Tag Archives: reflection

Making Sense of November’s Prairie

“Don’t you know, some people say, the winter is the best time of them all…”–Neil Young

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I like a good challenge, don’t you? So this mid-November, I’m challenging myself to discover what’s lovable about my least favorite month of the year on the prairie.

Can there really be anything good about November? Every where I see signs of loss. Leaves dropping. Days shortening. Temperatures plunging. I’m not going to lie—I’ve been pretty grumpy about the whole change of seasons so far.

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But what I found as I hiked reminded me of why this season has its own charms, its own distinctiveness. Need convincing? Read on….

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The sounds of the November prairieare so different than the sounds of late summer and early autumn. Sound travels farther and more clearly in cold weather if conditions are right; check out this interesting article here. Next time you’re hiking through the prairie on a frosty morning, listen. See if you agree.

 

SPMAbench111218WM.jpg The wildlife noises are also different than the summer orchestra of insect songs and bee-buzz. Woodpeckers suddenly become the stars of the savanna show after hovering in the background most of the summer. They hang out on the edge of the prairie; their sharp calls pierce the cold air and their drumming adds a staccato beat to the gray days. Nuthatches chatter companionably to each other. Their calls remind me of clown bicycle horns (listen here).

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This week in the Chicago region, the sandhill cranes are scrawling their calligraphy across the skies, migrating south. Their appearance signals a seasonal transition.  What are they saying to each other? Arguing over directions, maybe? If you have never heard sandhill cranes bugle from high overhead, it’s an other-worldly sound that speaks of movement and change. Intrigued?  Listen to them here. 

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A touch-y, feel-y kind of season… November is a wonderful time to engage that tactile side of your personality. Consider a compass plant leaf. Rub your fingers across the rough surface.  Notice the texture. The leaf gracefully arcs, bowing to the inevitable, concentrating its energy in the plant’s deep roots for winter.

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Slide your fingers along the big bluestem “stem.” Feel that polished smoothness? It’s said that early settlers found these stems made a great substitute for lost knitting needles. No word on what gauge size.

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Mmmm… those smells!… Go on, inhale. Wakes you up, doesn’t it? These damp, gray days of mid-November have their own particular scent. Earthy. The sharpness of cold. A whisper of plant decay. A tang of the last wild bergamot, which smells of a cross between Earl Grey tea and thyme. When I sniff the gray-headed coneflower seeds, it brings lemons to mind; maybe even a bit of licorice. The hot buttered popcorn scent of prairie dropseed is long gone; the sweet floral smell of the common milkweed is memory.

But November has its own perfumery.

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Tasty!  Ah, the last leaves of mountain mint. You can still find a few green-ish ones, if you look. They aren’t as pliable as they were back in July, but they retain a little minty zing.  The crumbly rosin of compass plant is still pleasant in the mouth; a bit piney and not as problematically sticky.

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And of course, there is plenty to seefor those who look closely.  The first serious snowfall—you know, where there’s actual white stuff on the tallgrass and not just flakes in the air—can’t help but spark delight. Sure, you’ll hear people  moan, “I’m not ready for this,” but seeing the first real snow on the ground is comforting. Despite politics, shootings, wildfires, and global tragedies, the seasons keep rolling along.

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The often-gray skies of November are a foil for the metallic colors of the grasses, which are a backdrop for the silhouettes of spent seedheads

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It’s a different way of seeing at this time of the year. More difficult to find the beauty. But it’s there.

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Don’t forget…as you use your five senses to explore the November prairie, there is “the sixth sense.” Making the connection of the heart to what we experience. November reminds us of our own mortality—of the cycle of great abundance and heartbreaking loss; growth and rest—that we experience during our short time on this planet.  November on the prairie is homely, humble, and quiet. It reminds us, as that great prairie writer Paul Gruchow wrote in Grass Roots: The Universe of Home,the work that matters doesn’t always show.”

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Like all months, November has its own experiences to offer. New things to teach me. A time for reflection.

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If I have the courage to look November squarely in its seasonal face, instead of avoiding it, maybe I’ll learn something.

So. Bring it on, November. I’m really to learn from you, and experience all you have to offer.

What about you?

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The opening epigram is from Neil Young’s song “Little Wing,” from his much-maligned album, Hawks and Doves. Despite mockery from my friends, this is one of my favorite Young albums. It will grow on you. Promise.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom) mixed November leaves, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; trail with light snow, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove Park District and The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove, IL; bench overlooking Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis), Schulenberg prairie edge, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  sandhill cranes  (Antigone canadensis) over author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; compass plant leaf (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; November grasses and forbs, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) rosin, Schulenberg Prairie,  The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, United States Department of Agriculture/Forest Service and The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Wilmington, IL; prairie cinquefoil (Drymocallis arguta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL;  bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Tallgrass Ice Magic

“Everything is always becoming something else.” — Gretel Ehrlich

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January’s vivid prairie sunsets remind me of the black light posters I had in the early ’70s. Pow! Unbelievable colors. You wouldn’t expect this in a landscape you thought had gone all taupe grasses and gray skies.

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What amazements winter keeps pulling out of her bag of tricks! The whims and vagaries of weather brought about both ice and thaw this week. My backyard prairie pond glassed in plants and leaves.

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Down in the still-frozen shallows of Willoway Brook on the Schulenberg Prairie, the broken stalks of white wild indigo lay tangled up in blue snow shadows.

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Along the shoreline, milkweed pods stand ready to serve as makeshift boats. Spilled of their floss, they could float downstream in a thaw; sailing a million miles away. My mind seems to drift off that far in January sometimes as well. Anything seems possible.

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Along the brook where the current runs deep, there’s thaw. So much tension! The muscle of ice against water, the push and pull of solid to liquid.

Transitions.

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I always find transitions difficult. But they often signal some sort of breakthrough. January is a good moment to pause and reflect on this. Be encouraged, instead of discouraged by these passages, these changes.

Meanwhile, Willoway Brook wrestles with its own transitions. Ice splinters and fractures. Shards tumble downstream. The water sings of spring on the way. Soon. Soon.

The ice, cold and slick, is a foil for the other sensory pleasures of the prairie this month. Today, it’s bright sun.  Tomorrow, it might be a shroud of fog across the grasses. Breathe in, and you inhale the taste of evaporating snow in the air.

Lean down, and touch a rasp of sandpapery compass plant leaf…

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…or listen to the castanet rattle of milkvetch pods, holed by insects, each with its cache of dry seeds beating time in the breeze. In the clear air of January, sound seems to travel a little farther than other months.

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The brittle and the rough stand in sharp contrast to the last soft brushes of little bluestem, still holding rich color in the otherwise bleached-out grasses.

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All of these pleasures add their joy to these January days. The ever-present geese honk their lane changes, flying across the jet contrails which criss-cross the sky.

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And each day—as the sun burns its way up through the east and then falls in flames to the west—you know the January cycle of freeze-thaw, freeze-thaw, is bringing spring a little bit closer.

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But for now…

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…enjoy every moment of the magic of ice and snow.

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Gretel Ehrlich’s quote, which opens this essay, is from her book, The Future of Ice, written about her love for winter and the perils of climate change. My favorite of her books is The Solace of Open Spaces. If you haven’t read her writing, it’s good company for a cold January evening.

All photos/video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): sunset on the Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL; author’s backyard prairie pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  authors backyard prairie pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; Willoway brook thaw video, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Canada milkvetch (Astragalus canadensis) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Canada geese (Branta canadensis) and contrails, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunset, edge of the Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL; ice on the author’s backyard prairie pond, Glen Ellyn, IL. 

Space and Place on the Prairie

 

“How long does it take to know a place?…Abstract knowledge about a place can be acquired in short order if one is diligent. The visual quality of an environment is quickly tallied if one has the artist’s eye. But the ‘feel’ of a place takes longer to acquire. It is made up of experiences, mostly fleeting and undramatic, repeated day after day and over the span of years. It is a unique blend of sights, sounds, and smells, a unique harmony of natural and artificial rhythms such as times of sunrise and sunset, of work and play. The feel of a place is registered in one’s muscles and bones… . Knowing a place, in the above senses, clearly takes time. It is a subconscious kind of knowing.”– Yi-Fu Tuan

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I have the good fortune to live next to a respected taxonomist, whose suburban yard overflows with hundreds of native plants. Once, I asked him the best way to go about increasing my own knowledge of the natural world. He thought for a moment, then said, “Look at your backyard, Cindy. Each day, learn a different plant you find there.”

Such simple advice. So difficult to take. Because of course, it requires…time.

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Dr. Yi-Fu Tuan, University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of geography emeritus,  writes, “How long does it take to know a place? Modern man, he says, is so mobile “that he has not the time to establish roots; his experience and appreciation of place is superficial.”

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Time. We race around, doing things, going other places. Knowing where we live is one of the the casualties.  How often I have heard people say, “I wish I had more time… ” “I just don’t have enough time… ” “If only I had time to… ” “There aren’t enough hours in a day… ” “If only I didn’t have to sleep… .”  I’ve said most of the same things myself. With hours in such short supply, should we despair of ever finding time to really “know” where we live? Much less, even something as seemingly simple as the names of the plants in our backyards?

Yes, it takes time to know a place. But, as Tuan also writes, even “an intense experience of short duration…can alter our lives.”

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All of us may attest to the power of short but memorable outdoor experiences that helped us know a place. My list of those experiences might include memories as simple as a childhood playspace under a forsythia bush.

A particular sunset.

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The coyote on a prairie trail in the rain, going about her business, oblivious to me sitting a few feet away. Sandhill cranes unexpectedly landing all around me in a field. An unexpected cloud of ebony jewelwing damselflies arising from a stream bank. Finding a fawn.

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You soak these moments into your bones; they permeate your subconscious mind, they echo through your dreams. These intense experiences inform the way you feel about a place. You don’t forget.

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But, you have to be there to have the experiences.  You have to show up. Even if it is only to sit in your backyard to key out plants, a field guide in one hand, the unknown green leaf in the other. You set aside time to let those moments happen. Or, at the very least, you cultivate an awareness that allows you to be awake to those moments when they do happen. To stop and pay attention to the moment.

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These moments are often unscripted. One evening, more than a dozen years ago, I sat in my car in the high school parking lot, waiting for my children’s band lessons to end.  I turned the ignition off and rolled down the window. The parking lot was unusually quiet. I watched geese lift off the football field and pull together the scarf of the sunset with their black, bowling pin shaped bodies, on their way to Hidden Lake nearby.  A few clouds scrolled across the sky. The hot asphalt, the tic-tic-tic of the car cooling down, and drift of music from the band room were unlikely elements of anything special. The high school parking lot is a bland spot to have any intense experiences about place. But I can still frame that sky, those geese, that place in my memory, more than a decade later. There was an intensity of that moment, and one that was unplanned. It helped wake me up to where I lived at a time when I was struggling to pay attention to my life.

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Now, when I become cynical or jaded about the natural world, I’ll go looking for those moments intentionally. Usually, I head to my favorite prairie trail nearby, and take a walk.  If this fails to wake me up, I’ve found seeing the prairie with a child often often opens it to me in a new way again.

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If you’ve walked with a child, you know they don’t feel the press of time as we do. In summer, they are perfectly content to stop and watch bees work flowers for a good long while, or in winter, explore the holes prairie voles make in snow—look for the entrance and exit spots, mark them with sticks. A child thinks nothing of taking a net outside to catch butterflies in November. And why not? To a child, nothing is yet impossible.

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I need these reminders to slow down. To pay attention. To remember what it was like to be a child, to not use a calendar, to not have a to-do list. To feel time in the way a child does. Recapture that feeling that nothing is impossible, even in November.

I walk the prairie alone today—in November, yes, when much of what is going on in my life does seem impossible and completely unsolvable. This place, this prairie where I walk, is woven into my muscles and bones; it runs in my blood. I’ve walked it almost 20 years now. In my memory are the fires of prescribed burns I’ve helped set that have kept the tallgrass alive and vibrant.

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Ahead months away, in my imagination, are the blooms and grasses of summer, those rather iconic stereotypical pale purple coneflowers and Culver’s root; bright orange butterfly weed and yellow coreopsis; all the colors and pageantry of a landscape gone wild and rich with buzz and bloom; diversity and joy.

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Today, in real time, I hike a more subdued November prairie, its life ebbing; someone seemingly stepping on the brakes; the winds tinted with chill; the sun slanted toward the horizon; blackened stalks stark against the color-drained grasses. And yes. Seedheads shattering into the promise of something new. At least I tell myself this. I believe it because I’ve been on this trail at this time in this place before. And I’ve seen the cycle happen, again and again.

SPMA-11-17.jpg I’m content knowing I’m storing this walk, this sunset, this experience away in my memory. Building my relationship with the land. Continuing to develop a “feel” for a place I’ve loved for a long time, and still want to know better.

Time well spent.

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The opening quote is taken from Dr. Yi-Fu Tuan’s (1930-) Space and Place: The Perspective of Experiencewhich offers fascinating glimpses into our relationship with both the natural and built environment. His book never fails to provoke me to thinking more deeply about the places where I spend my time and how and why I spend it as I do.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): white wild indigo (Baptisia alba), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; two-track in spring, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; tall coreopsis (Coreposis tripteris), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunset, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white-tailed fawn (Odocoileus virginianus) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; little wood duck (Aix sponsa), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; smooth sumac (Rhus glabra), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; netting butterflies in the off season, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prescribed burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; summer on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunset, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.