“There was still a little green in the grasses, and the dry tops of the fall grasses genuflected in the wind.” —Paul Gruchow
It’s the last Tuesday in October on the prairie. What an incredible week it’s been! No tricks. Lots of treats.
Let’s go for hike and see.
I’m hiking close to a planted prairie kame, a mound of gravel and sand deposited by the glaciers.
Prairie kames seem to pop up lately, wherever I hike. Earlier this month, it was a kame in Kane County. (Try saying that three times fast). Today, it’s a kame here at the DuPage County Forest Preserve.
Two kames in one month? A welcome occurrence.
The trails by the prairie are lined with tree color.
It would be a shame to walk quickly, and not take time to admire the leaves. Look at that sumac! It’s a jeweled kaleidoscope. Change your point of view and watch the light play with the colors and patterns.
Beautiful? You bet. This sumac is native but a bit aggressive, so a mixed blessing on the prairie. Speaking of which…look at those tints and tones; shades and hues.
Smooth blue asters, a pop of color.
So many asters here that I struggle to identify! My iNaturalist app says to choose between common blue wood aster, Drummond’s aster, and a few others on the aster in the photo below. I’m still unsure; there’s a little “taxonomic instability”—as Illinois Wildflowers notes—between some of the species.
New England asters pump purples. At least there is one aster species easily identifiable!
More sumac glows, as beautiful as any flower.
And the grasses! Let’s talk about the grasses. Look at the little bluestem…
…paired with “spook-tactular” switchgrass.
Bewitching big bluestem.
Sideoats grama—the state grass of Texas and an Illinois native—are all at peak.
The seeds of rosinweed mimic the recent flowers, now spent.
Everywhere, the prairie wildflowers have gone to seed. A sea of fluff.
The winds and rain will put paid to the glorious autumn foliage this week.
I’ll keep the images of hiking this prairie trail tucked away in my mind to delight in this winter. When the snow flies, I’ll close my eyes and remember the colors…
…and be haunted by the memories…
…of this glorious autumn day in the prairie.
The quote that kicks off this blog post is by Paul Gruchow (1947-2004) from his essay “Autumn” from Journal of a Prairie Year. His prairie essays are among my favorites, especially “What the Prairie Teaches Us” from Grass Roots: The Universe of Home. Both books are published by Milkweed Editions.
Upcoming Programs and Classes
Saturday, November 5, 2022 (10-11:30 am) —Winter Prairie Wonders, hosted by Wild Ones of Gibson Woods, Indiana, in-person and via Zoom. For more information on registering for the Zoom or for in-person registration, visit them here.
Saturday, November 12, 2022 (1-2:30 p.m.)Add a Little Prairie to Your Garden, hosted by the Antioch Garden Club, Antioch, IL. Free and open to the public, but you must register. For information and to inquire about registering for the event, visit the Wild Ones here.
Wednesday, December 7, 2022 (6:30-8:30 p.m.) 100 Years Around the Arboretum. Join Cindy and Library Collections Manager Rita Hassert for a fun-filled evening and a celebratory cocktail as we toast the closing month of the Arboretum’s centennial year. Register here.
“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”—Yogi Berra
Autumn settles in for the long haul. Carmine and gold kiss the green-leaved trees overnight. Overhead, cerulean blue skies dotted with puffs signal mercurial weather.
We wake this weekend to a light, patchy frost.
It zaps my basil and okra in the garden, but the zinnias…
….and the kale don’t seem to mind too much.
The prairie planting shrugs it off.
What’s a little frost? No big deal. It’s all par for the season.
As the weather turns chilly, our hibernation instincts kick in. Put on a jacket and go for a walk? Or curl up with a book on the couch with a mug of hot chocolate? And yet, there are so many reasons to hike the tallgrass prairie in October. Here’s a little motivation to get us up off the couch and outside this week.
1. That color! The prairie draws with a full box of crayons in October, everything from blues…
…to golds that glow.
A dash of lime.
You might even discover autumn’s palette in a single leaf.
2. Flights of Fancy. Sure, the pollinator season is winding down. But the prairie still hums with life. Common eastern bumblebees lift off from every wildflower.
Late monarchs still cycle through the prairie and my garden. Hurry! Hurry.
Everything in the season says “It’s late!” An empty nest, invisible during the growing season, signals the transition. I think of an old poem by John Updike, “the year is old, the birds have flown… .” The prairie shifts gear from growth to senescence.
3. Stunning Seeds. Next year’s prairie floats on the breezes.
Other seeds wait to drop into the rich prairie soil.
The late summer prairie wildflowers are caught in the transition; some in seed, some in bloom, some still somewhere in between.
So much change! So much to see. And that’s just a taste of what’s waiting for you…
…when you go for a hike on the October prairie.
The opening quote is from baseball great Yogi Berra (1925-2015), who was known for his “Yogi-isms.” Another one of my favorites: “You can observe a lot by watching.”
Join Cindy for a class or program this Autumn!
Tuesday, October 11, 2022 (7-8:30 p.m.)—The Tallgrass Prairie; An Introduction hosted by Twig & Bloom Garden Club, Glen Ellyn, IL. This is a closed event for members. For information on joining the club, visit their Facebook page here.
Friday, October 14, 2022 (10-11 a.m.)—-A Brief History of Trees in America. Discover the enchanting role trees have played in our nation’s history. Think about how trees are part of your personal history, and explore trees’ influence in American literature, music, and culture. Hosted by the Elgin Garden Club and the Gail Borden Public Library District, Main Branch, 270 North Grove Avenue, Meadows Community Rooms. In person. Free and open to the public, but you must register. Find more information here.
Thursday, October 20, 2022 (10:15-11:30a.m.)—The Garden’s Frequent Fliers: Dragonflies and Damselflies, Lincolnshire Garden Club, Vernon Hills, IL. This is a closed event for members only. For information on joining this club, please visit their website here.
Nature Writing II –Four Thursdays–October 27, November 3, 10, and 17, 2022, (9 to 11:30 a.m., in-person). Offered by The Morton Arboretum. Experiment with a variety of styles and techniques as you continue to develop your own voice. The same qualities of good writing apply to everything from blogs to books! No matter your background or interest, become the writer you always dreamt you could be. Register here.
Save Bell Bowl Prairie! Click here to see what you can do to help persuade airport officials to preserve this important Illinois prairie remnant.
Beautiful Schulenberg Prairie Photo Exhibit! Local friends—don’t miss the MAPS special exhibit: “Seasons of the Schulenberg Prairie”, commemorating its 60th year. Sponsored by The Morton Arboretum from October 12-16. Free with Arboretum admission. For details, click here.
“But the days grow short, when you reach September… .” –Maxwell Anderson
The last days of September have arrived on the prairie.
Bittersweet. Summer, we hardly knew ya.
Smell the air.
Can you catch that slight tang of decay and crisp leaves?
Walk the trails. Feel the crunch, crunch, crunch of the acorns underfoot in the prairie savannas.
There’s no turning back now. Autumn is in full swing. The prairie methodically gets her affairs in order. Cooler temperatures? Check. Grass seeds ripening? Check. Last wildflower blooms opened? Check. September is almost a wrap.
I recently returned from Tucson, Arizona, where September looks a lot different than it does in the Chicago region.
The “monsoon” rains predated my arrival. In response, the desert was green and full of flowers.
With the rains and the flowers came the butterflies.
My plan for hiking Tucson was to chase dragonflies. The butterflies were unexpected. An epiphany. Walking through Tucson was like traveling through showers of confetti. Every flower held a butterfly, it seemed. In one wildflower patch, I counted nine Queen butterflies nectaring.
Everywhere I looked: butterflies. At first I clicked my camera nonstop. Finally, I gave up and enjoyed the experience. So much color, motion, and light!
It was no different on the paths. Butterflies puddled along the trails, looking for salts and minerals.
As I waded Sabino Canyon’s streams, chasing dragonflies, I found a pipevine swallowtail butterfly floating under a spiderweb. It looked like a goner.
Gently, I picked it up. There was a flicker of life! I lowered it into some foliage along the stream, and felt its legs grasp the grass stems.
I left it hanging in the sunshine to dry while I looked for dragonflies in the stream. Keeping an eye on it. The last time I waded by, it was gone. Good luck. Enjoy that second chance.
Meanwhile, I discovered the world of southwestern dragonflies for the first time. Flame skimmers.
I pored over my ID books, learning their names. Each day, I saw dragonflies that were new to me. So many astonishments! It was difficult to get on the plane and come home.
But I knew the prairie would be waiting, with its own suite of wonders.
I’m still seeing butterflies in Illinois this week, and will until the frost. They flutter singly through the prairie and my garden. The dragonflies are mostly gone here, except for a few swarms of migrating common green darners. The end of September looks much different in Arizona than in Illinois.
The prairie’s fall colors are in full swing. It’s good to be back.
I’m grateful to have experienced both places in September. And glad to be reminded of the beauty and unexpected delights still to be found wherever I travel.
But there’s no place like home.
Maxwell Anderson wrote the lyrics to “September Song,” which has become a standard cover tune for musicians such as Frank Sinatra, Willie Nelson, Burl Ives, Jeff Lynne (of Electric Light Orchestra), Ian Maculloch (of Echo & the Bunnymen), and Bing Crosby. I love the Willie Nelson version; you can listen to it here.
Join Cindy for a program or class!
Begins October 19, Evenings Online: NATURE WRITING 2: Online guided workshop offered through The Morton Arboretum. Some experience required; please see details. For weekly times, dates, and registration info click here.
December 3: WINTER PRAIRIE WONDERS–ONLINE(10-11:30 a.m.)Discover the December Delights of the Tallgrass! Make yourself a cup of hot tea, snuggle under a warm afghan, and join prairie steward and writer Cindy Crosby virtually for this interactive online immersion into the tallgrass prairie in winter. See the aesthetic beauty of the snow-covered grasses and wildflowers in cold weather through colorful images of winter on the prairies. Follow animal tracks to see what creatures are out and about, and see how many you can identify. Learn how birds, pollinators, and mammals use winter prairie plants; the seeds for nourishment and the grasses and spent wildflowers for overwintering, protection, and cover. Then, listen as Cindy shares brief readings about the prairie in winter that will engage your creativity and nourish your soul. Registration information here.
“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.
“The frost makes a flower, the dew makes a star.” — Sylvia Plath
First frost. We woke up to a silvered backyard, pond, and prairie patch on Monday. The sheet-covered raised beds were strange looking striped and plaid beasts, wrapped against the chill.
Under this mishmash of bedding, cherry tomatoes, okra, zucchini, green beans, celery, and peppers emerged later that morning, a little worse for wear but game to continue their production a week or two longer. Basil and the larger tomatoes left to the frost roulette sagged and browned as the sun warmed them. Goodbye. It’s October, and the days of fruit and flowers are passing swiftly.
In my backyard prairie patch and out in the tallgrass, there are wonders to be seen. Different than those of summer. More nuanced. There are rewards for those who spend time on the October prairie and pay attention. Will you?
Here are five reasons to take a hike this week. Let’s go look.
1. Those Astonishing Asters: Smooth blue asters are in full bloom, and wow-oh-wow that unusual color! There’s nothing like it on the tallgrass in any other season. Feel the leaves, and you’ll see where this aster gets its name. Seeing this beautiful lavender-blue washed through the prairie is one of the perks of hiking in October.
Heath asters—Symphotrichum ericoides—spin across the prairie in small clouded constellations. I love their tiny, perfect flowers. You can see why the name “aster” means “star.”
New England asters bloom fringed purple—so much purple—intense and alluring for bumblebees, honeybees, butterflies, and several species of moth caterpillars, which feed on the plant. It needs pollinators to ensure the resulting seeds are fertile.
2. Leaves Beyond Belief: Sure, there might be a bad pun in there (couldn’t resist) but trees, shrubs, and the leaves of wildflowers, grasses, and vines intensify in hue as the month progresses. Carrion flower, that unusually-named vine, shows off its bright autumn coloration.
Staghorn sumac flames scarlet rainbows among the grasses.
Shagbark hickory, standing sentinel to the entrance of the prairie, is a shower of gold.
Wild plum, growing where I wish it wouldn’t on the Schulenberg Prairie, is none-the-less a pretty foil for tall boneset with its pale flowers.
3. October Skies: There’s something about the sky this month; is it the color?
Maybe it’s that particular slant of the sun as it seems to cling closer to the horizon on its daily swing through the sky. Or the reflection of the afternoon in a cold prairie stream.
Whatever the reason, these prairie skies are worth our attention in October.
4. Sensational Silhouettes: Now the prairie moves from the flash and glamour of blooms toward the elegance of line and curve.
There is beauty in October’s stark architecture as the prairie plants wrap up their season of bloom.
The cup plants no longer hold the morning dew or night rains; their joined leaves sieved by age and decay.
But the promise of 2021 is here in the tallgrass in its seeds. The promise of a future, full of flowers and lush growth.
5. Discovering the Unexpected: What will you see and experience when you hike the tallgrass prairie in October? Perhaps you’ll discover something small—-but eye-catching.
Maybe it’s a familiar plant you see in a new way.
Or perhaps it’s the song of a migrating bird that stops you in your tracks. What was that? Or the familiar whisper of wind through the tallgrass; the rattle of white wild indigo pods blowing in the breeze.
Will you feel your spirits lift at the sight of the last sawtooth sunflowers, turning their faces to the low-slanting sun?
I hope so. And that whatever adventures are ahead in these last months of the chaotic and unpredictable year of 2020…
… I hope you’ll find the courage and strength you need for them.
Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) was best known for her poetry, and her semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar. After her suicide, she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry; the first person to win the award posthumously.
All photos this week are from the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL, unless otherwise noted (top to bottom): author’s garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; sawtooth sunflower (Helianthus grosseserratus); trail through the prairie; smooth blue aster (Symphyotrichum laeve); heath aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides); new england aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), College of DuPage East Prairie Study Area, Glen Ellyn, IL, with honeybee (Apis spp.); carrion flower (probably Smilax ecirrhata); staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina); shagbark hickory (Carya ovata); tall boneset (Eupatorium altissimum) with wild plum (Prunus americanus); switchgrass (Panicum virgatum); Schulenberg Prairie in October; Willoway Brook; rainbow, author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL: tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); bee balm or wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa); cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum); gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata); biennial gaura (Gaura biennis); prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum); white wild indigo (Baptisia alba var. macrophyllia); sawtooth sunflowers (Helianthus grosseserratus); bridge over Willoway Brook.
Join Cindy for a class—or ask her to speak virtually for your organization this autumn and winter.
Literary Gardens Online: Friday, Dec.4, 1-2:30 p.m 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.
“It’s the first day of autumn! A time of hot chocolatey mornings, and toasty marshmallow evenings, and, best of all, leaping into leaves!”—Winnie the Pooh
Happy autumnal equinox! It’s the first day of astronomical fall. Daylight hours shorten. The air looks a little pixeled, a little grainy. Soon, we’ll eat dinner in the dark, sleep, and rise in the mornings to more darkness. Some of us will embrace this change, in love with the season. Others will count the days until December 21, the winter solstice, to see the daylight hours lengthen again.
Wait, you might ask. Cindy—didn’t you say it was the first day of fall back on September 1? Yes indeed, I did—the first day of meteorological fall! There are two ways of calculating when the seasons begin. Meteorological fall begins on the first of September each year. Astronomical fall begins on the fall equinox. Read more about the way scientists calculate the seasons here.
The knowledge that these warm days full of light are fleeting sends Jeff and me to hike Belmont Prairie in Downers Grove, Illinois. The parking lot is full, but the prairie is mostly empty. We love this prairie remnant for its solitude; its timeless grace in the midst of suburbia.
The prairie is dusty. Crisp. Once again, we need a good, steady rain, with none in the forecast for the next ten days. Overhead it’s cloudless; a blank blue slate. I was scrolling through paint samples online this week, and came across the exact color of the sky: “Fond Farewell.” Exactly.
Although the prairie is awash in golds, it won’t be long until the flowers fade and the brightness dims. I remind myself to take joy in the moment.
Big bluestem, blighted by drought, still flashes its gorgeous colors. I love its jointed stems. No wonder it is Illinois’ state grass!
The brushed silver joints are not the only silver on the prairie. Along the trail are the skeletal remains of plants, perhaps in the Brassica family. What species are they? I’m not sure. Whatever these were, they are now ghosts of their former selves.
The flowers of showy goldenrod are busy with pollinators, such as this paper wasp (below). The wasps don’t have the smart publicity agents and good press of monarchs and bees, so are often overlooked as a positive presence in the garden.
Then again, if you’ve ever been chased by wasps as I have after disturbing a nest —and been painfully stung—you’ll give them a respectful distance.
Tall coreopsis is almost finished for the season, but a few sunshiny blooms remain.
Sawtooth sunflowers, goldenrod, and tall boneset wash together in a celebration of autumn, now at crescendo.
So much yellow! Sumac splashes scarlet across the tallgrass, adding a dash of red. As a prairie steward on other tallgrass sites, I find this native sumac a nuisance. It stealthily infiltrates the prairie and displaces some of the other species I want to thrive. However, toward the end of September, I feel more generous of spirit. Who can resist those leaves, backlit by the low slant of sun, that echo a stained glass window?
The withering summer prairie blooms are now upstaged by the stars of autumn: asters in white and multiple hues of pink, lavender and violet. New England aster provides the best bang for the buck. That purple! It’s a challenge to remember its updated scientific name: Symphyotrichum novae-angliae. Try saying that three times quickly! A real tongue twister. I miss the simpler name, Aster novae-angliae. So easy to remember. But everything changes as science discovers more about the world. It’s up to us to choose to listen, learn, and adapt rather than just doing what is easy.
The periwinkle hues of the smooth blue aster are unlike any other color on the prairie. I stop to caress its trademark smooth, cool leaves.
Every time I look closely at the asters, I see pollinators. And more pollinators. From little flying insects I can’t identify to the ubiquitous cabbage white butterflies and bumblebees, heavy with pollen. And, yes—those ever-present wasps.
Delicate pale pink biennial gaura, with its own tiny pollinators, is easily overlooked, out-glitzed by the prairie’s golds and purples, but worth discovering. Flies, like this one below stopping by the gaura, are also pollinators, but like the wasps they get little respect for the important work they do.
Soon, the glory of the prairie will be in scaffolding and bone: the structure of the plants, the diversity of shape. You can see the prairie begin its shift from bloom to seed, although blooms still predominate.
Breathe in. September is the fragrance of gray-headed coneflower seeds, crushed between your fingers.
September is the pungent thymol of wild bergamot, released by rubbing a leaf or a dry seedhead.
Inhale the prairie air; a mixture of old grass, wood smoke, with a crisp cold top note, even on a warm day. Chew on a mountain mint leaf, tough from the long season, and you’ll get a zing of pleasure. Listen to the geese, honking their way across the sky, or the insects humming in the grass.
Then, find a milkweed pod cracked open, with its pappus —- silks—just waiting to be released. Go ahead. Pull out a few of these parachute seeds. Feel their softness. Imagine what one seed may do next season! I try to think like a milkweed seed. Take flight. Explore. Plant yourself in new places. Nourish monarch butterflies. Offer nectar to bumblebees. Lend beauty wherever you find yourself.
Close your eyes. Make a wish.
Now, release it to the wind.
The opening quote is from Pooh’s Grand Adventure by A.A. Milne. Before he penned the popular children’s book series about a bear named Winnie the Pooh, Milne was known as a playwright and wrote several mystery novels and poems.
All photos are from Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve in Downers Grove, IL, this week unless otherwise noted (top to bottom): bee or common drone fly (tough to tell apart) on panicled aster (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; Belmont Prairie sign; wildflowers and grasses in September; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); something from the Brassica family maybe? Genus and species unknown; Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis); and other goldenrods; dark paper wasp (Polistes fuscates) on showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa); tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); wildflowers of Belmont Prairie in September; staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina); new england aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae); smooth blue aster (Symphyotrichum laeve); dark paper wasp (Polistes fuscates) on panicled aster (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; biennial gaura (Gaura biennis); blazing star (Liatris sp.); gray-headed coneflower seedheads (Ratibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (2019); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (2018); common mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum), Afton Prairie, DeKalb, IL (2017); butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa).
Join Cindy for a class—or ask her to speak virtually for your organization this autumn!
“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 online from home, supplemented with three evenings of live evening Zoom classes on alternate weeks. Class size is limited; register here.
Just released in June! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History.
Since the Durecho on August 10, not a drop has fallen in Glen Ellyn. Twenty-one days without precipitation. I miss the sound of rain. I miss the way the garden lifts its leaves and perks up after a shower. I long for the slam-ka-BAM of thunder, the drumming of raindrops on the roof. Flicker-flashes of lightning that illuminate the world. And the clean, earthy smell of the prairie after a storm.
I think of the early settlers and the Dust Bowl. How did they feel as the harsh winds blew their lives to ruin? It’s only been three weeks without rain, and I’m on edge. Brittle. Testy.
In the evenings, I water my backyard prairie patch and garden, but the green bean leaves turn yellow anyway. Zucchini leaves dry up. Tomatoes hang green on the vine and fail to ripen. Cardinal flowers close up shop as the cup plants crumb and brown.
We need rain.
I walk my dragonfly monitoring routes on the prairies, astonished. Where are the Odes? Has the lack of water affected them? Perhaps. A few migrants —a trio of black saddlebag dragonflies, a cluster of common green darners circling overhead, the glint of a wandering glider—are all I see on an hour-long outing. Where before there was a richness of species and numbers, the dragonflies have dwindled to these few. Damselflies? Not a single one.
And it’s no wonder. Willoway Brook’s tributaries—usually aflutter with ebony jewelwing damselflies and blue-fronted dancers—are dry and choked with brush.
Ordinarily, we complain about rain: that despoiler of picnics, outdoor weddings, kayak outings, and camping trips. And yet. How we long for it when it doesn’t show up.
A lone common buckeye butterfly surprises me on the path. It fruitlessly loops from clover to clover, seeking nectar. The red clover blooms are withered and brown and it comes up empty.
On the parched prairie, the grasses and wildflowers continue on. Tall coreopsis is vibrant despite the lack of precipitation.
Cream gentians still look fresh and supple.
Carrion flower, with its alienesque seeds, is show-stopping.
Big bluestem and Indian grass, look brittle and bruised.
Stiff goldenrod pours out its blooms, irregardless of drought, attracting a goldenrod soldier beetle (sometimes called leatherwings). Butterflies love it. Monarchs depend on this relatively well-behaved goldenrod and other fall wildflowers to fuel up for their long journey south. Planted in backyards and prairies, goldenrod helps ensure survival of this beloved butterfly.
As a child, I remember bringing an older relative goldenrod in a kid-picked bouquet. Alarmed, she thanked me for the flowers, but removed the goldenrod—because she said it gave her allergies. Today, we know this is a myth. It’s the ragweeds (both common and giant ragweed —-also native) that bloom about this time of year that wreak havoc with allergy suffers. We can enjoy goldenrod without fear.
Tall boneset announces autumn as it opens in clouds on the edges of the prairie, mingling with goldenrod and competing for a seat in the savanna.
Nearby, wingstem in full bloom attracts its share of pollinators, including this non-native honeybee and native bumblebee.
There’s been a lot of discussion among prairie stewards about competition between native and non-native bees. Should we have beehives on our prairie restorations? Or not? Read this excellent post by Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie’s Bill Glass here. We’re always learning new things about prairie stewardship; always adjusting our management strategies and expectations as we grapple with new information and its implications for a healthy prairie. It’s important to keep an open mind. Not to get mired in doing things “the way we’ve always done them.” To keep reading and learning from others who have experiences we can benefit from. I mull over information on managing for native bees as I walk.
As I finish my hike on the prairie, thinking about prairie management issues, I try to be patient. Rain will come. The prairie will survive. Soon, my longing for rain will be only a memory. In the meantime, I cultivate patience.
The road ahead is uncertain.
Staying flexible. Keeping an open mind. Adapting. Listening to experts. Acting on the science as it unfolds. Practicing patience.
Good advice for prairie stewardship—and for life in general in September.
Henry Beston (1888-1968) was a writer and naturalist, best known for The Outermost House. I particularly love the chapter “Orion Rises On the Dunes.” Check it out here.
All photos taken at the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL, and copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): the prairie in August; new england aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae); canada wild rye (Elymuscanadensis); tall boneset (Eupatorium altissimum); common green darner dragonfly (Ajax junius); Willoway Brook; wild lettuce or prickly lettuce (Lactuca serriola); common buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia); tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); cream gentian (Gentiana alba); carrion flower (probably Smilax ecirrhata); indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigida) with goldenrod soldier beetle (Chauliognathus pensylvanicus) and unknown beetle; tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima); tall boneset (Eupatoriumaltissimum); wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) with a honeybee (Apis sp.) and bumblebee (Bombus sp.); Illinois tick trefoil (Desmodium illinoense) and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) with unidentified insects; path through the Schulenberg Prairie; smooth aster (Symphyotrichum laeve).
“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” Begin a new session this Thursday, September 2 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. Classes are limited to 50. 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 online from home, supplemented with three evenings of live evening Zoom classes on alternate weeks. Class size is limited; register here.
Just released! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History.
“Something in me isn’t ready to let go of summer so easily.”–Karina Borowicz
If you read the book of seasons closely, you’ll know it’s about time to turn the page to a new chapter. Summer wildflowers give way to asters and goldenrods; birds fuel at the feeders, storing up energy for their long migrations. Meteorological autumn arrives on Saturday. Meanwhile, August covers the prairie like a blanket that’s been in the dryer long enough to get hot, but not dry. Humidity reigns.
The pale Indian plantain on the tallgrass prairie is lush and jungle-like this season; the combination of heat and early rains this spring pushing it skyward.
Wingstem blooms nearby….
…and the asters on the prairie pop open; soft blooms of lavender blue.
At home, I step out the back door to admire my prairie patch. As I pass the vegetable bed, I notice the tomatoes are rioting. Pick me! Pick me! No me! Me!
I avert my eyes. Our kitchen counter is awash in fruit. I should can tomato sauce, or dry tomatoes in my food dehydrator, or do something in the face of all this lipstick red abundance…
…but instead, I avoid the whole issue and go for a stroll around the yard. Ten tomato plants didn’t seem like enough for us in May. Yeah, right.
But wait! There’s a rustle, deep in the tomato leaves. Reluctantly, I turn. A dark red insect—almost brown—rests on one of my Roma tomato plants.
It’s a red saddlebags dragonfly, cooling its wings in the shade of the tomato leaves. I’ve never seen this species at either of the prairies where I’m a steward. The two times I’ve seen it over the past 13 years I’ve monitored have been in my small suburban backyard, among the tomatoes. I wonder what it’s up to?
We know the black saddlebags dragonflies migrate; we speculate the red saddlebags may migrate as well, although very little is known about this. We do know that migration on the prairie is an epic event. The past two weeks, I’ve watched the black saddlebags and common green darners massing and moving south, just as I have the past decade or so.
Perhaps this red saddlebags in my garden is headed south as well. Better hurry up!
I leave the dragonfly in peace. Now, by the porch, I notice movement in the mums and the roses. Someone else is out for an evening walk. She’s barely visible.
See that white plume?
SKUNK! Uh, oh.
I avoid the porch, and detour to my prairie patch where the goldenrod is in full bloom. The monarch butterflies loved the swamp milkweed I planted for them this summer, but now, as they migrate to Mexico, they need fall-blooming wildflowers to nourish them on their way. Scientists tell us that monarchs are looking for nectaring sources beyond milkweed. Goldenrod in my backyard prairie serves as a filling station for their long journeys. A beautiful—if a bit unruly—filling station, at that.
Still keeping an eye on the skunk, which is now rummaging under the bird feeders for dropped seeds, I marvel over the prairie. What a year it has been for the Silphiums in my backyard! The compass plant, cup plant, and prairie dock have flourished. Compass plant is now in bloom, in seed, and in “sap.” Resin oozes from the hairy stem. Native American children chewed the resin like Wrigley’s spearmint, and although I’m not fond of it on my teeth (nor is my dentist fond of finding it there) I do love the piney smell. It’s one of the scents of summer. As I rub it stickily between my fingers, I feel a melancholy sense of something passing.
Cautiously, I walk back to the porch. The skunk is gone, visiting the neighbor’s birdfeeders, no doubt. I notice the moonvine. It has yet to bloom this summer but finally, has its first buds.
Moonflower is a night blooming species of morning glory. I like it, as it gives me another excuse to sit on the back porch after sunset and listen to the cicadas. Perhaps tonight I’ll see it swirl open, and have my first chance this summer to enjoy its fragrance.
Fitting, perhaps, to see these first moonflower buds as the night sky this week has been full of wonders over my suburban neighborhood. Like the just-past-full moon last night, looking like an antique coin, or the juxtaposition of the Moon and Mars in the southeastern sky a few days ago.
The heat of the day gives way to a breath of cool; the relief of evening coming to the backyard. I glance up at the sky, darkening now, a few stars beginning to appear.
Goodnight, moon. So long, August.
It’s been swell.
The opening quote is from September Tomatoes, a poem by Karina Borowicz. Her first poetry collection, The Bees are Waiting (2012), won numerous awards. Said Jeff McMahon in Contrary Magazine, “(She) captures the unbearable pulse of despair and hope in the world as its people pass across it, scarcely aware.”
All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; pale Indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; smooth blue asters (Symphyotrichum laeve), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum), author’s kitchen, Glen Ellyn, IL; red saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea onusta), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; dragonfly migration swarm, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (from a few years ago, about this time in August); striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis) in the garden, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) oozing resin, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; moonflower vine (Ipomoea alba), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; moonflower vine buds (Ipomoea alba), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; Moon and Mars over author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.
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.