unknown seedhead; white polypore (bracket) fungi (Family: Polyporaceae); purple-spored puffballs-late stage (Calvatia cyathiformis); haircap moss (Polytrichum spp.); oak apple gall (Amphibolips confluenta) on black oak (Quercus velutina); open oak apple gall (Amphibolips confluenta); hikers exploring the savanna (Homo sapiens). 

Reflection, Rather than Reaction

“Alert to the slow rhythms of nature, we can appraise more soberly the hectic rhythms of the headlines.” — Scott Russell Sanders

On this first day of November, we find ourselves in a mess. Perhaps it comes from paying  too much attention to angry voices in the media pre-election, polarized around money, sex, and power. It’s easy to be reactive to the headlines, and then let our anger spill out onto people, through our words and actions. To respond with venom to the those who disagree with us, instead of love.

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The rhythm of the seasons helps dispel this tendency toward reacting without really listening. Walk, quiet your mind, turn off your phone. Let the wind blow away your frustration. Breathe. Issues will come and go. Politicians will explode into the spotlight for a brief time, then fade away. Yes, issues are important. But so are other things in the world.

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Look around. See the colors of the prairie at the beginning of November! Scarlet and gold leaves are everywhere to delight us, although they are fading fast. It’s so easy to forget the miracles all around us and focus on the tense voices loudly clamoring for our attention.

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There are more subtle washes of color in the grasses now, with few wildflowers to punctuate it with bright color.  The tallgrass community is entering a season of rest.

Quiet.

“All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall…”

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Sit for a while on the rocky outcrops of St. Peter’s sandstone, overlooking the prairie. Do  you feel the ageless stability of rock in the face of change?

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It’s easy to lose sight of what is real, and what is hype; what is true and what is fabrication; what is worth believing, and what is deception. There are no easy answers, nor have there ever been. But there is reflection.

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Then, action. However, action without reflection often feeds hate, distrust, and ultimately, regret. Any time we feel certain that we are right, we need to stop. Think. Make time for reflection. Listen. And stay open.

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It’s easy to get caught up in what everyone “like us” is thinking or doing, to follow the dictations of a group we identify with…even to the point we feel mud-slinging is somehow justified.

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We are not somehow more “in the know” than others, in daily life or in politics. We are imperfect humans in community with our families, our towns, our states, our nation, our world.  We work toward the common good with others we don’t always agree with –indeed, others we plain just can’t stand!–but can learn from, no matter how much they are different from us. There is room at the table for everyone.

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We strike poses on social media to show we are the right thinkers; we aren’t like the “other side.” What has happened to civil discourse? To a willingness to agree to disagree? Polarization brings with it the fear of others, or a need to distance ourselves in public from other points of view, rather than acknowledgment of what we have in common and what we share. When we stop listening and reflecting, we close ourselves off to any hope of understanding.

A walk in the tallgrass is a way to give ourself space. Alone, we reflect on our place in the greater community. We listen, yes–and then, begin to sort out what we believe. What is wisdom? What do we want to discard? It’s a time to think about the legacy we want to leave for future generations. A legacy of fear and suspicion of each other? Or a legacy of love? How will I act?

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“Do not wait for leaders,” said Mother Teresa. “Do it alone, person to person.”

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What time will you make this week to reflect on the world and your place in your community–wherever you find yourself?  What small things will you do that make a difference, even to one person? How will you treat those you disagree with who are part of your community, no matter how much you dislike their personal choices? Will you speak with love? Or will  your voice be strident and secure in the knowledge that “I know what is best?” What can we learn from each other in our differences? How are we alike?

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Let the slow rhythms of nature quiet your mind, open your heart, and allow you to pay compassionate, non-judgemental attention to what is happening in the world.

Reflect. Then act –and choose your words with love.

*****

The opening quote is from Scott Russell Sanders (1945-) in Writing from the Center. Sanders is the winner of the John Burroughs Natural History Essay Award. He lives in Bloomington, IN, and writes compellingly about the importance of community.

The quote from Mother Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1997), an Albanian-Indian Catholic nun, is paraphrased, and sometimes said to be a mis-attribution. It’s powerful, no matter what the source. The quote “All people are like grass” is taken from  1 Peter 1:24.

All photographs copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Full moon over author’s backyard prairie spot, Glen Ellyn, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) in seed, Franklin Creek Grist Mill prairie, Franklin Grove, IL; sumac (Rhus spp.) , Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Fame Flower Knob, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; figwort (Scrophularia marilandica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; clouded sulphurs (Colias philodice) and orange sulphurs (Colias eurytheme) puddling in the mud, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Tuesdays in the Tallgrass prairie work group, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  seeds drying in the barn, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; hand in hand at Silver Lake, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL;  finding perspective in the tallgrass, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.