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10 Reasons to Hike the October Prairie

“…I cannot endure to waste anything so precious as autumnal sunshine by staying in the house. So I have spent almost all the daylight hours in the open air.” –Nathaniel Hawthorne

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What do you think of in October? Halloween candy sales? Pumpkins? Fall foliage?

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There’s more this month than squash and sugar going on, or a few maples turning color. Really. October is one of the most satisfying months on the tallgrass prairie. Here’s why you’ll want to go for a hike this week.

#10. Those October color contrasts! So vivid and striking. And how could the seeds of something on the prairie called “carrion flower” be so pretty?

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#9. That sky.  Take a moment, find a comfortable place in the sunshine to lay on your back, and cloud-watch for a while in the tallgrass. Wow.

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#8. Once familiar plants take on a whole new personality in October.  Like this false Solomon’s seal. Worth hunting for.

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#7. Sometimes, the seedheads of prairie plants are  just as interesting as the flowers—or more so. True of this pale prairie coneflower? You be the judge.

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#6. Round-headed bush clover might double as a Pinterest craft project with pom-poms gone awry.

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#5. Each prairie trail promises adventures, just around the corner.

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#4. Step outside in the evening. Glorious sunsets, followed by clear, crystal-splattered starry nights make every October twilight show time.

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#3. If you’re a prairie steward like I am, sumac may be a pain in the neck. So aggressive! But in October, you can’t help but catch your breath at its colors. The lower slant of the autumnal sun backlights them just so. Sumac are the stained glass windows of the prairie cathedral.

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#2. There’s a dreaminess that October brings to the prairie; a sense of other-worldliness in the plants blown out to seed, the changing hues of the grasses. Everything seems a bit unmoored; adrift.

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#1. Seeing the seeds disperse on October breezes offers hope for the future, doesn’t it? Even when it seems that chaos is the order of the day, the prairie goes about its regular business. Just as it has done for thousands of years.

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The days are shortening. October is half over.

If you haven’t hiked the prairie this week, what are you waiting for? Why not go see?

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Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) was a novelist born in Salem, Massachusetts, and the author of such required high school reading as The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables. He was a contemporary of Abraham Lincoln, and when  he died, his pallbearers included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Hawthorne is considered by some to be one of the greatest fiction writers in American literature.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): pumpkin (Cucurbita pepo) patch, Jon-a-Mac Orchard, Malta, IL; upright carrion flower (Smilax ecirrhata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; clouds over Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; false Solomon’s seal (Smilacina racemosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) and little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata), Taltree Arboretum/Gabis Arboretum, Purdue Northwest, Valparaiso, IN;  path to the prairie, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunset, Kent Fuller Air Station Prairie, Glenview, IL; smooth sumac (Rhus glabra), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bridge to the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; butterfly weed (Asclepius tuberosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

A September Prairie Soaking

“Life is one big transition.”– Willie Stargell

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Thunder rattles the windows. Up north, tornado warning sirens blare. The news broadcasts footage of holiday passengers wading across flooded roads to get to O’Hare Airport, thinking only of returning home.

The deluge continues.

At last, in the early evening, a short break in the precipitation gives me time to go for a walk. I head to the prairie to check conditions.

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Trail puddles are necklaced with black walnut leaves, pulled loose from their tentative moorings by the pounding rain.

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A ruby-throated hummingbird shelters from the weather in an oak along the path. Just like the passengers at O’Hare, the thunderstorms have put a crimp in this bird’s travel plans.

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The hummingbirds are migrating. In my backyard, they wage fierce battles over the single feeder filled with sugar water, placed tantalizingly over the butterfly weed and little bluestem. The hummers are driven by instinct. Powered by nectar—or in the case of my backyard birds—faux nectar. In a few weeks, they’ll disappear completely; their entertaining antics only a memory.

On the prairie, the sun breaks through the clouds. The tall Indian grasses, with their lingering raindrops, become crystal-hung chandeliers.

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For a moment. Despite the glitter and bling of raindrops catching sunlight, the prairie still seems dark. Subdued.  The beginning of September is always a bit melancholy.  Perhaps it’s the lowering slant of light; shorter days, longer nights. Just some of the many signals Mother Nature sends her creatures that colder weather is on the way.

For migrating dragonflies—green darners, black saddlebags, wandering gliders, and others—those signals mean GO! GO! GO! They’ve massed together, then zipped away to warmer climes this past week. Their remaining kin, bedraggled and shopworn, are left to face the coming cold.

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The end-of-the-season butterflies I’ve seen this week are a study in contrasts. A few are bright and freshly emerged. Like this newly-minted American painted lady. Crisply colored, with unblemished wings, she’s probably the Midwest’s late season generation of her species.

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Oddly enough, according to University of Florida, instead of making a southward journey, American painted ladies, or “American ladies” as they are sometimes called, “overwinter in the southern U.S. and repopulate more northern areas each spring.” The report tells us the northern limit of their overwintering is unknown. Is Illinois too cold? Probably. Apparently, “in north central Florida, American ladies migrate northward during the spring, but there is no significant southward migration in the fall.” Why not, I wonder?

So much mystery!

This great spangled fritillary butterfly is only a bit worse for wear after the summer’s adventures.

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Perhaps it doesn’t have the worries of a cross-continental trip on its mind. Just nectaring, nectaring, nectaring until the cold weather sets in. That’s what thistles are for, right?

But this evening, on the rain-drenched prairie, there isn’t much butterfly—or dragonfly—movement. Both likely shelter in the rain-glazed trees…

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…or nestle deep in the big bluestem and grasses.

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Thunder rumbles. The clouds sweep in.

It’s Mother Nature’s signal to me! Go!

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The first raindrops splatter the trail. Tonight, the local news broadcast will tell us this was the Chicago region’s wettest Labor Day on record.  But the September rain, no matter flooding and postponed picnics, has its purpose.  It nourishes the prairie and its creatures for the last months of the prairie season.  Gives a last boost to the goldenrods and asters, needed by monarchs on their long migratory journey south to Mexico. Coaxes the gentians to open, fresh and vibrant in the grasses.

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The passage from summer to autumn is bittersweet. But the prairie knows how to ease the transition. Butterflies. Gentians. The daily surprises of migration.

Even thunderstorms.

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The opening quote is from Baseball Hall of Famer, Wilver “Willie” Stargell (1940-2001), who played his entire 21-year professional baseball career for the Pittsburgh Pirates (1962-82). During his farm club years, he was harassed, threatened at gunpoint, and denied lodging because of his race in many of the towns where he played. Stargell, an African-American, was tempted to quit. He persevered to become one of the most beloved players in the game. Stargell is one of only five players to hit a home run out of Dodger Stadium, and is known for his long-distance home runs. Said Cincinnati Reds second baseman Joe Morgan upon Stargell’s death, “He never made anyone look bad, and he never said anything bad about anybody.” A good way to be remembered.

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All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): video clip of rainfall, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; thunderstorm approaching the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  rain-drenched path, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) in the rain, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Halloween pennant dragonfly (Celithemis eponina) at the end of the season, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; American painted lady (Vanessa virginiensis), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; great spangled fritillary (Speyeria cybele) on pasture thistle, (Cirsium discolor), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; trees on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) with raindrops, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: bridge to the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie gentians (Gentiana puberulenta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

To Know a Prairie

“A walk is only a step away from a story, and every path tells.” –Robert Macfarlane

How do you begin to know a prairie?

You walk it alone, in the late summer sun.

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Wait for the mist to rise, after the rain.

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You sit quietly, doing nothing at all. Suddenly, the  focus becomes what is small.

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And the big things as well, a foil for the small. You notice the bison, formed and shaped by the land;  their bodies echoed in the knobs and the trees.

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And you stop for a while, and marvel.

How do you begin to know a place?

Your skin is scraped raw by the roughness of grass. Then soothed by the silk of the Canada rye.

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You watch the sun light the grass as it sinks out of view.

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And the darkness throws all into impossible relief.

Grasses and shrubs…

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…and wildflowers pink; catching the last light before going to sleep.

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You reflect on what you know, and what you realize  you don’t.

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There will always be mystery, here in the grass.

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You absorb what you can; you listen and learn.

And let the rest wash over you. Too much to take in.

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The story continues with each step that you take. And like a good book, you don’t want it to end.  You pull on your boots the next morning, and hike it again.

That’s how you begin.

To know a place.

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The opening quote is from The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot by British writer Robert Macfarlane (1976-), about the shaping of people and places.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby: (top to bottom): road through Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; mist on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; common pondhawk dragonfly female (Erythemis simplicicollis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Canada wild rye, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  sunset with big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  sunset with shrubs, Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL; gaura (Gaura biennis), Nachusa Grasslands, the Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; cattails (Typha latifolia) on Silver Lake, Blackwell Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; mist, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; clouds, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.