Daylight savings time kicked in Sunday in the Midwest. An extra hour before sunset! I head to the prairie for a late hike in last light.
It’s the last days. Each member of the prairie community seems set apart tonight. Who knows when a prescribed burn will wipe the tallgrass slate clean for another season? The fires may arrive at any time. Until then, I want to appreciate everything I see.
I pick up my pace on the muddy two-track.
It will be dark soon.
Goodnight to the grasses.
Goodnight to the prairie dock.
Goodnight, carrion flower seeds.
Goodnight mosses and lichens.
Goodnight, lingering ice in Willoway Brook.
Goodnight bur oak.
Goodnight to the brambles.
Goodnight to the bridges.
Goodnight to the vines.
Goodnight to the midges.
Goodnight, mountain mint.
Goodnight, houses on the edge of the prairie.
Goodnight to the redwing, singing sounds of spring.
Goodnight to the other redwing, singing back to him.
Goodnight to the brook, running cold and clean.
Goodnight to the bundleflower, reflected in the stream.
Goodnight sparrows everywhere.
See you in my dreams.
The opening quote is by John Burroughs (1837-1921),an American writer and naturalist. Almost every year, a book of natural history wins the John Burroughs Medal, an award given in his honor. For a complete list, look here. This post was inspired by many readings of Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown to my children and now, my six grandchildren.
“…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!
“I feel like it’s rainin’ all over the world.”–Tony Joe White
For the first time since spring, my fingers are stiff and cold as I hike the Belmont Prairie.
Jeff and I have this 10-acre remnant in Downers Grove, IL, all to ourselves this evening. No wonder. Rain falls in a steady drizzle. It’s 40 degrees. Who in the world would hike a prairie in this weather?
It’s worth the discomfort. With the first freeze last week, the prairie traded in its growing season hues for autumn’s deeper mochas, golds, and wine-reds. In the splattering rain, the colors intensify.
Sawtooth sunflowers, dark with wet, stand stark sentinel against gray skies. I inhale the prairie’s fragrance. A tang of moist earth; a tease of decaying leaves and grasses.
Most wildflowers have crumpled like paper bags in the chill.
But when I look closely, a few smooth blue asters still pump out color.
Panicled asters are bright white in the fast-fading light.
Wild asparagus writhes and waves, neon in the dusk.
Goldenrod galls, once brown, are now gently rosed by frost.
Goldenrod blooms are here, too, a few shining yellow wands scattered across the tallgrass.
Most wildflowers have swapped color and juice for the stiffness and starch of structure; the wisps and clouds of seeds.
These seeds promise new life next year; hard-won redemption from the summer of 2020.
Every year is precious. But I’m not sorry to see this year go.
The dripping prairie glows.
Thistle, drenched and matted, plays with the contrast of soft and sharp.
Evening primroses drip diamonds.
Sumac is luminous, splashed with crystal raindrops.
Tall coreopsis runs with water.
Let the rain set the evening alight.
And every plant glitter.
Let the prairie sing its farewell song to warm weather as it greets the dark.
A train sounds its horn in the distance. There is a rumble of metal on rails as the sun drops behind the horizon. Jeff and I head back to the parking lot. As I walk, I think of the winter to come.
The months ahead will bring their own loveliness, reluctantly embraced.
For now, it’s time to say goodbye to what was.
Then, to welcome, with anticipation and courage…
…whatever lies ahead.
Tony Joe White wrote the lyrics to “Rainy Night in Georgia” which open this post. It was sung and popularized by Brook Benton (1970). A great song for a gray day—listen to it here. Bonus points if you can name White’s other hit, which he wrote and performed himself. (Check your answer here).
All photos this week taken at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL (top to bottom): Belmont Prairie trail; indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); stream through the prairie;sawtooth sunflowers (Helianthus grosseserratus); unknown plant dead in the freeze; smooth blue asters (Symphyotrichum laeve); panicled aster (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum); wild asparagus (Asparagus officinalis); goldenrod gall; tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima); canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis); tall boneset (Eupatorium altissimum) ; indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); possibly tall thistle ( Cirsium altissimum), evening primrose (Oenothera biennis), staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina); tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris) ; sunset on the prairie; indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) in the rain; fall colors in the tallgrass; compass plants (Silphium lacinatum) in the rain; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); sawtooth sunflowers (Helianthus grosseserratus) at sunset; fall color on a rainy day prairie trail.
Join Cindy for a class—or ask her to speak virtually for your organization.Booking talks for 2021.Email Cindy through http://www.cindycrosby.com.
Literary Gardens Online: Friday, Dec.4, 1-2:30 p.m.CST– Join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby from wherever you live in the world for a fun look at great (and not-so-great) 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 Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Goudge, Rumer Godden, May Sarton, Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Gilbert, Henry Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver, and Lewis Carroll–and many more! This class is online. Register here through The Morton Arboretum.
Just released in June! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History.
“No story lives unless someone wants to listen.”– J.K. Rowling
Each year, I see the prairie as having a certain personality. Sparkling! Energetic. Another year it might be tranquil. Welcoming. I know this is an overlay of my personal feelings about the year, unrelated to the prairie itself. The prairie is utterly indifferent to my mood. Indeed, the prairie has many moods of its own, which change from minute to minute.
2020 on the prairie has been colored by COVID: from the lack of prescribed burns (all that old standing plant matter!), to the increased traffic on the trails, to the nervousness I feel when I see lots of hikers on a narrow path. When I begin a hike, mask at the ready, it’s a far different experience than it was in August of 2019.
It would be easier than I’d like to admit to let that tension keep me at home, or spoil the joy I usually feel in hiking the tallgrass.
I go out anyway. I mask up when I need to; then find times (early and late) and spots on the prairie where I can be alone. And each time I go on a prairie hike, I don’t regret it.
There’s always a new discovery. Shifts of weather. A different slant…
…on what is pretty familiar after hiking this prairie for 22 years. There are always new ways of seeing things.
Sometimes, when you’ve walked the same trails for years, you have a preconceived idea of what you’ll find. The danger is this: when you think you already know what you’ll see, you may overlook something special.
I try to remember to keep my eyes open. My mind open. And my heart open to what I might experience each time I walk in the tallgrass.
With that in mind, let’s explore the tallgrass together and discover five reasons to hike the prairie in August.
#1. Plants Have Stories. This Friday I’m teaching the second half of a class called Prairie Ethnobotany; the big “e” word simply means the study of how people interact with plants throughout history. Each prairie plant has a story to tell. Each “story” has as many “pages” to it as we are willing to read. Prairie plants have so many fascinating ethnobotanical tales to tell.
Think of big bluestem. Did you know that big bluestem is Illinois’ state grass? Or that its nickname is “turkey foot?”
It was once considered a good substitute for knitting needles—not difficult to imagine, when you look at its jointed stems.
Big bluestem was known as the ice cream of the prairie for livestock—it was that delicious to cows and horses! Ironically, early settlers knew that where big bluestem grew, the land was suitable for farming.
Goodbye, big bluestem.
I love to hear the stories that my students tell me about their ethnobotanic relationships with plants. Check out Larry and Arlene Dunn’s terrific story here in their blog post from “Acornometrics” about rattlesnake master, one of the stars of the August prairie.
Maybe, as you walk the prairie in August, you’ll want to write a haiku about a plant, as Larry did in this blog, and for one of our assignments. Share your haiku with me in the comments, if you do write one.
#2. Insects have stories, too! As I walk the prairie, I discover stories about the insects that inhabit it. Some insect stories are cheerful; the business of butterflies and beetles and bees, nectaring and pollinating.
Other insect stories may be a bit frightening. This black horsefly feeds on blood—any blood—wherever she may find it. Her mouth parts cut open flesh, leaving a painful sore behind. Ouch! I move past quickly. Nothing to see here, Miz Blackfly.
Beauty and grace, as well as a strong instinct for survival, are what I read in the dragonfly stories. Like this widow skimmer. Fierce. And exquisite. What a powerful combination!
However, not all insect stories have a happily-ever-after ending.
But each story tells us something important about the life of the August prairie community.
#3. Take a Hitchhiker Home. No, we’re not talking ticks here. Well, maybe we are. Sort of. Tick trefoilis another star of the August prairie. Many plants have strategies to help them disperse to new locations to diversify their gene pool. One of these strategies is to attach themselves to our shirts or socks and hitch a ride. Tick trefoil is one of my favorite hitchhikers. Those lovely lavender blooms!
Those intriguing seed pods. Brush against them, and you’ll arrive home, covered with enough tick trefoil seeds to plant a monoculture in your yard. I’ve spent hours pulling the seeds off of my clothes, only to find the seed pods I miss show up in the lint trap of my dryer.
Pick a tick trefoil leaf and you can also paste it, corsage-like, to your lapel. And look at those flowers. The unmistakable blooms of a legume. They remind me of my sugar snap pea flowers and green bean flowers in the garden, only in stunning violet.
When I see Illinois tick trefoil in flower and in seed, I know the prairie has begun its slide toward autumn. It’s a bittersweet feeling. The summer of 2020 has been oh-so-short. Or so it seems. What other plants hitch a ride home with you in August? (Hint: Check your dryer’s lint trap for clues after a hike.)
#4. Enjoy the Play of Light and Shade. As you hike, see what your eyes are drawn to. Contemplate how plants stand out as individuals, or blend in as an aggregate of masses of color and hue to create a mood. Watch how the light shifts, and blends and changes the prairie palette. Some areas look impressionistic, then a shaft of light throws a particular plant into sharp relief.
In this early August prairie mix….
…blue vervain takes the spotlight.
In supporting roles are the wispy Canada wild rye…
…and bee balm and bottlebrush grass.
Not far off, black-eyed susans and the festive gray-headed coneflowers (below) mix into the prairie edges, adding their yellows as foil to the blues and purples.
#5. The Prairie Skies in August have stories to tell. How different the plants look up close…
…from when you change your perspective, and see them against the backdrop of cumulus clouds and blue skies.
Some plants, like this pale indian plantain, stand out.
Even the creatures of the prairie community, like this dickcissel, appear in a new light.
An approaching storm throws the prairie and prairie savanna into a different mood. The bloom colors subtly shift; even the smell of the rain on the way tickles your nose and sharpens your senses. The sounds of the prairie change, from the rumbles of thunder in the distance to the ominous rustling of switchgrass and big bluestem.
Later in the season, deep fog on the prairie mists it in magic. Serene. Soothing.
Whether it is hiking the prairie by day…
…or strolling it in the evening and marveling at another glorious prairie sunset, you’ll know…
…this hour you set aside to hike the August prairie was time well spent.
The quote which opens this post is from J.K. Rowling (1965-), author of the Harry Potter series. The series has sold more than 500 million copies, and is considered the best-selling series in history.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby from the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unless otherwise noted (top to bottom): bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (file photo); compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) with sunflower head clipping beetles (Haplorhynchites aeneus); slanted trail; male eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemus tenera), Arbor Lake, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; praying mantis (Mantid, unknown species–one of the natives? or not? Unsure!), Cindy’s backyard prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL; butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) with big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) (file photo); big bluestem (Andropogen gerardii) (file photo); big bluestem (Andropogen gerardii), College of DuPage Russell Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL (file photo); rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) (file photo); showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) with unknown beetles; black horse fly (Tabanus atratus); widow skimmer dragonfly (Libellula luctuosa) (file photo); widow skimmer dragonfly wings (Libellula luctuosa); Illinois tick trefoil (Desmodium Illinoense); Illinois tick trefoil (Desmodium Illinoense); Illinois tick trefoil Desmodium Illinoense); light and shade through the Schulenberg Prairie Savanna; blue vervain (Verbena hastata); Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis); bottlebrush grass (Elymus hystrix) and bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata); smooth tall ironweed (Vernonia gigantea);smooth tall ironweed (Vernonia gigantea); pale indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium); dickcissel (Spiza americana) on great angelica (Angelica atropurpurea), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (file photo); fog on the prairie (file photo, unsure of month); sun and clouds on the prairie; sunset over Cindy’s prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.
Join Cindy for an Online Class this Fall!
“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” Begin a new session in September through The Morton Arboretum! Work from home at your own pace (with suggested assignment deadlines) for 60 days to complete the material, and meet other prairie volunteers and stewards on the discussion boards and in the optional Zoom session. Register here.
“Nature Writing Online” Begins Monday, October 5, through The Morton Arboretum. Want to commit to improving and fine-tuning your writing for six weeks? This is a great opportunity to jump start your blog, your book, or your journal writing while working from home, supplemented with three evenings of live evening Zoom classes on alternate weeks. Watch for registration information coming soon.
Just released! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History. Read a review from Kim Smith here. (And check out her blog, “Nature is My Therapy” — you’ll love it!
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.