Tag Archives: the nature conservancy

6 Reasons to Hike the September Prairie

“The days dwindle down; to a precious few; September… .” — sung by Willie Nelson

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Change. Possibilities. Fresh starts.

These are a few of the reasons I welcome the opening week of September on the prairie.  Warm days, cool nights. The mental swap of summer to autumn.

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There are subtle shifts of color as the brights of summer become autumn’s metallic hues.  I sit on the back porch overlooking my prairie planting, listening to the insects sing static. Buzz. Chatter. Hum. The buttered popcorn-cilantro smell of prairie dropseed planted around the yard tickles my nose.

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The first ripe gray-headed coneflower seeds in my prairie patch are ready for collecting. I crumble the seedheads between my fingers. Inhale. Mmmm.  They smell lemony.

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September is a treat for the senses.

Need more motivation to get outside? Here are six compelling reasons to hike the September prairie, whether for a short stroll through your backyard tallgrass patch or a longer walk at your local forest preserve’s tallgrass restoration.

1.  Wind

The grasses  hit their stride in September, and this year’s prairie is particularly lush from early spring rains. Grasses tower over our heads.  Tall wildflowers (called forbs) and some of the rangier grasses flop over in spots; too lanky to stand alone. When the wind ripples through the grasses against a backdrop of cumulus clouds, floating in a cerulean blue sky, you feel the immensity of time and space. A feeling that is often in short supply in the Chicago suburbs.

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In her book, My Antonia, Willa Cather wrote this about the prairie: “As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea. The red of the grass made all the great prairie the color of wine-stains, or of certain seaweeds when they are first washed up. And there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.” 

When I can’t fall asleep at night, I close my eyes and imagine the wind moving through the grasses, with the bright blue sky overhead.

2. Gold rush

From the goldfinches to the goldenrod; the tall coreopsis and the last sunflowers…

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… yellow is the primary color of  the early September prairie. American goldfinches bounce like yo-yo’s across the grasses, giving their trademark flight call, “Po-ta-to-chip!” “Po-tat-to-chip!”  Black walnut trees shake their gold leaves loose; pocket change sprinkled across the prairie trails.

In my backyard prairie patch, I watch the paper wasps work the goldenrod blooms for nectar.

 

Wasps are important pollinators. Sure, you don’t want them at your cook-out, but seeing them methodically rummage through the flowers reminds me they have an important role to play on the prairie and in my backyard.

3. Migration Marvels

The migrating monarch butterflies appreciate goldenrod, especially Solidago rigida—the stiff goldenrod—to nectar up for the long journey to Mexico.

They like my zinnias as well.Monarch Backyard GE 9219WM.jpg

Dragonflies swarm through the tallgrass, zipping just above the big bluestem. This past week, my dragonfly monitors at two different tallgrass prairie sites noted hundreds of green darners— with a few black saddlebags and wandering gliders thrown in —massing and on the move. The Chicago lakefront is another traditional hot spot to see large groups of Odonates headed south.

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This is also the time of year I see the red saddlebags dragonfly in my backyard. Each evening I check the edges of the pond, the garden, and my backyard prairie patch. Will the red saddlebags show up this season? Not yet.

Much of dragonfly migration is still shrouded in mystery, although new discoveries are happening all the time. Read more about how you can help scientists learn more about dragonfly migration here.

4. Grass, Grass, Grass

Each spring, I think the miracle of a burned prairie becoming green shoots and blooms makes it the best possible time of year. In the summer, I reconsider—all that color and motion! In the early days of September, I’m convinced autumn is the best time of year on the prairie.

I turn the names of the grasses over and over in my my mind. A litany of grass. Cordgrass. Switchgrass.

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Indian grass. Side-oats grama.  Little bluestem.

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Grasses dominate. Especially our iconic big bluestem— Illinois’ state grass.

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In her essay, Big Grass,” Louis Erdrich writes: “Grass sings, grass whispers.” Why not go listen?

5. Butterfly Extravaganza

September marks the passing of the season of butterflies. Sure, there are some stragglers in October, but right now is their big finale.

So many butterflies! The buckeyes.

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Painted ladies and monarchs. Silver-spotted skippers.

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A tiny eastern-tailed blue or two; this one resting on chicory.

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Before we know it, they’ll be gone for the season. Take time to stop and watch the butterflies as they nectar on flowers, float above the switchgrass, or swirl in a mating dance as old as time.

6. Filling Station

If you’re wrestling with a problem, or need space to get away from people for a while, the tallgrass prairie is a good destination. I always find transitions in my life and the changes from season to season are an opportunity to stop. Reflect. Revisit some of my preconceptions about my priorities. It’s a chance to slow down. Think. A walk through the tallgrass—or even a stroll around my backyard prairie patch—gives me space to sort through whatever I’m wrestling with. Hiking the prairie fills up my inner well, which fuels creative tasks and the life of the spirit. That well becomes empty without time outdoors.

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You, too?

Happy hiking.

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This week’s post opens with Willie Nelson (1933-) singing Kurt Weill’s (composition) and Maxwell Anderson’s (lyrics)  September Song. I’m not particularly a country western aficionado, but a few of  Nelson’s songs always end up on my playlist. Another is Nelson’s cover of Georgia on my Mind from the album, Stardust; my favorite of his collections. Blue Skies is another favorite. There’s a tinge of melancholy in these songs which seem perfect for ushering in autumn.

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All photographs copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) and great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL:  September at Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; possibly narrow-leaved sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius), along Willoway Brook on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Glenbard South High School prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; possibly a dark paper wasp (Polistes fuscates ) on Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus), author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; black saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; silver-spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; eastern tailed-blue (Cupido comyntas), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, IL; September at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Note that some of these images in today’s blog are from previous September hikes.

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Cindy’s classes and speaking events will resume October 5. See more at www.cindycrosby.com.

July’s Prairie Patterns

“The world is a confusing and turbulent place, but we make sense of it by finding order… . This makes us all pattern seekers. “– Philip Ball

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High heat and cool breezes; thunderstorms and calm mornings. From my hammock overlooking the backyard prairie patch, I’m astonished at the rapid growth of plants under the hot sun, watered by frequent rain showers. I swear I saw cup plants grow an inch right before my eyes! Anything seems possible in the bright light and blue skies of July.

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As I swing in my hammock, I’m reading a new book from University of Chicago Press: Patterns in Nature.  It’s a revelation. As an art and journalism student in my undergrad years, I avoided math as much as possible. Now, I’m discovering the beauty of mathematics on the prairie. Symmetry. Fractals. Surface tension.

So many different combinations of patterns in July! I’ve always been intrigued by patterns in nature. But I didn’t understand much about what I saw.

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Paging through Philip Ball’s book, I begin with symmetry, which Ball says, is at the root of understanding how patterns in nature appear.

It’s an eye-opener.

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Ball notes that “Bilateral symmetry seems almost to be the default for animals. Fish,  mammals, insects, and birds all share this attribute.” I see this in the blue-fronted damselfly above; in the mirror-image wings of a skipper butterfly below. Divide them in half and each side is essentially identical.

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It’s evinced in the reversed haploa moth, barely visible, deep in the tallgrass.

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There is bilateral symmetry in a bison’s skull, with a few imperfections.

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Or a monarch’s wings, even when tattered and worn.

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Who wouldn’t marvel at the folded, paired symmetrical wings of the male violet dancer damselfly?

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Once you begin looking for patterns in the natural world…

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…you see them everywhere.

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Fractal geometry, Ball writes, is said to be “the geometry of nature.” Fractals? What’s a fractal?  “Don’t know much algebra…,” sang Sam Cooke in his classic, “(What a) Wonderful World.” Yup. But I want to know more.

Ball boils it down to this: Look at a tree. A part of the tree, he writes, can resemble the whole, as the “tree algorithm” keeps making the same kind of structure repeatedly. As I hike the prairie one afternoon, I look up and all of the sudden it makes sense—once I understand what I’m looking at.

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“Growing fractals”  are a type of fractal found in the network of arteries, veins, and capillaries in the vascular system—another “branching” effect, Ball tells me. I think of the “arteries” running across prairie dock leaves, so pronounced in the autumn.

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I reflect on these concepts and my head aches. Fractals. Symmetry. So fascinating. So…complex. I regret now my ability to dodge everything math-related in college except for a course called “Cardinal Numbers.” A sort of 101 math for art majors. But maybe it’s not too late?

Early one morning, wading Clear Creek at Nachusa Grasslands, I admire the dew drops. I remember reading in Ball’s book that beads of water are driven by surface tension. Simply put, he says, surface tension pulls dew and rain into these “droplet” shapes, and gravity helps flatten the droplets. Ahhh. Look at that. Yes.

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A different sort of pattern. I search for water droplets: on leaves, spiderwebs, even dragonfly wings. Each dewdrop has heightened meaning.

As I continue reading, chapter after chapter, then go for hikes to explore the different patterns in Ball’s book, his simple explanations for a non-scientist open up a new world for me. A world where math seems a little more applicable. A little more accessible. A little more…meaningful. Perhaps, though, the best moment in Ball’s book  is when he writes that the law of pattern formation is driven by wonder.

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“We need to marvel and admire as well as to analyze and calculate,” Ball writes. Oh, yes. I’ve always been attuned to wonder; marveling comes without effort for me. Now, I’m learning the other side of the equation. Such an astonishing world!

So many “patterns” to marvel at and admire in the month of July on the prairie. Why not go see?

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Philip Ball is the former editor for Nature. The quotes in this post are from his book, Patterns in Nature: Why the Natural World Looks the Way it Does (University of Chicago Press, 2016). Check it out here.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): July on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; monarch caterpillar (Danaus plexippus) on butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blue-fronted dancer damselfly (Argia apicalis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; silver-spotted skipper (Epargyreus clarus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; reversed haploa moth (Haploa reversa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bison (Bison bison) skull, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; violet dancer (sometimes called variable dancer) (Argia fumipennis violacea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) seedhead, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; orb weaver (family Araneidae) spider web, Brown County State Park, Nashville, IN; tree leafing out on the edge of the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; water droplets along Clear Creek, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; glade mallow (Napaea dioica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Cindy’s Classes and Speaking

August 2, 8-11:30 a.m., Prairie Ethnobotany: How People Have Used Prairie Plants Throughout History, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Register here.

August 12, 7-8:30 p.m., Dragonflies and Damselflies: The Garden’s Frequent Fliers, Fox Valley Garden Club, Aurora, IL. Free and open to the Public. Details here.

August 19-22, 8-5 p.m. daily, National Association for Interpretation Certified Interpretive Guide Training, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Register here.

August 29, 7-8:30 p.m., Summer Literary Series: Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit. Hope aboard the Morton Arboretum’s tram and enjoy a cool beverage, then listen to Cindy talk about the “prairie spirit” on the beautiful Schulenberg Prairie, the fourth oldest prairie restoration in the world. Register here.

See more at http://www.cindycrosby.com

Prairie Fireworks

“It seems to me that the natural world is the greatest source of excitement; the greatest source of visual beauty; the greatest source of intellectual interest. It is the greatest source of so much in life that makes life worth living.”–David Attenborough

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It’s summer in the tallgrass; almost the Fourth of July. The bison go about their business of raising young calves.

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White wild indigo continues its magical year. I’ve never seen anything like the profusion of this wildflower on the prairie in the past two decades I’ve been hiking the tallgrass.

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And those pale purple coneflowers! Unbelievable.

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Anecdotally, the most beautiful time on the prairie is supposedly the Fourth of July.  I love all four seasons in the tallgrass: the blue and black palette of winter, the golds and rusts of autumn, the first green shoots needling up through the ash of a prescribed burn in spring. But this year, from the white wild indigo and coneflowers, to the prairie lilies…

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….to the black-eyed Susans…

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…it’s easy to make a case for this as the most lovely season of all.

It’s not only the plants that are striking. Deep in the prairie wetlands, a calligrapher’s fly hangs out in the big bur reeds. The blooms it explores seem a foreshadowing of fireworks later this week.

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Soft spiky explosions of foxtail barley grass line the prairie trails. I read up on it, and discover it’s also called squirrel-tail grass. What great names!  I love this silky grass, even though it is a bit on the weedy side. More “fireworks” to enjoy.

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The leaves of mountain mint and bee balm, crushed between my fingers, envelope me in their sharp fragrance as I hike.  I chew a few of the leaves, enjoying the taste. While admiring the wildflowers and prairie grasses this summer, I also monitor dragonflies and damseflies—counting the different species and their numbers on the prairies and in the wetlands.

Ethereal damselflies have shown up. New ones I’ve not seen before like the one below. Sweetflag spreadwing? I’m not sure. I pore over my field guides, looking at photos and parsing through identification marks.

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This lyre-tipped spreadwing, with its metallic body sizzling in the sunlight, stopped me in my tracks.

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Both spreadwings are new to me this summer, after chasing dragonflies for more than a dozen years.  Cascades of wildflowers, a profusion of spreadwing species…perhaps the rainy deluge the past three months has brought these about? It’s nice to think so.

There are many different bluets on the prairie, but this azure bluet damselfly in the prairie savanna grasses is a new discovery for me, and for our site.

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Marla Garrison’s wonderful Damselflies of the Chicago Region taught me to look for the “bat” image on the lower part of the azure bluet’s abdomen (most people call it “the tail”). Can you see it? Right above the blue segments.

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More familiar dragonflies are also out and about. Eastern amberwing dragonflies, like this female, do handstands to try and cool off in the sweltering heat.

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I never tire of the widow skimmer dragonflies, even though they are ubiquitous in my region.

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Ebony jewelwings, like this pair (the female with a white dot on her wings) are the essence of summer. They fly loops in and out of the reed canary grass along Willoway Brook, snatching insects and looking for mates.

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I’m looking forward to celebrating the Fourth of July with my family this week. But the best fireworks happen all summer long on the prairie. Explosions of wildflowers. The pop of color from a new dragonfly or damselfly. Unusual insects to discover.

So many new adventures to anticipate.

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So much to be grateful for.

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David Attenborough is the narrator for the original episodes of Planet Earth, which I have had the joy to watch with four of my little grandkids, Ellie, Jack, Anna, and Margaret. If you haven’t checked out this award-winning series of documentaries about life on our planet, take a look here at Planet Earth II.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): bison (Bison bison) and wildflowers, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisa alba), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale purple coneflowers (Echinacea pallida), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; prairie lilies (Lilium philadelphicum andinum) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; calligrapher’s fly (Toxomerus  — either the marginatus or geminatus) on big bur reed (Sparganium eurycarpum), prairie planting and pond, Lisle, IL; foxtail barley grass or squirrel-tail grass (Hordeum jubatum) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; possibly sweetflag spreadwing damselfly (Lestes forcipatus) although it may also be slender spreadwing (Lestes rectangularis)–and so I continue learning!; prairie planting and pond, Lisle, IL;  lyre-tipped spreadwing (Lestes unguiculatus), prairie planting and pond, Lisle, IL; azure bluet (Enallagma aspersum), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; azure bluet (Enallagma aspersum), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; female eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; widow skimmer dragonfly (Libellula luctuosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ebony jewelwing damselflies (Calopteryx maculata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; dragonfly monitoring at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Thanks to Odonata of the Eastern United States FB group and Joyce Gibbons for help on damselfly ID this week! Grateful.

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Cindy’s Upcoming Classes and Events

Friday, August 2, 8-11:30am — Prairie Ethnobotany at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Discover how people have used prairie plants throughout history. Register here.

Monday, August 12, 7-8 p.m., Fox Valley Garden Club –The Garden’s Frequent Fliers: Dragonflies and Damselflies –Aurora, IL. Free and open to the public. For details and directions, click here.

August 10-13, online and in-person: Intensive Master Naturalist Training at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (sold out).

August 19-22, 8am-5pm daily, M-TH — Certified Interpretive Guide training with National Association for Interpretation at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Earn your credential as a naturalist or cultural history interpreter! Details and registration here.

Thursday, August 29, 7-8:30 p.m.—Summer Literary Series: On the Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL– Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit, book signing, drinks, and tram ride with a lecture on the Schulenberg Prairie, the fourth oldest planted restoration in the world. Register here. 

See more on http://www.cindycrosby.com

Finding Hope in the November Prairie

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

October’s Prairie Astronomy

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bittersweet.

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

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

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

The (Prairie) Butterfly Effect

“I want the experience of the butterfly.” — William Stafford

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The first one flew just ahead of us, then disappeared. “Hey—was that a monarch?” my husband Jeff asked. I shaded my eyes against the sun, unsure.

We were at Kankakee Sands in northwestern Indiana, returning from visiting family down south. Needing to get off the mind-numbing, semi-rumbling Interstate 65 that connects Indianapolis with Chicago, we decided to take a more off-the-beaten path route.  A stop at this 7,000-plus acres Nature Conservancy site along the way was a no-brainer.

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As we pulled into the empty “Bison Viewing Area” parking lot, there was nary a hairy mammal in sight.  All the bison were grazing far away in the preserve, oblivious to public relations and their responsibilities in promoting prairie at their assigned station. The light slanted low across the wildflowers. September days were shortening. The quiet was tangible, except for the hum of singing insects in the grasses.

Jeff broke the silence. “Look! There’s another one,” he said, pointing. Two more butterflies flew over. Monarchs! And then another.  And another. As our eyes adjusted, we began to understand what was in front of us.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of monarch butterflies covered the prairie…

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A viceroy butterfly occasionally mixed in. Everywhere we looked, there were monarchs nectaring on stiff goldenrod.

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The prairie was a shimmer of motion and color in the late afternoon light.

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Wave after wave of orange and black butterflies fluttered across the goldenrod. I began frantically snapping photos with my camera. Click! Click! Click! But…How do you capture the movement and motion of clouds of butterflies? After a few minutes, I put my camera down and tried videotaping them with my cell phone. I soon gave up. One random viceroy butterfly video later,  I realized it was futile to try and freeze the magic.

 

Perhaps, this was a moment to tuck into your heart, instead of trying to capture it with images and technology. We put away the camera and our cell phones. Instead of frantically clicking away, both of us watched the butterflies in silence.

So many butterflies! We couldn’t stop talking about them as we drove home. We knew prairies were great habitat for these amazing insects. But still!

Nachusa Grasslands, a Nature Conservancy site where I’m a steward, has some beautiful butterflies. I love the buckeyes, which seem to be everywhere at Nachusa this month…

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…and the uncommon regal fritillaries, which I’ve seen there a few times in the summer. They take my breath away!

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The Schulenberg Prairie, where I’m a steward supervisor, constantly dazzles me with its frequent fliers. Like this black swallowtail butterfly nectaring on rattlesnake master just weeks ago.

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Fermilab’s prairies, another great place to hike in the Chicago region, continue to delight me with a diversity of butterflies, including the common but charming little eastern tailed blues.

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But seeing the massive monarch migration up close for the first time at Kankakee Sands this week brought all the other prairies like these into focus.

This, I thought, is what happens when we try to heal the earth.

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This is why we collect native prairie seeds, then go to crazy lengths to dry them and reseed new prairie restorations.WMseeds drying at Nachusa Grasslands 918.jpg

This is why we set the prescribed fires to renew the tallgrass each spring.

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This is why we sweat in summer temperatures nearing 100 degrees, caring for prairie. Stay up late at night reading about restoration methods. Help our children and grandchildren raise a few caterpillars that become butterflies to understand the cycle of life. This is why we hike the  prairie trails with little ones, so that early on they will experience some of the miracles of the natural world.

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This is why we scribble restoration plans and seed collection notes. Cut honeysuckle and buckthorn so it doesn’t encroach into the tallgrass. Go out and speak and teach about prairie and all its creatures. Pull weeds.

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This is what can happen when volunteers and stewards and site managers and donors care for the beautiful world we’ve been given.

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And, sometimes, on a magical day like this one, we see the tangible results.

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William Stafford (1914-1993)  is considered to be one of our finest, if sometimes uneven, nature poets. Wrote Steve Garrison of Stafford, “He offers a unique way into the heart of the world.”

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All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): late afternoon at the bison viewing area of Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN: monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus) and viceroy butterflies (Limenitis archippus) nectaring on stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN;  trio of monarchs (Danaus plexippus) nectaring on stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN; late afternoon at Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN:  video of viceroy butterfly (Limenitis archippus) nectaring on stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN; buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia) on unknown aster (Asteracea), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; regal fritillary (Speyeria idalia) , Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) on rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; eastern tailed-blue (Cupido comyntas), Fermilab Inner Ring, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; September on Fame Flower Knob, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; drying seeds at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; prescribed burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; small toddler investigating flowers, Fermilab Interpretive Trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; weeds and work bucket, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Nachusa Grasslands in the rain, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

Thanks to all the organizations that manage Kankakee Sands, including the Nature Conservancy of Indiana, Division of Fish & Wildlife, Division of Nature Preserves, Indiana Department of Environmental Management, Indiana Heritage Trust, Indiana Grand Company, Lilly Endowment, National Fish & Wildlife Foundation, and Natural Resources Conservation Services. Grateful for the butterfly magic this week.

A September Prairie Soaking

“Life is one big transition.”– Willie Stargell

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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.

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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.

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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.