This mild October afternoon with blue skies and bright sun, not the stark, blazing, eye-squinting, summer sun, but the warm, golden, cozy light of autumn, makes a perfect afternoon to explore a local, restored tallgrass prairie.  It’s so close to home that I’m reluctant to admit that I’ve never ventured out here on foot before now.

I park and enter the mowed prairie trail.  The big bluestem in bloom is taller than I am.  The winding path is like a maze.  I’m glad to have the map in my pocket. I don’t want to be lost out here after dark.  The curled leaves of the prairie dock grab my attention.  Their spots remind me of saltwater fishes and coral.

I linger to take in all of their forms and textures, photographing those bathed in the sunlight.  I move a little further into the prairie.  The delicate structure of the compass plant leaves stands out, exposed in this fall landscape. 

Compass Plant

The feathery seed-heads of milkweed flutter in the breeze.  I feel the weight of my responsibilities slip away.  At this rate, it will be dark before I make it to the oak savanna.  It’s wonderful.

The forest edge is a stunning curtain of brilliant yellows and golds.

As I enter the woods, individual trees appear – thick, tall, gnarly, curving, branching, reaching, stately, old trees.  A picture could never convey this grandeur. 

The forest floor is open, littered with leaves of gold and brown. A collection of acorn pieces leads me to the door of some small furry creature’s home. 

As I squat to take in this miniature scene, a deep, clear, resonant hoot comes from the north. I stood to locate the source of the sound and saw a small coyote on the path ahead of me, just standing and watching me.  The owl can wait.  I slowly lifted my camera.  The coyote trotted further down the path and stopped again to look at me as if trying to figure out what I was up to.

I guess he had better things to do.  Off he went, down the path, turning onto a well-worn side trail and disappearing into the woods.

I continued on, slower, and quietly.  The owl hooted again.  He’s too far away and there are too many trees between us.  Maybe as I loop back around I will get closer and sneak a peek at him.

The trail is littered with maple and oak leaves.  I keep stopping to study their shapes, veining and textures.  I love the look of fall leaves piled on the ground. 

My favorite part of fall would more commonly be called “past peak” when many of the leaves have fallen, and the beautiful structure of the trees is exposed.   The gnarly branches of the oaks and the white bark of the birches with just a few colorful leaves left, that’s my peak fall.

As I follow the narrow path around a bend, I see a couple of huge (is there any other kind??) puffball mushrooms.  I carefully step off the path for a closer look and find all sorts of mushrooms, another of fall’s captivating decorations.

There are blue jays calling and the flash of a white-tail waving as a deer startles away.  I walk back to the edge of the prairie where the sun is low, nearing the horizon and the light is fading.  Looking back into the dusky woods, rays of the setting sun poke through the canopy highlighting the yellow leaves and turning them to gold.

The temperature is falling and the light is fading fast.  But the sunset is so beautiful silhouetting the fall prairie grasses and forbs.

I keep stopping for just one more picture.  Just one more.  Then it is too cold and too dark.  Dinner is calling…maybe soup or chili.  I’m so glad I finally came out here after all this time to explore.   I resolve to do this more often.