Tag Archives: tallgrass prairie

A Little Prairie Fog Magic

“Things take the time they take. Don’t worry.” — Mary Oliver

*****

Seems Mother Nature is trying to cram all four seasons into one week as January gets off to a tumultuous start in the Chicago region. From the “Winter Storm Icepocalypse” that fizzled, to temps veering from a balmy 50 degrees to a bitter 17 (and what about those wind gusts at 40 mph?) we’ve already experienced weather worthy of all four seasons. Sun. Snow. Ice. Sleet. Wind. Rain. Fog.

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With a winter storm in the forecast, I headed to the Schulenberg Prairie Friday to put in some long-overdue pasque flower seeds.  Pasque flowers are one of the first wildflowers to bloom in the spring after a prescribed burn.

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We usually deal with the seeds immediately as they ripen, pushing them into the soil next to the mother plant. But our flowering plants have dwindled here—in 2018, to just a few blooms. We’ve also been starting them in the greenhouse—and direct sowing them—but I worry about the limited genetic pool we’re drawing from. Slowly the population is increasing. But we have a long way to go.

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This season, generous folks at a local forest preserve were kind enough to share seeds with us to help invigorate our dwindling, genetically-inbred population. But, by the time the seeds arrived, I was out of commission for the season after cancer surgery. The seeds languished in an envelope. Until now.

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Winter seeding is a time-honored method to stratify certain prairie seeds that need a cold, moist period to germinate. Better late than never, I tell myself. This morning, the temperature hovers in the mid-40s. But snow is on the way.

Fog envelopes the prairie and prairie savanna.

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I grab my bucket of sand and envelope of seeds, and head for the area I have in mind for the pasque flowers.

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Fog brings a certain silence with it. On Sterling Pond, across from the prairie savanna, the cold ice of the pond kisses the warm air. The fog shape-shifts across the water. A living thing. A breath of transition.

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A few goldfinches in their buff-colored winter plumage bounce through the scattered trees.

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Along the trail, a pasture thistle throws sparks of light from the fog moisture.

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Learning to distinguish between the native thistles (keepers!) and invasive thistles (begone!) was one of my early tasks as a prairie steward. One clue is the pale reverse sides of the leaves on native thistles. Even in winter, this pasture thistle’s leaves are a give-away. Keeper.

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The trail is mushy, and I’m soon thankful for my knee-high rubber boots. Mud clings to the soles, weighing my steps. It’s a slog, but I’m slowed more by the beauty around me than the mud. The prairie is on fire with water.

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Fog droplets kindle sparks of light on every plant surface, reflecting the upside prairie.

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Arriving at my chosen spot, I push the pasque flower seeds into the moist ground and sprinkle a little sand over the top to anchor them so they don’t blow away before the snow falls. When gale force winds arrive that evening, I’ll think back on this and be glad I did.

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The coming snow will provide cover. Freeze and thaw. Freeze and thaw. The seeds will settle into the prairie soil and wait, ready to germinate—I hope—this spring.

It’s tough to focus on the task at hand when all around me, droplets hang from the tips of grasses like crystals. Canada wild rye is beaded with diamonds.

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Big bluestem, our Illinois state grass, is clear-pearled and luminous.

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Switchgrass hangs wands of lights in the gloom.

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It’s unearthly. Magical. I’m mesmerized by contrasts. Worn, wet prairie seedheads. Sprinkled with light.

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I return to the seeds. Pasque flowers have a reputation for going into deep dormancy if not planted immediately after harvesting. So my hope for seeing any quick results in the spring are tempered with the knowledge that these were held in storage longer than I would have liked. It might be years. And yet. Sometimes, life doesn’t work out the way you planned it. You have to adapt to what you’re given.

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2019 was a year of the unexpected for many of us. Me included. As a prairie steward, I had to adjust my expectations of what I would accomplish. Looking back at the year,  it’s tough not to think about the projects that remain unfinished.

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These pasque flower seeds were one fall-out of those adjusted expectations of my prairie work. After surgery in August, it was two months before I could hike as far as the pasque flowers’ seeding spot.

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I’m grateful that today, five months later, I can effortlessly hike across the prairie. As the late poet Jane Kenyon wrote, “It could have been otherwise.

Brian Doyle wrote about his  cancer diagnosis in One Long River of Song: Notes on Wonder. Don’t call it “a battle with cancer,” he said. It’s not a battle. Rather—as a tiny, frail nun once told him—cancer becomes your dance partner. You don’t want this partner;  you don’t like this partner, but you have to dance, he writes.

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The shadow of that dance partner will always be with  you. I think of this as I gently pull the pasque flower seeds from their envelope. How quickly our lives may change. How unwelcome  “the dance.” But as I sow the seeds of the pasque flower, and sand them into their places, I feel optimistic about the future.

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The common name “pasque” means Easter, as this is the time the plant usually flowers. Its scientific name  is Pulsatilla patensPulsatilla means “beaten about” in modern Latin, or “beaten by the wind.”

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We burn the tallgrass prairie here each spring. Amid the ashes and bare, blackened earth, the pasque flower dances with the prescribed fire. None-the-less, it blooms. Trembles in the wind. It’s almost been defeated here, on this site, over the years.

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But not yet. I’m not going to let it go. The dance continues. I’ll keep planting pasque flower seeds for the future. I’ll continue to hope.

*****

The opening quote is from Felicity by Mary Oliver (1935-2019),  winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. If you haven’t read her writing, a good place to start is New & Selected Poems Volume 1.

****

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): trail to the Schulenberg Prairie in the fog, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Franklin Grove, IL; pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens) seeds, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; fog on the Schulenberg Prairie and Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bridge over Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Sterling Pond in the fog, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; goldfinch (Spinus tristis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor) leaves, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; droplets on Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens) seeds, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata) and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; prairie interpretive trail under the snow, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; coyote (Canis latrans) tracks in the snow, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL;  ice art, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sanding in the seeds, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens) blooms fading, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens) opening (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The line from the Jane Kenyon poem is from Otherwise. Thanks to Susan Kleiman and Russell Brunner for their help with the pasque flower seeds! Grateful.

*****

Please join Cindy at an upcoming event or class this winter!

Sterling Stories, Lisle Heritage Society, Sunday, January 19, 2 p.m. With co-presenter Rita Hassert, Library Collections Manager, The Morton Arboretum. Location is the  Lisle Library, 777 Front Street, Lisle, IL. Open to the public.

Nature Writing and Art Retreat, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, February 22 (Saturday) 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Cindy will be facilitating the writing portion. Sold Out. Waiting list –Register here.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online begins March 26.  Details and registration here.

Nature Writing Workshop (a blended online and in-person course, three Tuesday evenings in-person) begins March 3 at The Morton Arboretum. For details and registration, click here. 

A New Year in the Tallgrass

“Joy as I see it involves embracing life. … Joy isn’t the opposite of sorrow, but encompasses and transcends sorrow. You know you’re truly connected with yourself when you’re experiencing joy.” — Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge

*****

Where did 2019 go? The time passed so quickly.

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This year we saw changes on the prairies we love. After the prescribed burns that torched the tallgrass…

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… we marveled at the new growth soon after.

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Watched the early pasque flowers bloom….

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and then, set seeds for the future.

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We stood amazed at the constellations of shooting star, bent and humming with bumble bees.

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Then, were astonished at the July wildflowers. Sure, we seem them each summer. But each year seems like a miracle.

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Now, at the end of December, the prairie has its own sort of loveliness. The beauty of sky and clouds…

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…the delights of a single seedhead.

Pasture thistle.

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Bee balm.

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Blazing star.

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Each prairie plant has a different method of making seeds and ensuring its future. Each has  a story to tell.

Remembering the familiar cycle of prescribed fire, new growth, flushes of color, and fruition of seed are all comforting at the close of the year.

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It comforts us as we remember how, in 2019, we wrote our own stories. Some of us lost people we loved. Had surgery. Battled cancer. Made new friends. Laughed a lot. Cried a lot, too. Weeded, seeded. Planned and worked to make those plans—both on the prairie and off—a reality. Celebrated the successes. Resolved to learn from the failures.

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In 2019, there were the surprises and vagaries of weather. Remember the big snow in April? Then, the cold and wet through the middle of June. Blazing hot in July. Snow on Halloween. Sixty degree days in December. Through it all, the prairie sailed on. The tallgrass  prairie was built for these extremes.

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Woven through 2019 was joy. True joy. The kind that is hard-won. The prairie, with its glories and challenges, defeats and delights, reminds us of this. Fire brings growth. Deep roots hold firm, drawing from long-held reserves when unexpected events throw the season out of kilter. The prairie survives.

It survives, also in part, because of people with vision.  Each prairie is a story of sweat and joy; patience and persistence. Of survival. Like a Polaroid snapshot, stewards and volunteers bring struggling remnants back into sharp focus.

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Many saved at the eleventh hour.GensburgMarkhambigbluestemWM122719.jpg

2019 was the continuing story of people who care enough to preserve places that aren’t always easy—at first glance–to understand. When I drive by the roughly 105-acre Gensburg-Markham prairie on congested I-294, set aside in 1971, I wonder what most commuters whizzing by this precious remnant think about it. Do they know what was saved, and why it matters? Do they wonder why it was never developed? Or is it just a blur in their rear view mirrors as they speed to their destinations?

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Do the people who drive by the 91-acre Sundrop Prairie, dedicated in 2000 and part of the Indian Boundary Prairies in Markham, IL, know what a treasure these acres contain?

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The tallgrass grows and changes. Our understanding of their importance evolves. And yet, the prairies continue on, as they have for hundreds of thousands of years. There’s a comfort in knowing that when we’re gone, the prairies will continue to survive and thrive under the care of future generations.

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I think of these things as I hike a prairie trail at Fermilab in the last days of the year. According to the Chicago Tribune, “In 1975 when he heard that Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, near Batavia, was looking for suggestions on what to do with the thousands of acres it owned, Bob Betz sat down with then-director Robert Wilson and went over his vision of having a restored prairie on the property. ‘And when Dr. Wilson asked how long it was going to take, Dr. Betz said, ‘Ten, 20 or maybe 30 years,’ then Dr. Wilson said, ‘Well, we better get started this afternoon.’ ” From these beginnings, beautiful prairies were planted and now thrive at Fermilab.

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Prairie remnants like the Indian Boundary Prairies—Sundrop and Gensburg-Markham— require people to discover them, bring them to the attention of the rest of us, and then, care for them with prescribed fire and stewardship. They require organizations like the Nature Conservancy and Northeastern Illinois University and others, and the generous donations of individuals, to ensure their protection. They require vision. And action. I think of Bob Betz, and his work with the Indian Boundary Prairies, as well as with Fermilab’s natural areas.  I think of the volunteers who undertake a hundred different tasks to maintain prairies today.

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Other preserves, like Nachusa Grasslands in Franklin Grove, IL–which has both remnant and planted prairies—shows the rewards of focused funding and care since 1986 by the Nature Conservancy Illinois and later, joined in that care by Friends of Nachusa Grasslands. I think also of the 100-acre Schulenberg Prairie at the Morton Arboretum just outside of Chicago, and the volunteers, including myself, who dedicate time each season to cut brush, plant new natives, and collect seeds. Such different prairies! Each one irreplaceable.

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Now, it’s time to close another chapter in the life of the prairies. 2019 is a wrap.

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2020 is waiting. So much possibility!

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So much good work to do. So much joy to look forward to.

*****

The opening quote is included in the book, Poemcrazy: Freeing Your Life with Words by Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge. It’s one of my favorite books on writing; I re-read it at least once a year.

***

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Sundrop Prairie, Midlothian, IL: prescribed burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; greening up after the prescribed burn, top of Dot’s Knob, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL: pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens) in bloom, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; pasque flowers (Pulsatiilla patens) in seed, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; July at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; the end of December at Fermilab Natural Areas, interpretive trail, Batavia, IL; pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; blazing star (probably Liastris aspera), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Sundrop Prairie, Midlothian, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Sundrop Prairie, Midlothian, IL; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Sundrop Prairie, Midlothian, IL; backlit prairie plants (unknown), Sundrop Prairie, Midlothian, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; Illinois nature preserve sign, Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; Sundrop Prairie in December, Midlothian, IL; Gensburg-Markham Prairie with bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), grasses, and wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; Fermilab interpretive trail edges at the end of December, Batavia, IL; Carolina horsenettle (Solanum carolinense), Fermilab interpretive prairie trail, Batavia, IL: prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; Wilson Hall from the interpretive trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL;  interpretive trail at Fermilab Natural Areas at the end of December, Batavia, IL.

***

Please join Cindy at one of her upcoming classes or talks in the new year!

Nature Writing and Art Retreat, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, February 22 (Saturday) 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Cindy will be facilitating the writing portion. Register here.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online begins March 26.  Details and registration here.

Nature Writing Workshop (a blended online and in-person course, three Tuesday evenings in-person) begins March 3 at The Morton Arboretum. For details and registration, click here. 

Happy New Year! Thank you for reading. See you in 2020.

A Tale of Two Prairies

“The natural world is the refuge of the spirit… .” E. O. Wilson

*****

Sunday, my family and I braved the traffic out of Chicago to celebrate Christmas together in northwestern Indiana. There were a surprising number of commuters.

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Probably the holidays.

Any opportunity to travel is an opportunity to see prairies. As we drove toward the Indiana state line, making good time, Jeff suddenly veered off I-294 at the exit for Highway 6. “Let’s revisit Gensburg-Markham Prairie!” he offered. We had dropped by this prairie several years ago, and impressed, always vowed to return.

Oh no! The entrance gate, at the end of a neighborhood cul-de-sac, seemed to be locked.

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Determined, I squeezed through the opening between the fence and the chain-closed gate. Later, I read that the chain is merely draped over the top of the fence. Ha! I could have lifted it off and opened the gate, it seems. Perhaps it was more of an adventure my way.

On the other side, this remnant prairie is full of treasures, even in December.

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Drifts of prairie dropseed swirled through the prairie.

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Mountain mint seeds were mostly gone, but no less beautiful for that.

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Deep in the grasses I found prairie dock leaves. This is my favorite time of year for them. Like “swiss dots” fabric.

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Its Silphium cousin—compass plant—wasn’t far away.

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A few purple prairie clover seedheads remained. I struggle, sometimes, to distinguish the white prairie clover from the purple at this time of year, when the seeds are partially gone. One is grittier, and one is softer and lighter colored. Hmmm.

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White vervain, which occurs in every county of Illinois, curtained the edges of the prairie.

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I walked the mowed trail and listened. Not far away, the Tri-State Tollway traffic roared and billboards signed their temporary depressing messages. Legal services. Gambling. Fast food. Strip clubs.

 

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But the magic of the switchgrass…

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…and the remains of the tall coreopsis and other prairie plants gone to seed were enticing enough to propel me deeper into the prairie, wondering what else I might see. Alas! There wasn’t nearly enough time to explore. We needed to get back on the road.

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After our family gathering in Indiana, Jeff and I headed home via some back roads through St. John, avoiding the traffic on the Tri-State Tollway as much as possible. Gray skies promised an early dusk and perhaps, snow on the way. On this route, we always watch for the Shoe Corner, at the intersection of 109th and Calumet—an odd tradition in this part of the Hoosier state of dropping shoes along the roadway. As we braked at a stoplight, Jeff pointed. “Look!”

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We immediately signaled and drove slowly along the edges of the prairie, looking for an entrance. The best spot seemed to be a parking lot with an abandoned building.

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This, I thought, was more forbidding than the locked gate to Gensburg-Markham. I doubted we were at the correct entrance. But a trail mowed along the edge of the prairie offered a way in. As I walked into the grasses, I wondered about the history of this place. Indiana once was about 15 percent tallgrass prairie, according to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Later, I learned that this 34.2 acre remnant was saved from development and dedicated in 1992.

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Reading more at home, I found that according to the DNR, at least 175 species of native plants are here; one federally threatened. Three rare animals. Several rare moths and insects. Biesecker Prairie is also an introduction site for the  federally-threatened Mead’s milkweed; an unusual milkweed that no longer occurs naturally in Indiana. I promised myself to come back in the summer, when we had more daylight and knew where to park and hike.

Beisecker Prairie is a gem in a rough-cut setting. We could have so easily missed it! A defunct business nearby had piled refuse, boats, and old electronics along the far edge of the area. It’s so easy to focus on what is broken and ugly; to only see the damage we’ve done to the beautiful natural areas we once had in Indiana and Illinois.

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But often, beauty and restoration are just around the corner. Literally.

Despite its surroundings, Biesecker Prairie seemed….tranquil. Peaceful, despite the traffic flying by. A little oasis. Like Gensburg-Markham by the Tri-State Tollway.

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I wonder what Biesecker Prairie will look like in spring. From different vantage points at this time of year, you could see common milkweed; tall coreopsis, prairie dropseed, perhaps a little cordgrass. Native prairie plants.  Someone cared enough to preserve and protect this little corner prairie remnant. Someone realized its value.  Its history. And because of this, it survives.

 

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This small prairie remnant in Indiana—and others like Gensberg-Markham Prairie, a remnant carefully preserved in Illinois—still stand despite the odds.  We find these prairies juxtaposed between golf courses and highways. Sandwiched  into neighborhoods, defunct businesses, and Interstates. These precious few acres of tallgrass prairie remain because people paid attention. They cared enough to protect them. Kudos to the volunteers, stewards, and agencies that made it happen—and who continue to steward these tallgrass prairie preserves today.

Two urban prairies. Two different states. Two stories.

Hope for the future.

*****

The opening quote is by E. O. Wilson (1929-), Professor Emeritus and Honorary Curator in Entomology at Harvard, from Biophilia (1984). Wilson is considered the world’s foremost authority on ants. Blinded in one eye as a child in a fishing accident, he learned to focus on “little things” he could see up close, or under a microscope. Wilson has won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction twice; once for On Human Natureonce for The Ants (with Burt Holldobler). He is sometimes called “the Father of Biodiversity,” and is known for his theory of island biogeography (with Robert Macarthur).

****

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): possibly cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum), Naperville, IL; gate to Gensburg-Markham Prairie; Gensburg-Markham Prairie in December, Markham, IL; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; mountain mint (probably Pycnanthemum virginianum), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; white vervain (Verbena urticifolia), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; I-294 and Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL;  tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Gensburg-Markham Prairie, Markham, IL; corner of Biesecker Prairie, St. John, IN.abandoned business close to Biesecker Prairie, St. John, IN; edges of Biesecker Prairie, St. John, IN: Biesecker Prairie in December, St. John, IN; Biesecker Prairie, St. John, IN.

******

Please join Cindy at one of her upcoming classes or talks in the new year!

Nature Writing and Art Retreat, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, February 22 (Saturday) 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Cindy will be facilitating the writing portion. Register here.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online begins March 26.  Details and registration here.

Nature Writing Workshop (a blended online and in-person course, three Tuesday evenings in-person) begins March 3 at The Morton Arboretum. For details and registration, click here. 

A Twilight Prairie Hike

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”  — Rachel Carson

******

December. The roads are choked with traffic; shoppers busy with the work of preparing for the holidays. Neighborhoods dressed in Christmas lights glow. Chicago radio stations swap out their playlists for Jingle Bell Rock and Frosty; Oh Holy Night and Santa Baby. The temperatures warm into the high 40s and then, plummet into the teens. We think of snow.

Under steel skies, the prairie is quiet, an impressionist study in golds, browns, and rusts.

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Sunday, Jeff and I drove to Crystal Lake, Illinois, where I gave a late afternoon talk on Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit.

signprairieview12819WM.jpg Afterwards, there was just enough light to go for a hike on the prairie, silent in the gathering dark. Mary, my delightful host, told me the prairie was originally a farm, run by Hazel and her husband, Otto Rhoades, president of Sun Electric Company. The 7,500 square foot education center was originally their home built in 1945.

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The McHenry County Conservation District purchased the property in 1993 and began converting the private home to an educational center.  Today, the center serves thousands of McHenry County children and families with low-cost nature programs, camps, and school field trips. These kids will grow up knowing that tallgrass prairie is something special.

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As the light fades on the prairie, so do the sounds. We move a short way down the path and realize the day is almost gone. Our hopes of hiking the  six and a half miles of hiking trails through the prairie and savanna restorations, culminating at the banks of the Fox River, won’t happen this time. This short walk will only be a taste of what this place has to offer.

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Just over the horizon a plume of smoke lifts, likely a neighbor burning leaves.

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In the gloaming, the grasses and wildflowers take on a mysterious aspect. The prairie has been called “a sea of grass” in literature, and I can imagine these wildflowers at the bottom of an ocean floor, waving gently in the current.

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As we hike, I think of the old farm and the lives spent in agriculture here. It would be a shock to Hazel and Otto to see these acres, likely wrestled from prairie at one time, turned back to tallgrass prairie again.

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John Madson, in his eloquent book, Where the Sky Began: Land of the Tallgrass Prairie, talks of visiting the area where his great-grandparents turned tallgrass into farm. He wrote: “What would they think in our time if they could stand in the Walnut Creek Refuge and look over a prairiescape again? They might deplore it as so much foolishness, feeling somehow betrayed by this replication of a wilderness they had been so proud to have tamed. Or would they see it for what it really is—a common ground between their lives and ours?”

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Walking through the tallgrass, I try to envision it as farm in the forties. My imagination fails. Prairie stretches across the horizon. In the dim light, the grasses  become waves crashing into the savanna.

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But the wildflowers have amazing detail and grace, like this goldenrod rosette gall on a goldenrod plant.

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Even the weedier prairie natives, like evening primrose, seem festive.

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A deer emerges from the tallgrass, shadowed, then motionless, so much that Jeff and I almost miss our “Illinois state animal.” The deer reminds me of the book I’ve been reading, Wilding: Returning Nature to Our Farm , by Isabella Tree. Set in Great Britain, Tree tells of the experiment her family undertakes to let their intensive agricultural venture go and then, watch the land recover. They add old English longhorns, fallow deer, red deer, and Exmoor ponies to their land to churn it and fertilize it. They withhold herbicides. Quit planting. Then, they watch the exhausted land become healthy again. As birds and insects return to their thousands of acres, the neighbors are aghast to see good cropland be “wasted.” Of the experiment, Tree writes: “It was an affront to the efforts of every self-respecting farmer, an immoral waste of land, an assault on Britishness itself.

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Reading Madson and Wilding reminds me that our ideas about how to use the land and what we value are always changing, always in transition. Land use isn’t always something we agree on. Prairie, because it is so nuanced, may be seen as land that is “wasted.” Couldn’t that land be better used? But when you build a relationship with prairie, you understand its true value.

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I wonder what my grandchildren will make of prairie, and how they will care for the landscape they’ve inherited. How they will change it. I think of the next generations. What will they value when they explore the prairie trails? Will they see the beauty and sense of history that permeates these places?

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Prairieview ‘s work—and the work of other prairie education programs for families and schoolchildren—gives me hope.  That we will invest in children and their prairie experiences. That we will let them absorb the beauty and mystery of the prairie through personal time spent hiking and exploring the tallgrass. That educators and parents will help them understand the value of its plants and its animals. Then, our children will have a reason to love the prairie community and care about its future.

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We’ve not gone very far into the tallgrass, but it’s time to turn around and head for the car. Dusk has turned to dark. Just a bit of light remains.

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We’ll be back.

******

The opening quote is from Rachel Carson’s (1907-1964) The Sense of Wonder. Begun as a magazine essay, the book is a stirring call to nurturing children’s sense of delight and marvel over the natural world.

******

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken this week at Prairieview Education Center, Crystal Lake, IL except where noted: prairie at Prairieview Education Center in December; welcome sign; Prairieview Education Center; little bluestem (Schizachyium scoparium); view from the education center; trails through the prairie; mostly bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca); switchgrass (Panicum virgatum); mixed grasses and savanna in the dusk; rosette gall, made by the goldenrod gall midge (Rhopalomyia solidaginis); evening primrose (Oenothera biennis); white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus);  compass plant (Silphium lacinateum); young child explores the prairie, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata); common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).

Thanks to Mary, Barbara, and the good folks at Prairieview who hosted the booksigning and talk on Sunday. And thank you to Dustin, who recommended “Wilding” to me.

*****

Please join Cindy at one of her upcoming classes or talks in the new year!

Nature Writing and Art Retreat, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, February 22 (Saturday) 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Cindy will be facilitating the writing portion. Register here.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online begins March 26.  Details and registration here.

Nature Writing Workshop (a blended online and in-person course, three Tuesday evenings in-person) begins March 3 at The Morton Arboretum. For details and registration, click here.

November Prairie Focus

“Young prairie plants put down deep roots first; only when these have been established do the plants invest much energy in growth above ground. They teach us that the work that matters doesn’t always show.” -Paul Gruchow

******

The cold, gray days of November are here. Beautiful? Yes, in their own way. They offer time for reflection on a year mostly past.

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The sky becomes a slate backdrop to plants which spike and angle and curve. Like silhouette cut-outs.

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Grace notes. Some more interesting now in seed and shape than they were in bloom.

It’s easy for me to overlook what’s good about November. Easier to long for sunshine and warmth; for the fireworks of July wildflowers—purple leadplant spikes and bright orange butterflyweed and lemon-yellow coreopsis. The fresh emerald spikes of grasses pushing through the dark prairie soil in spring. Or even the golds and violets of the autumn prairie.

Seems like we missed part of that season with our early snows.

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As I walk, I think of John Updike’s poem, November:

The stripped and shapely

Maple grieves

The loss of her

Departed leaves.

The ground is hard,

As hard as stone

The year is old

The birds are flown…..

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Much of what I see on the prairie is a matter of focus. In November, I have to remind myself that beauty is here. That the work of restoration is moving forward. It’s a more difficult season than spring when everything is full of promise and possibility. The “prettiness” and promise of the prairie is more obvious in the warmer months. November’s calibration of what constitutes headway, success on a prairie, is different.

Gray. Beige. Black. Brown. The prairie smells of wet earth. Snowmelt. Decay. You’d think this would be distressing, but it’s strangely pleasant. Invigorating.  It’s the fragrance of a work in progress. The cycling of nutrients. The prairie finishes its work of the growing season, then lays the groundwork for the future.

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Sometimes, I look at the November prairie and all I see is the unfinished work of a prairie steward. The native brambles taking over, arcing their spiny branches across the prairie and shading out wildflowers.

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It’s discouraging. Impatience surges. Are we really making a difference here? Or are we like Sisyphus, rolling a boulder uphill, only to have it roll back.

Then, I remember. There was a time when I didn’t  think about these “brambles” because the invasive buckthorn, honeysuckle, and sweet white and yellow clovers were consuming all my stewardship hours. It’s a luxury  now to have most of these problem plants licked (Hubris, don’t strike me down!) and room to think about how to tackle new management  issues.

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Despite my self-reassurance, as I hike I see other potential issues. Are the native grasses dominating the wildflowers? Is the false sunflower spreading too aggressively  in the corner by the bridge?

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I tuck my cold fingers into my pockets and stand on the bridge over Willoway Brook.  Reed canary grass chokes the shoreline. A never-ending problem. Then I look closer. I’m missing the lovely configurations of ice and stream; leaf and stone.

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Just across the bridge is a new “menace.” The past several years I’ve moaned about Illinois bundleflower making inroads into the prairie; it has become a monoculture in spots. Is it a desirable plant? Sure. It belongs on the prairie. But how much is too much? Decisions about how to manage it causes me some frustrating hours. But today, I take a few moments to admire it. Wow. Look at those seed pods.

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There are plants that “don’t belong” on a prairie restoration, and other plants that do, yet get a bit rambunctious. It’s so easy to focus on what’s wrong. Sometimes its tougher to remember what we’ve done well. To focus on the beauty, instead of the chaos.

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Nearby are ruined choirs of cup plants; taller than I am, growth-fueled by rain. Cup plants are the bane of my backyard prairie patch—aggressive thugs that elbow my Culver’s root and spiderwort out of the way.

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But here, on the 100-acre prairie, they are welcome. When I think about it, I realize I’ve not seen them in this area before. They are part of the first waves of prairie plants making inroads in an old field we’re restoring by the Prairie Visitor Center. A sign of success. A sign of progress.

Among the rusts and tans, there are bright bits of color. Carrion flower, now gone to inedible seeds.

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The last flag-leaves of sumac.

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Sumac is also an issue in parts of this prairie. But for now, I relax and enjoy the color.

Nuthatches call from the savanna. The breeze rustles the grasses. Looking over the prairie, focusing on its draining colors and dwindling seedheads…

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… I remember what Paul Gruchow wrote about the tallgrass prairie: “…The work that matters doesn’t always show.”

The day suddenly feels brighter.

*****

Paul Gruchow (1947-2004) was a Minnesota writer who wrote such beautiful books as Travels in Canoe Country; The Boundary Waters: Grace of the Wild; Journal of a Prairie Year; The Necessity of Empty Places; and Grass Roots: The Universe of Home from which this opening quote was taken. There’s nothing like the power of a good book—especially those passages that stick in your mind and are available when you need them the most.

John Updike’s lovely poem November” is found in A Child’s Calendar, first published in 1965. If you’re unfamiliar with his poetry, check out Facing Nature: Poems, Collected Poems: 1953–1993, and Americana and Other Poems (2001).

***

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken on the Schulenberg Prairie and Savanna at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, unless noted:  Willoway Brook in November; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); maple leaf (Acer saccharum) by the Prairie Visitor Station; silky wild rye (Elymus villosus) and log; prairie under snow in November; common blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis); prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides); Willoway Brook; Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) and unknown asters; cup plants Silphium perfoliatum); carrion vine (probably Smilax ecirrhata); staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina); false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides).

Please join Cindy for one of these upcoming classes or talks:

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.    A lovely afternoon enjoying little known Arboretum’s stories, and a quiet respite from the holiday hustle and bustle. Register here.

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.

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!

Find more at www.cindycrosby.com  

October Prairie Adventures

“What day is it?” asked Pooh. “It’s today,” squeaked Piglet. “My favorite day,” said Pooh. ― A.A. Milne

*****

The trees blushed into their autumn hues seemingly overnight, delighting leaf-peepers in the Chicago region. Under an onslaught of 35 mph wind gusts and chilly rain on Monday, these same trees gleefully tore loose their red, gold, and copper leaves, sifting them into the streets and sidewalks.

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The rain drizzled to a stop. Sunlight shafted through big-bellied clouds moving fast across the sky.  Light glinted in the swirling leaves, littering the road. It feels like fall at last.

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Suddenly, the birds nests we hunted for all summer are starkly visible. There is the oriole’s nest-purse! Right over my head! And  —So that’s where the squirrel built her drey! Tree branches stand out in start relief, some with miniature worlds to discover.

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In the 1942 book, We Took to the Woods, Louise Dickinson Rich tells of living deep in the Maine forest. She writes that she doesn’t mind the long hike to town to get the mail, as she anticipates visiting with friends. And then — “There are the woods themselves, which I like better in winter than in summer, because I like the type of design that emphasizes line rather than mass,” she writes. “The bare branches of the hardwood trees look exactly like etchings.” In autumn, I feel the same as the trees strip down to silhouettes.

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Woolly bear caterpillars are everywhere, it seems, especially if you have the focus to find them. A good way to “see” them is to take a child with you. I hiked the Schulenberg Prairie this week with my six-year-old grandson Tony looking for the last dragonflies. Only a lone green darner was hanging around, but he found eight Woolly Bears in under an hour.

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Until this October, I didn’t know Woolly Bears climb plants! Tony and I found this one  below, that had “slinky-ed” its way up into a stiff goldenrod plant.

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Later last week, I took a lovely group of women out to collect little bluestem and stiff goldenrod seeds.

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They found at least two more Woolly Bears clinging to the tops of prairie plants, again, mostly stiff goldenrod. Maybe Wilhelm and Rericha’s massive reference work,  Flora of the Chicago Region, will need to add this “insect association” to its list!

Interesting. The Woolly Bear is folklore-famous for its ability to forecast the weather. Of course, its all in fun, but I always like to see if the prediction matches the actual weather that follows. All the Woolly Bears on the Schulenberg Prairie this season seem to have predominately rust-colored bodies, with a bit of black.

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According to Farmer’s Almanac, this means a mild winter. Further reading says the Woolly Bear’s direction of travel is also a factor; if they are moving south, it means a cold winter; north is a mild winter.

No word on what it means when they crawl upwards.

*****

Jeff and I hiked Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve this weekend, and while we didn’t find any Woolly Bears, we did find some other fauna. Jeff was looking for a map…..

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When he opened the box, there were none. But some enterprising prairie fauna had moved in.

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Sweet! A map mouse house. We carefully closed the lid and left the tiny critters to their naps. The prairie is always full of unexpected surprises.

This was our first time hiking Westchester, Illinois’ Wolf Road Prairie in the autumn, and it was a delight. Entering from the south, you find the celebrated old sidewalks left from the subdivision that was platted and partially laid out, then abandoned back in the late 1920s during the Great Depression.  The savanna breaks into the open prairie, with the city as a backdrop. So many remnants now have this juxtaposition; the urban and suburban with the last pieces of tallgrass untouched by the plow. It’s a celebration of the determined people who saved these precious patches from development.

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As you hike, you’re reminded of the relentless reclamation of nature, when She is given the chance. The sidewalks, now almost 100 years old, are breaking up under the slow pursuit of the grasses and in one spot, the more aggressive roots of a lone cottonwood.

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Everywhere you follow the sidewalks, you see the hard-won efforts of prairie restoration stewards in the diversity of native prairie plants spread out in all directions.

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We stripped some Indian grass of its seeds and took a moment to admire them before scattering them into the prairie.

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The prairie dock leaves showed the transition between the seasons.

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The rusts of little bluestem colored the tallgrass; the late morning sun backlit the seedheads, throwing sparks of light.

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Overhead, a half-moon shadowed us as we hiked back through the savanna to our car.

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The prairie moves from wildflowers to wisps and puffs and kernels of seeds.

Trees transform themselves from welcome shady refuges with blurred edges to stripped down, sharp-cut “etchings.”

I’m embracing the change.

****

Playwright and novelist A.A. Milne (1882-1956), whose quote opens this post, was a British author who penned the wildly popular Winnie the Pooh children’s books. He and his wife, Dorothy, had a son named Christopher Robin, who resented the Pooh books. The rift ended in his estrangement from his parents. The real-life Milnes are chronicled in the 2017 movie, Goodbye Christopher Robin.  Disney eventually acquired all rights for the Winnie the Pooh books and characters for $350 million in 2001. In 2005, Winnie the Pooh generated $6 billion dollars for Disney.

*****

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Unknown tree along the East Side route at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; road through the trees, East Side Route, Lisle, IL; mosses and fungi on an oak branch, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bison (Bison bison) at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (photo taken in 2017); chasing dragonflies, Schulenberg Prairie Visitor Station, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; woolly bear caterpillar (Pyrrharctia isabella) on stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; seed collecting on the Schulenberg Prairie in October, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; woolly bear caterpillar (Pyrrharctia isabella), Schulenberg Prairie path, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; map box, Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL; mouse family (maybe Peromyscus leucopus), Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL; skyline behind the Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL; sidewalk and eastern cottonwood tree (Populus deltoides), Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL; blazing star (Liatris spp,), Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) seeds, Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL; Jeff walks the sidewalks of the Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL; half-moon over the savanna at Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL.

*****

Thanks to Robert Helfer for connecting me to the weather.gov article on Woolly Bears! I really enjoyed it.

Thanks to the Save the Prairie Society, who has worked so hard to care for the precious Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve community. What an accomplishment!

******

Cindy’s upcoming classes and speaking events:

Saturday, December 7, 1:30-3 p.m.: Join Cindy and The Morton Arboretum’s library collections manager Rita Hassert for Sterling Stories from the Arboretum Stacks, at the Sterling Morton Library, Lisle, IL.  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.

Aster Disasters (& Other Prairie ID Puzzles)

“But now in September the garden has cooled, and with it my possessiveness. The sun warms my back instead of beating on my head … The harvest has dwindled, and I have grown apart from the intense midsummer relationship that brought it on.” – Robert Finch

****

A just-past-full harvest moon shines through the window. It’s Monday morning, 5 a.m.  Through the cracked-open window, I hear a great-horned owl hooting somewhere in the neighborhood. The smell of skunk drifts into the bedroom. Some unwary creature has done battle with the skunk in the early hours, and the creature and I both lose.

I lay awake for a while, then, realizing further sleep is an illusion, head downstairs to make a cup of Lapsang souchong tea. Sunrise in mid-September doesn’t occur until around 6:30 a.m., and as clouds roll in, obscuring the moon, everything in the kitchen turns back to black. The autumnal equinox is September 23 this year, signaling the arrival of astronomical fall. Sunrise  falls a bit later each day, and will until late December.

It’s the season of senesce. Of slow decline.

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Mid-September is the month of last-ditch, frenetic activity. Hummingbirds dive bomb the remnants of cardinal flowers and fight over the sugar water feeder, refueling on their way to Central America.  Monarchs are on the move to Mexico. They pause to nectar in my backyard, then float skyward, driven by a longing deeply encoded in their DNA.

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Butterfly milkweed—that monarch magnet—has closed up shop and thrown together its seed pods. The large milkweed bugs’ coloration mimics the monarchs’ coloration, don’t you think?

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It’s also  goldfinch season. Drabber now, more olive oil hued than buttery lemon, they pluck Nyjer thistle and sunflower seeds from my feeders and then hit the prairie and garden for dessert. Goldfinches seem to prefer the cup plants, zinnias, evening primrose,  and gray-headed coneflowers from September’s seed smorgasboard. Everywhere I look in my backyard, a goldfinch clings to a plant, working the seedheads. Insects need not worry. Goldfinchs are strict vegetarians. 

Last Tuesday, dragonflies moved through the Chicago region en masse. Green darner dragonflies predominated in my little corner of the world, making up about 95 percent of the swarms. Mixed in were a few black saddlebags dragonflies and the occasional wandering glider. As we sat on the porch swing Tuesday evening, Jeff and I counted about 50 green darners over the prairie patch, picking off mosquitoes before they resumed their long journey south.

Dragonfly swarms also showed up on the National Weather Service’s radar this week.   Where are they going? The most recent studies tell us they migrate as far as the Gulf of Mexico, and perhaps as far as Central America. We’re still learning.  Each day brings new knowledge about this mysterious seasonal phenomenon. Just as citizen scientists led the way in learning about monarch migration half a century ago, today’s dragonfly monitors gather data so we’ll understand more about this phenomenon.

As I relaxed in my hammock this weekend, I saw the elusive red saddlebags dragonfly  hover directly over the hammock, silhouetted against the blue sky. It’s not an easy ID (they are easily confused with the Carolina saddlebags), but because of its blue sky background and close proximity, the markings were clearly delineated.  Last year, at the end of August, I was able to get a good close-up shot when a red saddlebags rested in my tomato patch. Different individuals, of course.  A dragonfly’s life is measured in weeks. Why does this species show up in my backyard? Why only this time of year? I mull it over and wonder.

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The birds are on the move as well, although the large sandhill crane migrations are still to come.

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Other species seem suddenly more visible. Hike any prairie trail in September, and you’ll scuff up grasshoppers underfoot, which pelt the grasses like rain. Near the backyard pond, they hang out on the black-eyed Susans, still in full bloom. Up close, this red-legged grasshopper is full of intricate detail. Yet I often overlook the grasshoppers. Perhaps I need to pay closer attention. Appreciate them more, with their Harley-Davidson helmets and sassy attitudes. You can almost hear this one rasping, “Hey you. Yeah, you. Waddahyawant?”

redleggedgrasshopperonWMblackeyedsusanGE91519.jpgSince August, I’ve become more aware of the skipper butterflies, and all the ID conundrums that follow the desire to know their names. My friend John Ayres taught me the “three witches” of the skipper family: little glassywing, northern broken dash, and the dun skipper (also called the “sedge witch”.  As I study the red-legged grasshopper, a Peck’s skipper paused on a nearby bloom to rest.

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At least, I think it is a Peck’s skipper. I’ve lost confidence in my skipper ID’s, so I pore through my Field Guide to the Skippers of Illinois hoping to gain some sort of resolution. The skipper pops over to the last flowers of the great blue lobelia….

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…for a sip of sugar.

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I had no idea the skippers would nectar on great blue lobelia! Hummingbirds—yes. This is a new bit of info for me to tuck away.

Watching skippers in the grasses and nectaring in my backyard prairie patch close to the lawn in the evenings, I’ve also become aware of the tiny moths fluttering low in the airspace just above the turf grass. So ghost-like! So tiny! How have I not really noticed them before, or tried to put a name to them? And we’ve lived here two decades! On the front porch Monday evening, a moth resting on the front porch catches my attention.

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I page through  my Peterson Field Guide to Moths and check the  iNaturalist app. It’s the “beautiful wood nymph” moth! On my front porch! A first for me. Look at those furry antennae.

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Sometimes, there are incredible treasures to be found without traveling to “natural areas,” parks, or preserves. Sometimes, beautiful creatures are right under our nose.

Still, most moths I see remain an ID mystery. And it’s not just the insects that fuel my ID conundrums. In my backyard prairie this week, it’s the season of the goldenrods and asters. Since I’m still able to pull weeds (three more weeks to go!), I’ve let far more of both come into bloom than is my norm. The insects are pretty excited about it, including this green metallic sweat bee.

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Or is it a green metallic sweat bee? I’m not sure. As I study the insects rummaging through the prairie asters, I try to key the bees out, using iNaturalist. It’s much more difficult than I bargained for. Several choices come up, and most of the choices look the same. Ah well. I keep trying.

The more I seem to learn about the natural world, the more I discover there is to learn. Even in my own backyard.

Take the asters. On the prairies where I’m a steward, the heath aster, silky aster, and sky blue asters are old friends. I know where they grow, and I can call them by name. In my backyard prairie patch, the New England aster is a “gimmee” —it’s difficult to mistake it for anything else in the yard.

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This September, it’s shown up everywhere.

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But after the New England aster is easily ID’d, the trouble begins. The rest of my backyard prairie asters are up for grabs. Most drifted in, some from my neighbor’s beautiful natural backyard just up the slope from my backyard, others from who knows where. I wrestle with my field guides for ID’s, wracking my brains, then turn to my computer and download the terrific free guide from The Field Museum, Asters of the Chicago Wilderness Region. I page through Wilhelm and Rereicha’s Flora of the Chicago Region on the kitchen table for clues with clippings of asters by my side. I snap photos with the iNaturalist app on my phone. I slice and dice the data. Hairs along the stems—or not?  Remind me what “reticulate” means again? And how many ray florets? I count them, and squint at the stems and scribble notes.

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Are the white ones panicled asters? Or not?

Asters91419GEWM.jpgAdding to the confusion is that the aster names were changed after I first learned them.  Aster simplex, that memorable moniker, is now  Symphyotrichum lanceolatum. Quite a change. The old name tripped easily off my tongue. The new one? Not so much. Some naturalist call the re-classifications “The Aster Disaster.” No kidding. And what about the light purple asters? Some of the white varieties can also be “blue” or what I see as lavender.  Hmmm. There is plenty of variability, and even hints–whispered furtively–about hybridizing between species.

Wrote Edward Voss in his Michigan Flora: None of the wild plants have read their job descriptions, much less attempted to conform to them, and the student of Aster can expect exceptions to almost any statement in the key.” Ain’t it the truth.

The word “aster” is from the Greek, meaning “star.” I put down my field guides and turn off the apps and website links and take a moment to really look at my asters. Admire the pollinator traffic swarming the aster blooms.

Butterflies. Honeybees.

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Bumblebees. Even the flies, those overlooked pollinators, are fascinating in their own way.

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As I walk past the asters and pause by the prairie cordgrass, heavy with seedheads arcing out over the lawn…

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…I startle an eastern cottontail rabbit.

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She freezes. There have been far too many bunnies in the garden this summer for my taste. My vegetables and newly-planted prairie wildflowers? Their personal salad bar. I may never forgive the rabbits for eating my pricey Kankakee mallows. Munch munch. None-the-less, I can’t help but admire her soft fur, that perky cotton-ball tail. I take a step. She bounces gracefully away across the lawn, deep into the tallgrass.

At least I can name the rabbit with certainty–unlike most of the moths, many of the skippers, or the majority of the asters in my backyard.  I’m not giving up on those unknowns, however. After all, there are more field guides to be purchased, more web sites to explore, more conversations about taxonomy to be had with friends.

Tomorrow’s another day.

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The opening quote is from nature writer Robert Finch (1943–) in his book Common Ground: A Naturalist’s Cape Cod, from the chapter “Going to Seed.”  Common Ground was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction (1982). The writer Annie Dillard said, “Robert Finch is one of our finest observers.” Not a bad compliment.

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All photos and video clip copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on cut-and-come-again zinnia (Zinnia elegans), author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; large milkweed bugs  (Oncopeltus fasciatus) on butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) migrating in November, Jasper Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area, Medaryville, Indiana (photograph from a past season); red saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea onusta), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; red-legged grasshopper (Melanoplus femurrubrum); Peck’s skipper (Polites peckius) on black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) with Peck’s skipper (Polites peckius), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; the beautiful wood nymph moth (Eudryas grata), author’s front porch, Glen Ellyn, IL; the beautiful wood nymph moth (Eudrays grata), author’s front porch, Glen Ellyn, IL; unknown asters (Symphyotrichum spp.) with (possibly) green metallic sweat  bee (Augochloropsis metallica), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; unknown asters (Symphyotrichum spp.) with possibly the common eastern bumblebee (Bombus impatiens), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; possibly panicled asters (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; honeybee (Apis mellifera) on unknown asters (Symphyotrichum spp.), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; common green bottle fly (Lucilia sericata) on unknown aster (Symphyotrichum spp.), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; eastern cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

With thanks to Peggy Dunkert for the grasshopper motorcycle comparison, and kudos to The Field Museum’s “Aster’s of the Chicago Wilderness Region” and authors John Balaban and Rebecca Collings for the quote from Edward Vox.

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Cindy’s classes and events resume October 5.  Hope you’ll join me!

October 5, 8:30-11:30 a.m.: Prairie Habitats and Their Wildlife, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: Register by clicking here.

October 5-6, 4 p.m. until noon: Weekend Nature Retreat at The Morton Arboretum. I’ll be leading the journaling section for this overnight event.  Registration information is here.

October 11 — Cress Garden Club, Naperville: Dragonflies and Damselflies: The Garden’s Frequent Fliers at Cress Country Club, Naperville, IL (closed event)

October 18–Northern Kane Book Club — The Schulenberg Prairie  (closed event)

October 19–Second Annual Illinois Odonate Survey Meeting, Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, Chicago, IL. Cindy will be reading an essay “The Girl with the Dragonfly Tattoo” and co-leading a workshop on photographing dragonflies and damselflies.  Registration open to dragonfly monitors. More information here.