Tag Archives: prairie cordgrass

Thinking in “Prairie Time”

“The strongest of all warriors are these two — Time and Patience.” — Leo Tolstoy

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It’s a hot day for our prairie team to clear the main visitor trail.  The 90-plus humid mornings and torrential rains have resulted in lush vegetation. The path? Forbidding, overgrown. Visitors walk up to the trail entrance and turn away, put off by the idea of bushwhacking. Who would blame them? Trail clearing is overdue.

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For hours, volunteers work at a snail’s pace, bent over, carefully clipping back wildflowers and grasses to make an accessible path. At the end of the muggy, hot morning, it’s finally time to quit.

“Gosh, that was fun!” said one volunteer, cheerfully, drenched with sweat. Fun? 

She must have seen the look on my face, because she added, “Every week, when we pull weeds, I feel like I don’t see any results.  Sometimes, it seems like years on the prairie pass before we see any progress at all! But when we clear the trail, it’s instant gratification.”

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It’s true.  Instant gratification is unusual in the tallgrass. Sure, once in a while, a brush cutting day or big garlic mustard pull can yield tangible results. When we collect seeds of some prolific grasses or wildflowers, like pale purple coneflower, we have some momentary satisfaction. palepurpleconeflowerWM818

But the time it takes to develop a healthy, functioning prairie community—with all its associated insects, birds, and plants—is the work of decades, if not a lifetime.

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Thinking in “prairie time” requires recalibration of everything society primes us for. Post something on social media? Instantly, “Like! Like! Like!” follows. Too busy to cook? Drive-through restaurant windows put hot food in your hands in minutes. Not so on the prairie. On one tallgrass site where I am a steward supervisor, we battle an agricultural weed called sweet clover. I’ve pulled clover there for 15 years, and I’ve never seen an end to it. For the first time this season, the battle seems almost over. Because of this, our team was able to turn our attention to some other invaders. Giant ragweed. Curly dock. And lately, Japanese hedge parsley, which looks a lot like Queen Anne’s lace.

I’ve been pulling the Queen Anne’s lace from my backyard prairie this month as well, especially around a second-year planting that includes Kankakee mallow. For years, I’d admired it on the prairie….KankakeeMallowspma818wm copy

…and coveted it for my own backyard prairie plot. I found it at a local garden center specializing in natives. The first season, I had a few blooms. Beautiful!

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This year, the bunnies nipped it back until all I had were short, leafy stalks.

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Disappointing. But, as I often remind myself, thinking in “prairie time” is mostly about patience. Same with the cardinal flowers. That flaming color! I always anticipate it. Some summers, my pond and wet prairie has an abundance of screaming scarlet. The hummingbirds go wild! Then, thecardinalflowerCROSBYbackyard81318wm next season, the flowers disappear.

 

Ah, well. Wait until next year.

The prairie reminds me to think in terms of years, not just the immediate.  But, ironically, the prairie also reminds me that every moment is precious.  I know to stop and admire the wildflowers which change from day to day…

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… or pause in my work to marvel at a gathering of swallows, swooping and diving….

 

…or linger at Clear Creek to enjoy the bright blue of a springwater dancer damselfly.  If I rush off, thinking “I’ll look at that next time I’m here,” there is often no “next time.” I miss the moment.

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Then I think of “prairie time” as these moments; small snapshots of color and light and motion I can carry with me in my memory.

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How elastic time is! How odd it is, as well. Something we move through without conscious thought most days. Yet, how treasured time should be.  As I grow older, the idea of time has taken on new meaning. Want to aggravate me? Say you are “killing time!” Time is much too precious to waste.

The prairie teaches me different ways to think about time. It reminds me that the long-term results are worth forgoing instant gratification.  It also prompts me to remember the importance of paying attention to the moment—the fleeting nature of time. Two very different ways to understand the how I’m spending my life.

Two ways of thinking about living in “prairie time.”

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Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) is a Russian writer who is widely regarded as one of the finest to ever wield a pen. The opening quote is from his 1869 epic, War and Peace. He believed in passive resistance; his ideas were said to have influenced Martin Luther King Junior and Gandhi. War and Peace is thought to be one of the great novels in literature; its title has passed into colloquial use. Tolstoy had a rather tumultuous life; he was excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church, and his marriage to his wife, Sophia, was generally considered to be desperately unhappy. They had 13 children, only eight of which survived to adulthood. Tolstoy died of pneumonia at 82.

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL;  pale purple coneflower seedheads (Echinacea pallida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Kankakee mallow (Iliamna remota) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Kankakee mallow (Iliamna remota) author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; Kankakee mallow  (Iliamna remota) author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) and sweet Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; video of barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) congregating on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; springwater dancer damselfly, male (Argia plana), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

America’s Favorite (Prairie) Pastime

“A baseball weighted your hand just so, and fit it…When you hit it with a bat it cracked – and your heart cracked, too, at the sound. It took a grass stain nicely….” — Annie Dillard

 

For baseball fans, July means the season is building to a crescendo. So it is also in the tallgrass.

July throws out every possible pitch on the prairie: thunderstorms, scorching hot days, high winds, foggy mornings, cool evenings. It keeps you slightly off-balance. Guessing. Unsure of what the next day or—even hour—in the tallgrass might bring.

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In the prairie wetlands, egrets crouch; umpire the prairie ponds and streams.

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Cup plants have hit their stride. Towering and aggressive–up to 10 feet tall—their cheerful flowers team up with compass plant and prairie dock blooms to splash yellow across the prairie.

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Their perfoliate sandpapery leaves catch rainwater for thirsty goldfinches and other birds. Think of a scratchy catcher’s mitt.

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Big bluestem shoots up overnight, waving its turkey-footed seed heads. As Illinois state grass, it deserves an all-star role on the July prairie.

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Cordgrass blooms, subtle and easy to miss.

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But with the prairie roster overflowing with wildflowers…

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…big bluestem and the other grasses are sometimes overlooked, just as utility players often are beside their flashier teammates. Just wait until October, they seem to whisper.

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Gray-headed coneflowers shake out their lemon petal pennants, cheering on the season.

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In a few weeks, their gray seed heads will become dry and brittle with an amazing scent: an anise-citrus prairie potpourri. Mmmm.

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Joe Pye weed fills the prairie savanna with clouds of pale lavender. Their floral scorecards are marked with yellow tiger swallowtails and other butterflies, crazy for the nectar.

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Buckeyes surf the grasses; pop up along the paths.

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And every prairie clover bloom seems to sport a bee or butterfly.

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America’s favorite pastime might be baseball.

But the prairie in July knows how to hit a home run.

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The opening quote is from Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood (1987), her memoir of growing up in Pittsburgh. Among the awards Dillard has won for her writing is the Pulitzer Prize for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), a sustained non-fiction narrative about the beauty and terror of the natural world.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): fog over the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; great egret (Ardea alba), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), with unknown bee, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie blooms, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; Schulenberg prairie grasses at sunset, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; gray-headed coneflower seed heads (Ratibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  white prairie clover (Dalea candida) with wild indigo duskywing butterfly (Erynnis baptisiae most likely, although this is a difficult genus to ID), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Wild Things

“Two great and conflicting stories have been told about (wildness). According to the first of these, wildness is a quality to be vanquished; according to the second, it is a quality to be cherished.”–Robert Macfarlane

So often, we settle for “pretty” when we think about place. And yes, the prairie can be pretty, and full of pretty things. Great blue lobelia. Creamy white turtlehead blooms.

“Wild” makes more demands of us.  It changes our idea of beautiful. The prairie as a wild place asks us to be uncomfortable in order to experience it.  To be scratched, sore, tired, and bitten.

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Wild may be more subtle than pretty. It asks us to look at the sweep of a prairie landscape; the nuances of color and movement.

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It pushes us to pay attention to small things, that may otherwise easily slip below our radar.

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To be wild is sometimes unsafe. Prairie dropseed lures us with its buttered popcorn smell, while tripping us up with its silky grasses and mounded roots. Early European settlers called prairie dropseed, “ankle breaker.”  To cross a prairie in that time, with your belongings packed into your wagon, was to enter the wild. A place of hazards.

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Other plants, like the prairie cordgrass towering over your head, slash bare skin with razor-like leaf cuts if you venture too close. Its nickname: “rip gut.”

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And yet…look again. So many delicate blooms amid the rough and ready grasses! You pick your way carefully, still conscious of the perils.

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Beauty and terror co-exist, side by side.

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The idea of “wild” invites us to marvel over less-appreciated creatures, who have a certain ferocious allure.

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The wildness of prairie may seem empty. The openness of sky and grass leaves us vulnerable to whatever is “out there.”

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You feel the eyes of a thousand inhabitants of the natural world watching.

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You stand, a solitary figure in the tallgrass. No other person in sight. Prairies, like other wild places, give us room to be alone with ourselves, without white noise and distractions. And perhaps this is the most terrifying demand of all from wild places. But for those who make the journey, it is the most satisfying reward. What will you discover?

Why not go, and find out?

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby: (top to bottom) great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) and white turtlehead (Chelone glabra linifolia), 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;  September colors at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; familiar bluet damselfly (Enallagma civile) , Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; prairie dropseed, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata) , Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; violet wood sorrel (Oxalis violacea) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) and bee (Megachile spp.), Nachusa Grassland, Franklin Grove, IL; banded garden spider (Argiope trifasciata), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; September at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; common buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

Robert Macfarlane (1976-) penned the opening quote, which is from his book, The Wild Places. He is a contemporary British writer, and winner of the Boardman Tasker Prize for literature.