“It’s possible to understand the world from studying a leaf. You can comprehend the laws of aerodynamics, mathematics, poetry and biology through the complex beauty of such a perfect structure.” — Joy Harjo
We wake up to fire and ice.
Worn-out leaves are alight with dawn; brushed with frost.
The grass crackles with freeze as the rising sun illuminates each blade, sparks of light on a frigid morning. Swamp milkweed’s silk seed tufts are tattered almost beyond recognition by the night’s sharp whisper.
Joe Pye weed becomes nature’s chandelier.
Prairie cordgrass arcs across my prairie planting, stripped bare of seeds.
Our small suburban backyard, as familiar to me as my breath, is transformed into something mysterious.
Tallgrass prairie plant leaves, furred with frost, take on new personas.
Seedheads bow under the weight of the cold snap.
The ordinary becomes extraordinary.
What a wild weather ride you have taken us on!
What a month of wonders you’ve given us to be grateful for.
See you next year, November.
Joy Harjo (1951-) is our 23rd Poet Laureate of the United States. A writer of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, her words are often autobiographical, and incorporate myths and folklore. Her poetry makes you think (“I could hear my abandoned dreams making a racket in my soul”). Her books include Catching the Light, Poet Warrior, Crazy Brave, and An American Sunrise. I love this line from Secrets from the Center of the World where she writes, “I can hear the sizzle of newborn stars… .”
Join Cindy for her last program of 2022!
Wednesday, December 7, 2022 (6:30-8:30 p.m.) 100 Years Around the Arboretum. Join Cindy and award-winning Library Collections Manager Rita Hassert for a fun-filled evening and a celebratory cocktail as we toast the closing month of The Morton Arboretum’s centennial year. In-person. Register here.
“I sit beside the fire and think of all that I have seen; of meadow-flowers and butterflies in summers that have been; of yellow leaves and gossamer in autumns that there were; with morning mist and silver sun and wind upon my hair…”—J.R.R. Tolkien
You can see the beginnings of seasonal change in the garden, where there is a turn from harvest to decay. The tomatoes have slowed down production. The tomato foliage is yellow and browning, especially on the species that aren’t as disease resistant. Despite my efforts to experiment with mesh bagging the best ripening fruit on the vines, the squirrels have triumphed.
Yup. Bites right through the bags. Back to the drawing board. I’m thinking about cutting my losses and asking Jeff to pull out most of the tomato plants for me this week. Perhaps use the tomato real estate for some quick growing lettuce or kale as the season winds down. We’ll see. Nearby, in the long prairie border, a flush of goldenrods brightens the garden. Solidago speciosa, Solidago ohioenses, and that old invader, Solidago canadensis.
The gold flowers are a magnet for insects like this Hover Fly.
At least…I think that’s what it is! In Heather Holm’s remarkable book,Pollinators of Native Plants, it shows some of the incredible variety of insects that visit goldenrod and other prairie plants. Holm notes that square-headed wasps, which I first confused this insect with, perch on plants to scout for flies, which make up their primary meals. There are more than 1,500 square-headed wasp species! Wow. And I’m continually amazed at how many other types of wasps there are to learn. And, evidently—hover flies!
It’s tough to change your relationship with a group of insects like wasps from one of avoidance to appreciating them for their diversity and their work as pollinators. Knowledge and curiosity pave the road to understanding and enjoyment. But sometimes it’s a long road.
It’s going to take a little time—and more reading—to not automatically flinch when a wasp hangs out with me on the back patio.
A brief shower this weekend gave us a respite from watering the garden and prairie plantings. I took a stroll around the backyard in the splattering rain and marveled at what the doctor-mandated “no weeding” looks like after two weeks. Morning glories twine everywhere, the remnants of a planting a decade ago.
The Sweet Autumn Clematis I planted 20 years ago (and quickly realized was a mistake) rampages through the spicebush, old roses, and bird-sown asparagus.
Sure, the Sweet Autumn Clematis is pretty! And it smells lovely. But how I long to yank it all out!
It’s a menace. I’ve spent the last two decades pulling it from the garden and prairie plantings. Every fall, I think I’ve eradicated it. Every fall, when it blooms, I realize I’ve failed. Garden catalog copy mentioned it was “vigorous.” Seasoned gardeners know when you hear the word “vigorous” alarm bells should go off. If I could turn back time, I’d order Virgin’s Bower (Clematis virginiana), a native vine that might have played more nicely in the garden. It pairs beautifully with asters. It’s almost identical to the non-native Sweet Autumn Clematis, although the leaves are shaped a bit differently.
I love how Virgin’s Bower looks when it goes to seed on the edges of the prairie.
I make a mental note to order Virgin’s Bower in the spring. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy the Sweet Autumn Clematis show for another September.
In my prairie plantings, the rambunctious native Grey-headed Coneflower finished blooming, and has left me with delicious, lemony-fragrant seedheads. I love crushing them between my fingers and inhaling the scent. Mmmmm.
The grassy mounds of prairie dropseed planted under my living room windows spray the air with buttered popcorn fragrance. Such tiny seeds to make such an olfactory difference!
Swamp milkweed seeds refuse to parachute from the mother plant. Instead they damply cluster in the rain. I think of all the possibilities wrapped up in those seeds.
Hope for the future.
There’s plenty to look back on in this first week of September. And so much to look forward to as a new month is underway.
I can’t wait to see what’s around the corner.
The opening quote was made by Bilbo Baggins in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring from Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. The old hobbit sang these verses to Frodo as he reflected on his years on Earth and readied Frodo for his quest to destroy the “one ring that ruled them all.” The three books in the series plus The Hobbit are well worth revisiting.
Join Cindy for a Program or Class this Autumn
Monday, September 19 –-A Brief History of Trees in America, Downers Grove Garden Club, Downers Grove, IL. In-person, free and open to the public, but please visit here for details and Covid protocol.
Saturday, September 24 —In-Person Writing and Art Retreat at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, ILSpend a day immersed in nature with guided writing and art workshops. Set aside time to disconnect from the day-to-day and focus on the natural world through writing and art. Sessions will explore nature journaling, sketching, developing observation skills, and tapping into your creativity. Throughout the day, you will learn from professional writers and artists, take in the sites of the Arboretum, and explore nature with fellow creatives. Appropriate for all levels. Cindy will be teaching the morning sessions. Click here for more information, Covid protocol, and to register.
“Earth teach me quiet, as the grasses are still with new light.”–Ute Prayer
Goodbye, summer. I’m not sad to see you go.
I’m ready for less humidity. More cool breezes.
Less chaotic headlines. More peace and stability.
I’m ready for change.
Meteorological summer draws to a close on the tallgrass prairie today. The signs of autumn are all around us, from the sheets of goldenrods….
… to the fringed swirls of deep purple New England asters, to the pale amethyst obedient plant spikes.
You can feel autumn nearing in the slant of light. The air is pixelled, a bit grainy. Mornings dawn later and cooler, a little less of the “air you can wear” humid.
…is a hummingbird magnet, both on the prairies and in my backyard prairie planting. When the hummers finish nectaring at the hyssop, they bounce from the cardinal flowers to the zinnias, then over to the sugar-water feeder. According to Journey North at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, ruby-throated hummingbirds eat between one-and-a-half to three times their weight in food each day. Imagine if we did that! (Hello, ice cream!) This time of year, they are in a state known as hyperphagia, in which they fuel up for migration.
Journey North, which tracks hummingbird migration sightings, notes that the males may have already left for the south by the end of August. Females and young ones will follow this week and next. Each one migrates alone. I wonder what it feels like, flying so far, looking for flowers to nectar at along the way?
On my prairie hikes this week, I see insects. So many insects! Wasps. Praying mantis. Grasshoppers. Robber flies.
Robber flies are so bizarre! This one is a Billy Gibbons look-alike. Robber flies ambush other insects in flight, then land and suck the juices out of them. There are stories of robber flies preying on wasps, bees, and even hummingbirds! Their nickname is “cannibal fly” because they snack on each other. Yikes!
Although robber flies are strange looking, skunk cabbage seedpods may get my award for “most bizarre late summer find” this year. I was out with Dr. Elizabeth Bach at Nachusa Grasslands on a dragonfly monitoring run this past week, and we waded into a boggy area. I recognized skunk cabbage immediately.
But not the seed pod. She was kind enough to point it out.
Cool! I would have thought it was some type of fungi. In the same wet area, we found the cream of the late summer wildflowers. A small stand of turtlehead…
…virgin’s bower, twining among the false buckwheat at the edge of the woods…
…and lots of swamp betony (or “swamp lousewort” or “marsh lousewort” as it is sometimes called).
August is also bloom time for one of my favorite wildflowers: the great blue lobelia. Love that eye-popping color! I find this wetland native at Nachusa Grasslands, and I also have it around my backyard pond.
The name “tallgrass prairie” is apt for this last day of August. Off the trail, it’s tough hiking through the curtain of grasses. Big bluestem, switchgrass, Indian grass, and cordgrass, are in all stages of flowering and seed. Little bluestem in seed reminds me of July Fourth sparklers.
When I leave the prairie, I’m powdered with pollen from a hundred different blooms. As I brush off my shirt, I think of September. So close I can feel it. This has been a summer full of truth-is-stranger-than-fiction happenings; a savage season of tornadoes and drought; and a summer of a continuing pandemic that just won’t quit. I won’t miss these things.
It’s also been a summer of knock-out wildflowers….
…beautiful sunsets and cumulus clouds like whipped cream; blue moons and butterflies; tiger beetles and tiger swallowtails; and a host of wonders free for the viewing—if we take time to pay attention. It’s these everyday miracles of the natural world that sustain me amid the chaos seemingly all around.
Thank you for these bright spots, summer.
And now….Welcome, fall.
The opening quote is from a Ute Prayer, given here in its entirety from the Aspen Institute:Earth teach me quiet, as the grasses are still with new light. Earth teach me suffering ~ as old stones suffer with memory. Earth teach me humility, as blossoms are humble with beginning. Earth teach me caring, as mothers nurture their young. Earth teach me courage, as the tree that stands alone. Earth teach me limitation, as the ant that crawls on the ground. Earth teach me freedom, as the eagle that soars in the sky. Earth teach me acceptance, as the leaves that die each fall. Earth teach me renewal, as the seed that rises in the spring. Earth teach me to forget myself, as melted snow forgets its life. Earth teach me to remember kindness, as dry fields weep with rain. The Ute were an indigenous tribe that once lived in what is present day Utah and Nevada. Very few Utes survive to the present day.
Join Cindy for a class or program this fall!
September 9, 9:30-11 am– in person–“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Oswego Hilltoppers Garden Club, Oswego Public Library. Please visit the club’s Facebook page for guest information, event updates pending Covid positivity in Illinois, and Covid protocol. Masks required for this event.
September 27, 7-8:30 p.m.–in person–“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Arlington Heights Garden Club. Please visit the club’s website here for guest information, event updates pending Covid positivity in Illinois, and Covid protocol.
If you enjoy this blog, please check out Cindy’s collection of essays with Thomas Dean, Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit. Order from your favorite indie bookseller, or direct from Ice Cube Press.
“How we spend our days, is of course, how we spend our lives.” — Annie Dillard
I’ve been re-reading Annie Dillard’s books this week and mulling over her words, like the ones that open today’s blog post. Thinking about how to spend my time wisely. It’s a challenge, isn’t it?
Walking the prairie after the burn, I’m reminded of time, and seasons of time, and our perception of it. As I hike, I’m surprised at the volume of sound. You’d think there would be silence on a charred landscape.
But the prairie is bustling and noisy. A killdeer cries its name as it sweeps across the ruins, looking for a place to build its nest. A just-burned prairie is exactly right. I hunt for the killdeer’s nests each spring, but they are such expert camouflage artists I’ve never found one. Maybe this will be my year.
Robins chatter, hopping along the banks of Willoway Brook, sifting the ashes for something good to eat. Overhead, waves and waves of sandhill cranes move high in the air, migrating north. So many! Thousands and thousands. This weekend was host to the largest movement of cranes I’ve ever seen at one time in the Chicago region. Pelicans were migrating, too! Check them out.
Elation! Then I look around me. Such desolation. I always have mixed feelings after the burn. A prescribed fire on the prairie leaves you with a sense of loss. Everything you knew written on that particular prairie slate is wiped clean. Close the book. Open a blank journal and begin a new season.
There is also a sense of relief. All my mistakes of the last year as a steward, writ large in reed canary grass growing vigorously by the brook, or the sneezeweed missing in action in the swale, are swept away. This season, I can start fresh. Daunting? Yes. And challenging.
The fire leaves me with a sense of hope. That thicket of brambles? This will be the year we finally knock it back. We can seed in missing milkweeds; repair a deteriorating trail, add an interpretive sign or two.
Day by day—week by week—stewards, staff, and volunteers will write a new seasonal story together. Every pulled garlic mustard plant makes room for a new shooting star wildflower to bloom. Remove invasive buckthorn and open space and light for bee balm wildflowers to flourish.
Rain, sunshine, snow—-they’ll all help write the new seasonal prairie story. Deer, coyotes, dragonflies, the mink who swims the creek—-they’ll each have a paragraph or two.
The just-burned landscape is prelude to the most exciting time of the year on the tallgrass prairie. New growth. The first blooms.
The red-winged blackbirds sing me along the trail as the sun sets. In the old, fire-damaged hawthorn tree, they mingle with brown-headed cowbirds whose lispy “clink! clink! clink!” calls are percussion to the blackbirds’ brassy song. I try to count the birds—how many do you see?
Annie Dillard once wrote about a “Tree of Lights” —a tree full of blackbirds. I think about her story as I watch the birds settle in for the night.
Then, another sound. Coyotes! A pack. The coyotes are invisible. but their calls are close by. Their wails and yips are both mournful and excited.
Exactly how I feel as I walk the burned prairie tonight.
The visible and the invisible. The old and the new. The past and the present. The coyotes announce the passing of one chapter in the prairie’s story; the beginning of a new one.
Time to turn the page.
Annie Dillard , whose quote opens this blog, won the Pulitzer Prize for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974). Read the full passage the quote was taken from here. One of my favorite sentences on her view of the way the world works: “It’s a hell of a way to run a railroad.” On writing: “Spend it all…do not hoard what seems good for (later).” Read the whole quote here. Wise woman. Wise words.
All photos and video clip copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): bench on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie after the burn, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; American white pelicans ( Pelecanus erythrorhynchos) migrating, author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; Schulenberg Prairie after the burn, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown species of moss on a burned-out log along the Schulenberg Prairie trail, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bramble (Rubus species unknown) and bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) singed by fire, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; trail through the burned Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; 19 red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus)and brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater) in a hawthorn tree (probably Crataegus mollis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; coyotes (Canus latrans) calling on the Schulenberg Prairie at sunset, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.
More from Cindy:
Just released last week! Available at your favorite bookstore or online.
Thanks to Shannon at Take A Hike Podcast in Los Angeles! Click here for the interview. Caution! Explicit dragonfly reproduction content in this podcast. 🙂
Cindy’s classes and speaking this week:
Nature Writing(online and in-person) continues this week at The Morton Arboretum. April 1–Dragonflies and Damselflies: The Garden and Prairie’s Frequent Flyers: LaGrange Garden Club, LaGrange, IL. (closed event). See more classes and events at http://www.cindycrosby.com.
“Migration is a blind leap of faith… .” Scott Weidensaul
In a prairie pond, a turtle and a few ducks snooze in the late afternoon sun.
A baby snapper ventures slowly out to explore the rocks.
The last great blue lobelia flowers open and bloom amid the goldenrod. September’s colors.
Deep in the tallgrass, a grasshopper takes a hopping hiatus from the heat.
A cool breeze stirs. The tree leaves begin to rustle, then rattle. A sound like waves rushing to shore sweeps through the prairie. It ripples in the wind. Tall coreopsis sways.
The prairie whispers, Go.
The black saddlebags dragonfly feels restless, deep down in its DNA. Orienting south, it joins the green darners, variegated meadowhawks, and wandering gliders to swarm the skies. Go. Go.
The meadowhawk dragonfly hears, but doesn’t respond. It will be left behind. Only a few species of dragonflies answer the migration call. Why?
We don’t know. It’s a mystery.
A flash of orange and black, and a monarch nectars at the zinnias that grow by my prairie patch. Mexico seems a long way off for something so small. But this butterfly was born with a passport that includes a complimentary GPS system. This particular monarch will go. Just one more sip.
A viceroy butterfly delicately tastes nectar from goldenrod. No epic trip for this look-alike. Although its days are numbered, the butterfly bursts with energy, zipping from prairie wildflower to wildflower. Go? I wish!
A turkey vulture lazily soars through the air, headed south. These Chicago buzzards won’t drift far. Once they hit the sweet tea and BBQ states, they’ll stay put until spring.
Go? The red-tailed hawk catches the whispered imperative. She stops her wheeling over the prairie for a moment and rests on top of a flagpole, disgruntled. Go? NO! So many birds heading for warmer climes! She ignores the command. She’ll winter here, in the frigid Chicago temperatures. Wimps, she says, disdaining the pretty warblers, flocking south.
Meanwhile, the last blast of hummingbirds dive-bomb my feeders, slugging it out for fuel. Think of the lines at the pump during the oil embargo crisis of the 1970s –that’s the scene. Destination? Central America. You can feel their desperation as they drink deeply, then buzz away.
Saying goodbye is always the most difficult for those left behind. Seeing those we know and care about leave home is bittersweet, fraught with loss.
But, as the prairie brings one chapter to a close–with all of its colorful and lively characters…
…another chapter is about to begin.
Meanwhile, we watch them go. Bon voyage. Safe travels.
The opening quote is by Scott Weidensaul, the author of Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): painted turtle (Chrysemys picta) and mallard ducks ((Anas platyrhynchos) on the prairie pond, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; baby snapping turtle (Chelydra serpentina), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) and Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; grasshopper (species unknown), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Glen Ellyn Public Library prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL; black saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata), James “Pate” Philip State Park, Illinois DNR, Bartlett, IL; meadowhawk (Sympetrum spp.) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; monarch (Danaus plexippus), author’s backyard garden and prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) on Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; turkey vulture (Cathartes aura), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ruby-throatedhummingbird (Archilochus colubris) , author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; sunset at Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, 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.