“Tallgrass in motion is a world of legato.” — Louise Erdrich
September closes out the month with sunny afternoons. Crisp evenings. Nights dip into the 40s. Flannel shirts make their way to the front of the closet, although my sandals are still by the door. It’s a time of transition.
About an hour before sunset this weekend, I saw a sundog to the west from my front porch. So bright!
Down south, hurricane season is in full swing. Here, in the Midwest, the air teases with the promise of… frost? Already?
Surely not. And yet. Who knows?
In the garden, the green beans have succumbed to fungal rust. Although my beans have flirted with it before, I think my decision to grow pole beans too densely on a trellis without good air circulation likely led to the disease. My bean season has come to an end, it seems. Ah, well. Wait until next year.
The cherry tomatoes continue to offer handfuls of fruit…
…and the mixed kale, planted this spring, seems delighted with the cooler weather.
In the herb garden, the sweet basil, thyme, dill, and Italian parsley are at their peak.
The promise of coming frost means the rosemary needs to come inside. Rosemary is a tender perennial in my garden zone 5B, and needs to spend the winter by the kitchen sink.
Meanwhile, while the prairies in my region are dominated by tallgrass, our backyard prairie patch is adrift in panicled asters, new England asters, and—sigh—Canada goldenrod going to seed. Where have my grasses gone? A few lone cordgrass stems are about all I see. I’m a big fan of goldenrod, but not Canada goldenrod, that greedy gold digger. At least the pollinators are happy.
In the midst of the tangle of asters, a lone prairie dock lifts its seed heads more than six feet high. Most of my Silphiums–prairie dock, compass plant, and cup plant—kept a low profile this season. There are several prairie dock plants in the prairie patch, but only one flowered.
Despite the Canada goldenrod run amuck in the backyard, I’m delighted with the three new goldenrods I planted this season in the front: Ohio goldenrod, stiff goldenrod, and showy goldenrod. Of the three, the showy goldenrod has surprised me the most. Such splendid blooms! I’ve seen it on the prairie before, almost buried in tallgrass, but in the home garden it really shines.
The bumblebees are nuts about it.
As I amble around the yard, admiring the colors with which autumn is painting the world, there’s a glimpse of red. A cardinal flower? Blooming this late in the season? It’s escaped the pond border and found a new spot on the sunny east-facing hill. What a delightful splash of scarlet, even more welcome for being unexpected.
October is so close, you can almost taste the pumpkin spice lattes and Halloween candy. The prairie plantings shimmer with seed. The natural world is poised for transition. A leap into the dark. Shorter days. Longer nights. A slow slide into the cold.
Transitions are never easy.
But there are so many wonders still to come.
The opening quote is from Louise Erdrich (1954-) and her essay “Big Grass” in The Tallgrass Prairie Reader (2014) edited by John T. Price (and originally from a Nature Conservancy collection Heart of the Land: Essays on Last Great Places, 1994). It’s one of my favorite essays in prairie literature.
Join Cindy for a program or class this autumn!
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.
“I feel like it’s rainin’ all over the world.”–Tony Joe White
For the first time since spring, my fingers are stiff and cold as I hike the Belmont Prairie.
Jeff and I have this 10-acre remnant in Downers Grove, IL, all to ourselves this evening. No wonder. Rain falls in a steady drizzle. It’s 40 degrees. Who in the world would hike a prairie in this weather?
It’s worth the discomfort. With the first freeze last week, the prairie traded in its growing season hues for autumn’s deeper mochas, golds, and wine-reds. In the splattering rain, the colors intensify.
Sawtooth sunflowers, dark with wet, stand stark sentinel against gray skies. I inhale the prairie’s fragrance. A tang of moist earth; a tease of decaying leaves and grasses.
Most wildflowers have crumpled like paper bags in the chill.
But when I look closely, a few smooth blue asters still pump out color.
Panicled asters are bright white in the fast-fading light.
Wild asparagus writhes and waves, neon in the dusk.
Goldenrod galls, once brown, are now gently rosed by frost.
Goldenrod blooms are here, too, a few shining yellow wands scattered across the tallgrass.
Most wildflowers have swapped color and juice for the stiffness and starch of structure; the wisps and clouds of seeds.
These seeds promise new life next year; hard-won redemption from the summer of 2020.
Every year is precious. But I’m not sorry to see this year go.
The dripping prairie glows.
Thistle, drenched and matted, plays with the contrast of soft and sharp.
Evening primroses drip diamonds.
Sumac is luminous, splashed with crystal raindrops.
Tall coreopsis runs with water.
Let the rain set the evening alight.
And every plant glitter.
Let the prairie sing its farewell song to warm weather as it greets the dark.
A train sounds its horn in the distance. There is a rumble of metal on rails as the sun drops behind the horizon. Jeff and I head back to the parking lot. As I walk, I think of the winter to come.
The months ahead will bring their own loveliness, reluctantly embraced.
For now, it’s time to say goodbye to what was.
Then, to welcome, with anticipation and courage…
…whatever lies ahead.
Tony Joe White wrote the lyrics to “Rainy Night in Georgia” which open this post. It was sung and popularized by Brook Benton (1970). A great song for a gray day—listen to it here. Bonus points if you can name White’s other hit, which he wrote and performed himself. (Check your answer here).
All photos this week taken at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL (top to bottom): Belmont Prairie trail; indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); stream through the prairie;sawtooth sunflowers (Helianthus grosseserratus); unknown plant dead in the freeze; smooth blue asters (Symphyotrichum laeve); panicled aster (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum); wild asparagus (Asparagus officinalis); goldenrod gall; tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima); canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis); tall boneset (Eupatorium altissimum) ; indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); possibly tall thistle ( Cirsium altissimum), evening primrose (Oenothera biennis), staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina); tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris) ; sunset on the prairie; indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) in the rain; fall colors in the tallgrass; compass plants (Silphium lacinatum) in the rain; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); sawtooth sunflowers (Helianthus grosseserratus) at sunset; fall color on a rainy day prairie trail.
Join Cindy for a class—or ask her to speak virtually for your organization.Booking talks for 2021.Email Cindy through http://www.cindycrosby.com.
Literary Gardens Online: Friday, Dec.4, 1-2:30 p.m.CST– Join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby from wherever you live in the world for a fun look at great (and not-so-great) gardens in literature and poetry. From Agatha Christie’s mystery series, to Brother Cadfael’s medieval herb garden, to Michael Pollan’s garden in “Second Nature,” to the “secret garden” beloved of children’s literature, there are so many gardens that helped shape the books we love to read. Discover how gardens and garden imagery figure in the works of Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Goudge, Rumer Godden, May Sarton, Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Gilbert, Henry Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver, and Lewis Carroll–and many more! This class is online. Register here through The Morton Arboretum.
Just released in June! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History.
“Before we can imagine saving the landscape we must be able to form it realistically in our imaginations as something that we love.” — Joel Sheesley
Cool nights. Steady rain. A first frost forecast. The September tallgrass is singing its swan song, and I want to listen to every last note.
The prairie is in full autumnal splendor this week, as temperatures drop. Jeff and I are at the campus of the “second largest provider of undergraduate education” in Illinois, but we’re not here to take a class. Rather, we’re hiking the trails of College of DuPage’s beautiful prairies and natural areas in Glen Ellyn, not far from where we live.
Normally, the campus is abuzz with students rushing to their next academic or social commitment. But this year, most on-campus classes are temporarily online. The library, theater, and restaurant are closed.
The only “buzz” comes from the bees, checking out the prairie’s wildflowers. And they’re not the only ones.
Skippers jostle for position on the New England asters.
A false milkweed bug checks out a panicled aster. Looks similar to the “true” large milkweed bug, doesn’t it? But, I discover as I identify it with iNaturalist on my cell phone, the false milkweed bug feeds on members of the aster family.
Along the edges of the prairie are four acres of woodland with a few osage orange trees scattered alongside the trails. That bizarre fruit! I’ve heard it called “hedge apples,” but it’s nothing you’d want to dip in caramel or make a pie with.
The wood of the osage orange is a favorite for fence posts and archery bows. The grapefruit sized balls are strangely brain-like in appearance (another nickname: “monkey brains.” )
I’d hate to have one of these drop on my head. Ouch!
The 15 acres of the East Prairie Ecological Study Area, established by College of DuPage visionary Russell Kirt (author of Prairie Plants of the Midwest), includes the aforementioned four acres of woodland, three acres of marsh, with plenty of cattails…..
…and eight acres of reconstructed tallgrass prairie, which according to College of DuPage’s website, were planted between 1975-1997.
Across campus is the Russell R. Kirt Prairie, an 18-acre natural area with marsh, a retention pond, and 11 reconstructed prairie and savanna acres planted between 1984 and 2000. For many years, that was “the prairie” I came to hike at COD. I’m still learning this place—the East Prairie—which Jeff and I found this spring during the first weeks of quarantine. It’s been a bright spot in a chaotic, unsettling time.
Now, Jeff and I make the East Prairie a regular part of our hiking trips. I love exploring its wildflowers in the fall with their unusual seedpods, like the Illinois bundleflower.
Illinois bundleflower is an overly-enthusiastic native on the Schulenberg Prairie, where I’m a steward. We’ve picked its seed defensively in some years, to keep it from spreading. Here it appears in reasonable amounts. We’ve shared seed from the Schulenberg with COD, so it is possible these are descendants from those very plants. I hope it behaves in the coming years!
In contrast, I wish we had more of the white wild indigo seed pods this season. I see a few here at COD’s prairie. White wild indigo is subject to weevils, which eat the seeds, and sometimes make seed saving a difficult chore. These look good!
As I wander this prairie path, my thoughts move away from the plants at hand. I wonder what the winter will bring. Last autumn, the events of the past seven months would have seemed inconceivable.
Sometimes, I wonder if I’ve imagined it all.
Surely we’ll wake up, shake ourselves and laugh. You won’t believe what I dreamed last night.
Most weeks, I try to be intentional about how I spend my time. I want to look back on this chaotic year and know I didn’t just mark off days.
That I chose to make good memories.
Hiking the prairie is part of this. Time to be quiet, and away from the news. Time to soak up the beauty around me.
Room to listen. Time to reflect on where I’ve been, and where I want to go.
Memories in the making.
Time well spent.
The opening quote is from Joel Sheesley’s beautiful book, A Fox River Testimony. Visit Joel’s website to learn more about his art, writing, and inspiration.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby, East Prairie Ecological Study Area at College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL (top to bottom): the prairie in autumn; prairie path in autumn; prairie at COD in September; two skippers, possibly tawny-edged (Polites themistocles) on new england asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae); panicled aster (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum) with false milkweed bug (Lygaeus turcicus); osage orange (Maclura pomifera); osage orange (Maclura pomifera); cattails (probably Typha glauca); indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); Indian hemp (sometimes called dogbane) (Apocynum cannabinum); illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis); white wild indigo (Baptisia lactea or alba var. macrophylla); beaver-chewed trees; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum); new england aster (Symphotrichum novae-angliae) with flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata); staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina); mixed wetland plants at the edge of the marsh; panicled aster (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum) with Peck’s skipper (Polites peckius); mixed plants at the edge of the prairie; prairie path; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) and culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum) with mixed prairie grasses and forbs.
Join Cindy for a class—or ask her to speak virtually for your organization this autumn!Now booking talks for 2021.
“Nature Writing Online” begins Monday, October 5, through The Morton Arboretum. Last days to register! Want to commit to improving and fine-tuning your writing for six weeks? This is a great opportunity to jump start your blog, your book, or your journal writing while working online from home, supplemented with three evenings of live evening Zoom classes on alternate weeks. Class size is limited; register here.
Just released in June! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History.
“It’s the first day of autumn! A time of hot chocolatey mornings, and toasty marshmallow evenings, and, best of all, leaping into leaves!”—Winnie the Pooh
Happy autumnal equinox! It’s the first day of astronomical fall. Daylight hours shorten. The air looks a little pixeled, a little grainy. Soon, we’ll eat dinner in the dark, sleep, and rise in the mornings to more darkness. Some of us will embrace this change, in love with the season. Others will count the days until December 21, the winter solstice, to see the daylight hours lengthen again.
Wait, you might ask. Cindy—didn’t you say it was the first day of fall back on September 1? Yes indeed, I did—the first day of meteorological fall! There are two ways of calculating when the seasons begin. Meteorological fall begins on the first of September each year. Astronomical fall begins on the fall equinox. Read more about the way scientists calculate the seasons here.
The knowledge that these warm days full of light are fleeting sends Jeff and me to hike Belmont Prairie in Downers Grove, Illinois. The parking lot is full, but the prairie is mostly empty. We love this prairie remnant for its solitude; its timeless grace in the midst of suburbia.
The prairie is dusty. Crisp. Once again, we need a good, steady rain, with none in the forecast for the next ten days. Overhead it’s cloudless; a blank blue slate. I was scrolling through paint samples online this week, and came across the exact color of the sky: “Fond Farewell.” Exactly.
Although the prairie is awash in golds, it won’t be long until the flowers fade and the brightness dims. I remind myself to take joy in the moment.
Big bluestem, blighted by drought, still flashes its gorgeous colors. I love its jointed stems. No wonder it is Illinois’ state grass!
The brushed silver joints are not the only silver on the prairie. Along the trail are the skeletal remains of plants, perhaps in the Brassica family. What species are they? I’m not sure. Whatever these were, they are now ghosts of their former selves.
The flowers of showy goldenrod are busy with pollinators, such as this paper wasp (below). The wasps don’t have the smart publicity agents and good press of monarchs and bees, so are often overlooked as a positive presence in the garden.
Then again, if you’ve ever been chased by wasps as I have after disturbing a nest —and been painfully stung—you’ll give them a respectful distance.
Tall coreopsis is almost finished for the season, but a few sunshiny blooms remain.
Sawtooth sunflowers, goldenrod, and tall boneset wash together in a celebration of autumn, now at crescendo.
So much yellow! Sumac splashes scarlet across the tallgrass, adding a dash of red. As a prairie steward on other tallgrass sites, I find this native sumac a nuisance. It stealthily infiltrates the prairie and displaces some of the other species I want to thrive. However, toward the end of September, I feel more generous of spirit. Who can resist those leaves, backlit by the low slant of sun, that echo a stained glass window?
The withering summer prairie blooms are now upstaged by the stars of autumn: asters in white and multiple hues of pink, lavender and violet. New England aster provides the best bang for the buck. That purple! It’s a challenge to remember its updated scientific name: Symphyotrichum novae-angliae. Try saying that three times quickly! A real tongue twister. I miss the simpler name, Aster novae-angliae. So easy to remember. But everything changes as science discovers more about the world. It’s up to us to choose to listen, learn, and adapt rather than just doing what is easy.
The periwinkle hues of the smooth blue aster are unlike any other color on the prairie. I stop to caress its trademark smooth, cool leaves.
Every time I look closely at the asters, I see pollinators. And more pollinators. From little flying insects I can’t identify to the ubiquitous cabbage white butterflies and bumblebees, heavy with pollen. And, yes—those ever-present wasps.
Delicate pale pink biennial gaura, with its own tiny pollinators, is easily overlooked, out-glitzed by the prairie’s golds and purples, but worth discovering. Flies, like this one below stopping by the gaura, are also pollinators, but like the wasps they get little respect for the important work they do.
Soon, the glory of the prairie will be in scaffolding and bone: the structure of the plants, the diversity of shape. You can see the prairie begin its shift from bloom to seed, although blooms still predominate.
Breathe in. September is the fragrance of gray-headed coneflower seeds, crushed between your fingers.
September is the pungent thymol of wild bergamot, released by rubbing a leaf or a dry seedhead.
Inhale the prairie air; a mixture of old grass, wood smoke, with a crisp cold top note, even on a warm day. Chew on a mountain mint leaf, tough from the long season, and you’ll get a zing of pleasure. Listen to the geese, honking their way across the sky, or the insects humming in the grass.
Then, find a milkweed pod cracked open, with its pappus —- silks—just waiting to be released. Go ahead. Pull out a few of these parachute seeds. Feel their softness. Imagine what one seed may do next season! I try to think like a milkweed seed. Take flight. Explore. Plant yourself in new places. Nourish monarch butterflies. Offer nectar to bumblebees. Lend beauty wherever you find yourself.
Close your eyes. Make a wish.
Now, release it to the wind.
The opening quote is from Pooh’s Grand Adventure by A.A. Milne. Before he penned the popular children’s book series about a bear named Winnie the Pooh, Milne was known as a playwright and wrote several mystery novels and poems.
All photos are from Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve in Downers Grove, IL, this week unless otherwise noted (top to bottom): bee or common drone fly (tough to tell apart) on panicled aster (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; Belmont Prairie sign; wildflowers and grasses in September; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); something from the Brassica family maybe? Genus and species unknown; Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis); and other goldenrods; dark paper wasp (Polistes fuscates) on showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa); tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); wildflowers of Belmont Prairie in September; staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina); new england aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae); smooth blue aster (Symphyotrichum laeve); dark paper wasp (Polistes fuscates) on panicled aster (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; biennial gaura (Gaura biennis); blazing star (Liatris sp.); gray-headed coneflower seedheads (Ratibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (2019); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (2018); common mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum), Afton Prairie, DeKalb, IL (2017); butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa).
Join Cindy for a class—or ask her to speak virtually for your organization this autumn!
“Nature Writing Online” begins Monday, October 5, through The Morton Arboretum. Want to commit to improving and fine-tuning your writing for six weeks? This is a great opportunity to jump start your blog, your book, or your journal writing while working online from home, supplemented with three evenings of live evening Zoom classes on alternate weeks. Class size is limited; register here.
Just released in June! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History.
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.