“The days dwindle down; to a precious few; September… .” — sung by Willie Nelson
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
… 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.
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.
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.
Indian grass. Side-oats grama. Little bluestem.
Grasses dominate. Especially our iconic big bluestem— Illinois’ state grass.
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.
Painted ladies and monarchs. Silver-spotted skippers.
A tiny eastern-tailed blue or two; this one resting on chicory.
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.
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.
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.
Cindy’s classes and speaking events will resume October 5. See more at www.cindycrosby.com.