“Thou blossom bright with autumn dew… .”—William Cullen Bryant
September on the prairie opens with a suite of delights, despite the dry weather in the Chicago region. Skies this past week veered between a celestial milky ice…
…to a startling aquamarine fleeced with clouds.
In my backyard mix of traditional garden and prairie, a Cooper’s hawk keeps an eye on the bird feeders. She considers the whole spread her personal salad bar. The chipmunks and hummingbirds won’t get close, but the squirrels take a more laissez-faire approach. Not a bunny in sight.
Fall wildflowers and grasses fling themselves into the new month, bent on completing their cycle of bloom and set seed; bloom and set seed; bloom and set seed.
The low light filters through the now-golding tree leaves, a memo from nature that time is running out for warm season pursuits. I love the seed variety in the prairies and savannas. They range from sharp…
Pale asters froth up like foamy cappuccinos.
As I hike the prairie trails, I look for some of my fall favorites. White goldenrod, which looks like an aster, is tough to find but worth the hunt. That name! Such an oxymoron.
Hyssop stands out in the savannas; a pollinator plant favorite.
But most of all, I delight in the gentians.
True, the cream gentians have been in bloom for at least a month now.
But the blue gentians are an extra dollop of delight.
As I admire the deep, deep, blues, I think a William Cullen Bryant poem about fringed gentians:
“Blue-blue-as if that sky let fall
A flower from its cerulean wall.“
I don’t find fringed gentians on my walk today, but I’ve seen them in previous years. I do discover, nearby in the tallgrass, the Stiff Gentians, sometimes called “Agueweed.” They are almost ready to open.
Soon they’ll bloom, and add their tiny flowers to the prairies.
Cool breezes! That sunshine. What a day to go for a hike. I want to wander through the tallgrass, spangled with gentians, under September skies. Inhale prairie dropseed fragrance. Feel the tallgrass brush my shoulders. Feel the cares of the past week roll off my shoulders.
Is there a better way to begin the month? If there is, I don’t know what it would be.
Why not go see?
The opening line is from William Cullen Bryant’s poem, To the Fringed Gentian. Click here to read the poem in its entirety on the Poetry Foundation’s website. You may know Bryant’s poetic line, “Truth crushed to earth shall rise again” — made famous by Dr. Martin Luther King Junior in his speech, “Give Us the Ballot.”
September 9, 9:30-11 am– in person–“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Oswego Hilltoppers Garden Club, Oswego Public Library. Please visit the club’s Facebook page for guest information, event updates pending Covid positivity in Illinois, and Covid protocol. Masks required for this event.
September 27, 7-8:30 p.m.–in person–“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Arlington Heights Garden Club. Please visit the club’s website here for guest information, event updates pending Covid positivity in Illinois, and Covid protocol.
“Fire works best in nature as it does in the lab, as a catalyst. It interacts. It quickens, shakes, forces.” — Stephen Pyne
Rising temperatures. Light winds. Rain, forecast later in the week. There’s a sense of urgency. This is the moment.
Time to burn the tallgrass prairie.
In 2020, the Covid-19 lockdown occurred during prescribed fire season. For the first time in recent memory, the Schulenberg Prairie—like many prairies—was left unburned.
So much was surreal about 2020; not the least was to see the prairie in its second year growth. Spring wildflowers were partially invisible under thatch and old grasses. Black walnut saplings, sumac, and gray dogwood moved in. Prairie shrubs looked, well, shrubby, without their annual fire regime. Most stunning was the prairie pasture rose, which grew taller than I’ve seen it before, with beautiful rose hips that lingered into spring.
And now, in a matter of four hours, the last two seasons of tallgrass growth have gone up in smoke.
A red-tailed hawk hovers, waiting to pounce on any small mammals running ahead of the flames. How do they know what fire will do? I wonder. Nearby, a field sparrow sings from a wild plum tree, oblivious to the spectacle taking place. I often find hawk feathers and other bird feathers on my hikes here; now, there will be no trace. Only ashes and bird song.
A woman pulls her car to the side of the road; rolls down her window. “Do you know why they’re doing this?” she asks. It’s an excellent question. The short answer is this: Prescribed fire helps keep a prairie healthy. Without fire, we would lose our prairies.
Fire keeps brush and trees from taking over the tallgrass and turning it to woodland.
Spring burns warm the ground. The blackened soil heats up much more quickly than unburned soil. This tells the prairie plants it’s time to grow.
Old leaf litter—dead plants—vanish in the flames, freeing up space for new growth.
Fire also helps control some weedy plants that might otherwise take over the prairie and outcompete native plants. The prescribed burns help prairie stewards maintain diversity.
I watch the hardworking women and men of the fire crew check the prairie for hikers, then lay down a waterline around each area to be burned.
The water line, back-burns, mowed pathways, and the gravel road create boundaries that help keep the fire within a contained space.
With the help of a drip torch, different portions of the prairie are set on fire.
Up in flames go the prairie dock leaves.
Mountain mint seedheads turn to ashes.
The last lingering seeds of carrion flower: vanished.
Late figwort disappears into the inferno.
The last vestiges of 2020 on the prairie are only a memory.
Fire is usually something we fear.
Today, we embrace it. Welcome it. Respect it.
Losing our prairie burn season in 2020 was only one of many losses in a year full of assorted griefs.
But with today’s prairie fire, I feel joy.
At last. There’s hope for the season ahead.
Stephen Pyne (1949-) is professor emeritus at Arizona State University, and the author of The Perils of Prescribed Fire from which the opening quote for this post is taken. He’s written 34 other books, most of them about fire. Listen to his Ted Talk How Fire Shapes Everything here.
Virtual Wildflower Walks Online: Section A: Friday, April 9, 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. CST Woodland Wildflowers, Section B: Thursday, May 6, 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. CST Woodland and Prairie Wildflowers. Wander through the ever-changing array of blooms in our woodlands and prairies in this virtual walk. Learn how to identify spring wildflowers, and hear about their folklore. In April, the woodlands begin to blossom with ephemerals, and weeks later, the prairie joins in the fun! Each session will cover what’s blooming in our local woodlands and prairies as the spring unfolds. Enjoy this fleeting spring pleasure, with new flowers revealing themselves each week. Register here.
A Brief History of Trees in America: Online,Wednesday,April 28, 7-8 p.m. Sponsored by Friends of the Green Bay Trail and the Glencoe Public Library. From oaks to sugar maples to the American chestnut: trees changed the course of American history. Discover the roles of a few of our favorite trees in building our nation as you remember and celebrate the trees influential in your personal history and your garden. Registration 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. Register here.
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.