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Finding Hope in the November Prairie

“Do not go gentle into that good night…rage, rage against the dying of the light.”—Dylan Thomas

*****

November, shmo-vember.

Sure, a few hard-core “I love all months of the year” folks out there are going to give a high-five to November. But I’m going to come clean here.

I think November is the toughest month of the year.

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The elections are certainly a part of that.  I despise the mud-slinging, the he-said/she-said, the polarization of the world I find myself in today and the many places where hatred and suspicion are cultivated in public forums. I cast my vote early, feeling a bit like I do when I planted pasque flower seeds on the prairie this season. The odds seem long, but hope was there. The promise of something beautiful. Today, in November, there’s no sign of the pasque flowers.  But I haven’t given up hope. I’m trying to live in “prairie time.” Taking the long view.

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If you live in the Chicago region, our first few days of November have not been promising. Temperatures are cold enough to prompt extra blankets, but not cold enough for a Christmas card-worthy snowstorm.  Rain, desperately needed, came just in time to splash all the (finally) colorful autumn leaves off the trees. High winds decimated most of the rest of the foliage, which lies strewn across prairie trails like discarded party invitations.

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How do you feel about November? Does November give you the blues? If you’re tempted to hang up your hiking boots and sit this month out, here are five reasons to go outside and see the prairie this month. If you feel discouraged by the state of the world—or just discouraged by the month of November and all it brings—this hike’s for you.

1. The Good News About Bison

If you live in the Midwest, chances are you’re within driving distance of seeing bison on a prairie. In the Chicago region, I’m fortunate enough to have bison on three preserves within a two-hour driving distance. There’s something, well, reassuring about their sturdy presence, impervious to cold and rain amid the wind rippling the tallgrass in November. Bison remind me of  strength. Of continuity. Of hope. Here is a species that was almost extinct, and through the efforts of people who care, is now thriving again. We need this kind of inspiration, as the United Nations issued grim news about our natural world that made headlines this week. So hop in the car and drive to your nearest bison preserve. Bring a friend.  Feel your spirits lift?

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2. Encore Performances

Oddly enough, some native plants (and non-natives too!) put on a repeat bloom performance in November. To discover them is a bit of a bizarre scavenger hunt, worth traveling a trail or two to see what you can find. My backyard pond has pops of yellow right now; marsh marigolds which normally bloom in April are hosting a second-run performance. Other late bloomers in my prairie patch, like the obedient plant below, gave a last push of color against its deteriorating foliage this week. You can almost hear them whispering, “Do not go gentle into that good night… .”

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3. Cruising Without Guilt

I always feel a pang of remorse about driving around a natural area. After all, shouldn’t I be on foot, exploring trails, wading through wetlands looking for dragonflies, or sitting on top of a rocky knob, enjoying the breeze? Of course I want to hike this month. But in November, when pounding rain, wind gusts of 30 mph, and temps in the 40s are all in play, I can feel almost virtuous driving through a grassland, enjoying the views, without the shame that might normally accompany my gas-guzzling self. I’m outdoors! Sort of. Braving the elements.

Hey–turn the heater up, will you?

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4. Prairie Plants Take On New Personalities

In November, you can exercise your imagination to describe the familiar prairie plants of summer in new ways. Prairie dock, below, is my November favorite for its transition from flexible sandpaper-y green to a crackled surface. A little like those old decoupaged craft projects we did in the sixties; right down to the tiny beads of “glue.” Maybe you see a prairie dock leaf in November as an aerial view of Death Valley. Or perhaps you see the leaf as the back of an dry, aged hand, with pores, veins and tiny hairs. A mountain range, dotted with snow? Spiderwebs in the rain? Or? Go ahead, your turn!

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Other plants give up the above-ground life in tangled shoelaces slowly draining of color, a virtual jungle of still-green and long-past-the-sell-date leaves.

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And when is a square-stemmed plant not a mint? When it’s a cup plant! After focusing on the signature leaves and flowers of this vigorous, sometimes-aggressive native all summer, we get a good look at the scaffolding. Wonder what tiny critter made that hole?

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5. Those Spellbinding Seeds

It’s  almost worth facing November on the prairie to see how nature plans for the future. Diversity is on display in the form of prairie seeds in all colors, sizes, and shapes.

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Each seed is a possibility. The promise of restoration.

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I need that promise. You too? Of change, of hope, of restoration in the month of November. Especially on an election day, after another week of horrific shootings and dismal headlines. The prairie seeds remind me of all of those who have made a difference in the world. The stewards and site managers who are out there today, as you read this, cutting brush. Collecting seeds. Leading tours of the tallgrass. Painting prairie landscapes.

At the polls, voting to save our natural areas and fund them for the future.

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Doing their part to make sure change happens in the world.  Change doesn’t always come as quickly as we’d like. But the prairie reminds me—keep working toward restoring a  damaged world. It all starts with these small, simple actions that are ours to take.

“Do not go gentle into that good night…rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

You know, November isn’t so bad after all if it brings the opportunity of change—the hope of a better future—with it.  And at this point, I think I’ve talked myself into a hike. You too?

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Let’s go.

*****

Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) was a Welsh poet, whose lines that open this essay are from a poem of the same name. He told biographers he fell in love with words after learning nursery rhymes as a child. Thomas was a contemporary of T.S. Eliot, who helped bring him to the public’s attention as a very young man. Thomas was a high-school drop-out, an alcoholic, often homeless, hounded by creditors, and frequently cheated on his wife, Caitlin.  He died at age 39 from pneumonia, probably complicated by alcohol poisoning and drug use, and Caitlin was incarcerated for a time in an insane asylum. And yet—out of so much despair and damage—there are these beautiful poems. Click here to hear Thomas read Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.

****

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom):  Rice Lake-Danada, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Wheaton, IL; pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens or Anemone patens) in seed, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; red maple (Acer rubrum) leaves on the path, Kath Thomas’ prairie planting, Hinsdale, IL; bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; Stone Barn Road, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL: prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) and bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis) seeds, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: rosinweed  (Silphium integrifolium) seeds, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; Remic Ensweiller, prairie manager, leads a tour of the Russell Kirt Prairie at College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL; thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Hinsdale Prairie Remnant, Hinsdale, IL.

A Season of (Prairie) Change

“Change is inevitable—except from a vending machine.”  — Robert Gallagher

*****

When you think of change, how does it make you feel?  Excited? Confused? A sense of dread? Or, perhaps you feel as one of my adult natural history students does. She walked in on the second day of class, saw I had rearranged our seating, and her face fell. Annoyed, she grumbled: “I HATE change!”

Love it, hate it, try to ignore it—-change is inevitable (except as where noted in our opening quote). October smacks us with this fact, then teases us with changes in color and texture, sounds and scents. See-saw temperatures and strange weather phenomena.  Autumn is already flirting with winter here in the Chicago region. Hey, what happened to Fall? Where’s the transition?

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In my backyard, the first freeze of the season—-followed by an unexpected snowfall and high winds, with a side helping of graupel-–has put “paid” to the gardening account for the year.  Basil? Should have gotten out there to pick it last week. Too late now. The only tomatoes I’ll have onward are the ones I threw from my garden into my freezer, ready for chili and spaghetti sauce over the winter.  But I’m not quite ready to trade my iced coffee for hot. My short sleeves for sweaters. My long sunny days for short.

It doesn’t matter what I want.  Change is oblivious to my personal preferences. Ready or not, here the cold weather comes. My backyard prairie patch still sports a sizzle of asters but most of the zing has gone out of them. For the rest of the month, I’ll find pleasures in the structures; the white puffs of silk from Joe Pye weed and little bluestem; the contrasts of stem and seed.

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The rich tapestry of October is already hurtling toward the bleak starkness of November.

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Contrasts, I tell myself. Think about seasonal simplicity. A winter landscape free from distractions like wildflowers, or the dazzle of bright-colored birds in breeding plumage. It’s easier to focus in winter. Worthwhile to consider the forthcoming season as a time to reflect. I’ll catch up on my reading and  make my garden and prairie steward to-do lists for next year. I’ll scribble: Take out the honeysuckle coming into the north side of the prairie. Check pasque flower seeds—did they germinate? Try a new method to get rid of the birds-foot trefoil along Willoway Brook. Issue an ultimatum to the reed canary grass. Plan a teaching display garden at the Prairie Visitor Center. 

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The tallgrass is no stranger to transitions; the prairie dock leaves changing from chlorophyll green to brittle brown remind me of this. Change means possibilities. Gaining new perspectives on old problems. Transition seasons like October keep me  from getting too comfortable, too complacent in my routines. Mostly, this season means moving from doing to observing and reflection.

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Visible life drains from the supple juicy prairie plants, as the leaves crisp into new patterns and textures. The prairie slowly becomes something different. Kind of a Dorothy entering the land of OZ—but in reverse.

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The tallgrass has gone to seed; a blizzard of white silk in a sea of grass. The bison pull on their winter coats as autumnal cues signal winter ahead. As I watch the bison drift across the prairie in strong winds that toss the seedheads and swirl the grasses, I’m reminded, once again, why so much of the prairie literature compares tallgrass to the ocean. Bison NG 10-20-18WM.jpg

The prairie decrescendos. Butterflies? Dragonflies? Bright memories, mostly, although a few linger on.  Now that the last prairie wildflowers are mostly bloomed out, the solitary mated queen bumble bees are looking for their wintering sites, ready to out-last the coming cold until spring.  Just a month ago, the bumble bees amused me as they foraged in the gentians. I miss the bumble bees’ frenetic activity on the prairie. I guess I’ll have to content myself with listening to bumble bee-inspired music until spring.

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Meanwhile, bird activity has stepped up to fill in the insect gaps. Migrating flocks move through, stripping the backyard birdfeeders; invasive starlings perform their choreography each day, schooling across the skies in black particles like those old Etch-a-Sketch tablet drawings. Eerily beautiful.  Pert chickadees rap out their signature songs. Canada geese drag chains of “V’s” across the slanted light of October skies. Everything seems a little surreal; a little otherworldly.

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The warblers have done their autumn clothes shopping and appear at my bird feeders in disguise. Even the goldfinches have taken on the color of olive oil. Remember when they were a dazzling yellow?

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Crows ink their way around the prairie, a welcome sight after the dramatic population decline of a decade or so ago due to West Nile virus.  I never thought much about crows until they disappeared for a few years, then rebounded. The prairie skies were emptier for their absence.

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As the earth tilts toward the winter solstice, the prairie puzzle pieces rearrange themselves into new images. I give myself a pep talk. Change can be positive. Why not invite it in, rather than resist it?

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If nothing else, I can say that the changes October brings keep me on my toes as I try to  pay attention. Notice the change of light; the ebb and flow of the community of the natural world. Listen to the hush of grasses bending in the strong winds, and the tap-tap-tap of the first snowflakes pelting the prairie. Breathe in occasional bursts of the metallic tang of cold prairie air, beginning to replace the scent of autumn decay.

October is a post-it note to myself: Embrace change. Enjoy each moment as it comes. After all, without change, life would be pretty predictable and stale.

And who wants that?

****

Robert C. Gallagher, whose quote opens this post, is a sportswriter and author of The Express: The Ernie Davis Story. He lives in Virginia.

All photographs and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom) road marking transition from agriculture to prairie, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Franklin Grove, IL; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  tree line and prairie transition at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; skies over the Schulenberg Prairie in October, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) leaf, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bluebird house on the prairie, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bison (Bison bison) in October, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Franklin Grove, IL; unknown bumblebee (Bombus) in cream gentian (Gentiana flavida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; goldfinch (Spinus tristis) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; October skies, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy Illinois, Franklin Grove, IL; bison corral gates, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy of Illinois, Franklin Grove, IL.

A September Prairie Soaking

“Life is one big transition.”– Willie Stargell

******

Thunder rattles the windows. Up north, tornado warning sirens blare. The news broadcasts footage of holiday passengers wading across flooded roads to get to O’Hare Airport, thinking only of returning home.

The deluge continues.

At last, in the early evening, a short break in the precipitation gives me time to go for a walk. I head to the prairie to check conditions.

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Trail puddles are necklaced with black walnut leaves, pulled loose from their tentative moorings by the pounding rain.

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A ruby-throated hummingbird shelters from the weather in an oak along the path. Just like the passengers at O’Hare, the thunderstorms have put a crimp in this bird’s travel plans.

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The hummingbirds are migrating. In my backyard, they wage fierce battles over the single feeder filled with sugar water, placed tantalizingly over the butterfly weed and little bluestem. The hummers are driven by instinct. Powered by nectar—or in the case of my backyard birds—faux nectar. In a few weeks, they’ll disappear completely; their entertaining antics only a memory.

On the prairie, the sun breaks through the clouds. The tall Indian grasses, with their lingering raindrops, become crystal-hung chandeliers.

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For a moment. Despite the glitter and bling of raindrops catching sunlight, the prairie still seems dark. Subdued.  The beginning of September is always a bit melancholy.  Perhaps it’s the lowering slant of light; shorter days, longer nights. Just some of the many signals Mother Nature sends her creatures that colder weather is on the way.

For migrating dragonflies—green darners, black saddlebags, wandering gliders, and others—those signals mean GO! GO! GO! They’ve massed together, then zipped away to warmer climes this past week. Their remaining kin, bedraggled and shopworn, are left to face the coming cold.

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The end-of-the-season butterflies I’ve seen this week are a study in contrasts. A few are bright and freshly emerged. Like this newly-minted American painted lady. Crisply colored, with unblemished wings, she’s probably the Midwest’s late season generation of her species.

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Oddly enough, according to University of Florida, instead of making a southward journey, American painted ladies, or “American ladies” as they are sometimes called, “overwinter in the southern U.S. and repopulate more northern areas each spring.” The report tells us the northern limit of their overwintering is unknown. Is Illinois too cold? Probably. Apparently, “in north central Florida, American ladies migrate northward during the spring, but there is no significant southward migration in the fall.” Why not, I wonder?

So much mystery!

This great spangled fritillary butterfly is only a bit worse for wear after the summer’s adventures.

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Perhaps it doesn’t have the worries of a cross-continental trip on its mind. Just nectaring, nectaring, nectaring until the cold weather sets in. That’s what thistles are for, right?

But this evening, on the rain-drenched prairie, there isn’t much butterfly—or dragonfly—movement. Both likely shelter in the rain-glazed trees…

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…or nestle deep in the big bluestem and grasses.

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Thunder rumbles. The clouds sweep in.

It’s Mother Nature’s signal to me! Go!

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The first raindrops splatter the trail. Tonight, the local news broadcast will tell us this was the Chicago region’s wettest Labor Day on record.  But the September rain, no matter flooding and postponed picnics, has its purpose.  It nourishes the prairie and its creatures for the last months of the prairie season.  Gives a last boost to the goldenrods and asters, needed by monarchs on their long migratory journey south to Mexico. Coaxes the gentians to open, fresh and vibrant in the grasses.

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The passage from summer to autumn is bittersweet. But the prairie knows how to ease the transition. Butterflies. Gentians. The daily surprises of migration.

Even thunderstorms.

*****

The opening quote is from Baseball Hall of Famer, Wilver “Willie” Stargell (1940-2001), who played his entire 21-year professional baseball career for the Pittsburgh Pirates (1962-82). During his farm club years, he was harassed, threatened at gunpoint, and denied lodging because of his race in many of the towns where he played. Stargell, an African-American, was tempted to quit. He persevered to become one of the most beloved players in the game. Stargell is one of only five players to hit a home run out of Dodger Stadium, and is known for his long-distance home runs. Said Cincinnati Reds second baseman Joe Morgan upon Stargell’s death, “He never made anyone look bad, and he never said anything bad about anybody.” A good way to be remembered.

****

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): video clip of rainfall, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; thunderstorm approaching the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  rain-drenched path, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) in the rain, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Halloween pennant dragonfly (Celithemis eponina) at the end of the season, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; American painted lady (Vanessa virginiensis), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; great spangled fritillary (Speyeria cybele) on pasture thistle, (Cirsium discolor), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; trees on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) with raindrops, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: bridge to the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie gentians (Gentiana puberulenta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Thinking in “Prairie Time”

“The strongest of all warriors are these two — Time and Patience.” — Leo Tolstoy

******

It’s a hot day for our prairie team to clear the main visitor trail.  The 90-plus humid mornings and torrential rains have resulted in lush vegetation. The path? Forbidding, overgrown. Visitors walk up to the trail entrance and turn away, put off by the idea of bushwhacking. Who would blame them? Trail clearing is overdue.

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For hours, volunteers work at a snail’s pace, bent over, carefully clipping back wildflowers and grasses to make an accessible path. At the end of the muggy, hot morning, it’s finally time to quit.

“Gosh, that was fun!” said one volunteer, cheerfully, drenched with sweat. Fun? 

She must have seen the look on my face, because she added, “Every week, when we pull weeds, I feel like I don’t see any results.  Sometimes, it seems like years on the prairie pass before we see any progress at all! But when we clear the trail, it’s instant gratification.”

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It’s true.  Instant gratification is unusual in the tallgrass. Sure, once in a while, a brush cutting day or big garlic mustard pull can yield tangible results. When we collect seeds of some prolific grasses or wildflowers, like pale purple coneflower, we have some momentary satisfaction. palepurpleconeflowerWM818

But the time it takes to develop a healthy, functioning prairie community—with all its associated insects, birds, and plants—is the work of decades, if not a lifetime.

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Thinking in “prairie time” requires recalibration of everything society primes us for. Post something on social media? Instantly, “Like! Like! Like!” follows. Too busy to cook? Drive-through restaurant windows put hot food in your hands in minutes. Not so on the prairie. On one tallgrass site where I am a steward supervisor, we battle an agricultural weed called sweet clover. I’ve pulled clover there for 15 years, and I’ve never seen an end to it. For the first time this season, the battle seems almost over. Because of this, our team was able to turn our attention to some other invaders. Giant ragweed. Curly dock. And lately, Japanese hedge parsley, which looks a lot like Queen Anne’s lace.

I’ve been pulling the Queen Anne’s lace from my backyard prairie this month as well, especially around a second-year planting that includes Kankakee mallow. For years, I’d admired it on the prairie….KankakeeMallowspma818wm copy

…and coveted it for my own backyard prairie plot. I found it at a local garden center specializing in natives. The first season, I had a few blooms. Beautiful!

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This year, the bunnies nipped it back until all I had were short, leafy stalks.

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Disappointing. But, as I often remind myself, thinking in “prairie time” is mostly about patience. Same with the cardinal flowers. That flaming color! I always anticipate it. Some summers, my pond and wet prairie has an abundance of screaming scarlet. The hummingbirds go wild! Then, thecardinalflowerCROSBYbackyard81318wm next season, the flowers disappear.

 

Ah, well. Wait until next year.

The prairie reminds me to think in terms of years, not just the immediate.  But, ironically, the prairie also reminds me that every moment is precious.  I know to stop and admire the wildflowers which change from day to day…

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… or pause in my work to marvel at a gathering of swallows, swooping and diving….

 

…or linger at Clear Creek to enjoy the bright blue of a springwater dancer damselfly.  If I rush off, thinking “I’ll look at that next time I’m here,” there is often no “next time.” I miss the moment.

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Then I think of “prairie time” as these moments; small snapshots of color and light and motion I can carry with me in my memory.

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How elastic time is! How odd it is, as well. Something we move through without conscious thought most days. Yet, how treasured time should be.  As I grow older, the idea of time has taken on new meaning. Want to aggravate me? Say you are “killing time!” Time is much too precious to waste.

The prairie teaches me different ways to think about time. It reminds me that the long-term results are worth forgoing instant gratification.  It also prompts me to remember the importance of paying attention to the moment—the fleeting nature of time. Two very different ways to understand the how I’m spending my life.

Two ways of thinking about living in “prairie time.”

***

Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) is a Russian writer who is widely regarded as one of the finest to ever wield a pen. The opening quote is from his 1869 epic, War and Peace. He believed in passive resistance; his ideas were said to have influenced Martin Luther King Junior and Gandhi. War and Peace is thought to be one of the great novels in literature; its title has passed into colloquial use. Tolstoy had a rather tumultuous life; he was excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church, and his marriage to his wife, Sophia, was generally considered to be desperately unhappy. They had 13 children, only eight of which survived to adulthood. Tolstoy died of pneumonia at 82.

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL;  pale purple coneflower seedheads (Echinacea pallida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Kankakee mallow (Iliamna remota) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Kankakee mallow (Iliamna remota) author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; Kankakee mallow  (Iliamna remota) author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) and sweet Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; video of barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) congregating on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; springwater dancer damselfly, male (Argia plana), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Prairie All-Stars

“In baseball, you don’t know nothing’.” — Yogi Berra

***

If there’s one thing you learn on a prairie, it’s that the more you begin to know about the bugs, blooms, and grasses, the less you realize you know. And the more you realize you don’t know, the more you want to know about what you don’t know.

Whew.

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Bees, for instance. They’ve always been flying around, sort buzzing in the background of the prairie. But not on my radar. Until I started paying attention to bees this season. This one turned up as I was wading a stream this week, looking for dragonflies. At least—I think this is a bee. Interesting “raft!”

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I looked up, hip-deep in creek water, hoping to see the former owner of the feather.  The only bird in sight was this kingfisher. Hmmm…doesn’t seem to match.

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Back to the bees. Or is this a bee look-alike? I look at the markings on the head, the tuft of fur behind the, um—neck? Is that the right term?—and the patterns as seen from topside. I still am unsure. So many native bees and non-native bees! So many bee look-alikes! The mind boggles.

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The sunflower this bee is busily investigating is the woodland sunflower, Helianthus divaricatus. At least, I think that’s what the flower is. Does anyone else find the sunflower family confusing? Later, I asked the bee researcher, who was shoulder-deep in the sunflowers, if he knew which species it was. He shrugged.

Made me feel better.

So many All-Star prairie wildflowers.

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And don’t get me started on the skippers. For my birthday this month, my wonderful husband gave me a terrific pair of close-focus binoculars and an out-of-print guide to Illinois skippers—all 59 local species. They’ve both helped. But even the skippers on the prairie seem astonished by their own complexity.

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Silver-spotted skipper? I think so. The field guide says they are pretty common. But it’s going to take me a while to get a handle on the skippers and butterflies in my little corner of the world. At least there is no “question” about the identity of this beautiful butterfly.

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This week, I’m teaching “Dragonfly and Damselfly ID.” It’s guaranteed to be an exercise in humility. No matter how many of the dragonfly and damselfly species that I know—and I’ve learned quite a few over the past 13 years as a monitor—it’s a good bet there will be some oddball that shows up and doesn’t fit any description of a damselfly I’ve seen before. The meadowhawks are particularly confusing at this time of year. This one below is likely an autumn meadowhawk because of the yellowish legs.

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Likely. I’m pretty sure—at least, I think that’s what she is. However, there are red meadowhawk dragonflies zipping all over the prairie, and their immature counterparts which are yellow-ish, and the females which are sort of gold, and it all begins to blend together. Their red counterparts are even more confusing. Cherry-faced meadowhawk? Ruby meadowhawk? White-faced?

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I think I see some reflected amber patches on the leaf. So I check the field guide— most of the red meadowhawks have them. My “unknown meadowhawk dragonfly” column on my data sheet is getting bigger each week.

For my class, I’ll hope for the old familiar favorites, like the male calico pennants with their row of luscious red “hearts” in a row down their abdomen.

Unmistakable.

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And back to those wildflowers. Wow! They keep me up at night, flipping through plant ID websites, dipping into Flora of the Chicago Region, trying to understand what it is that I’m seeing and how it fits into the community we call prairie. Nachusa Grasslands, where I’m a dragonfly monitor, has more than 700 plant species! How do you wrap your head around that?

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What a beautiful problem to have, isn’t it? So many “All-Stars” on the prairie. So much to discover. Whenever I get frustrated at all there is to learn about in the tallgrass—and marvel that I’ve learned anything at all—I take a moment to sit on the bridge over Willoway Brook and be quiet.  Clear my head.

As I reflect, I realize what I don’t know doesn’t matter as much as showing up. Listening. Thinking about what I see.

Being there.

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Lawrence Peter (Lorenzo Pietro) “Yogi Berra” (1925-2015) was an 18-time All-Star professional baseball catcher, coach, and manager. He was part of teams that won the World Series 10 times—more World Series wins than any other professional baseball player to date. Berra and his wife Carmen were married for 65 years which is another great record. He is known for his paradoxical sayings such as the one that begins this post. Check out more “Yogi Berra-isms” here, and find a smile for your day because, as he says, “It ain’t over until it’s over.” And, remember, Berra also told us, “I never said most of the things I said.”

All photos and video clip copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): July at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bee on a feather, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon) over Clear Creek, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; unknown bee on woodland sunflower (Helianthus divaricatus), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; July wildflowers, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; silver-spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; question mark (Polygonia interrogationis), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; autumn meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum vicinum), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; unknown meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; calico pennant dragonfly (male) (Celithemis elisa) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Nachusa Grasslands in July, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; video clip of bridge over Willoway Brook in July, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Ten Reasons to Hike the July Prairie

“The article-as-numbered-list has several features that make it inherently captivating… there’s little that our brains crave more than effortlessly acquired data.”–Maria Konnikova

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Dishes are piled in the sink. Freelance work needs completed; evinced by piles of paper and notes everywhere. Unread library books, now overdue, rattle around in the back seat of my Honda. My to-do list now spans several pages.

What to tackle first? None of these. Time to go for a prairie hike. Here are 10 reasons why:

#10: July’s prairie bouquets. Combine gray-headed coneflower, wild bergamot, and the various white prairie wildflowers. Result? Spectacular.

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#9. The mesmerizing sounds of a prairie stream. This stream at Nachusa Grasslands was linked to a beaver pond until the beavers abandoned it last season. In only a year, the changes in the landscape are impressive.

 

 

 

#8. Unbelievably beautiful butterflies float the July prairie, like this black tiger swallowtail.

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Sometimes you get a bonus: a double dose of fritillaries.

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#7. Summer is all about springwater damselflies. This one’s a male.

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#6. July is a great time to see different species of blazing star wildflowers in bud…

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…and in bloom.

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#5. Compass plants send their profusion of periscope blooms across the prairie.

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#4. The delightful freckled wild horsemint is reason enough to hike the prairie right now. I think the flowers look like the circus came to town. What do they remind you of?

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#3. Those July blues…blue vervain, that is. Almost purple, isn’t it?

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#2. Signs of hope are everywhere. But especially here.

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#1. And everywhere you look on the July prairie is the promise of future adventures.

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My to-do list will still be there when I return home. But the July prairie won’t wait. Every day is different. Every day is full of surprises. When I look back on how I spent this day….

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…I won’t have any regrets.

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The opening quote is from Maria Konnikova, whose article “A List of Reasons our Brains Love Lists”  from The New Yorker explains these little scraps of paper I have laying around everywhere. Check it out.

All of the photos and the video clip this week are from Nachusa Grasslands, a Nature Conservancy site in Franklin Grove, IL, except the compass plants from Fermilab as noted (top to bottom): gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata), wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), and various white wildflowers; old beaver pond turned stream; black swallowtail butterfly (Papilio polyxenes);  two meadow fritillary butterflies (Boloria bellona)–thanks Doug Taron for ID help; springwater dancer damselfly (Argia plana); rough blazing star in bud (Liatris aspera) ; blazing star in bloom (Liatris spp.); compass plants (Silphium laciniatum) at Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; horsemint (Monarda punctata villicualis); blue vervain (Verbena hastata); monarch (Danaus plexippus) on swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata); gravel two-track through the July prairie; prairie in my Honda’s rear view mirror.

Prairie Walking

“The path is made in the walking of it.” — Zhuangzi

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On one side of my desk are precarious stacks of hiking books. Next to them is a list of more books on walking that I’ve lost or loaned out over the years, and now need to beg, borrow, or buy. As I prep for a talk on “Great Hikes in Literature” in a few weeks I already feel a bit overwhelmed by the amount of books on this topic. Books on the Appalachian Trail. Books on the Pacific Crest Trail. Tomes on hiking through America, Alaska, Great Britain, Australia. Fictional quests by the hobbit Frodo for the “one ring to rule them all. ” Children on walking adventures in “The Chronicles of Narnia.” Not to mention all the one-off essays compiled in outdoorsy collections.

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At the core of these books are central themes: We hike to try to understand something about ourselves. We hike to work through grief, loss, or pain. We hike to make a statement or protest. We hike to find a spiritual dimension in our lives. We hike to challenge our idea of what our limits are. We hike to understand more about the world around us. We go on quests! We hike when we’ve lost our way.

When life falls apart, we go for a walk.

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And sometimes, we just feel the urge to put one foot in front of the other. For as long as it takes. For as far as we can go.

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When my two kids were teenagers and I was cranky and out of sorts, they’d look at each other knowingly. “Mom, did you go for your walk on the prairie today?” Often the answer was “no!” They could see the difference that a simple hike made.

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Now, my children are grown and have children of their own. But I still find that hiking is as necessary to me as breathing.  There is something about walking that stimulates creativity, lowers stress levels, and opens us to different perspectives. Besides, going for a walk is a time honored tradition!  You can’t help but think of that oft-quoted line from John Muir: “I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”

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My first big solo hike was 30-plus miles. As I prepared to leave, a friend told me—“I could never do that! How can you be alone with your thoughts for so long?” True words. The greatest enemy of a long solo hike is not fear. It’s listening to your life, without the distractions and white noise that our everyday work pressures and social life mask.

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Today, I’m hiking the prairie as an observer. Not much of a personal agenda. For those who love wildflowers, I would argue that there is no better month than July to see a wash of electric color across the tallgrass prairies. Lately, drenching rains have alternated with baking heat. It’s brought forth a bevvy of blooms.

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Few people visit the prairie this month because of the high temperatures, humidity, and bugs. It’s true these are issues. Whenever I check the weather report before I go for a walk, I get the same posting. “EXTREME MOSQUITO ACTIVITY.” Well, whatever. That’s what mosquito headnets are for, right?

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The dragonflies, like this widow skimmer below, appreciate the clouds of mosquitoes in a way I never will. Probably much as we enjoy a mecca of restaurants spread out along the freeway to choose from on our travels.

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These past few weeks, me and my prairie volunteers are busy collecting seeds. Many of the early spring blooming plants have seeds that are ripe and ready. It’s not easy to find the shooting star seed capsules or cream wild indigo pods under the burgeoning grasses. So green, lush, and high! At the end of a work morning, our backs ache from stooping and searching. Today,  I spot some prairie parsley seeds. I pull some, and leave the ones that aren’t quite ready.

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I pop the ripe seeds into my shirt pocket. Later I’ll put them in a brown paper bag, label it, and leave it in the cool, dark tool room for our staff. Ready to reseed a new prairie restoration. The dry seeds rattling around in my pocket feel like hope for the future.

Our pasque flower seeds, collected earlier this season, are in the greenhouse now. We cross our fingers and hope that these notoriously difficult to grow seeds will germinate. If they do, we’ll plant them on the prairie next spring. It’s difficult to remember the joy I felt at the pasque flower’s pale lavender blooms back in April. The first of its delicate color on the prairie. Now, in July, the prairie is profligate with pops of purple. I appreciate this haze of bright color in a different way than I did the pasque flower’s more subtle hues earlier in the season.

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Walking the tallgrass trails in the high humidity, I notice that the air is saturated with the smell of common milkweed. Surely one of the most underrated fragrances in the natural world! A little prairie aromatherapy.

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The pink of the common milkweed is more pastel and subdued than the July sunsets, which lean toward the color of neon flamingo yard ornaments. These sunsets grow more brilliant each evening.

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The crickets and cicadas tune up in the dwindling light as I finish my hike. The temperature drops. I think of the sunset to come and feel peaceful. Quiet.

My prairie walks this week aren’t anything epic. They are over in an hour or so, unlike the quests and hundreds-of-miles hikes I’ll be teaching about in a few weeks. I’m not counting my steps, nor am I challenging myself to see how far I can go, or grieving anything particular. But these short hikes are a good reminder of some of the many reasons why we walk.

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To try and know ourselves. To pay attention. To look for signs of hope. And to continue to marvel at the delights and complexity of the natural world.

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Zhuangzi is an ancient Chinese writer, who is credited with many parables and sayings. “Zhuangzi” also refers to Chinese text by the same name (476-221 BC) which contains fables and quotes such as the one opening this blog post. The idea of spontaneous, carefree walking is a common theme among these writings.

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Love to hike? Or do you enjoy reading about epic walks from the comfort of your easy chair? I’ll be leading a lecture and discussion called “Great Hikes in Literature” at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL on Sunday afternoon, August 5, 2018. Click here to register: Great Hikes in Literature. Hope to see you there!

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): stack of “great walks” books, author’s desk, Glen Ellyn, IL; rocky knob, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) bloom, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera) on Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bottlebrush grass (Elymus hystrix), Schulenberg Prairie savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; the Schulenberg Prairie in mid-July, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie cinquefoil (Drymocallis arguta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea) with widow skimmer (Libellula luctuosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie parsley (Polytaenia nuttallii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunset, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; pearl crescent butterfly (Phyciodes tharos), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.