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6 Reasons to Hike the October Prairie

“October is a fine and dangerous season in America . . . a wonderful time to begin anything at all.”  –Thomas Merton

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I hear them before I see them. Shielding my eyes against the afternoon sunshine, I scan the skies. Three sandhill cranes. A small wave headed south. Their chatter echoes long after they are folded into the deep blue sky and disappear.

More follow. They come and go throughout the afternoon.

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It’s bittersweet. Sandhill cranes moving south are a signal of change. Summer is gone,  and autumn, it seems, already passes too quickly. Seeing the first waves of cranes reminds me to open my eyes. Pay attention. To intentionally not miss a moment of the month. October is a time for walking the prairies and savannas slowly. For looking carefully. For soaking up whatever sunshine we can before cold weather hits.

Soon, October will be a dim but cherished memory.

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The woodlands are a magnet for paparazzi in October; visitors shooting photos of  the sugar maples aglow. Hickories and sweet gums change their green leaves to bright colors. But the prairie has its own autumnal palette.

Turn away from the woodlands for a moment, and consider six reasons to hike the tallgrass in October.

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1. Goodbye, Butterflies

In my backyard prairie patch and garden, the painted lady butterflies flutter wildly—drunk on nectar—-but not prepared to stop gorging themselves. Only frost will cut them off. Butterflies pile up, two to a bloom, jostling for the best positions, battling skippers and bees. The occasional monarch still floats across the prairie, but not in the numbers seen in September.

If you’re lucky, you’ll find some New England asters still in bloom as I did, with a few butterflies working the flowers. This cabbage white butterfly is a common one I see all summer on the prairie—and late into the fall. I love its pale, gold-dusted contrast with the  purple fringes of the aster.

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2. That Prairie Fragrance!

Breathe deep the newly-crisped air with its fragrance of cool damp earth and sweet decay.  Bee balm, Monarda fistulosa, still gives up its delicious fragrance when its leaves are broken. So does mountain mint. When I taste the leaves of both, the oils are a bit bitter and harsh in my mouth.  I content myself with rubbing the leaves between my fingers. Gray-headed coneflower seed heads, crushed in my hands, are my favorite fragrance of all. After a hike on the prairie, rubbing leaves, I’m scented with “the outdoors” for the rest of the day. Nature’s own prairie perfume.

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3. Seed Diversity

Walk the prairie and the prairie savanna this month and you’ll be astounded by the variety of seeds.

Pale Indian plantain, with its fluffy pinwheels.

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Tall compass plants, with their unique seedheads, bring the Statue of Liberty to mind, don’t you think?

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False Solomon’s seal brightens the prairie edges.

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Carrion vine’s mostly-inedible fruits will hang half-hidden in the Indian grass and big bluestem until almost spring.

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This week, I searched until I found the  quirky seeds of white turtlehead, almost invisible in the prairie now unless you know where to look. We don’t have very many turtleheads, so the seeds give me hope for more of this wildflower in the future.

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4. Structure 

Without the ka-POW of bright bloom colors blanketing the prairie, structure takes center stage.

Bottlebrush grass, with its skeletal spikes.

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You can see it it shares a Genus with Canada wild rye. They are both graceful and needle-like.

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5. Textures

Feel the rubbery leaves of pale Indian plantain.

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Then contrast them with the sandpapery surface of a compass plant leaf.

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6. Fall Color

The sumacs, woven into the prairie grasses, are touched with reds and chartreuse.

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Little bluestem sparks its seeds as its stems color up from greens to reds to rusts. The tallgrass prairie in October is just as startling and gorgeous in its own way as the colorful woodlands. Maybe better.

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Why not go see?

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Who knows who you’ll meet on your hike.

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It’s worth a trip to the tallgrass to find out.

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Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was best known for his spiritual memoir, The Seven Story Mountain (1948), the title of which refers to Purgatory in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Merton was an English literature teacher turned Trappist monk, who joined Kentucky’s Gethsemane Abbey. There, he wrote more than 50 books and promoted interfaith understanding. My favorite of Merton’s books is The Sign of Jonas.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken this week at the Schulenberg Prairie and Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, unless noted otherwise: Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) over author’s backyard prairie patch (this photo taken in 2016), Glen Ellyn, IL;  October in the savanna; prairie path; Small white butterfly or “cabbage white” (Pieris rapae) on New England aster  (Symphyotrichum novae-anglia), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL;  gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) with spider web; pale Indian plantain seedhead (Arnoglossum atriplicfolium); compass plant seedhead (Silphium terebinthinaceum); false Solomon’s seal (Maianthemum racemosum); probably upright carrion vine (Smilax ecirrhata); white turtlehead (Chelone glabra) in seed; bottle brush grass (Elymus hystrix); Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis); pale Indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium); compass plant (Silphium terebinthinaceum); sumac (Rhus spp.); little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium); bridge in the October tallgrass; great blue heron (Ardea herodias).

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Join Cindy for a Nature Writing Workshop, online and in-person, through The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL. Click here for registration information. Or see http://www.cindycrosby.com for more classes and events.

Cindy’s forthcoming book is Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History with Northwestern University Press, illustrated by the talented Peggy Macnamara, artist-in-residence at The Field Museum, Chicago. Look for it in Spring, 2020.

What Coyotes Teach Me

“Whenever the pressure of our complex city life thins my blood and numbs my brain, I seek relief in the trail; and when I hear the coyote wailing to the yellow dawn, my cares fall from me – I am happy.” –Hamlin Garland

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What is it about worry ? Lately, I sense a low-level anxiety from people wherever I go, whomever I talk with. You too? And no wonder, you might say, given the state of so many things in the world.

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So. Come, sit with me on the tallgrass prairie in the early morning while the dew beads the grasses. Chances are, before too much time has passed, we will see a coyote.

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What? See a coyote? Is that supposed to be calming?

Well. I understand your concern. Few animals have been freighted with the emotional and symbolic baggage as the coyote. For some Native Americans, the coyote is trickster. Pioneers called coyotes “brush wolves,” with all the terrifying connotations implied at the time. (Wolves have their own public relations problems, but that’s for another essay.) For Chicago suburban homeowners, the coyote is often hated and feared.

Taker of pet dogs and cats. Garbage stealer. Stealth operator.

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Coyotes are also portrayed as cartoonish. Watch the old Road Runner episodes, and Wile E. Coyote is continually outwitted (Beep! Beep!), or falls off a cliff, or is blown up with dynamite. Even my local wildlife center dresses up their taxidermied coyote.  Coyote becomes something comical.

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But there’s nothing funny in the animal kingdom about the coyote. If you are a deer mouse or squirrel, the coyote is a ferocious predator. Mighty hunter. Their fear is well placed.

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But I went to a lecture on coyotes recently, and listened to an outpouring of worry by people who attended.  What if…?  What should I do when the coyote..? Could this happen? Could that? No coyotes have attacked humans in Illinois in 30 years. We spend a lot of time worrying about what could be. What might happen. What we would do if. Our anxiety  over things we can’t control roams in every direction. Coyotes are only one example of this.

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Think of what we could do with the time we spend worrying! Imagine, if instead, we payed attention and fully lived in each moment. What beautiful patterns we might weave in the world!

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Seneca, a Roman statesman (5 BC-65 AD)  wrote: “There are more things to alarm us than to harm us; we suffer more in apprehension than in reality.”

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So true of my own fears. I am not afraid of coyotes–but I often fear the future. Usually, my fears are of something that never materializes.  My worries often close me off to the richness–and yes, sometimes fearsomeness and wildness–of the world all around me, in all its diversity and wonder. When I look back at how I spent my days, will worrying about the unknown  be how I remember them?

It would be a lonely world without coyotes.

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On the prairie, the coyote is often ghost. Present, but unseen. But if you sit and wait and listen, you feel a coyote is there, even when it is invisible. For me, this is comforting. That the wild exists, whether I witness it or not.

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Coyotes are part of our collective imagination. They remind us that the world is not ours to control.

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When I do see a coyote, it will usually meet my eyes for a moment. Then, it slips away; unconcerned. The coyote’s world does not include me. It is indifferent to my presence. But my world–and the prairie world I visit–is always made richer by the knowledge of the presence of coyotes.

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I’m going to think more about coyotes the next few weeks, and what I saw at that lecture. Sure, I tsked tsked at the worry the listeners expressed about coyotes –but. What do I worry about that is unneeded? What energy do I expend on concern for events beyond my control? I will let go of my own worry about the future, and appreciate the amazing world around me each moment. I will try to weave something beautiful out of each day. Be at peace with the things I can’t control.

I hope you will find peace as well.

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Hannibal Hamlin Garland (1860–1940), whose quote about coyotes opens this essay,  was a Wisconsin-born Pulitzer Prize winning writer. He married sculptor Lorado Taft’s sister, Zulime, and lived in Illinois for a time as well as many other places. Among his writings were Prairie Songs, Boy Life on the Prairie,  and Prairie Folks, as well as numerous works of fiction, short stories, non-fiction, and poems about Midwestern farm life.

Want to know more about coyotes?  http://web.extension.illinois.edu/wildlife/directory_show.cfm?species=coyote

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Hunter’s supermoon over author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; dew drops, Clear Creek at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; coyote (Canis latrans) tracks in the snow, Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; holiday coyote (Canis latrans), Willowbrook Wildlife Center, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Glen Ellyn, IL; coyote (Canis latrans) hunting, Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; compass points, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; spider web, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; the top of Fame Flower Knob, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; leaf on the water, Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; mist over the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; two coyotes (Canis latrans) on the trail, Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; coyote in the tallgrass, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.