“When despair for the world grows in me… .” — Wendell Berry
It’s tough to find words this morning. So—let’s go for a walk.
There is solace in watching damselflies. They flaunt and flirt and flutter in the cool July streams…
Their cares are so different than my own. What do they worry about, I wonder?
Perhaps they keep an eye out for darting tree swallows, or a floating frog.
Maybe they watch for a ravenous fish, lurking just beneath the stream’s surface. Or even a hungry dragonfly.
As I walk and look around the prairie, I feel myself become calmer. The bumblebees and honeybees and native bees go about their life’s work of visiting flowers. Not a bad way to live.
The poet Mary Oliver writes in her poem, “Invitation”: “It is a serious thing/ just to be alive/ on this fresh morning/ in this broken world.”
I wade into the stream and watch the damselflies. Some scout for insects. Others perch silently along the shoreline.
Others are busy dancing a tango with a partner…
…laying groundwork for the future.
Today, all I can do is walk in this world. All I can do is look.
I don’t want to stop feeling. Or stop caring.
I never want to be numb to the grief in this world, even when it feels overwhelming.
But it feels like too much sometimes.
And even though the world seems broken beyond repair right now, when I look around me….
… I’m reminded of how beautiful it can be.
What will it take for things to change?
Never give up. We need to leave this world a better place than we found it. Even when putting the pieces back together feels impossible.
I need that reminder today.
Wendell Berry (1934-) is a writer, environmental activist, novelist, essayist, and farmer. The beginning of his poem, “The Peace of Wild Things,” opens this blog. You can read the complete poem here. It’s a good one.
Upcoming Classes and Programs
Learn more about dragonflies and damselflies in Beginning Dragonfly and Damselfly ID, a two-part class online and in-person. Join Cindy on Thursday, July 14, for a two-hour Zoom then Friday, July 15 for three hours in the field at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL. Register here.
“Everything will change. Even this perpetual warmth will change. The fog’s settled steadiness will shift. The wet orthography of the grass will lose its inherently clean line along with its stem’s expressive calligraphy.“–Serhiy Zhadan
Starting over. It sounds good sometimes. Even when it isn’t easy.
Maybe that’s one of many reasons to love the tallgrass prairie, and its endless cycle of rejuvenation. I’m reminded of that this week, after the prairie burn.
It’s the ultimate restart. Prescribed fire wipes the prairie clean from the previous year in one fiery stroke. It keeps the prairie healthy, mimicking Mother Nature’s lightning strikes and the early fire management of prairie by indigenous people.
The first time you see the aftermath of a prescribe burn it is heart-stopping.
Could anything good come from this devastation? Walking the blackened prairie after the burn, it’s difficult to imagine the prairie staging a comeback. Mordor,J.R.R. Tolkien’s fictional wasted landscape in his The Lord of the Rings series comes to mind.
After the burn, the prairie and prairie savanna may still smolder for a week. Or more.
Only the toughest trees with thick bark, like bur oak and black walnut, eke out a place on the prairie because of its fires. Even these trees may show the fire’s scars and eventually succumb.
It’s difficult to imagine a healthy, vibrant landscape as I hike the prairie today, six days after the prescribed fire. But imagination—-and memory—fill in the scorched acres of ash. I close my eyes, and remember the prairie in May….
Spring rains and summer heat will soon ignite the wildflowers and grasses. They’ll explode in a vibrant community of color, motion and light.
Butterflies and bees will move from flower to flower. Birdsong will flood the tallgrass.
For now, only a lone robin hops across the charred earth, looking for worms.
Inhaling the scent of smoke—seeing the 360-degree expanse of fire-kissed earth—it defies belief to believe the impossible. But I believe. I have faith in this cycle, this resurrection. Soon. Very soon. Everything will be changed.
I shake mud and cinders from my boots and feel my spirits lift. Each day is going to be a little brighter. Full of new and exciting discoveries. Under the earth, the prairie is stirring. The transition has begun.
I love this time of year.
Welcome, new beginnings.
Serhiy Zhadan (1974-) is a contemporary Ukrainian poet, essayist and novelist. These lines were translated by Amelia Glaser and Yuliya Ilchuk for LitHub.
Tuesday, April 12, 7-8:30 p.m. The Tallgrass Prairie: Grocery Store, Apothecary, and Love Charm Shop at Glenview Public Library, Glenview, IL (open to the public). Click here for details.
Wednesday, April 13, 7-8 p.m. Add a Little Prairie to Your Garden for Glencoe Public Library and Friends of the Green Bay Trail. Online and open to the public. Register here.
April 25, 9:30-11am The Tallgrass Prairie: Grocery Store, Apothecary, and Love Charm Shop with Country Home and Garden Club, Barrington, IL (in person). Closed event. For more information on the garden club click here.
April 1-April 30th-–Attention all poets and pollinator lovers! Check out this exciting project YOU can contribute to!
DuPage Monarch Project invites you to participate in Poets for Pollinators, a month-long celebration of nature’s wonders through poetry. Poems featuring bees, butterflies, birds and all pollinating creatures, as well as ones expressing the joy, comfort and delight found in nature will be posted on DuPage Monarch Project’s Facebook page April 1st – April 30th. New and experienced poets of all ages are welcome; this celebration is open to everyone. Multiple entries will be accepted. Please send poems to Lonnie Morris at firstname.lastname@example.org. Poems may be pasted into the email or included as an attachment. Authorship will be given unless anonymity is requested. Formatting in Facebook is challenging but we will make every attempt to present the poem as you have written it. Original photos are welcome. If you don’t have a photo of a favorite pollinator, one will be selected from the DMP photo library. If photos are sent, please include the name of the person who took the photo. By submitting a poem, you are granting DuPage Monarch Project the right to share it on the DuPage Monarch Project Facebook page. The poem will not be shared, used or included in any other manner than the Facebook post during the month of April.
“…And life revives, and blossoms once again.” —Emily Pauline Johnson
How can you describe the prairie in early May? So much is happening! New wildflowers open every minute. A different insect emerges. Bumblebees buzz. Rain falls. Strong winds ripple the new grass blades and foliage. A few dragonflies cruise by, sampling the warmer air and looking for love along the prairie streams and pond edges.
The prairie is awake. So much jazz and motion and life! Here are three reasons to go for a hike on the prairies and prairie savannas this month and see what’s unfolding.
Wild and Wonderful Wildflowers: The spring prairie wildflowers have arrived. Look around the savanna and the prairie edges, and you’ll spot the prairie trillium. The deep wine petals are unmistakable.
Maybe you learned this trilliumby a different name, such as “wake robin” or “bloody butcher” or even “bloody noses” (as one of my friends tells me he called it as a child). By any name, it’s one of the touchstones of spring. The dappled leaves are camouflage against deer, which eat the leaves and flowers. It’s a common wildflower which occurs in every Illinois county.
It’s tougher to spot the jack in the pulpit; sometimes pale green, sometimes reddish green. Can you find “Jack” under the spathe or hood (the “pulpit?”)
The 20th century modernist Georgia O’Keeffe created a series of six paintings based on this unusual plant, although she is better known for her work with flowers, animal skulls, skyscrapers, and the landscape of the American southwest. What a great way to immortalize this curious flower!
Not far away in the open sunshine, a single pussytoes plant reminds me of a bundle of Q-tips. It is striking when seen alone…
…or in a small colony.
Such strange little flowers, with their feathery antenna-like “blooms!” Another white wildflower, Comandra umbellata, may not be as strange looking, but its common name “bastard toadflax” always gets the attention of my wildflower students.
Bastard toadflax is the only plant in its genus, and it has a certain nostalgia for me. When I first began volunteering on the prairie more than two decades ago, I saw this tiny flower while I was bent over weeding. Puzzled, I asked Marj, an older volunteer, for the ID. She laughed. “Oh that!” Then she told me the name, and made me laugh. Marj is gone now, but I always think of her mentoring a newbie volunteer whenever the toadflax blooms.
These tiny wildflowers are just a hint of what’s out there. And so much more is on the way!
2. Signs of Bird Life: Mornings in May are all about birdsong. In the dawn light, I wake to robins chattering their joy, looking forward to the hours ahead. The first oriole showed up at my backyard feeder this morning, and the juncos-–those somber yet jaunty northerly birds, cloaked in nun-like colors–have disappeared, doubtless to their breeding grounds in Alaska and Canada.
On the newly greening prairie, killdeer find the perfect nesting spots in the exposed gravel after the burn. Their signature calls are a soundtrack for any hike in May.
Have you seen them? No? Seeing the killdeer and listening to its heart-tugging, high-pitched cry is reason enough to get outside on the prairie. There is something elemental; something primal, about this particular bird call that always makes me think “spring!”
Other birds leave clues to their presence. Some feathers are breathtakingly soft, subtle.
This feather is a startling shaft of bright color.
I leave the feathers where I find them, even as I wonder what stories they hold. Imagine a bird’s-eye view of the life of the prairie. Supposedly, northern flickers may live up to nine years; red-tailed hawks may live up to 15 years in the wild. What glorious years those must be, spent so high in the sky!
3. The Fragrance of Spring Prairie: I don’t wear perfume, but if you could bottle the smell of the prairie in May, it’s a scent I’d gladly wear. The prairie in May smells like the drifts of wild blue phlox edging the savanna…
…a sweet scent, but not cloyingly so. Fresh. Light.
The fragrance of phlox mixes with the green chlorophyll scent of countless numbers of growing prairie plants and their cradle of damp earth. Inhale. That smell! It’s life itself. Can you feel your heart expand? Do you feel your spirits suddenly lift?
So much joy. You want to shout!
This is spring.
You are on the prairie.
Isn’t it a wonder to be alive?
The opening quote is from a poem, “Fire-Flowers” by Emily Pauline Johnson (1861-1913), who also published under her Mohawk name Tekahionwake. Born on the Six Nations Reserve, Canada West, she was an artist, performer, and poet who authored three collections of poetry, including Flint and Feather (1912). Grateful thanks to Dan Haase who introduced me to this poet.
Join Cindy for a program or class this spring!
Spring Wildflowers of Prairies and Woodlands Online: Thursday, May 6, 6:30-8 p.m. Join Cindy for a virtual hike through the wildflowers of late spring! Hear how wildflowers inspire literature and folklore. Discover how people throughout history have used wildflowers as medicine, groceries, and love charms. Offered by The Morton Arboretum. Registerhere.
The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden Online: June 2, 7-8:30 p.m. Illinois’ nickname is “The Prairie State.” Listen to stories of the history of the tallgrass prairie and its amazing plants and creatures –-from blooms to butterflies to bison. Discover plants that work well in the home garden as you enjoy learning about Illinois’ “landscape of home.” Presented by Sag Moraine Native Plant Community. More information here.
Literary Gardens Online: June 8, 6:30-7:30 p.m. Join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby for a fun look at 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 Mary Oliver, Henry Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver, Lewis Carroll–and many more! See your garden with new eyes—and come away with a list of books you can’t wait to explore. Registration through the Downers Grove Public Library coming soon here.
Plant A Backyard Prairie:Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm CST –Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. Register here.
Thanks to John Heneghan for his help with bird feather ID this week!
“How important it is to walk along, not in haste but slowly, looking at everything and calling out Yes!”– Mary Oliver
Ask for their top10 list of February destinations, and most of my friends would tell you “anywhere warm.” I agree. Toward the end of a Chicago region winter, I’m ready to shed the shivery cold for a few days and escape to some far-flung beach down south.
But the beach in February is not my number one destination. I include walking trails through prairie remnants in winter a little higher on my list.
Tonight, Jeff and I are walking the Belmont Prairie in Downer’s Grove, Illinois. It’s small, as prairies go, but as a remnant—part of the original Illinois tallgrass prairie which escaped development and the plow—it’s special. Writer John Madson wrote in Where the Sky Began that his “feeling for tallgrass prairie is like that of a modern man who has fallen in love with the face in a faded tintype. Only the frame is still real; the rest is illusion and dream.” Remnants remind me of those “faded tintypes.” Ghosts.
Very little of our original prairies have survived; about 2,300 high quality acres are left in Illinois. Another reason to be grateful for Belmont Prairie’s 10-acre remnant.
The grasses are weather-bleached and flattened now. You can imagine how references to the prairie as a sea came to be. Walking the trails here, amid the waves of winter tallgrass, can leave you unsteady on your feet, a little like wading through the surf and sand.
A creek glistens. Puddles of snowmelt glow. I’ve been re-reading Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series this winter, and the creek puts me in mind of Galadriel’s silver elvish rope that helped Frodo and Sam continue their quest to darkest Mordor. Magical. A tiny sliver of creek is also iced in on the right—can you see it in the grasses? Barely visible, but the setting sun sets it alight.
As we hike, Canada geese begin to settle in, pulling their V-string necklaces across the twilight overhead.
Geese have a bad rap here in the Chicago suburbs, but I admire their sense of direction, their seamless ability to work as an aerial team, their perfectly spaced flight pattern. Their confidence in knowing the way home.
Honk-honk! The soundtrack of dusk.
A crescent moon scythes its way across the burgeoning gloom.
Still enough light to see. The reflections of ice spark the last light.
Poke around. In the mud and snow pockets, trapped in north-facing crevices, there are signs of spring to come. A few spears of green. Water running under the ice.
Look closely, and you may find a few tracks. Mammals are out and about in the cold. Birds. In my backyard, close to the prairie patch, we’ve been feeding the birds extra food during the bitter temperatures, and they, in turn, have graced us with color, motion, and beauty. As I scrubbed potatoes before having some friends over for dinner this weekend, my mundane task was made enjoyable by watching the interplay at the feeders outside my kitchen window. Scrubbing potatoes became meditation of sorts. Outside were squabbling sparrows. The occasional red-bellied woodpecker. Juncos–one of my favorites–nun-like in their black and white feathered habits. The occasional burst of cardinal color. Darting chickadees. Nuthatches, hanging upside down, zipping in for a peanut or two. Downy woodpeckers, like this one.
The seeds on the ground attract more than birds. There are gangs of squirrels, well-fed and prosperous. If I wake early, I might spot a large eastern cottontail scavenging seeds, or even a red fox, whose antics with her kits have delighted us in the neighborhood over the years (and kept the resident chipmunk herds in check). Once in a while, over the years, we’ll surprise her on our back porch.
Another backyard visitor through the year is the opossum, who finds the seeds under the bird feeders a nice change of diet.
The opossum’s face looks a bit like a heart, doesn’t it? It reminded me that Valentine’s Day is Thursday. Time to find or make a card, and perhaps shop for a book or two for my best hiking partner. Speaking of him….
As Jeff and I head for the parking lot at Belmont Prairie, the great-horned owl calls from the treeline that hems the tallgrass. I hear the soft murmur. Who-Who- Hoooo.
Jeff and I once found a great horned owl here—perhaps this very one— in daylight, high in a tree on the edge of the grasses. I owl-prowl sometimes through the woods, hunting for bone and fur-filled scat pellets under trees. Find a pellet under a tree, look up, and you’ll occasionally get lucky and see an owl.
I think about Mary Oliver’s poem, “Little Owl Who Lives in the Orchard,” which begins….”His beak could open a bottle… .” As someone who teaches nature writing in the Chicago region, I love to read this poem to my students. The sounds of Oliver’s word choices (“black, smocked crickets”), her contrasts of terror and sweet, and her descriptions (“when I see his wings open, like two black ferns”) remind me of the joy of words, images, and our experiences outdoors.
Oliver’s poem about the owl ends; “The hooked head stares from its house of dark, feathery lace. It could be a valentine.”
The owl calls again. I think of the people and prairie I love. And, the joy that sharing a love of wild things with others can bring.
It’s a happiness not quite like any other. Try it yourself. And see.
Mary Oliver (1936-2019), whose words from Owls and Other Fantasies opens this blogpost, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet (1984, American Primitive) and winner of the National Book Award (1992, New and Selected Poems). Her admonition, “Pay attention. Be astonished! Tell about it.,” is some of the best advice I know. She died in January.
All photographs copyright Cindy Crosby, from Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL, unless noted (top to bottom): beach umbrellas, Sanibel Island, Florida; sawtooth sunflowers (Helianthus grosseserratus); Canada rye (Elymus canadensis); parking lot at sunset; grasses on the prairie; creek through the prairie; Canada geese (Branta canadensis) heading home; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) at sunset; crescent moon over the tallgrass; ice in the grasses; creek ice with new growth; downy woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; red fox (Vulpes vulpes), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; sunset over the prairie; Belmont Prairie treeline; treeline at the edges of the prairie; Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) with common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) pappus.
“I want the experience of the butterfly.” — William Stafford
The first one flew just ahead of us, then disappeared. “Hey—was that a monarch?” my husband Jeff asked. I shaded my eyes against the sun, unsure.
We were at Kankakee Sands in northwestern Indiana, returning from visiting family down south. Needing to get off the mind-numbing, semi-rumbling Interstate 65 that connects Indianapolis with Chicago, we decided to take a more off-the-beaten path route. A stop at this 7,000-plus acres Nature Conservancy site along the way was a no-brainer.
As we pulled into the empty “Bison Viewing Area” parking lot, there was nary a hairy mammal in sight. All the bison were grazing far away in the preserve, oblivious to public relations and their responsibilities in promoting prairie at their assigned station. The light slanted low across the wildflowers. September days were shortening. The quiet was tangible, except for the hum of singing insects in the grasses.
Jeff broke the silence. “Look! There’s another one,” he said, pointing. Two more butterflies flew over. Monarchs! And then another. And another. As our eyes adjusted, we began to understand what was in front of us.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of monarch butterflies covered the prairie…
A viceroy butterfly occasionally mixed in. Everywhere we looked, there were monarchs nectaring on stiff goldenrod.
The prairie was a shimmer of motion and color in the late afternoon light.
Wave after wave of orange and black butterflies fluttered across the goldenrod. I began frantically snapping photos with my camera. Click! Click! Click! But…How do you capture the movement and motion of clouds of butterflies? After a few minutes, I put my camera down and tried videotaping them with my cell phone. I soon gave up. One random viceroy butterfly video later, I realized it was futile to try and freeze the magic.
Perhaps, this was a moment to tuck into your heart, instead of trying to capture it with images and technology. We put away the camera and our cell phones. Instead of frantically clicking away, both of us watched the butterflies in silence.
So many butterflies! We couldn’t stop talking about them as we drove home. We knew prairies were great habitat for these amazing insects. But still!
Nachusa Grasslands, a Nature Conservancy site where I’m a steward, has some beautiful butterflies. I love the buckeyes, which seem to be everywhere at Nachusa this month…
…and the uncommon regal fritillaries, which I’ve seen there a few times in the summer. They take my breath away!
The Schulenberg Prairie, where I’m a steward supervisor, constantly dazzles me with its frequent fliers. Like this black swallowtail butterfly nectaring on rattlesnake master just weeks ago.
Fermilab’s prairies, another great place to hike in the Chicago region, continue to delight me with a diversity of butterflies, including the common but charming little eastern tailed blues.
But seeing the massive monarch migration up close for the first time at Kankakee Sands this week brought all the other prairies like these into focus.
This, I thought, is what happens when we try to heal the earth.
This is why we collect native prairie seeds, then go to crazy lengths to dry them and reseed new prairie restorations.
This is why we set the prescribed fires to renew the tallgrass each spring.
This is why we sweat in summer temperatures nearing 100 degrees, caring for prairie. Stay up late at night reading about restoration methods. Help our children and grandchildren raise a few caterpillars that become butterflies to understand the cycle of life. This is why we hike the prairie trails with little ones, so that early on they will experience some of the miracles of the natural world.
This is why we scribble restoration plans and seed collection notes. Cut honeysuckle and buckthorn so it doesn’t encroach into the tallgrass. Go out and speak and teach about prairie and all its creatures. Pull weeds.
This is what can happen when volunteers and stewards and site managers and donors care for the beautiful world we’ve been given.
And, sometimes, on a magical day like this one, we see the tangible results.
William Stafford (1914-1993) is considered to be one of our finest, if sometimes uneven, nature poets. Wrote Steve Garrison of Stafford, “He offers a unique way into the heart of the world.”
All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): late afternoon at the bison viewing area of Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN: monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) and viceroy butterflies (Limenitis archippus) nectaring on stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN; trio of monarchs (Danaus plexippus) nectaring on stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN; late afternoon at Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN: video of viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) nectaring on stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN; buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia) on unknown aster (Asteracea), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; regal fritillary (Speyeria idalia) , Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) on rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; eastern tailed-blue (Cupido comyntas), Fermilab Inner Ring, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; September on Fame Flower Knob, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; drying seeds at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; prescribed burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; small toddler investigating flowers, Fermilab Interpretive Trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; weeds and work bucket, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Nachusa Grasslands in the rain, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.
Thanks to all the organizations that manage Kankakee Sands, including the Nature Conservancy of Indiana, Division of Fish & Wildlife, Division of Nature Preserves, Indiana Department of Environmental Management, Indiana Heritage Trust, Indiana Grand Company, Lilly Endowment, National Fish & Wildlife Foundation, and Natural Resources Conservation Services. Grateful for the butterfly magic this week.
“The world of dew is the world of dew. And yet, and yet…” — Kobayashi Issa
It’s cold. I’m tired. But I push myself out the door.
The sun is just beginning to flood the world with light.
The burned prairie is flocked with white. An intersection between fire and ice.
As the cold earth warms under the rising sun, fog settles…
…casting prairie plants, covered with ice crystals, in sharp relief.
Once familiar to us…
…the grasses and wildflowers become something alien, exotic.
The Japanese poet, Kobayashi Issa, wrote: “Dew evaporates…
…and all our world is dew…
…so dear, so fresh, so fleeting.”
This moment will quickly vanish. And no other morning will be quite like this one.
A good reason to keep showing up.
Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828), whose haiku opens this post, was a Japanese poet who is regarded as one of the great Japanese haiku masters. His life was marked by various tragedies: the loss of his first wife and children, a later, unhappy marriage; a house that burned to the ground. Another one of my favorite poems of his: “Reflected in the dragonfly’s eye—mountains.” And, “Don’t worry spiders, I keep house casually.”
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby at Prairiewoods tallgrass prairie and savanna, Hiawatha, Iowa: common mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum) unknown prairie plant covered with ice crystals; burned prairie covered with ice; fog over burned prairie; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) covered with ice in the fog; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) covered with ice, big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) covered with ice, switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) with fog droplets; unknown oak leaf on burned prairie with ice crystals; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) with fog droplets; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) on frosted prairie.
“Truly we live with mysteries too marvelous to be understood.”–Mary Oliver
Forget politics for a moment. Take three minutes to walk with me. Focus on the wonders of the tallgrass prairie in November.
I need a hike where it’s quiet today — don’t you?
November’s Indian summer sighs, then turns and marches toward the cold. Little bluestem throws its confetti of seeds across the tallgrass in an extravagant last hurrah; a marvel of color and light.
Look at the sky, a kaleidoscope of clouds forming and reforming in different patterns.
It’s an ever-changing painting, so easily taken for granted. Put there…for what? For our joy? For our amazement? The least we can do is take time to look.
Lose yourself in the architecture, colors, and texture of a prairie dock leaf. It is one unique leaf in an infinite number of leaves in the tallgrass, in an infinite number of prairies. Each is its own work of art. Does your mind boggle at the artistry so lavishly displayed?
Old tree stumps have stories to tell, weathered by the rains and sunshine of thousands of days. But you have to stop for a moment. Take time to read. And to listen. What story will they tell you?
In November, the prairie does a strip tease, shedding seeds and leaves. What’s left are the essentials for the perennials to survive the winter, much of their life invisible underground. The seeds promise hope for the future.
Even the fuzzy caterpillars that slouch and slinky their way through the tallgrass remind us of future transformation. Moth, you wonder? Or butterfly?
In November, plant structures are more evident, bleached of their summer and early fall colors.
Trees silhouette themselves against the sky. You admire them, shorn of the distraction of colorful leaves.
It may feel lonely in the tallgrass in November. You’re aware of your smallness in the grand scheme of the universe.
The shaggy bison look tough and well-suited to the coming chill. We, however, sometimes feel fragile wondering what the world may have in readiness for us.
Listen. There is the sound of water. The prairie creek rushes headlong on its way to some far-flung sea. Everything is connected. We’re not alone.
Under the surface of the cold water, the drab, beetle-like dragonfly nymphs wait for warmer weather. They listen for the signal to stretch out their wings; don their dazzling array of bold hues. The signal for change is months away, so they concentrate on growing. Soon enough all will be warmth and light.
When we shake our heads over the state of the world, remember. These prairie skies, this grass, the wildflowers, the seeds, those large shaggy creatures and small flying winged ones–and furry ones, too–are also the world.
And what a beautiful and hopeful place the world can be.
The opening quote is from Mary Oliver’s “Mysteries, Yes.” The next lines of the poem read as follows: “Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous to be understood/How grass can be nourishing in the mouths of the lambs/How rivers and stone are forever in allegiance with gravity/ while we ourselves dream of rising.” Mary Oliver (1935-) is winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and writes extensively about the importance of paying attention to the world around us. The complete poem is included in her book: Evidence: Poems.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Schulenberg Prairie in November, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; old tree stump, Fame Flower knob, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) seed pod, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; great leopard moth (Hypercompe scribonia) caterpillar, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; silky aster (Symphyotrichum sericeum) in November, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; trees in November, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Fame Flower Knob, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Clear Creek, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; white faced meadowhawk (Sympetrum obtrusum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.
“October is a hallelujah! reverberating in my body year-round.” ~John Nichols
September sings her last blues riff on the prairie.
The calendar pages over to October. We rush to embrace everything the season has to offer, ready for a change. Ready for something new.
The tallgrass crackles with static electricity, throwing off seed sparks in every direction. Do you feel the tingle?
A cool front moves in. Skies cloud over; turn bumpy metal. The bright greens of summer begin to drain into autumn’s palette of russet, copper, and cream.
Leaves loosen their grip. Let go. Let go. A free-fall transition.
You can feel surrender in the air. A beautiful loss, bittersweet. As Anatole France wrote, “All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy….”
Everywhere in the tallgrass, seeds blow away, fall to the ground, or are collected by volunteers. The seeds are the future; glimpsed but uncertain.
At dawn-break, sun lights the mist rising over the tallgrass. We hold our breath.
What will autumn have in store for us?
I can’t wait to find out.
The opening quote is from The Last Beautiful Days of Autumn by John Nichols (1940-). Nichols also wrote the well-known novel, The Milagro Beanfield War, which explores history, ethnicity, and land and water rights.
Anatole France (1844-1924), who wrote the other quote used in this essay, was a French poet and novelist who won the 1921 Nobel Prize in Literature.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby: (top to bottom) Mist rising in big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; you-pick pumpkin patch, Jonamac Orchard, Malta, IL; Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) , Conrad Station Savanna, The Nature Conservancy and DNR, Morocco, IN; road through the tallgrass, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; three leaves, Springbrook Nature Center, Itasca, IL; unknown milkweed (Asclepias spp.), Conrad Station Savanna, The Nature Conservancy and Indiana DNR, Morocco, IL; crescent moon over author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; mist rising with prairie plants and non-natives at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL.
As if the ocean in his gentlest swell, stood still, with all his rounded billows fixed, and motionless forever.
Motionless? No — they are all unchained again…
The clouds sweep over with their shadows…
And, beneath, the surface rolls…
And fluctuates to the eye.
Dark hollows seem to glide along and chase the sunny ridges.
In these plains, the bison feeds no more.
Still this great solitude is quick with life;
Myriads of insects, gaudy as the flowers…
And birds, that scarce have learned the fear of man are here.
The graceful deer bounds to the wood at my approach.
The bee, a more adventurous colonist than man, with whom he came across the eastern deep…
Fills the savannas with his murmurings.
William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878) was a keen observer of the natural world. He was editor of the New York Evening Post, and one of the first American writers and romantic poets to be recognized internationally at that time.Martin Luther King, Jr., quoted this immortal phrase from Bryant, “Truth, crushed to earth, will rise again.” The above excerpts are all taken from his poem, The Prairies.
All photos by Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Autumn on the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; October, SP; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) seedheads, SP; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), SP; clouds, SP: prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); grasses, SP; grasses, SP; bison, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; grasshopper, SP; milkweed bugs, SP; red-tailed hawk, SP; fawn, SP; bumblebee in cream gentian (Gentiana flavida), SP; savanna, SP.
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.