Legends of the prairie fall

For great prairie colors, we recommend the Hastings Sand Coulee Scientific & Natural Area.

Two days before putting tissue to plastic keys in the rather feeble and inadequate attempt to convey the beauty that a chunk of native prairie exudes at this time of year, I was humming along at life basking in the 70-degree weather when BAM, fall hit. This cold yet refreshing slap in the face reminded me that I needed to hightail it to my nearest prairie to witness the incredible splendor of the fall colors that she wears this time of year. The prairie should not take a back seat to the forest just because it doesn’t gaudily shove its colors high into the air in the attempt to draw attention to itself (not unlike a certain phenologist we all know and tolerate).

Now, I realize that them there are fighting words here in the great state of Minnesota with weekly leaf color reports and all, but anyone ready to ask me to step outside has not walked a prairie on a sunny early October morning. The numerous native grasses at this time of year each have their own color. Mix the wine-red color of little bluestem, the copper-red of big bluestem and the orange-tan of Indian grass to the matrix of other grasses and forbs with their own colors and textures and you have a multi-hued, textured canvass that is hard to take your eyes off of. If you have lived a virtuous, monastic life then on your visit you may be lucky enough to view this seen with a clear, intense blue sky and with a breeze which will give the prairie an undulating kaleidoscopic scene that must be seen to understand (hang on a minute while I splash some water on my face).

A couple words of caution: One must adequately prepare for such a visit. First, you must exorcise the anticipation of viewing clearly distinct colors that fall tree leaves have routinized for us. The prairie provides a palate of subtle distinctions. To prepare and practice, try tasting a variety of cheddars from farms with different soil types in central Wisconsin or sip Malbecs from several different adjoining wineries in Argentina. Also, be prepared to stop and disembark from your vehicle. You may be able to drive from Grand Marais to Ely at 40 miles per hour and enjoy the fall tree colors, but this approach will not work on the prairie. Actually, the less you move on the prairie the better. Train your eye on the minutia. Stop, look, listen, breathe.

Suggested fall prairie-viewing locations