Tag Archives: Wilson Hall

Winter Hiking on the Tallgrass Prairie

“How utterly astonishing our instant here (a time scented with dim remembering).”—Stephen Rowe

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It’s no coincidence that the weather has finally taken a turn and become, well, winter-like. In January, the prairie moves into its deep frosty mode. Hiking for the next eight weeks likely means cold hands, a less colorful landscape, more gray skies, and occasional brutal winds with few trees to block them.

Fermilab natural areas, Batavia, IL.

No wonder a lot of us opt for a book about prairie and a hot mug of tea, sitting by the fireplace and eschewing any physical effort! But the joys of the winter prairie are worth getting up off your duff and hoofing it out to the trails.

Not convinced? Here are a four ideas to get us outside to appreciate the winter tallgrass prairie.

Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

1. Think “subtle” rather than “eye-popping.” “There’s not much going on out at the prairie right now, right?” That was a question from a staff member where I volunteer as a prairie steward; asked when the wildflowers had long stopped blooming, and the prairie was settled in for the winter. Of course, I answered, “There’s always a lot going on out on the prairie!” Yet, to tune in to what’s happening in the winter is like fiddling with a fussy TV antenna. You do know what that is, right? Or maybe you have to be a certain age…. . The winter prairie takes patience, time, and the willingness to pay attention.

Tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

It’s long been said that the tallgrass prairie is a landscape that whispers rather than shouts. It doesn’t smack you in the face like the Rocky Mountains, or a Florida sunset. And yet. The tallgrass prairie is more than just a quick shot of postcard-type beauty. There is enchantment in the singular…

Round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

…and awe in the sweep of the prairie landscape.

Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL. Wilson Hall in the background.

The grace and loveliness of the prairie—-especially in winter–sneaks up on you as you walk the trails.

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

Look closely. This is no monochrome landscape.

Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

Winter wildflower and grass structures have a charm that may be more compelling than their warm season forms.

Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

There is a simplicity and rhythm that threads through even the most common of prairie plants.

Gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

A quick hike doesn’t always reveal these aspects of the winter prairie. It takes time.

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

Slow down. Pay attention. Who knows what you’ll discover?

2. Read the stories the prairie is trying to tell you. The writing is everywhere. Look down, around your hiking boots. What do you see?

Coyote (Canis latrans) tracks, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

Scan the grasses. What narratives do you read there?

Tail feather, mourning dove (Zenaida macroura), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

Look up. There are chapters to be read in the tops of the trees along the prairie’s edges.

Juvenile red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

So many tales the tallgrass has to tell you! The prairie is waiting for you to read its stories. All you have to do is show up. Look. Listen. And let the stories unfold.

Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

3. Take your cell phone. What? Yes, you heard that right. Winter prairie wildflowers and grasses may look completely different than their summer personas.

Wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

Load the free app iNaturalist on your phone before you go, and you’ll increase your knowledge of prairie plants in their January mystery guises.

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

If you hate the idea of a phone on your hike, take your camera. You can always snap a photo of mystery plants, load them on your laptop or desktop or tablet, and use iNaturalist to take a photo of your image when you are back home to ID them. I also made a resolution to do more eBirding in the new year, so I use my free mobile eBird app to tally the birds I see on my prairie hikes. Again, if you don’t want to take your phone for birding, you can note what you see on a piece of paper and log the data at home. Fun!

Prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

4. Prepare before you go. Dress for the weather. That means something to keep your head covered. Comfortable footwear. Warm socks to keep your feet warm. Mittens or gloves will keep your fingers toasty. I like fingerless gloves, as I’m tapping my phone app iNaturalist to check a plant ID, or (this year) keeping an eBird list of the feathered fliers I see as I hike. Sometimes, I tuck a “Hot Hands” pouch into my gloves, or a reusable heat cartridge in my pocket for extra warmth (there are many versions of these, I have the Zippo rechargeable hand warmers that were a wonderful gift from my family).

Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

It’s worth the prep. If you are cold, wet and miserable, you’ll rush through your walk, unable to concentrate on what you see. Bundle up!

Before you leave home, make a thermos of something hot and delicious to enjoy when you are back in the car. Coffee, tea, or hot chocolate taste amazing when you have just come off the trail, rather than waiting for that hot drink until you are back home. I like to sit in the car for a bit, drink my coffee, and reflect on my hike as I defrost. Maybe you do, too.

Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

What tips do you have for enjoying the winter prairie? I’d love to hear them in the comments section. Please share! The winter prairie is out there, waiting for you.

Ready to hike?

Let’s go.

*****

The opening quote is from Stephen Rowe (1945-), co-author with David Lubbers of Abiding: Landscape of the Soul. Rowe is a contemporary philosopher and educator.

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Join Cindy for a Class or Program this Winter

Just a few tickets left! The Tallgrass Prairie in Popular Culture—Library Lecture, Friday, January 20, from 10-11:30 a.m. Explore the role the tallgrass prairie plays in literature, art, music—and more! Enjoy a hot beverage as you discover how Illinois’ “landscape of home” has shaped our culture, both in the past and today. This is an in-person program in the beautiful Sterling Morton Library; masks are optional but recommended. Offered by The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL; register here.

Nature Writing Workshop— Four Thursdays (February 2, 9, 16, and 23) from 6-8:30 p.m. Join a community of nature lovers as you develop and nurture your writing skills in person. Class size is limited. Masks are optional. For more information and to register visit here.

Looking for a speaker for your next event? Visit www.cindycrosby.com for more information.

A Very Fermi Prairie Legend

“I had caught prairie fever.” — Dr. Robert Betz

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Most people know Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois, as a particle physics and accelerator laboratory. But today, I’m here for the prairie.

Interpretive trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

Fermilab is a protected government area, so a guard checks my driver’s license at the gate, then makes me a guest tag to stick on my coat. He smiles as he hands me a map and waves my car through the checkpoint. I’m off to the interpretive trail…

Interpretive trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

… to see what delights the December prairie has in store for me this morning.

Gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

You might wonder: What is tallgrass prairie doing at a place where phrases like “quantum gravity” and “traversable wormhole” are the norm?

Prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

So glad you asked! The prairie was the dream of Dr. Robert “Bob” Betz, a Northeastern Illinois biology professor who was dubbed by the Chicago Tribune as “a pioneer in prairie preservation.” In 1975, Betz heard that Fermilab’s then-director Dr. Robert Wilson was looking for ideas on how to plant its thousands of acres in the Chicago suburbs.

Interpretive trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

As Betz tells the story in his book, The Prairie of the Illinois Country (published in 2011 after his death), he enlisted the help of The Morton Arboretum’s legendary Ray Schulenberg and Cook County Forest Preserve’s David Blenz to go with him to meet with Dr. Wilson to pitch the prairie project.

Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

Dr. Wilson, Betz said, listened to their ideas. He then proposed the interior of the accelerator ring for planting. “How long would it take to restore such a prairie?” Wilson asked the trio.

Prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

Betz admitted it might take five years. Ten. Twenty or more.

White wild indigo (Baptisa alba macrophylla) Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

Betz writes that Dr. Wilson was quiet for a few seconds, “… and then he turned to us and said, ‘If that’s the case, I guess we should start this afternoon.’ “

Interpretive trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

What vision these men had! Their dream, coupled with the work of countless volunteers and staff, has birthed this restoration of Illinois’ native landscape across Fermilab’s vast campus today.

Interpretive trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

I wonder what Dr. Betz would think if he could hike with me this morning, and see the array of tallgrass prairie plants that shimmer under the winter sky…

Interpretive trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

… which changes every few moments, kaleidoscoping from dark clouds to blue sky; contrails to sunshine.

Interpretive trail, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

Within view of the interpretative trail looms Wilson Hall, where the nation’s most intelligent scientists mingle and confer.

Wilson Hall, Fermilab, Batavia, IL.

I think of these scientists as I hike the prairie. The future, meeting the past. I think of Dr. Betz, and his willingness to dream big.

Common mountain mint (Pycanthemum virginianum), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

The slogan for Fermilab is this: “We bring the world together to solve the mysteries of matter, energy, space and time.”

Indian hemp or dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

The tallgrass prairie is full of mysteries.

Stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

It’s a restoration, hearkening to the past, but also the landscape of our future, holding hope for a healthier, more diverse natural world. Because of the work of Dr. Betz and the people who took time to introduce him to prairie in a way that seeded in him a life-long passion for saving and restoring the tallgrass, we can continue to learn about our “landscape of home” here, even as science moves us into the future.

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

Thanks, Dr. Betz.

You made a difference.

*****

Dr. Robert Betz (1923-2007) caught “prairie fever” after a nature outing with the also-legendary Floyd Swink (Plants of the Chicago Region, first edition 1969). Once Betz was hooked, he became a force of nature in Illinois for prairie conservation and restoration. At the end of his book, The Prairie of the Illinois Country, he writes: “Fortunately, in spite of all the tribulations the Prairie of the Illinois Country has undergone during the past 150 years, its remnants are still with us. But to continue the work that began decades ago to save, protect, restore, and enlarge these remnants, future generations must make a real effort to educate the public about their importance as a natural heritage and ecological treasure…. Hopefully, what this may mean in the future is there would be a plethora of people infected with the author’s ‘prairie fever.‘”

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For more information on Dr. Betz’s work at Fermilab, check out Fermilab’s natural areas here, and Fermilab’s Batavia National Accelerator Laboratory here. Read more about Dr. Betz in his obituary here, or in this article by former Fermi staff member Ryan Campbell here. A tremendous thanks to all the stewards, staff, and volunteers who keep the Fermilab Natural Areas healthy and thriving. As Dr. Betz wrote, it is an “ecological treasure.”

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Save Bell Bowl Prairie!

Bell Bowl Prairie at the Chicago-Rockford International Airport is once again under siege. Help save this important remnant prairie! See simple things you can do here. Thank you for keeping this ecological treasure intact.

A New Year in the Tallgrass

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

*****

Where did 2019 go? The time passed so quickly.

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

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… we marveled at the new growth soon after.

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Watched the early pasque flowers bloom….

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and then, set seeds for the future.

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

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

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

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…the delights of a single seedhead.

Pasture thistle.

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Bee balm.

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Blazing star.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Many saved at the eleventh hour.GensburgMarkhambigbluestemWM122719.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

Carolina Horsenettle FermilabWM 122619.jpg

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

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

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2020 is waiting. So much possibility!

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fall Comes to the Prairie

“Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns.”–George Eliot

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The Canada geese are quarreling. I watch them elbow each other out of the way in mid-flight; honking and diving. Maybe they are arguing the mysteries of matter, or particle physics? After all, they’re at Fermilab, a government facility for particle physics and an accelerator laboratory just down the road from my house. The facility grounds are a  mosaic of beautiful natural areas, including prairies and wetlands. fermilabWMwilsonhall10118.jpg

The bison grazing nearby on the grounds seem more placid than the geese, untroubled by neutrino experiments or accelerator science.

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You can almost imagine their thoughts. Hey geese! Keep it down. What’s all the fuss about? At any rate, I’m not here to bison watch, and I have little patience for quarrels today, geese or otherwise. My destination is a prairie trail.pathatfermiprairie10118WM.jpg

Approximately one thousand acres of Fermilab Natural Areas, surrounding the government world of equations and physics, promises endless adventures. And today, there’s not a soul on the prairie path. Although it’s obvious I’m not alone.

Overhead, green darner dragonflies hover high above the tallgrass. Are they migrating south? Or waiting out their lives here? Hard to tell. But this late in the season I suspect they’re on their way to warmer places. Lately, a black saddlebags dragonfly, also migratory, has hung around my backyard, slow and torpid in the colder weather. Imagine those wings taking it thousands of miles! Close up the wing veination reminds me of ferns.

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I continue hiking, stepping in coyote scat on the trail. Oops! Better watch where I’m going. An insect sings a single note, as if struck from a tuning fork. Everywhere, there are tiny crackling sounds. Mice eating seeds? Birds rustling in the grasses? Leaves drying in the  sun? Part of the prairie’s mystery.

The dogbane or Indian hemp, as it is sometimes called, is gone to seed in places. Its soft silks contrast with the crisp, browning leaves of neighboring prairie plants and their tinker-toy stems.dogbaneindianhemp10118WM.jpg

Wildflowers are mostly of the goldenrod and aster variety, with a few exceptions. Some mountain mint. A last pale prairie Indian plantain bloom or two.

The stiff gentians, those party girls of the fall, are out in full regalia. Looks like a weevil might be crashing the fun.

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So many gentians! They are abundant here, like amethysts scattered deep in the tallgrass. Nearby, goldenrod galls create their own sort of green “flowers” everywhere I look.  Sometimes called “bunch galls” or “rosette galls,” they are formed by insects. Check out more about goldenrod galls here.

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You could enjoyably spend several hours searching for the different goldenrod galls (ellipse, ball, rosette, small bunch…), and reading up on their buggy creators. See one bunch gall, and suddenly the others come into focus.

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The rosin weed blooms are past, but their seedheads look like floral bouquets, don’t they? As pretty in seed as in flower.

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Everywhere there are riots of asters; including many species of white aster that I struggle to name. More easily ID’d is the ubiquitous New England aster, poised on the prairie like a satellite dish with fringe.

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It’s not all prettiness and pleasantry.  The tall coreopsis is in seed, towering over my head, and  I can’t resist pulling down a seedhead and digging into it with my fingernail even though I know I’ll be repelled. And I am. It oozes a smelly, oily substance—and I quickly let the stem spring back. Of all the seeds we collect each fall on the prairie, this is my least favorite. So pretty in bloom! So stinky in your hands.tallcoreposisWMFermi10118.jpg

Rot and decay, the calling cards of October, are juxtaposed with these last flushes of bloom and seed. A giant puffball lies shattered and corrupt, broken up by small mammals and now fodder for insect life.

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And in proportion to the slow decline of plants, the insects seemingly flourish. You don’t notice them so much at first, except for the mosquitoes who won’t be ignored. But take a moment and look—really look—at the grasses and flowers, and all at once, you realize they are teeming with insect life. So much diversity!

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Decay can be beautiful. The turn of the prairie dock leaf…

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The compass plant seedheads, dry and full of promise for new life.

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Wild quinine, its silvered seeds perhaps more lovely than the flowers themselves were.wildquinineWMFermi10118.jpg

In autumn, the balance of light to dark shifts, tipping ever-so-slowly toward darkness as the days go by. Change is in the air. Bloom to seed. Flourishing to decline. All this change is in evidence here this morning.

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So much to see in one short morning hike here! Who knows what other adventures will unfold this October on the prairie?

*****

The opening quote about autumn is from Mary Ann Evans (1819-1880), a Victorian-era English novelist and poet who wrote under the pen name George Eliot. She chose a man’s name to escape being thought of as a romance writer. Among her books are Middlemarch, The Mill on the Floss, and Silas Marner.

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All photos taken at Fermilab Natural Areas Interpretive Trail, Fermilab Accelerator Laboratory, Batavia, IL, unless otherwise indicated: Wilson Hall and prairie grasses; bison (Bison bison); prairie trail; black saddlebags dragonfly (Tramea lacerata), author’s backyard pond and prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; dogbane or Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum):  stiff gentians (Gentianella quinquefolia); Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) with probable bunch gall midge (Rhopalomyia solidaginis); Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) with probable bunch gall midge (Rhopalomyia solidaginis); rosin weed (Silphium integrifolium) seedhead; New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae); tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris) seedheads; decayed puffball (possibly Calvatia gigantea); partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata) and an unknown species of ant; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceeum) leaf; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) seeds; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium); sky and grass in October. 

A Vision for Prairie

“What are we made of? How did the universe begin? What secrets do the smallest, most elemental particles of matter hold, and how can they help us understand the intricacies of space and time?”–Fermilab

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I’m pondering some the above questions as I hike Fermilab’s prairies and natural areas. It’s 95 degrees with a heat index of about 110. Outside is not where the rational part of me wants to be. But today, I have a chance to explore some of the iconic prairie plantings at Fermilab. I don’t want to miss the opportunity.

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Fermilab is a 6,800 acre particle physics laboratory about an hour west of Chicago, established in 1967.  Their stated vision is to “solve the mysteries of matter, energy, space and time for the benefit of all.” I admire Fermilab’s drive to know. But as someone who barely passed physics in high school and dropped out of calculus, I’m not here for the  particle accelerators and neutrino science. I’m here for their prairie.

And what beautiful sweeps of tallgrass are all around me.

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The compass plant flowers (above) wave over my head, their periscope-like blooms splashing the prairie with yellow. Waist-high Culver’s root (below) is in the early stages of bloom. Its white candles are luminescent in the tallgrass.

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To restore prairie in this place is an act of creativity and the imagination, as well as an act of science. Biochemist Dr. Robert Betz had a vision for the vast acreage that surrounds Fermilab’s accelerator ring and the grounds around the various research labs and buildings. Today, the results of that vision and the tireless work of volunteers, with leadership by ecologist Ryan Campbell, are almost 1,000 acres of planted tallgrass prairie. The prairie, along with other natural areas, encompasses “high-quality aquatic habitats, rare orchids, and even nesting Osprey”.

All around me is evidence of a successful outcome. Butterflies are puddling along the two-track, including this pretty little tailed-blue. They’re attracted to the salts and minerals in the dirt.

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Impressive oak savannas edge the prairies. Their cool shade is a welcome contrast to the blazing heat. The wetlands along the two-track gravel road are home to myriad dragonflies, water birds, and other aquatic life. The wetlands are lush. Brimming with water after the rain of previous weeks.

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Speaking of dragonflies! They are out in full force on my hike, despite the fierce heat. As I walk,  at least half a dozen Halloween pennant dragonflies are stationed in the tallgrass at regular intervals. Although much about dragonfly body temperature regulation is unknown, we do know that when it is hot they use strategies to lower their body heat. This one has its abdomen pointed downward to cool off.

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Other times you’ll see dragonflies doing handstands across the prairie in hot weather, a thermoregulatory practice called obelisking that helps deflect heat.

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I need some strategies of my  own to get out of the hot, sticky weather—strategies that don’t involve standing on my head or other gymnastics. Time to find my air-conditioned car. Whew!

Each prairie has its own delights. On the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum where I’m a steward supervisor, bunchflower is in eye-popping bloom this week. BunchflowerSPMA7218CROSBYwm.jpg

The lilies make me want to sit for an hour and just look. (Mosquitoes quickly put an end to that notion.)

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Nachusa Grasslands, where I’m also a steward,  is carpeted with wildflowers of all descriptions this month. Like an impressionist painting, isn’t it?

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These two prairies both have some beautiful butterflies. Like this black swallowtail at the Schulenberg Prairie, which flew erratically across the flowers and led me on a merry chase for a closer view.

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Sometimes, as I’m busy tending to my responsibilities on these two sites, it’s easy to forget how many other astonishing prairies there are all around me.  The last time I hiked Fermilab this year, it had just been burned. Look at it now!

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There is joy in the familiar. But delight in new discoveries.  Although I’ve been coming to Fermilab Natural Areas off and on now for years, today’s short road trip is a mental post-it note reminder to myself to not get in a “prairie rut.” Visit new prairies.  Discover the delights of seeing prairie restoration in all its variations. Expand my perspective. Learn from what other stewards are doing. Hit the road and see what new tallgrass adventures await.

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Where will your next prairie adventure take you?

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The opening quote is from Fermilab’s website. If you want to learn more about Fermilabs Natural Areas, click here to read more about their work and volunteer program.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) with Wilson Hall in the background, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) bloom, Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; Eastern tailed-blue (Cupido comyntas), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; wetlands at Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; Halloween pennant (Celithemis eponina), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL;  meadowhawk dragonfly–probably a white-faced  (Sympetrum obtrusum) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bunchflower (Melanthium virginicum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Michigan lily (Lilium michiganense) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; early summer at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; black swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes) on rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  regal fritillary butterfly (Speyeria idalia), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; road through Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL.

Grateful thanks to art gallery curator Georgia Schwender who (despite ferocious heat) offered me a tour of some of Fermilab’s natural areas. Check out Fermilab’s Art Gallery on the second floor of the Wilson Building in all seasons. Look for Fermilab’s “Seeing the Prairie” exhibit July 27-September 28, 2018.