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September Prairie Reflections

“Happily we bask in this warm September sun, which illumines all creatures… .” –Henry David Thoreau

***

That certain slant of light.

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The fierce blank blue brightness of a cloudless sky.

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The scrabble of motion on (so it seems) every leaf and grass blade.

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September moves in and sets up housekeeping on the prairie. It’s a month that seems obsessed with metallics. Gold sawtooth sunflowers.

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Rusts of aged prairie dock leaves.

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Drifts of every possible variation of silver, gold, copper and pewter.

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September brings with it sharp contrasts: bright seeds of Jack in the pulpit in primary colors…

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Softest airbrushed pastels of prairie dropseed.

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Summer-only tallgrass residents are shopworn, like tourists who have overstayed their welcome. The non-migrating dragonflies look a bit bedraggled; their season about to end.

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Monarchs and hummingbirds are already on their way south; other birds like this green heron won’t be far behind.

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October is only a few weeks away. But for now, it’s enough to pause and enjoy the season. Soak up its diversity of sound, motion, and colors.

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Reflect on where we find ourselves.

Read the pages of the September prairie without missing a word.

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Then, prepare for the next chapter.

***

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), whose words begin this essay, is best known for his book Walden.

***

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): unknown insect on bur marigold (Bidens cernua), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  cloudless sky, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; praying mantis (Mantis religiosa) in the tallgrass, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sawtooth sunflower (Helianthus grosseserratus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) leaf, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Nachusa Grasslands in September, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  Jack in the pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) seeds, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; prairie dropseed (Sporabolus heterolepis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white-faced meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum obtrusum), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; green heron (Butorides virescens), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; reflection of black walnut (Juglans nigra) leaves turning gold in Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; reading in the tallgrass, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

Thanks to Susan Kleiman for her help with plant ID.

The Turn of a Prairie Page

“All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy…”  – Anatole France

***

August takes her last breath.  Insects stitch together the transitions between daylight and dark. When we open our bedroom windows to welcome the cooler air at night, their high-pitched chorus lull us to sleep. ZZZzzz.

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Mornings in Illinois take on a clean, cold feel. A sudden drop into the 40s at night prods us to reach for our jackets; we don’t know how to dress for the day ahead anymore. Layers. We add a sweater, peel it off by 10 a.m.

September is so close you can feel it. Time to turn the seasonal page.

The blue gentians bloom at last. They’re a specialty reserved for autumn’s introduction. A trumpet blast of jewel-like color.

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In my backyard, sandwiched between suburban houses, the prairie patch puts out a few, tentative asters. Joe Pye weed blooms brown up.

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I find my new Kankakee mallow plant stalks, grown from expensive plant plugs this spring, abruptly cut in half by sharp bunny teeth this morning.  Will they survive the winter? Maybe. Or maybe not.

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A lone cardinal flower still blooms in one of the wetter places in the yard…

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…and close beside it, the great blue lobelia are at their best, pumping out bright blue  around the pond with the promise of more flowers to come.

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Each day, I watch a few more new England asters slowly unfurl their purple fringed blooms on the prairie.

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Little bluestem is prominent now, blizzarding the prairie with rusts and tufts of snowy white.

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Hummingbirds, driven by the migration impulse, battle over my dew-drenched feeder each morning. They fuel up on whatever wildflowers they can find in my backyard prairie, then zip away, always moving south.

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Love it or moan about it: Autumn always brings with it a sense of our own mortality. The great rush of plant growth is over. It’s replaced with the Earth’s concern for legacy. The plants push each other over in their exuberance to crank out seeds, seeds, more seeds.

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The community of the prairie transforms. Soon, it will be dry grasses and seedheads rustling in an increasingly chill breeze. Widow skimmer dragonflies perch around prairie ponds, anticipating this. They watch other dragonfly species begin to migrate. But no trip to the south for them. They await the tipping point that ends their season.

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What will the autumn bring? Beauty of its own kind, yes. But now, at the tail end of summer, we feel a bit melancholy.

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The prairie promises a new chapter. Who can tell what it will bring? We remind ourselves: the best days may lie ahead. It’s up to us to accept change. And to embrace it.

****

Jacques Anatole Thibault, known by his pseudonym, Anatole France (1844-1924) was a Nobel Prize-winning French novelist, poet, and journalist–in fact, there are few genres of literature he did not attempt in his writings. Not surprising to learn that his father was a bookseller and he grew up surrounded by books. One of my favorite quotes by France: “Never lend books, for no one ever returns them; the only books I have in my library are books that other folks have lent me.”

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): unknown grasshopper on wild Canada rye seedhead (Elymus canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  prairie gentians (Gentiana puberulenta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; interior of prairie gentian (Gentiana puberulenta ), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  purple Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; Eastern cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus floridanus), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), author’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), author’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium ), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) at the feeder, author’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; wild Canada rye (Elymus canadensis) seedheads, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; widow skimmer dragonfly (Libellula luctuosa), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Schulenberg Prairie at the end of August, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

An August Prairie Hike

“On the brink of a shining pool, O Beauty, out of many a cup, You have made me drunk and wild, Ever since I was a child… .” —from “August Moonrise” by Sara Teasdale

****

Take a walk with me. Let’s see what’s happening in the tallgrass in August.

Pink gaura, that tall prairie biennial that goes unnoticed until it bursts into bloom, shows its shocking color for the first time all season. Where have you been hiding? You wonder.

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White goldenrod underpins the grasses; its common name an oxymoron.

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Violet sorrel flowers glow low in the grass. They’ve decided to put on a second flush of blooms this season. Applause!

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Lavender obedient plant spikes across the prairie. Move each bloom around the stem and it stays where you put it; thus the name. Better than a fidget spinner!

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Have you noticed the green caterpillar-ish seeds clinging to your shirt, your pants, and your socks as you walk? Tick trefoil, that hitchhiker of the August prairie, is guaranteed to show up in your laundry room for the next several months. A souvenir of your time in the tallgrass.

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Deep in the prairie wetlands…

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…a slender spreadwing damselfly perches. Its wings appear spider-web delicate. But they are seriously strong. Deceptively so.

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A bullfrog cools its heels in the shallows…

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…while nearby, a bronze copper butterfly snaps her wings open and shut.

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So much to see on the prairie in August.

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But don’t wait too long to look.

Autumn is on the way.

****

The opening lines in this blogpost are from the poem, “August Moonrise,” by Sara Teasdale (1884 –1933). Teasdale, a native of St. Louis, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1918 for her poetry collection, Love Songs. Many of her poems have been set to music. She committed suicide at age 49.

***

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): biennial gaura (Gaura biennis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white goldenrod (Oligoneuron album), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; violet wood sorrel (Oxalis violacea), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana), Schulenberg Prairie, The  Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Illinois tick trefoil (Desmodium illinoense), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wetlands, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; male slender spreadwing damselfly (Lestes rectangularis ), Nomia Meadows Farm, Franklin Grove, IL; American bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus or Rana catesbeianabronze copper butterfly (Lycaena hyllus), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; August prairie, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL. 

Cardinal Rules on the Prairie

“The contours and colors of words are inseparable from the feelings we create in relation to situations, to others, and to places.” — Robert MacFarlane

***

Cardinal rules on the prairie in early August… that is, cardinal flower rules. Suddenly, she mysteriously appears in the wetlands. Pops up beside the ponds. Strikes scarlet poses throughout the wet prairie.

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Her spiky raceme of racy red is unmistakable.

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Swallowtail butterflies like her. The hummingbirds approve. In my backyard prairie patch and pond they hover, drawn to that screaming scarlet. Come closer, the red flowers seem to entice the hummers. Wait until you see how sweet we taste.

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Read the field guide descriptions. Showy. There’s talk about her corollas, those lips! Juicy. Moist-loving. Look again. You can’t not think of a tube of bright red lipstick; maybe a mid-life crisis sports car. This is a sensual flower, make no mistake about it.

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Read on. This plant is “temperamental.” Her ecological value to wildlife is categorized as low. But really, who would expect something so ravishing to be useful as well as beautiful?

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Although… some Native American tribes found cardinal flower roots and flowers important in the making of love charms. The ground-up roots were slipped into food to end arguments and as an anti-divorce remedy. Fitting, perhaps, for a flower so striking, to have these supposed powers.

The prairie is not prodigious with its reds. Sure, there is a little royal catchfly sprinkled around. But not a whole lot else that’s scarlet. Purples?

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Oh my, everywhere from spring to fall. White — plenty of it. Yellows?

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The prairie seems to always have something yellow going on. Blue has a voice in August.

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Pinks. Yup.

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Even pink with a little orange thrown in for good measure.

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But red… now, that’s special.

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In my backyard, the cardinal flower is elusive. Some years it blooms. Others, it disappears and I wonder. Is it gone for good? This August, just as I gave up, a few bright spots appeared around the pond.  I breathed a sigh of relief.

Because what would August be in the wet prairie without those splashes of scarlet?

****

The opening quote is from Robert MacFarlane’s (1976-) Landmarks, a book that explores the critical importance of naming the natural world.  Read a review of Landmarks here.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis), Nomia Meadow Farm, Franklin Grove, IL; cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), Nomia Meadows Farm, Franklin Grove, IL; cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis) , Nomia Meadows Farm, Franklin Grove, IL; cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), Nomia Meadows Farm, Franklin Grove, IL; cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis,) Nomia Meadows Farm, Franklin Grove, IL: blue vervain (Verbena hastata), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; woodland sunflower (Helianthus divarcatus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), Nomia Meadows Farm, Franklin Grove, IL; bee and swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), Nomia Meadows Farm, Franklin Grove, IL; Joe Pye weed  (Eutrochium purpureum) with viceroy butterfly (Limenitus archippus) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) and cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis), Nomia Meadows Farm, Franklin Grove, IL.

Special thanks to John and Lisa Marie Ayres for permission to photograph Nomia Meadows Farm and its restored prairies and wetlands. If you haven’t stayed at their Bed and Breakfast, please take a look: Lincoln Way Inn Bed & Breakfast, Franklin Grove, IL. The most beautiful B&B I’ve ever stayed in; some lovely prairie-themed rooms.

Factual information and some good reading about the cardinal flower came from here: Illinois Wildflowers.

Ethnobotanical information on the cardinal flower is from page 312 of Native American Ethnobotany by Daniel Moerman (Timber Press). Fabulous book! Check it out.

August’s Opening Day on the Prairie

“The first week of August hangs at the very top of the summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning.” Natalie Babbitt

***

You can feel summer pause for a moment, catch its breath.

July is over.

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August is here.

The fireflies wink their Morse Code at night. On. Off. On. Off. They’re abundant this summer. People talk about it, wonder out loud. Speculate: “I haven’t seen this many fireflies since I was a kid. Must have been the wet spring? Maybe all the rain?”

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The fireflies light up the yard, the old field by the railroad tracks, the parks after dark.  Listen! The soundtrack for the fireflies is the buzz saw and hum of the invisible cicadas, crickets, and other fiddling insects tuning up in the dark.

 

We sit on the back porch and watch the fireflies twinkle in the prairie patch. Remember catching them as kids? The mason jars with a bit of grass tucked in and holes punched in the lids. Fireflies. We’ll enjoy them while they last.

On the bigger prairies, the more delicate wildflowers back off a bit as the grasses push themselves skyward and elbow them out of the way.

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Some of the heavyweight bloomers are tough enough to compete with the grasses:  stocky cup plant, rough-and-tumble rosin weed,  bristly compass plant.

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The curiously smooth prairie dock stems throw periscopes of flowers across the prairie eight feet high.  Its fists of blooms uncurl at last. They vie with the compass plants for supremacy.

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If it wasn’t for its eye-popping purple color, you might miss the low-growing prairie poppy mallows.

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Also short but eye-catching is the bright white whorled milkweed. Doesn’t look much like milkweed at first glance, but check out the individual flowers. Yes! That’s milkweed, all right.

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The bison move slower in the heat, graze a little, then look for a shady spot to cool off. The spring babies are getting bigger. They seem to put on weight as you watch.

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The prairie ponds shimmer under the August sun. July rains have filled them to overflowing. Dragonflies fly across the water in a frenzy. It’s now or never for laying eggs to make future generations happen. Everywhere, it seems, there are insect hook ups; winged romance on the fly.

The purple and white prairie clover has gone to seed and created perches for the eastern amberwing dragonflies.

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Blue dashers, too.

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The wings and bodies of the widow skimmer dragonflies take on a blue-ish powdery look that indicates age, called “pruinosity.” Old age, for a dragonfly, is a matter of weeks. If they are lucky, a few months. And with age and pruinosity, the widow skimmers become more beautiful.

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Flowering spurge has gone crazy this summer.

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It fills in the spaces between the grasses like baby’s breath in an FTD floral arrangement.

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The first breath of silky prairie dropseed grass in bloom scents the air with the smell of buttered popcorn.

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Blazing stars spike across the prairie. With their flowers comes a sense of inevitability.  Asters and goldenrods will be right on their heels, and with them, the close of the warm weather season.

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Everything on the prairie is poised for the downward plunge into autumn. But for now, summer in the tallgrass reigns supreme.

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August’s opening day on the prairie is here.

***

The opening quote is from “Tuck Everlasting,” a novel by Newbery Medal Award-winning children’s book writer and illustrator Natalie Babbitt (1932-2016). It’s worth reading the lines in context, reprinted here: “The first week of August hangs at the very top of the summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning. The weeks that come before are only a climb from balmy spring, and those that follow a drop to the chill of autumn, but the first week of August is motionless, and hot. It is curiously silent, too, with blank white dawns and glaring noons, and sunsets smeared with too much color.”

***

All photographs and audio clip copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): sunset on Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL; flood debris on a tree by Clear Creek, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; crickets and other fiddling insects audio clip, author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL;  grasses, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL: purple poppy mallow (Callirhoe involucrata) , Kickapoo Nature Center, Oregon, IL: whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; herd of bison (Bison bison),  Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL: eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  blue dasher dragonfly (female) (Pachydiplax longipennis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  widow skimmer (Libellula luctuosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata) in the tallgrass, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blazing star (Liatris spp.), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; tallgrass prairie, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

America’s Favorite (Prairie) Pastime

“A baseball weighted your hand just so, and fit it…When you hit it with a bat it cracked – and your heart cracked, too, at the sound. It took a grass stain nicely….” — Annie Dillard

 

For baseball fans, July means the season is building to a crescendo. So it is also in the tallgrass.

July throws out every possible pitch on the prairie: thunderstorms, scorching hot days, high winds, foggy mornings, cool evenings. It keeps you slightly off-balance. Guessing. Unsure of what the next day or—even hour—in the tallgrass might bring.

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In the prairie wetlands, egrets crouch; umpire the prairie ponds and streams.

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Cup plants have hit their stride. Towering and aggressive–up to 10 feet tall—their cheerful flowers team up with compass plant and prairie dock blooms to splash yellow across the prairie.

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Their perfoliate sandpapery leaves catch rainwater for thirsty goldfinches and other birds. Think of a scratchy catcher’s mitt.

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Big bluestem shoots up overnight, waving its turkey-footed seed heads. As Illinois state grass, it deserves an all-star role on the July prairie.

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Cordgrass blooms, subtle and easy to miss.

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But with the prairie roster overflowing with wildflowers…

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…big bluestem and the other grasses are sometimes overlooked, just as utility players often are beside their flashier teammates. Just wait until October, they seem to whisper.

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Gray-headed coneflowers shake out their lemon petal pennants, cheering on the season.

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In a few weeks, their gray seed heads will become dry and brittle with an amazing scent: an anise-citrus prairie potpourri. Mmmm.

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Joe Pye weed fills the prairie savanna with clouds of pale lavender. Their floral scorecards are marked with yellow tiger swallowtails and other butterflies, crazy for the nectar.

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Buckeyes surf the grasses; pop up along the paths.

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And every prairie clover bloom seems to sport a bee or butterfly.

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America’s favorite pastime might be baseball.

But the prairie in July knows how to hit a home run.

*****

The opening quote is from Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood (1987), her memoir of growing up in Pittsburgh. Among the awards Dillard has won for her writing is the Pulitzer Prize for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974), a sustained non-fiction narrative about the beauty and terror of the natural world.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): fog over the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; great egret (Ardea alba), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), with unknown bee, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie blooms, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; Schulenberg prairie grasses at sunset, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; gray-headed coneflower seed heads (Ratibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  white prairie clover (Dalea candida) with wild indigo duskywing butterfly (Erynnis baptisiae most likely, although this is a difficult genus to ID), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

A July Prairie Vocabulary

“I have come to understand that although place-words are being lost, they are also being created. Nature is dynamic, and so is language.” — Robert MacFarlane

***

How can we fix a vanishing landscape like the tallgrass prairie in our minds and hearts?

It may start with words. Here are a few proposed vocabulary words for this hot July summer on the prairie.

Croakfloat:

A frog hanging out in a pond.

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Bumblebloom:

When two or more bees visit a flower.

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Petalrash: 

The splotches of color left behind when pale purple coneflower petals fade.

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Furflower:

What happens when a bison hybridizes with a compass plant.

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Powerpond:

When manmade meets prairie wetland.

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Monarchmagnet:

Any one of the native milkweeds (like this whorled milkweed) that provides life for monarch butterfly caterpillars.

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Bisondifference:

Being ignored by a small herd of bison.

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The July prairie season is in full swing.

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What new words will you add to our summer prairie vocabulary?

***

Robert Macfarlane’s (1976-) opening quote is from his book Landmarks. In it he reminds us of the power of words, and lists many of the words that have been lost in describing the landscape of the British isles. Read what a New York Times reviewer said about it here.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): green frog (Lithobates clamitans), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; unknown bumblebees on white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) with bison (Bison bison) fur, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; pond at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Nachusa Grasslands in July, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.SaveSave