“Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” –John Muir
You might not be able to climb a mountain, or spend a week in the woods in December, as the opening quote from John Muir advocates. But, a short walk in the winter prairie savanna does “wash your spirit clean.” Come hike with me and see why.
What is a prairie savanna, anyway? Very simply put, it’s a place that’s less dense than a forest, and has its own suite of plants. You may see tallgrass prairie plants, animals, birds, or critters you recognize here, as well. Especially on the edges.
Look around. In Conrad Station’s black oak savanna at Kankakee Sands in northwestern Indiana, there are traces of human habitation. People once remade this landscape into a place for commerce. But now — with the help of volunteers and caring people –nature has reclaimed the savanna.
Dried fern fronds arch over the crunchy fallen leaves.
A recent rain beads mullein leaves with water drops.
Oaks, shorn of their fall finery, are decorated with shelf fungi. Elf staircases?
Seeds…so many seeds. The plant leaves curl as they dry, perhaps more beautiful in death than in life.
Towers of fungi rise from the savanna floor.
There are “muffins” everywhere. Mystery mushrooms? What could they be?
These kinds of questions will give you many happy hours flipping through ID books later at home. After much searching in field guides, the “muffins” turned out to be purple-spored puffballs.
Moss spangles the trail.
Oak apple galls dangle from trees, their wasp-y occupants long since fled.
Open one, and marvel at the “web” that once held a tiny developing oak apple gall wasp safely inside.
On your prairie savanna hike, you’ll see things you know. You’ll also discover new plants and other living things you can’t easily find names for. All it takes to “clean your spirit” is a little curiosity; a little energy.
You don’t have to hike alone — ask a friend or two to explore with you. Talk about what you discover.
Who knows what is waiting for you on your December walk in the prairie savanna?
Wherever you are — make time to go see. Take John Muir’s advice. It will “wash your spirit clean.”
John Muir (1838-1914) is known as the father of our National Parks. His love for the outdoors and activism on behalf of natural areas have been formative and inspirational for many naturalists, including myself. Although some find his superlatives heavy slogging, his books have been read by millions and have decorated many a dorm room poster. His words continue to inspire people today to develop a relationship with the outdoors, and care for the natural world.
Read more about the history of Conrad Station Savanna at The Nature Conservancy’s website:
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby; taken at Conrad Station’s black oak sand savanna at Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Newton County, IN (top to bottom): starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) lifting off on the savanna’s edge; sweet fern (Comptonia peregrina) fronds; common mullein (Verbascum thapsus) leaves; various polypore (bracket) fungi (Family: Polyporaceae); unknown seedhead; white polypore (bracket) fungi (Family: Polyporaceae); purple-spored puffballs-late stage (Calvatia cyathiformis); haircap moss (Polytrichum spp.); oak apple gall (Amphibolips confluenta) on black oak (Quercus velutina); open oak apple gall (Amphibolips confluenta); hikers exploring the savanna (Homo sapiens).