Tag Archives: savanna

Fire and Rain

“I’ve seen fire, and I’ve seen rain… .” –James Taylor

Those relentless March rains! Now it’s April—pushing the envelope for fire.

The prairie waits.

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Wildflowers and grasses, urged to life by spring showers, push up through the damp earth. Oblivious to the fire still to come.

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The prescribed burn crew gathers. Light the match! The drip torch ignites.  A crackle and pop… the dry grasses catch.

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Smoke rises; smudges the sun.

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Trees are cast into sharp relief;  wraith-like shadows haunt the grasses.

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Flames devour the prairie; lick the savanna. Whispering. Growing closer.

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Listen. Can you hear the fire advancing? A sound like rain.

 

Last year’s prairie vanishes in moments. Becomes only memories.

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More rain falls. The prairie fizzes over, all chocolates and emeralds.

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Life-giving fire. Life-giving rain.

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The beginnings of something new emerge.

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Hope. Anticipation. Wonder. So much is on the way. Right around the corner.

***

James Taylor (1948-) is a five-time Grammy Award winner who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. His albums have sold more than 100 million copies. Although it only went to #3 on pop charts (1970), his single, “Fire and Rain,” is considered Taylor’s breakthrough song.

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; spring beauties (Claytonia virginica) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Schulenberg Prairie and Willoway Brook, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie Visitor Station area, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie Visitor Station, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie and Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; video of Schulenberg Prairie and Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Russell Kirt Prairie in my side view mirror, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; Fame Flower Knob, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; sunset over Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL;  red admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta) on marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris), author’s backyard prairie pond, Glen Ellyn, IL.

A March Prairie Tempest

“In the spring, I have counted 136 different kinds of weather inside of 24 hours.” — Mark Twain

***

Tempest  ‘tem~pest’ (noun):  a violent windstorm, especially one with rain, hail, or snow.

Temperamental March comes in like a lion in Illinois, all twisters and high winds. Perhaps not a true tempest in the purest sense, but certainly leaning toward tempestuous.

The tallgrass ripples and blurs  in 50-mph gusts.

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Prairie managers consult weather forecasts. What is the wind speed? Wind direction? Humidity? March in Illinois is a season of prescribed fire.  In prairies and woodlands; savannas and wetlands, invasive plants are knocked back as the flames blacken the ground. Warming it for new life to come.

 

Up, up, up goes the smoke. Particles practice hangtime long after the burn is over. The smoke particles filter out the wavelengths of certain colors, but reds, oranges, and pinks come through. The  result? Vivid sunsets. As if the flames have leapt into space. Motorists slow, marveling at the skies.

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Just when spring-like weather seems here to stay, March hits the rewind button. Snow fills the  forecasts. Flakes fall overnight, covering prairies like sifted sugar. Or…

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… slathered on like heavy frosting.

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Deer move through the savannas, looking for browse.

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In the icy air, sundogs–bright patches of iridescence–tint the clouds just after sunrise and right before sunset.

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March is mercurial. A month of hellos and goodbyes. Farewell to the last thimbleweed seeds…

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…goodbye to the Indian hemp seeds.

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March is also a month of hellos. Mosses stand out in the savanna, bright green and scarlet. Chlorophyll is in the air. If you listen closely, you’ll hear a whisper: Grow! Grow!

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Small leaves spear through old grass and leaf litter. Such welcome color! We greet each new prairie plant shoot like an old friend we haven’t seen in a while.

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Try to describe the month of March on the prairie, and you may find the exact terms elude you; move in and out of focus.

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Why? The March prairie is a changeling child–the offspring of wind, fire, snow, hail, rain, and sun. Of opposites. Hot and cold; push and pull; destroy and grow.

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A prairie tempest. Within that tempest brews a new season.

Something to anticipate.

***

The opening quote  is from Mark Twain (1835-1910), whose real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens. He was born and raised in Missouri, then later lived in New York and Connecticut. Twain’s writing was noted for its satire and humor. Among his greatest works are  The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby: high winds, Nachusa Grasslands, Thelma Carpenter Unit, The Nature Conservancy,  Franklin Grove, IL; prescribed fire, wetlands around Klein Creek, Carol Stream, IL;  rush hour after a day of local prescribed burns, Glen Ellyn, IL; tallgrass with snow, Saul Lake Bog, Land Conservancy of West Michigan, Rockford, MI; snow on bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; young white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) in the savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: sundog, Lake Michigan; thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Great Western Prairie, Shooting Star Trail, Elmhurst, IL; dogbane/Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum), Great Western Prairie, Shooting Star Trail, Elmhurst, IL; moss in the savanna, Nachusa Grasslands, Tellabs Unit, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; spiderwort (Tradescantia bracteata), Great Western Prairie, Shooting Star Trail, Elmhurst, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Great Western Prairie, Shooting Star Trail, Elmhurst, IL; goldenrod (Solidago, species unknown), Great Western Prairie, Shooting Star Trail, Elmhurst, IL.

 

A Sense of Wonder

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. ” –Rachel Carson

***

We often talk about the five senses. But there is a sixth sense as well; rarely utilized. A sense of wonder.

How is your sense of wonder at the end of 2016? A little jaded? A bit cynical?

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If so, try this.

Go for a twilight hike on the prairie with a child.

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Let the child be your guide. See what they notice? Even dried seed capsules, like those of the evening primrose, seem touched with wonder.

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There is no need to teach or instruct. Just observe. Marvel together at the signs of prairie voles, which tunnel through the snow. Discover their “luge”chute trails fingered across the prairie. Explore the tunnel holes. How deep do they go?

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Inhale, air sharp with cold.

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Does it smell of bee balm, all pepper and mint?

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Now, look up.  At this time of day, you might see a “sundog” — those thumbprint rainbows–riding the sunset.

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Look down. Taste a little of the cold, clean white stuff. Let it tingle on your tongue.

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Twirl the brittle ribbons of big bluestem leaves, which take on new grace in last light.

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Break off a grass stem. It’s the perfect writing instrument to draw on snow.

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Queen Anne’s lace, an unwelcome intruder on prairie restorations, shocks with its eye-popping winter silhouette. A child doesn’t distinguish between invasive plants and native plants. So you are free to admire its intricate architecture together (even while you plot the weed’s demise come spring).

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Stained glass has nothing on the last crumpled leaves of figwort, backlit by the sunset. Listen to it rustle in the breeze.

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Squirrels print blue-shadowed butterflies across the prairie savanna. Where do they lead? Go, and find out.

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Paths around the prairie were mowed before the snow, ready to act as barriers for the prescribed burn come spring. The chopped grasses look like toothpicks stuck in a sparkling sandy beach. Tan cigarettes stubbed out in an ashtray? Or — what do they remind you of?

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Discover small, colorful things: a jumble of fungi, moss, and lichens blurred together on a broken branch.

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Guess who made tracks at the edge of the stream? Hmmm.

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A mink… I think. Getting a drink?

No matter how much you hike the tallgrass prairie, there is always more to discover; to see, touch, smell, taste, and listen to. Every time you spend time there, you’ll experience something new. Something wondrous.

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As you hike, reflect. What road will you choose to travel in the new year? The way of cynicism about people, and disappointment in the world you find yourself in? Fear and anxiety about the future? Or the way of anticipation and wonder at the marvels all around?

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It’s up to you.

****

The opening quote was written by marine biologist Rachel Carson (1907-64), and comes from her book, The Sense of Wonder, which inspired this essay. Carson is best known for Silent Spring, which helped spark the conservation movement. The Sense of Wonder chronicles how Carson introduced her adopted son, Roger, (orphaned when her young niece died unexpectedly) to the marvels of nature. Carson overcame many discouraging professional obstacles–and heartbreaking personal tragedies–to create meaningful work on behalf of the natural world and to inspire us to pay close attention to its marvels. If you haven’t read The Sense of Wonder, it takes less than 30 minutes. A good investment of time, and a simple New Year’s resolution to keep.

***

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): sunset, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: hiking at twilight, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; common evening primrose (Oenothera biennis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: vole tunnel, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sundog over author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL;  snow drifts, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem leaf (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; drawing with grass stems, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; fox squirrel (Sciurus nigertracks, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; mowed grasses, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; lichens, moss, and fungi, Schulenberg Prairie savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; mink (Neovison vison) tracks along Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sun halo with sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis) over author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; road to Thelma Carpenter Unit, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. 

Advice from John Muir

“Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” –John Muir

 

***

You might not be able to climb a mountain, or spend a week in the woods in December, as the opening quote from John Muir advocates. But, a short walk in the winter prairie savanna does “wash your spirit clean.” Come hike with me and see why.

What is a prairie savanna, anyway? Very simply put, it’s a place that’s less dense than a forest, and has its own suite of plants. You may see tallgrass prairie plants, animals, birds, or critters you recognize here, as well. Especially on the edges.

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Look around. In Conrad Station’s black oak savanna at Kankakee Sands in northwestern Indiana, there are traces of human habitation. People once remade this landscape into a place for commerce. But now — with the help of volunteers  and caring people –nature has reclaimed the savanna.

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Dried fern fronds arch over the crunchy fallen leaves.

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A recent rain beads mullein leaves with water drops.

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Oaks, shorn of their fall finery, are decorated with shelf fungi. Elf staircases?

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Seeds…so many seeds. The plant leaves curl as they dry, perhaps more beautiful in death than in life.

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Towers of fungi rise from the savanna floor.

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There are “muffins” everywhere. Mystery mushrooms? What could they be?

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These kinds of questions  will give you many happy hours flipping through ID books later at home. After much searching in field guides, the “muffins” turned out to be purple-spored puffballs.

Moss spangles the trail.

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Oak apple galls dangle from trees, their wasp-y occupants long since fled.

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Open one,  and marvel at the “web” that once held a tiny developing oak apple gall wasp safely inside.

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On your prairie savanna hike, you’ll see things you know. You’ll also discover new plants and other living things you can’t easily find names for. All it takes to “clean your spirit” is a little curiosity; a little energy.

You don’t have to hike alone — ask a friend or two to explore with you. Talk about what you discover.

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Who knows what is waiting for you on your December walk in the prairie savanna?

Wherever you are — make time to go see. Take John Muir’s advice. It will “wash your spirit clean.”

***

John Muir (1838-1914)  is known as the father of our National Parks. His love for the outdoors and activism on behalf of natural areas have been formative and inspirational for many naturalists, including myself. Although some find his superlatives heavy slogging, his books have been read by millions and have decorated many a dorm room poster. His words continue to inspire people today to develop a relationship with the outdoors, and care for the natural world.

Read more about the history of Conrad Station Savanna at The Nature Conservancy’s website:

http://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/northamerica/unitedstates/indiana/placesweprotect/conrad-station-history.xml

***

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby; taken at Conrad Station’s black oak sand savanna at Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Newton County, IN (top to bottom): starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) lifting off on the savanna’s edge; sweet fern (Comptonia peregrina) fronds; common mullein (Verbascum thapsus) leaves; various polypore (bracket) fungi (Family: Polyporaceae); unknown seedhead; white polypore (bracket) fungi (Family: Polyporaceae); purple-spored puffballs-late stage (Calvatia cyathiformis); haircap moss (Polytrichum spp.); oak apple gall (Amphibolips confluenta) on black oak (Quercus velutina); open oak apple gall (Amphibolips confluenta); hikers exploring the savanna (Homo sapiens). 

Invincible Summer

“In the midst of winter  …

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I found there was within me …

 

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an invincible summer.

 

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And that makes me happy.

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For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me …

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within me, there is something stronger …

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 something better …

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pushing right back. “

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom):  prairie grasses, Meadow Lake, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  prairie grasses, Meadow Lake, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie ice, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Meadow Lake, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bison, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL;  Schulenberg Prairie savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sky with tall prairie coreopsis seedheads (Coreopsis tripteris), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Quote is from Albert Camus’ Return to Tipasa, 1952 or Lyrical and Critical Essays (1968) (several variations appear in translation) The first portion of the quote is well-documented; the second is more difficult to verify.  Camus and I don’t always agree, but I love this particular reflection.

Ten Reasons to Hike the Prairie in January

Your car won’t start. Going outside means donning a scarf, gloves, hat, coat, and at least three layers underneath. The driveway is a sheet of ice. You’re out of sidewalk salt.

Welcome to January, a month a lot of suburban Chicago folks love to hate. It’s tempting to skip our trips to the tallgrass prairie. Too cold. Too slick. Short days. No flowers.

But missing prairie encounters after the turn of the year means losing out on some magical moments.  Consider these ten reasons to hike the prairie in January.

#10. Ice, ice, baby. The designs change from minute to minute.

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#9. Snow becomes a journal for prairie stories you missed. Invisible critters become visible.

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#8. Structure.

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#7. Unbelievable skies.

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#6. Snow pooled in the grasses gives the prairie a new look.

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#5. Noticeable transitions.

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#4. The color blue.

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#3. Unexpected contrasts.

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#2. Intriguing seedheads

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#1. Slow hikes.

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Yes, it’s treacherous underfoot. But walking carefully, picking our way through ice and snow, offers opportunities to slow down and to pay attention.

Thanks, January.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby. (Top to bottom) Snow and ice rim Willoway Brook, which runs through the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; squirrel tracks, SP; tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum), SP;  prairie grasses, lake, and sunrise at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; grasses, SP;  Schulenberg Prairie savanna; Clear Creek winding through Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL;  robin on smooth sumac (Rhus glabra), SP; round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata), SP; hiking the Schulenberg Prairie in the snow.

(*SP is an abbreviation for the Schulenberg Prairie)

September Song

The prairie orchestra tunes up. The conductor pauses, lifts her baton.

The earth slants. There’s a shift in the light.

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September’s first full moon rises, red-tinged against the sky.

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Days shorten. The prairie strikes new notes each morning . The first New England asters open, fringed blasts of color against a chorus of brassy golds and whites.

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In my backyard, the feeders underscore the mornings with activity. Although the male hummingbirds have left for warmer climes, females and small fry remain, juicing up for the long journey across the Gulf of Mexico.

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So tiny. And yet, capable of so much.

Monarch butterflies respond to orchestrated seasonal cues; sip goldenrod nectar, pack their butterfly bags for Mexico.

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Green darner dragonflies swarm, a percussion of clicks, clacks, whirs and buzzes. They gird themselves for migration as well, although where they will end their journey remains a mystery.

The last white-faced meadowhawks and American rubyspot damselflies linger on the prairie, measuring their lives in moments. They pause. Rest.

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There’s a melancholy feel to the days, a change to a minor key. Green, stippled chords of fruit cling to the rapidly undressing black walnut limbs that overhang the brook.

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Willoway Brook catches the trees’ spent leaves, then moves them in legato downstream.

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On the edge of the prairie, there’s a crescendo of white snakeroot, goldenrod, and lavender Joe Pye.

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The bison at Nachusa Grasslands rustle the musical score of summer; turn it to the new pages of autumn. Their coats thicken in anticipation of the cold weather to come as the last echoes of hot weather begin to fade.

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The conductor waves her baton, and tells the prairie: Make seeds… Seeds… SEEDS. The prairie responds in a wild orgy of outpouring.

Wild lettuce nods to the woodwinds, waiting to send its next generations  aloft.

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I hike through Indian grass blooms, which shower me with staccato bits of yellow confetti. Later, I brush bits of gold out of my hair; flick them from my clothing.

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But the music of the prairie stays with me, long after I’ve left the tallgrass.

It’s only the first verse of September’s song.

Just think of the beautiful music to come.

All photos by Cindy Crosby. (Top to bottom): White snakeroot (Eupatorium rugosum) and Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; rising full moon, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) SP; ruby-throated hummingbird, author’s backyard; monarch on Canada goldenrod, SP; white-faced meadowhawk dragonfly, SP; American rubyspot damselfly, SP;  black walnuts, SP; Willoway Brook, SP; oak savanna (white snakeroot; Canada goldenrod; Joe Pye weed, Eupatorium purpureum), SP; bison, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (The Nature Conservancy); wild lettuce (Lactuca virosa), SP; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) SP.