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October’s Prairie Astronomy

“To find the universal elements enough; to find the air and the water exhilarating; to be refreshed by a morning walk or an evening saunter… to be thrilled by the stars at night; to be elated over a bird’s nest or a wildflower in spring – these are some of the rewards of the simple life.”– John Burroughs

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October has arrived on the prairie, bringing drizzly skies, a metallic palette of color, and a last flush of flying insects.

 

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When the gray sky clears over the prairie, it often turns to impossible blue. Contrails and cumulus clouds sketch their weather thoughts.

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October has come to my backyard as well, touching the tomatoes with rot. Fungi unfold their umbrellas against the damp in unexpected places, and the garden and prairie patch are crisped with brittleness. Colored with a brown crayon. When I walk out to the prairie patch in the morning, cup of coffee in hand, the mush of mud under my feet contrasts with the crunch of decaying leaves.

Goldfinches and cardinals, sifting the bird feeders for the choicest fare, must have let a few sunflower seeds drop, leaving bright spots in the yard. Such welcome color! Makes me happy I let the weeding chores go this fall.  The bees are pleased.

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In my backyard prairie patch and on the prairie, the Silphiums—prairie dock, cup plant, compass plant, and rosin weed—are perhaps most intriguing in October. Without the competition of so much summer wildflower jazz, I can focus on the plant leaf patterns and textures. Rosin weed on the prairie shows its variable-ness of leaf arrangement by going for a whorl.

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Close to my backyard prairie patch, the moonflower vine finally decides October is show-time. The seed packet description warned me—120 days until bloom–but what is four months when you’re standing in the plant nursery back in the raw month of March and thinking about the delights of the garden to come? Anything seemed possible then. But my moonflower vine has been unhappy in Illinois. It longs for the tropics of the south, like so many Chicago folks, and it doesn’t much care for the hot, long days of July or August, either. Suddenly, in October’s cool nights and shorter days, it flourishes. It’s an equinox aficionado, setting bud and bloom best when days are close to equal length. As they are right now.

I walk out on the back patio early one morning this week and BAM! Eight moonflowers  had twirled open overnight, each one bigger than my hand.

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Moonflower, a night-blooming morning glory (ironically named, isn’t it?) would be perennial in Mexico or Florida. But here in the Chicago region, I’m lucky to get it to bloom as an annual.  The first touch of frost will be the end of the vine.  I count the buds, imagine what could be, and keep my fingers crossed.

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As the sun disperses the mist and gray and touches the flowers with light, the vanilla-scented blooms will slowly crumple. Taking with them their delicious fragrance. By the time I go outside again at 11 a.m., they’re a memory.

My backyard prairie patch and the prairies I visit don’t have any moonflowers, of course. But the prairie does have the “stars.”

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“Astronomy” comes from the Greek word astronomia, meaning “star regulating.” The word “aster” is also from the Greek, and means “star.” Constellations of asters cover the prairies and also, my backyard; a little starry universe in this suburban sprawl. The green bottle flies use the asters as launching pads for their adventures in corruption.

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The bumble bees work the asters, seeing their future in these stars.

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My goldenrods have now gone to seed, closing up nectar shop. But the blurry blizzards of asters spend themselves profligately, as if there is no tomorrow.

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The butterflies, like this cabbage white below, gorge themselves on “starshine” before the last blooms disappear in the cold. Where will these butterflies go in the winter? Check out this fascinating blog post by Dr. Doug Taron, Chief Curator of the Chicago Academy of Sciences, here to find out. Meanwhile, I enjoy the butterflies of October, counting down the days until the prairies will be emptier for their absence of color and motion.

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I also soak up as much of this “starshine”—this blizzard of asters—as I can. Temperatures threaten to drop into the low thirties by the end of the week. Fall flowers won’t linger much longer. As the evenings turn colder, night skies come into focus. The new moon will sliver its way to full on the 24th. Orion stalks the night sky, staking his claim for a new season. Soon, it will be time to trade some of my prairie and backyard “astronomy”—with its own versions of sun, stars and moon—for the winter constellations overhead.

Bittersweet.

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John Burroughs (1837-1921) was a writer, naturalist, and activist in the conservation movement.  His close friend was Walt Whitman, and Burroughs was a contemporary of John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt. The book, Tip of the Iceberg by Mark Adams is a fascinating account of Burroughs’ expedition to Alaska with railroad magnate Edward Harriman, George Bird Grinnell, Muir, and other naturalists of the time. A few favorite Burroughs’ quotes: “I go to books and to nature as a bee goes to the flower, for a nectar that I can make into my own honey;” “To learn something new, take the path you took yesterday;” and “A man can fail many times, but he isn’t a failure until he begins to blame somebody else.” The John Burroughs Medal is given each April to a distinguished Natural History book. Check out the winners here; it’s a thoughtful reading list for curling up with a good read during the colder months ahead.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): 250-plus year old bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa), Taltree/Gabis Arboretum-Purdue Northwest, Valparasio, IN; trail through the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, The Nature Conservancy and the National Park Service, Strong City, Kansas; common sunflower (Helianthus sp.) with unknown bee, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium), Taltree/Gabis Arboretum-Purdue Northwest, Valparaiso, IN; moonflowers (Ipomoea alba) with garden roses and salvia, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; moonflower (Ipomoea alba), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), Taltree/Gabis Arboretum-Purdue Northwest, Valparaiso, IN; unknown aster, possibly Short’s (Symphyotrichum shortii) with green bottle fly/blow fly (Calliphoridae, Lucilia sp.), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) with male bumblebee, either the common eastern (Bombus impatiens) or the two-spotted bumblebee (Bombus bimaculatus); blurred heath asters (Aster ericoides), Taltree/Gabis Arboretum-Purdue Northwest, Valparaiso, IN; New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) with cabbage white butterfly (Pieris rapae), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Thanks to Kristian Williams of FaceBook Group “Insect ID”  for the help on the bumblebee identification and Kristian, Benjamin Coulter, and the other good folks of “Insects and Spiders of Illinois FB Group” for the green bottle fly/blow fly ID. Grateful. 

The Art of Prairie Restoration

This world is but a canvas to our imagination.” — Henry David Thoreau

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Winter is wonderful. Usually.

But this past week has been a rollercoaster ride of temperature swings from high 50s plunging to near zero; sunshine and gloom, snow and rain. In other words, typical. Fog blew in and settled on the prairies, coloring everything gray. A drag on the spirits.

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One of my go-to cures for the January blues—or should I say grays—is The Art Institute of Chicago.

I wander in. Immediately there is a blast of color and light in the Impressionist Gallery. Ironically, even the canvas,”Paris Street: Rainy Day,”  seems bright and cheerful.

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The Monet waterlilies…

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…bring back memories of summer in the prairie wetlands.

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I soak up the primary hues of paintings in the Modern Wing.

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Thinking of hikes through the snow this month…

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In unlikely stairwells, I stumble across reminders of  blue skies, obscured by clouds this week.

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I  imagine the prairie skies, hidden for so long behind shrouds of fog and curtains of snow and rain.

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As I stroll the halls and gaze at the creations showcased in this iconic place, it’s a good reminder of the courage of those who strove, against all odds, to create something beautiful out of nothing. These painters, sculptors, and other artists who had a vision.

Like some other folks I know.

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Prairie restorationists and artists have a lot in common. We think of restoration as a science. But it’s also about creativity.

Prairie restoration begins with a vision.

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The dream of how the land might be healed, imagined in the mind of a steward or site manager.

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There’s a lot of trial and error. Preliminary sketching, if you will; a few rough drafts. Sometimes, you scrap everything and start over.

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There may be misunderstandings along the way. People who don’t get it. They look at your “project” and shake their head. They wonder out loud if you have wasted your time.

“Weeds. It’s just a bunch of weeds.”

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Bet you’ve heard that one before, haven’t you?

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But you keep on moving forward. You believe in what you are doing. You look for the breakthroughs.

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Without imagination—without creativity—without courage—the best prairie restorations don’t happen.

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The rewards don’t always come in your lifetime. But the work you do isn’t for yourself, although the tallgrass is gratifying in a thousand different ways. You work, knowing you leave a legacy for those who will come after you. You think of them, as you drip with sweat, freeze, or pull weeds; plant seeds.

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You can see the future in your mind. Envision it. That end result. And as artists and restorationists know, it’s worth the work. It’s worth the wait.

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Think about it.

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The writer Henry David Thoreau, whose quote opens this essay, was a naturalist, philosopher, writer, transcendentalist, and social reformer. A favorite quote from Thoreau, “We can never have enough of nature.” His 1849 essay, “Civil Disobedience,” continues to stimulate thinking about human rights. His most famous book is “Walden.”

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): prairie plants in the fog at Saul Lake Bog Nature Preserve, Land Conservancy of West Michigan, Rockford, MI; “Paris Street: Rainy Day,” 1877, Gustave Caillebotte, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL; “Waterlily Pond,” 1917-19, Claude Monet, European Painting and Sculpture, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL; prairie pond, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Clear Creek, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; “Yellow Hickory Leaves with Daisy,” 1928, Georgia O’Keeffe, American Art Gallery, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL; beech (Fagus sylvatica) leaves on snow, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; “Sky Above Clouds IV,” 1965, Georgia O’Keeffe, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL; sky over Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, United States National Park Service, The Nature Conservancy, Strong City, KS; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla) and volunteer weeding, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; volunteers collecting seed, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) seedpod, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; “A and the Carpenter “I”, Sam Gilliam, 1973, Modern and Contemporary Art, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL; barb wire and Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; “Grayed Rainbow,” 1953, Jackson Pollock, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL;  ice and grasses, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; snowy trail through Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove Park District, Illinois DNR, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove, IL; pasque flowers (Anemone patens, sometimes Pulsatilla patens), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; late summer on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; “The Thinker,” Auguste Rodin, Rodin Exhibition, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL (add to the conversation here). 

A Prairie Patchwork Quilt

“You have to keep taking the next necessary stitch, and the next one, and the next…you realize that the secret of life is patch patch patch. Thread your needle, make a knot, find one place on the other piece of torn cloth where you can make one stitch that will hold. And do it again. And again. And again. ” — Anne Lamott

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It’s a ritual of autumn. The changing of our summer comforter to a heavy quilt, made for us by a friend. A few nights ago, as sleet tapped against the window, I slipped into bed and pulled the quilt close under my chin. Admired the patchwork. Taupe, rust, emerald, peach. Grass-green and olive. Pearl. Oyster.

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As he quilted, our friend incorporated the transient autumn colors of prairie grasses into the coverlet. I was nestled into the prairie itself. Deep under. I might go dormant. Sleep for several months. Awaken to a cleansing fire in February, and leaf out. Be fresher. Vibrant. Renewed.

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It’s a heavy quilt, made from denims and corduroys; a quilt that—like the Midwestern prairies—looks tough and ready to handle anything the future might throw at it. A quilt for the ages.

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As I slipped off to sleep, I thought of the thousands of tiny stitches in this quilt and the prairie it reflects.  The time and the care that one person put into one quilt. And the time and the care — all the “stitches” that have been put into the care and repair of the grasslands which have been lost to us in the Midwest.

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How will the grasslands “quilt” be patched back together?

We need the conservationist in the field, who is bringing back the bison. One stitch.

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We need the research student, who is trying to understand why the bison make a difference to the upland sandpipers and prairie vole and the dung beetle. Stitch. Stitch. Stitch.

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We need the steward who cares for the remnant where the new bison are browsing, and reconstructs new prairie plantings close by. She knows these new plantings won’t exactly replicate the old, but she hopes, she hopes… .

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The activist at the state capital, who has ridden the bus and marched with a sign, and spent the day pleading the case of the natural world to the legislators. Stitch.

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We need the poet who sees  little bluestem, red and wet under November rains, rippling in the wind, and wrestles with just the right words to share what she sees on paper. More stitches.

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Or the textile artist, the photographer, or the painter…

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…creating images that share prairie in ways that open doors of understanding to those who may not have experienced prairie before. Stitch.

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The gardeners, who make their backyards their painter’s palettes. They plant prairie patches that swirl and glimmer with color and motion. A neighbor pauses. Asks a question. A spark is kindled. Another stitch.

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Or people like my friend the quilter, who took up his needle and created something beautiful.

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Each person who places each stitch—one carefully thought-out restoration, one painstakingly done research study on hands and knees in the cold and rain—each photograph, wall hanging, poem, book, song, painting, quilt—

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—adds another stitch to the patches of the prairie patchwork quilt. Brings us closer to the beautiful whole of the Midwestern tallgrass that once was complete, and now is lost.

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Keep hoping.

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Keep stitching.

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Sweet dreams.

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The opening quote is from Anne Lamott’s (1954-) Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair. Read some highlights of her book here.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby: prairie patchwork quilt by Lynn Johnson; prescribed burn on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, United States Forest Service and The Nature Conservancy, Wilmington, IL;  volunteer collecting seed, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL, compass plant  (Silphium laciniatum) with water droplets, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL , purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea) on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; clouds over the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; grasses in the rain at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  photographer at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Flint Hills prairie, Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, U. S. National Park Service, The Nature Conservancy, Strong City, KS; fences at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, United States Forest Service and The Nature Conservancy, Wilmington, IL; savanna at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, United States Forest Service and The Nature Conservancy, Wilmington, IL;  Willoway Brook, The Schulenberg Prairie Savanna at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; harvesting big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, United States Forest Service and The Nature Conservancy, Wilmington, IL; fall at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; mouse tracks in the snow at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Franklin Grove, IL.

And with ongoing thanks to my friend Lynn Johnson, whose beautiful prairie patchwork quilt warms me and my husband Jeff each winter.  Kudos, my friend.

The Last Wild Prairie Places

“Undisturbed remnants of ancient ecosystems, habitats for rare or threatened species, pristine stretches of river, unusual geologic features, exclamations of topography—-wild places aren’t merely beautiful landscapes; they possess a totemic lure, a power or presence that attracts people, sometimes across generational and cultural chasms spanning centuries.” — George Frazier

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Go west of Illinois. Drive through the small towns of Kansas.

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Imagine thousands and thousands of acres of tallgrass prairie here.

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Then discover the Flint Hills, which are just that.

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Sweeps of bronze, backlit by sunshine, wash the prairie in early autumn. Big bluestem, little bluestem, switchgrass, and Indian grass predominate.

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Bison are all around, plopped across the landscape.

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Keep your distance.

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To appreciate prairie here demands that you pay close attention. Look deep into the buffalo grass.

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You might see something fuzzy.

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Or rubbery.

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You may see a critter in seemingly constant motion that is motionless for a moment.

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Fall flowers add bright dabs of color.

Yellows.

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A few purples and lavenders.

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Blue blooms, as if the sky has flaked into the grasses.

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Heath aster spangles its pale stars everywhere you look.

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As you hike the miles and miles of trails…

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…you feel a sense of something lost.

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You catch the vision of what once was. And you wonder what the future here will be.

It’s in these last wild places that our imagination has room to take flight.

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They are the “thin places” as the Celts tell us. Places that change the way we see the world. Perhaps these places are more precious to us because they have almost vanished. And still may.

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Unless…we continue to pay attention and care for them. Share these wild places with others. Never lose our sense of wonder about them. Marvel.

And make time to go see.

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George Frazier is the author of The Last Wild Places of Kansas: Journeys into Hidden Landscapes  (University Press of Kansas), from which the opening quote in this essay was taken. This book was a wonderful companion for my first trip to the Flint Hills.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): barn in Burns, Kansas (population 228); trail through the autumn grasses, Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, KS; trail through the Flint Hills in autumn,  Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; lone bison (Bison bison), Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; buffalo grass (Buchloe dactyloides), Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; yellow bear caterpillar (Spilosoma virginica), Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; unknown fungi, Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; red-legged grasshopper, (Melanoplus femurrubrum), Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; prairie coneflower (Ratibida columnifera), Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; curly-cup gumweed (Grindelia squarrosa), Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; prairie blazing star (Liatris punctata), Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; unknown aster, Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; blue sage (Salvia azurea), Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; heath aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides), Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; trail through the Flint Hills in autumn, Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; feather caught in the tallgrass, Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; kite flying over Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Strong City, Kansas; possibly an immature western meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta), cemetery in Burns, Kansas.

Thanks to Mike and Donna Kehoe, who generously hosted us in Kansas and who help keep the last wild places alive through books.