“A woods man looks at 20 miles of prairie and sees nothing but grass, but a prairie man looks at a square foot and sees a universe… .” –Bill Holm
November is here. Right on the heels of the end of October’s temper tantrums. Out like a lion. We woke up Halloween morning to discover snow had sledgehammered the garden, frosted the pond, and drained the last emeralds from the prairie patch. The world seemed to have gone from color to monochrome.
It was a new perspective. Tracks everywhere. So much activity in our little backyard prairie patch and pond! Birds quickly swarmed the feeders and I doled out seed like candy to trick or treaters.
Trees along the streets, stubbornly clutching their leaves, sighed and released their grip. Birds nests suddenly went from invisible to visible on my neighborhood walks and my prairie hikes.
The snow threw its wet blanket over the Chicago region, then melted under a temperature swing in the 50s over the weekend. On the Schulenberg Prairie and prairie savanna, Willoway Brook overflowed.
Pools of water stood on the trails. I was grateful for my rubber boots. Other than a flutter of sparrows low in the grasses and a hammering of woodpeckers in the prairie savanna, the tallgrass was quiet.
Sunday, Jeff and I drove to Nachusa Grasslands, 90 minutes away, for their annual Dragonfly Monitor’s end of the season celebration. As we traveled west, the wind brushed the clouds eastward and the sun appeared. We took a few moments to stop on the bridge over Franklin Creek, a diverse and lovely area just a hop, skip, and a jump from Nachusa.
On the west side of the bridge, the skies had mostly cleared.
Turn around. On the east side, the clouds shattered into a thousand pieces. One creek, one bridge, one moment, two different perspectives.
After the party, we hiked Fame Flower Knob, one of Nachusa’s prettiest hiking areas and also one of my dragonfly routes.
Of course, the dragonflies are long gone. But the prairie plants had made the turn to November after the cold snap, with their own new profiles, colors, and textures.
Blazing star is as pretty in seed as it was in flower.
Cup plant’s square stem is now in sharp relief. Its leaves have ruffled into dry decay.
Pale purple coneflower seedheads stand empty, mostly stripped of their future progeny by goldfinches and other seed-loving birds.
Bright fruits of Carolina horsenettle sprawl in the grasses. Toxic, but beautiful.
And look—common yarrow, still in bloom at the top of Fame Flower Knob!
Yes still blooming—despite the recent snow and frigid temperatures. Tough little wildflower. Clear Creek is just barely visible from our perch, running full and fast. I love this perspective of Nachusa Grasslands. So often, I’m focused on the individual, whether it is a dragonfly, or a prairie plant, or even a bison. This high perspective gives me context for those individuals. It also reminds me of the farming community in which the prairie restoration is enveloped.
The ledge where we sit is covered with twin colonizers, lichens and moss. Bright color. Life on the rocks.
As we leave the knob, we see the bison grazing in the distance, close to their corral after the recent round up. It’s difficult to remember that bison were brought here about a half dozen years ago. They seem integral to this place now. In their short time here, they’ve changed the way we move through this landscape (always aware of where the herds are); how we see the prairies here, and—of course—they’ve changed the prairies themselves through their movements across the grasses.
It’s time to go. It’s always difficult to say goodbye to a place you appreciate; just as it is to transition from one season to another.
New adventures lie ahead. There’s plenty to anticipate. New members of the prairie community wait to see in all their variations, all through the colder weather.
Bring it on, November!
Bill Holm (1943-2009) was the author of more than a dozen books of poems and essays, including Prairie Days, from which the opening quote was taken. A native of Menneota, MN, and a descendant of Icelandic immigrants, he died at 65.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): backyard prairie patch and pond on a snowy morning, Glen Ellyn, IL; bird’s nest, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL; bench on the Schulenberg Prairie in early November, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Franklin Creek State Natural Area, Franklin Grove, IL; Franklin Creek State Natural Area, Franklin Grove, IL; Fame Flower Knob, Nachusa Grasslands (The Nature Conservancy), Franklin Grove, IL; Clear Creek Unit, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; blazing star (Liastris spp.), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; possibly Carolina horsenettle (Solanum carolinense), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; common yarrow (Achillea millefolium), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; view from Fame Flower Knob, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; mosses and lichens, Fame Flower Knob, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; Jeff hikes Nachusa Grasslands in November, Franklin Grove, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; St. Stephen’s Prairie in early November, Carol Stream, IL.
Share Prairie Through Books!
Shopping for the holidays? Please think about books as gifts! Share prairie with the people in your life through words and images by ordering these through your favorite bookseller:
Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit (with co-author Thomas Dean, full color photography throughout). Discover the prairie in a new way through “conversations” about its relevance to themes such as home, loss, restoration, and joy. Read more here.
The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction. Perfect for the prairie lover in your family, your favorite prairie steward or volunteer, or your family members that wonder why in the world you care about the tallgrass! Read more here.
Join me for these upcoming events:
Tallgrass Prairie Ecology online wraps up this month! Watch for the next course in March. Registration opens on November 19 here.
Nature Writing continues at The Morton Arboretum, on-line and in-person through November 20. Next session begins March 3, 2020. Watch for registration soon!
Saturday, December 7, 1:30-3 p.m.—Sterling Stories from the Arboretum Stacks: Grab a friend and spend a lively hour together sipping hot beverages while you enjoy little-known stories about the Morton Arboretum. What’s that old fountain doing in the library? Why was there a white pine planted in the May Watts Reading Garden? Who is REALLY buried in the Morton Cemetery—or not? What book in the Sterling Morton Library stacks has a direct relationship to a beheading? Why does the library have glass shelves? How has salt been a blessing —and a curse—to the Arboretum over its almost 100 years? Listen as 33-year Arboretum veteran library collections manager Rita Hassert and Cindy Crosby spin entertaining tales of a place you thought you knew….until now. Register here. A lovely afternoon enjoying little known Arboretum’s stories, and a quiet respite from the holiday hustle and bustle.
Sunday, December 8, 2-3:30 p.m.: Tallgrass Conversations at Prairieview Education Center, 2112 Behan Road, Crystal Lake, IL 815-479-5779 Book signing after the talk! Free and open to the public.
See more at www.cindycrosby.com