“No story lives unless someone wants to listen.”– J.K. Rowling
Each year, I see the prairie as having a certain personality. Sparkling! Energetic. Another year it might be tranquil. Welcoming. I know this is an overlay of my personal feelings about the year, unrelated to the prairie itself. The prairie is utterly indifferent to my mood. Indeed, the prairie has many moods of its own, which change from minute to minute.
2020 on the prairie has been colored by COVID: from the lack of prescribed burns (all that old standing plant matter!), to the increased traffic on the trails, to the nervousness I feel when I see lots of hikers on a narrow path. When I begin a hike, mask at the ready, it’s a far different experience than it was in August of 2019.
It would be easier than I’d like to admit to let that tension keep me at home, or spoil the joy I usually feel in hiking the tallgrass.
I go out anyway. I mask up when I need to; then find times (early and late) and spots on the prairie where I can be alone. And each time I go on a prairie hike, I don’t regret it.
There’s always a new discovery. Shifts of weather. A different slant…
…on what is pretty familiar after hiking this prairie for 22 years. There are always new ways of seeing things.
Sometimes, when you’ve walked the same trails for years, you have a preconceived idea of what you’ll find. The danger is this: when you think you already know what you’ll see, you may overlook something special.
I try to remember to keep my eyes open. My mind open. And my heart open to what I might experience each time I walk in the tallgrass.
With that in mind, let’s explore the tallgrass together and discover five reasons to hike the prairie in August.
#1. Plants Have Stories. This Friday I’m teaching the second half of a class called Prairie Ethnobotany; the big “e” word simply means the study of how people interact with plants throughout history. Each prairie plant has a story to tell. Each “story” has as many “pages” to it as we are willing to read. Prairie plants have so many fascinating ethnobotanical tales to tell.
Think of big bluestem. Did you know that big bluestem is Illinois’ state grass? Or that its nickname is “turkey foot?”
It was once considered a good substitute for knitting needles—not difficult to imagine, when you look at its jointed stems.
Big bluestem was known as the ice cream of the prairie for livestock—it was that delicious to cows and horses! Ironically, early settlers knew that where big bluestem grew, the land was suitable for farming.
Goodbye, big bluestem.
I love to hear the stories that my students tell me about their ethnobotanic relationships with plants. Check out Larry and Arlene Dunn’s terrific story here in their blog post from “Acornometrics” about rattlesnake master, one of the stars of the August prairie.
Maybe, as you walk the prairie in August, you’ll want to write a haiku about a plant, as Larry did in this blog, and for one of our assignments. Share your haiku with me in the comments, if you do write one.
#2. Insects have stories, too! As I walk the prairie, I discover stories about the insects that inhabit it. Some insect stories are cheerful; the business of butterflies and beetles and bees, nectaring and pollinating.
Other insect stories may be a bit frightening. This black horsefly feeds on blood—any blood—wherever she may find it. Her mouth parts cut open flesh, leaving a painful sore behind. Ouch! I move past quickly. Nothing to see here, Miz Blackfly.
Beauty and grace, as well as a strong instinct for survival, are what I read in the dragonfly stories. Like this widow skimmer. Fierce. And exquisite. What a powerful combination!
However, not all insect stories have a happily-ever-after ending.
But each story tells us something important about the life of the August prairie community.
#3. Take a Hitchhiker Home. No, we’re not talking ticks here. Well, maybe we are. Sort of. Tick trefoil is another star of the August prairie. Many plants have strategies to help them disperse to new locations to diversify their gene pool. One of these strategies is to attach themselves to our shirts or socks and hitch a ride. Tick trefoil is one of my favorite hitchhikers. Those lovely lavender blooms!
Those intriguing seed pods. Brush against them, and you’ll arrive home, covered with enough tick trefoil seeds to plant a monoculture in your yard. I’ve spent hours pulling the seeds off of my clothes, only to find the seed pods I miss show up in the lint trap of my dryer.
Pick a tick trefoil leaf and you can also paste it, corsage-like, to your lapel. And look at those flowers. The unmistakable blooms of a legume. They remind me of my sugar snap pea flowers and green bean flowers in the garden, only in stunning violet.
When I see Illinois tick trefoil in flower and in seed, I know the prairie has begun its slide toward autumn. It’s a bittersweet feeling. The summer of 2020 has been oh-so-short. Or so it seems. What other plants hitch a ride home with you in August? (Hint: Check your dryer’s lint trap for clues after a hike.)
#4. Enjoy the Play of Light and Shade. As you hike, see what your eyes are drawn to. Contemplate how plants stand out as individuals, or blend in as an aggregate of masses of color and hue to create a mood. Watch how the light shifts, and blends and changes the prairie palette. Some areas look impressionistic, then a shaft of light throws a particular plant into sharp relief.
In this early August prairie mix….
…blue vervain takes the spotlight.
In supporting roles are the wispy Canada wild rye…
…and bee balm and bottlebrush grass.
Not far off, black-eyed susans and the festive gray-headed coneflowers (below) mix into the prairie edges, adding their yellows as foil to the blues and purples.
As an art major for a few years in college, I remember learning that yellow and purple are complementary colors on the color wheel. Later, when I took a quilting class, I realized how striking purple and yellow are in combination. The prairie doesn’t need a lesson in color theory to know. It pours out colors and shades of color in an ever-moving kaleidoscope, changing its appearance throughout the day as the sun moves across the sky. All we have to do to see it is show up.
#5. The Prairie Skies in August have stories to tell. How different the plants look up close…
…from when you change your perspective, and see them against the backdrop of cumulus clouds and blue skies.
Some plants, like this pale indian plantain, stand out.
Even the creatures of the prairie community, like this dickcissel, appear in a new light.
An approaching storm throws the prairie and prairie savanna into a different mood. The bloom colors subtly shift; even the smell of the rain on the way tickles your nose and sharpens your senses. The sounds of the prairie change, from the rumbles of thunder in the distance to the ominous rustling of switchgrass and big bluestem.
Later in the season, deep fog on the prairie mists it in magic. Serene. Soothing.
Whether it is hiking the prairie by day…
…or strolling it in the evening and marveling at another glorious prairie sunset, you’ll know…
…this hour you set aside to hike the August prairie was time well spent.
The quote which opens this post is from J.K. Rowling (1965-), author of the Harry Potter series. The series has sold more than 500 million copies, and is considered the best-selling series in history.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby from the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unless otherwise noted (top to bottom): bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (file photo); compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) with sunflower head clipping beetles (Haplorhynchites aeneus); slanted trail; male eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemus tenera), Arbor Lake, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; praying mantis (Mantid, unknown species–one of the natives? or not? Unsure!), Cindy’s backyard prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL; butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) with big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) (file photo); big bluestem (Andropogen gerardii) (file photo); big bluestem (Andropogen gerardii), College of DuPage Russell Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL (file photo); rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) (file photo); showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) with unknown beetles; black horse fly (Tabanus atratus); widow skimmer dragonfly (Libellula luctuosa) (file photo); widow skimmer dragonfly wings (Libellula luctuosa); Illinois tick trefoil (Desmodium Illinoense); Illinois tick trefoil (Desmodium Illinoense); Illinois tick trefoil Desmodium Illinoense); light and shade through the Schulenberg Prairie Savanna; blue vervain (Verbena hastata); Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis); bottlebrush grass (Elymus hystrix) and bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata); smooth tall ironweed (Vernonia gigantea);smooth tall ironweed (Vernonia gigantea); pale indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium); dickcissel (Spiza americana) on great angelica (Angelica atropurpurea), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (file photo); fog on the prairie (file photo, unsure of month); sun and clouds on the prairie; sunset over Cindy’s prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.
Join Cindy for an Online Class this Fall!
“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” Begin a new session in September 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. 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 from home, supplemented with three evenings of live evening Zoom classes on alternate weeks. Watch for registration information coming soon.
Just released! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History. Read a review from Kim Smith here. (And check out her blog, “Nature is My Therapy” — you’ll love it!
Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Morton Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org and other book venues. Order direct through Northwestern University Press and receive 40% off this new book and/or “The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction”— use coupon code SUN40 through August 6. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during this chaotic time.
Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction.