Tag Archives: oak

The Perils of Reading About Prairie

“Education is thinking, and thinking is looking for yourself and seeing what’s there, not what you got told was there.”–William Least Heat-Moon

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It’s easy to let others tell you what’s “out there.” I know. As a former indie bookseller and lover of any book with the tag “nature essay” on it, I’m addicted to words. Reading books about prairie–and following social media updates or blog essays on the natural world–are only a few of the reasons I enjoy being an armchair nature lover. I can delight in woodlands, wetlands, and prairies without any of the discomfort involved in actually being there.

Through words, I can imagine the winter greens and umbers of mosses carpeting a fallen log, with autumn leaves still lingering.

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Or, through words, I can imagine prairie aromatherapy. A little crushed mountain mint rubbed between your fingers — mmmmm.

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Through words, I can “see” how the wind moves the hyssop in undulating waves.

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Or think about thimbleweed seedheads, in all stages of blow out, and how soft they would feel if I stroked them against my cheek. Like silk.

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The furred white seed heads are in sharp contrast to the geometry of the winter grasses, crisscrossing in golds and soft bronzes. Words can tell me that.

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I love reading about prairie. It enriches what I see there; inspires me to pay attention.

And yet.

Sometimes it’s easier for me to just read  about the natural world in February. The days can be gloomy and cold. I feel a distinct lack of motivation. With reading, there is no mud, drive-time, or layering on sweatshirts, coats, gloves, and hats. The only aches and pains I have after closing a book or reading a social media excerpt are a stiff wrist and tired eyes. Unlike a good, long hike, where I remember it in my muscles for days afterward.

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But I’ve found that the biggest peril of reading about the prairie and the natural world is that I can feel as if I’ve been there and looked. And I haven’t.

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It’s easy for me to turn inwards in winter, to stay inside and let others tell me what’s going on. To read words about the world in isolation.

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But without being there, I miss the connection of the heart to what I see. And of course, what each of us sees is filtered through our own unique lens. No one else’s words can replicate that for us.

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So I go. And I look. And then I return home, calmer, more at peace. Don’t get me wrong. I continue to devour words about the outdoors anywhere I find them. But prairie is my place to be. Words, no matter how inspired, are no substitute for that.

Wherever you find yourself, I hope you’ll go see what’s happening outdoors. Take a deep breath. Notice the sounds. See what the sky looks like.

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Let me know what you discover.

After all, it’s a beautiful world.

***

William Least Heat-Moon (1939), also known as William Trogden, is a Missouri native and resident whose quote from Blue Highways  opens this essay.  He took the invitation to “go see” literally and explored the back roads of the United States. He is the author of several books, including PrairieEryth (1991), which looks at the history, landscape, and people of Chase County, Kansas. Both books are a commitment of time at more than 400 pages each, but well worth it. Another favorite quote of mine from Blue Highways: “Instead of insight, maybe all a man gets is strength to wander for a while. Maybe the only gift is a chance to inquire, to know nothing for certain. An inheritance of wonder and nothing more.” May we all have strength to wander and wonder.

All photos in this essay taken at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL, unless otherwise noted/copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): mosses and oak leaf; common mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum); yellow or purple hyssop (Agastache neptoides or Agastache scrophulariaefolia); thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica) in seed;  big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and Indian grasses (Sorghastrum nutans); trail through Tellabs prairie;  fall leaves in the Tellabs savanna; farm just outside Ashton, IL; Tellabs prairie;  tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris).

Special thanks to Susan Kleiman, nature educator at Byron Forest Preserve, for her ID help on this post. Any ID errors are my own.

September Song

The prairie orchestra tunes up. The conductor pauses, lifts her baton.

The earth slants. There’s a shift in the light.

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September’s first full moon rises, red-tinged against the sky.

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Days shorten. The prairie strikes new notes each morning . The first New England asters open, fringed blasts of color against a chorus of brassy golds and whites.

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In my backyard, the feeders underscore the mornings with activity. Although the male hummingbirds have left for warmer climes, females and small fry remain, juicing up for the long journey across the Gulf of Mexico.

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So tiny. And yet, capable of so much.

Monarch butterflies respond to orchestrated seasonal cues; sip goldenrod nectar, pack their butterfly bags for Mexico.

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Green darner dragonflies swarm, a percussion of clicks, clacks, whirs and buzzes. They gird themselves for migration as well, although where they will end their journey remains a mystery.

The last white-faced meadowhawks and American rubyspot damselflies linger on the prairie, measuring their lives in moments. They pause. Rest.

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There’s a melancholy feel to the days, a change to a minor key. Green, stippled chords of fruit cling to the rapidly undressing black walnut limbs that overhang the brook.

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Willoway Brook catches the trees’ spent leaves, then moves them in legato downstream.

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On the edge of the prairie, there’s a crescendo of white snakeroot, goldenrod, and lavender Joe Pye.

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The bison at Nachusa Grasslands rustle the musical score of summer; turn it to the new pages of autumn. Their coats thicken in anticipation of the cold weather to come as the last echoes of hot weather begin to fade.

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The conductor waves her baton, and tells the prairie: Make seeds… Seeds… SEEDS. The prairie responds in a wild orgy of outpouring.

Wild lettuce nods to the woodwinds, waiting to send its next generations  aloft.

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I hike through Indian grass blooms, which shower me with staccato bits of yellow confetti. Later, I brush bits of gold out of my hair; flick them from my clothing.

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But the music of the prairie stays with me, long after I’ve left the tallgrass.

It’s only the first verse of September’s song.

Just think of the beautiful music to come.

All photos by Cindy Crosby. (Top to bottom): White snakeroot (Eupatorium rugosum) and Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; rising full moon, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) SP; ruby-throated hummingbird, author’s backyard; monarch on Canada goldenrod, SP; white-faced meadowhawk dragonfly, SP; American rubyspot damselfly, SP;  black walnuts, SP; Willoway Brook, SP; oak savanna (white snakeroot; Canada goldenrod; Joe Pye weed, Eupatorium purpureum), SP; bison, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (The Nature Conservancy); wild lettuce (Lactuca virosa), SP; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) SP.