Sidetracked at Midewin: Learning to look for and appreciate the subtleties of fall on the prairie

A morning to start scouting for deer season at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie turned into appreciating the fall plants and colors.

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Boneset, likely tall boneset, brightens the fall at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Credit: Dale Bowman

Boneset, likely tall boneset, brightens the fall at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.

Dale Bowman

Scouting for deer blind spots Sunday at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, I lost my purpose.

Or found it, depending how you look at it.

The yellows of tall goldenrod and the whites of tall boneset pulled me in as I wandered.

So, sidetracked by the flowering fall plants, I focused on them while also keeping an eye out for likely places to set a blind. For the first time, I drew a firearm deer permit at Midewin, the U.S. Forest Service’s 20,283-acre site near Wilmington.

Sidetracked.

As I grow older, I become better at being sidetracked. Become better at learning to slow down to look, listen, smell and contemplate. Let’s be honest, I am, well, slowing down as the years go up. Slowing down has its own rewards.

I found more fall color than I expected when I slowed down and really looked at the plants, especially with trying to help my IDs with Seek, the cousin app of iNaturalist. Add that to what I have learned over the years talking to and emailing Allison Cisneros about plant identification. She is now Midewin Project Manager, The Nature Conservancy.

For years, I have made a July or August visit to Midewin when the colors are bold. I would usually be so overwhelmed that I would send photos to Cisneros for identification.

And she always helped, even though identifying plants, much like fish, is somewhat imprecise when done from photos.

But I have learned to identify some prairie plants. Knowing the names of the plants and a bit of their place in the ecosystem helps build appreciation and affinity.

Fall is a different time at Midewin, at least for me.

Mid- or late summer at Midewin is like the Gay Pride Parade, gaudy is an understatement. Fall is more like a charity ball for the well-to-do, more subtle but decadent in its own right.

The subtle beauty of goldenrod in front of New England asters at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Credit: Dale Bowman

The subtle beauty of goldenrod in front of New England asters at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.

Dale Bowman

At my first wandering, the tall goldenrod and tall boneset stopped me, set me on a sidetracked path. Cisneros thought a couple photos had Canada goldenrod, too. The New England asters and heath asters lifted brightness. Then there was the tall patches of browning cutleaf teasel, cutting edges in the sky.

When confirming the plant, Cisneros added, “Yep, that’s the super invasive cutleaf teasel. Sad reality that it’s too commonly seen. Same for the invasive Canada thistle.”

There’s a stark edge of angry beauty to “the super invasive” cutleaf teasel at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Credit: Dale Bowman

There’s a stark edge of angry beauty to “the super invasive” cutleaf teasel at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.

Dale Bowman

At my second stop, the Hoff Road Trailhead, I found Canada thistle, sometimes known as creeping thistle, and common milkweed, which acquires a fall color in its leaves.

As I walked, the wind loudly rattled cottonwood leaves.

There was also flowering clovers (I think clovers leftover from agriculture), chicory, the red berries of honeysuckle, variously colored grapevines, Queen Anne’s lace, dandelion and sunflowers (Cisneros thought one photo might be sawtooth sunflower).

A blue jay could be heard squawking above the distant roar of a few race cars at the Chicagoland Speedway, at least I think that’s what it was. Though I didn’t think there was racing there this year.

Midewin remains very much in the developing or restoration stages, even after a couple decades. As I wandered around the Hoff Road access, I found an old hydrant tucked in the weeds. Not sure why, but it amused me.

Even after decades of restoration, Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie holds to pieces of its past, such as this hidden hydrant. Credit: Dale Bowman

Even after decades of restoration, Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie holds to pieces of its past, such as this hidden hydrant.

Dale Bowman

Later in the morning, the number of bicyclists, power walkers and strollers greatly increased on the trails and I was not alone.

I decided to swing by the Iron Bridge Trailhead, generally my favorite access point. But the parking lot was fuller than I cared for.

It was time.

I had wandered long enough to avoid an online church meeting. Sometimes I need a natural break, think of it as embracing another side of God.

Oh, I found a couple likely spots to sit for deer and will be back for some evening and morning scouting, if not too sidetracked.

Midewin is open 4 a.m to 10 p.m.

More information is at fs.usda.gov/midewin.

Sunflowers, possibly sawtooth sunflowers, at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie. Credit: Dale Bowman

Sunflowers, possibly sawtooth sunflowers, at Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie.

Dale Bowman

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