Tag Archives: prairie dropseed

August’s Opening Day on the Prairie

“The first week of August hangs at the very top of the summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning.” Natalie Babbitt

***

You can feel summer pause for a moment, catch its breath.

July is over.

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August is here.

The fireflies wink their Morse Code at night. On. Off. On. Off. They’re abundant this summer. People talk about it, wonder out loud. Speculate: “I haven’t seen this many fireflies since I was a kid. Must have been the wet spring? Maybe all the rain?”

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The fireflies light up the yard, the old field by the railroad tracks, the parks after dark.  Listen! The soundtrack for the fireflies is the buzz saw and hum of the invisible cicadas, crickets, and other fiddling insects tuning up in the dark.

 

We sit on the back porch and watch the fireflies twinkle in the prairie patch. Remember catching them as kids? The mason jars with a bit of grass tucked in and holes punched in the lids. Fireflies. We’ll enjoy them while they last.

On the bigger prairies, the more delicate wildflowers back off a bit as the grasses push themselves skyward and elbow them out of the way.

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Some of the heavyweight bloomers are tough enough to compete with the grasses:  stocky cup plant, rough-and-tumble rosin weed,  bristly compass plant.

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The curiously smooth prairie dock stems throw periscopes of flowers across the prairie eight feet high.  Its fists of blooms uncurl at last. They vie with the compass plants for supremacy.

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If it wasn’t for its eye-popping purple color, you might miss the low-growing prairie poppy mallows.

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Also short but eye-catching is the bright white whorled milkweed. Doesn’t look much like milkweed at first glance, but check out the individual flowers. Yes! That’s milkweed, all right.

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The bison move slower in the heat, graze a little, then look for a shady spot to cool off. The spring babies are getting bigger. They seem to put on weight as you watch.

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The prairie ponds shimmer under the August sun. July rains have filled them to overflowing. Dragonflies fly across the water in a frenzy. It’s now or never for laying eggs to make future generations happen. Everywhere, it seems, there are insect hook ups; winged romance on the fly.

The purple and white prairie clover has gone to seed and created perches for the eastern amberwing dragonflies.

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Blue dashers, too.

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The wings and bodies of the widow skimmer dragonflies take on a blue-ish powdery look that indicates age, called “pruinosity.” Old age, for a dragonfly, is a matter of weeks. If they are lucky, a few months. And with age and pruinosity, the widow skimmers become more beautiful.

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Flowering spurge has gone crazy this summer.

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It fills in the spaces between the grasses like baby’s breath in an FTD floral arrangement.

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The first breath of silky prairie dropseed grass in bloom scents the air with the smell of buttered popcorn.

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Blazing stars spike across the prairie. With their flowers comes a sense of inevitability.  Asters and goldenrods will be right on their heels, and with them, the close of the warm weather season.

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Everything on the prairie is poised for the downward plunge into autumn. But for now, summer in the tallgrass reigns supreme.

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August’s opening day on the prairie is here.

***

The opening quote is from “Tuck Everlasting,” a novel by Newbery Medal Award-winning children’s book writer and illustrator Natalie Babbitt (1932-2016). It’s worth reading the lines in context, reprinted here: “The first week of August hangs at the very top of the summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning. The weeks that come before are only a climb from balmy spring, and those that follow a drop to the chill of autumn, but the first week of August is motionless, and hot. It is curiously silent, too, with blank white dawns and glaring noons, and sunsets smeared with too much color.”

***

All photographs and audio clip copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): sunset on Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL; flood debris on a tree by Clear Creek, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; crickets and other fiddling insects audio clip, author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL;  grasses, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL: purple poppy mallow (Callirhoe involucrata) , Kickapoo Nature Center, Oregon, IL: whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; herd of bison (Bison bison),  Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL: eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  blue dasher dragonfly (female) (Pachydiplax longipennis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  widow skimmer (Libellula luctuosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata) in the tallgrass, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blazing star (Liatris spp.), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; tallgrass prairie, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, 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?

*******

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.

Twilight in the Tallgrass

“Twilight drops her curtain down and pins it with a star.” — Lucy Maud Montgomery

Come with me. Let’s take a hike on the prairie at twilight.

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See how the slant of sunlight shapes shadows on the leaves.

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How the prairie dock forms a backdrop for wild hyacinths; a contrast of  leather and lace.

 

Soft impressionistic clouds of prairie dropseed light up as the sun slips beyond the horizon.

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At twilight, you notice the beauty of the back of a wild geranium, which looked so ordinary earlier in the day.

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You stand, astonished. And then, one by one, the stars come out, casting their star-shadows…

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You wait, and see a shooting star, or two, or three…

 

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Crazy constellations of flowers twirl across the grasses….

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…and galaxies of petals swirl their pollinating passengers.

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You think about your life, as you contemplate the play of light and dark.

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So much to see and think about, if you hike the tallgrass at twilight.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby, taken at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle,  IL:  trail through the prairie; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) and wild hyacinths (Camassia scilloides); prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis); wild geranium (Geranium maculatum); starry Solomon’s seal (Smilacina stellata); shooting stars, (Dodecatheon meadia); golden Alexander (Zizia aurea); wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis); prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum).

The opening quote is by Lucy Maud Montgomery, the beloved author of Anne of Green Gables and its numerous sequels. She did most of her writing at twilight.

Leaning into the Light

There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light. ~Barry Lopez

 

April rains soak the prairie. At last–May arrives.

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Days grow longer in the tallgrass. The prairie, burned just a few short weeks ago, is carpeted with emerald.  Sunshine warms the newly arisen plants.

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Prairie dock waves in the breeze.

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Compass plants unfurl their ferny leaves.

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The first few tentative blooms on the prairie appear.

Leaning into the light.

Violets spill over from the woodlands…

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Prairie smoke nods in shocking pink, ready to throw out its silks.

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Prairie dropseed spikes across the prairie in electric green.

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A few wild geraniums tentatively skirt the edges of the prairie, as does…

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… toothwort, spreading through the oak savanna.

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A barrage of bluebells stuns the eyes.

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A prairie trillium lifts its blood-dark bloom…

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…as wood betony spins its petals in swirls of butter yellow.

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Shooting stars appear as if from nowhere, arcing in a dance choreographed by the breezes.

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The long days of winter and darkness are over.  You can feel spring bubbling up through the landscape.

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Welcome back, light.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): storm, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; after the rain, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) leaf uncurling, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; common violet (Viola sororia), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie smoke (Geum trifloum), Meadow Lake prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  wild geranium  (Geranium maculatum), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; cut-leaf toothwort (Dentaria laciniata, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bluebells (Mertensia virginica) , The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie trillium (Trillium recurvatum), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL;  shooting stars (Dodecatheon meadia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sand boil, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

The longer quote shortened at the beginning of this essay is from Barry Lopez’s book, Arctic Dreams and is as follows: How is one to live a moral and compassionate existence when one finds darkness not only in one’s culture but within oneself? There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light. ~Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams

April Showers

April showers on the prairie bring… mud.

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But for the discerning eye, life stirs.

Grasses loop out of the ground.

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The first marsh marigolds are a bit of welcome sunshine in the rain.

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Grassy reflections shine and swirl  on prairie ponds, streams, and waterways.

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Wait–are those hedgehogs?  Pincushions? No, just spiky blades of prairie dropseed, needling out of their hummocks.IMG_4103.jpg

 

Listen!

You’ll hear a killdeer calling its name: kill-deer! kill-deer! The nest is a simple scraped-out depression where the bird will sit, camouflaged against the rocks and twigs.

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The first rattlesnake master shoots push through the mud and ashes, looking a lot like yucca. Some were nipped by the late spring prescribed burn.

They’re tough. They’ll survive.

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Bloodroot blooms in the prairie savanna. A fleeting pleasure, as the petals drop off a day or two after the flowers are pollinated.

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April showers bring more than mud. There’s a lot happening on the prairie this week.

Take time to see.

 

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby: (top to bottom): mud season on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie grasses, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris), author’s backyard prairie pond, Glen Ellyn, IL: tallgrass reflections, Meadow Lake prairie plantings, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; tallgrass reflections, Meadow Lake prairie plantings, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), Meadow Lake prairie plantings, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; killdeer, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.