Three Reasons to Hike the April Prairie

“Little things make big things happen.”–John Wooden

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In the woodlands, the hepatica are opening. Have you seen them?

Sharp-lobed hepatica (Hepatica nobilis acuta), East Woods, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Toothwort, spring beauties, and prairie trillium keep them company. In the prairie wetlands, marsh marigolds ring in the spring.

Marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris), Cindy’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, IL (2017).

Is there a more exciting time in the Midwest than the first week of April? It’s too early for most prairie wildflowers in my northeast corner of Illinois. Give them a few more weeks, especially if the prairie was recently burned. But the prairie has other goodies to offer. Here are three reasons to go for a hike on the prairie this week.

1. In early April, some of the mostly unseen life of the prairie is made visible.

Meadow voles and prairie voles are cartographers, whose debossed maps across the tallgrass are mostly invisible the rest of the year under blankets of blooms and grasses. So much activity!

Meadow vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus) and prairie vole (Microtus ochrogaster) tunnels across the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Anthills, those towering structures that go unnoticed and unremarked (unless you stumble across one on a workday), are standouts this week. I’m reminded of how little I know about these important insects, and their role on the prairie. There is always so much more to learn.

Ant structure, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Hole, holes, everywhere. Hiking cross-country across the prairie, the cinders from the prairie burn crunch crunch crunch under my feet, I barely grasp the sheer numbers of holes I see. Who are the occupants? Likely a wide assortment of mammals, reptiles, and insects. I wonder at this hole—is it a crayfish home? Illinois has 23 species of crayfish; I know very little about them. But I’d like to know more.

Possible crayfish hole (species uncertain), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Many of the holes and burrows are strewn with detritus or slung about with spiderwebs.

Burrow for unknown mammal with evidence of its snacks, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Early April is full of reminders that the prairie always has more to discover. It’s a never-ending story for those who are curious. The life of the prairie underground is a vital part of understanding what makes a tallgrass prairie healthy and vibrant. And yet. So much of my attention is focused on the life above the surface. I need to go deeper.

2. The first identifiable prairie plants are up.

And what a joy it is to see those spears of spiked lime green and shout: “Rattlesnake master!”

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The porcupine grass shoots of prairie dropseed, slightly singed by the prairie burn, are enough to make anyone smile.

Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Walking the trails, I see small rounded leaves and whisper: Shooting star! My mind races ahead to the pink blooms to come.

Shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

April is only beginning to rev up her plant engine. Temperatures in the seventies and warm rains this week will invite more growth. These first small plants are a foreshadowing of the future.

3. Prairie ponds are open; prairie streams now run ice-free and clear.

Any day, common green darner dragonflies will return from the south or emerge from the prairie waterways. The first ones have already been sighted in the Chicago Region.

Common green darner (Anax junius), Nachusa Grassland, Franklin Grove, IL. (2020)

Along the shoreline of Willoway Brook, I spy mussel shells, likely discarded by raccoons. The ones I find on my hike today are each as big as my hand. I’m reminded that in the early to mid 1900s, Illinois had a thriving pearl button industry, fueled by freshwater mussels. Today, mussel-shell buttons are replaced by plastic.

Freshwater mussel shells (unknown species), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The mussel shells are nestled in green shoots. As a prairie steward, I’m aware of the verdant growth of invasive reed canary grass along the shoreline, already in process. I get the message. There is a lot of stewardship work to be done in the coming months.

The Schulenberg Prairie in early April.

Even in these early weeks of spring, I’m stunned by the prairie’s diversity. It’s a different awareness than in summer, when insects, blooms, and birds are center stage. Ants, crayfish, small mammals…the prairie burn aftermath briefly illuminates them for leisurely study. Soon, I’ll be distracted by the flying critters and colorful flowers of late spring and summer. Early April reminds me that there is so much more to the prairie than what can be seen in a single season.

By Willoway Brook, I stop for a moment and study the reflection of the trees beginning to leaf out in the savanna. The surface wobbles—now clear, then rippled—by the strong breezes which have swirled dust plumes across the ashes of the prairie this week.

Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

I reflect on the past year.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL (2018)

Then I think of the tallgrass season ahead. The life of the prairie unfolding.

So much to anticipate.

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After the NCAA basketball tournament final last night, it seems appropriate to kick off this blog with a quote from Coach John Wooden (1910-2010). The beloved “Wizard of Westwood” won ten—count ’em—ten NCAA basketball championships in a dozen years (and seven in a row). His teams also won a consecutive record 88 games–wow! Read more about John Wooden here.

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Join Cindy for an online class! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for a full list of upcoming talks and programs.

THIS WEEK! Virtual Wildflowers Walk Online: Section A: Friday, April 9, 11:30 am to 1:00 pm CST Woodland Wildflowers, Section B: Thursday, May 6, 6:30 to 8:00 pm CST Woodland and Prairie Wildflowers. Wander through the ever-changing array of blooms in our woodlands and prairies in this virtual walk. Learn how to identify spring wildflowers, and hear about their folklore. In April, the woodlands begin to blossom with ephemerals, and weeks later, the prairie joins in the fun! Each session will cover what’s blooming in our local woodlands and prairies as the spring unfolds. Enjoy this fleeting spring pleasure, with new flowers revealing themselves each week. Register here.

A Brief History of Trees in America: Online, Wednesday, April 28, 7-8 pm CST Sponsored by Friends of the Green Bay Trail and the Glencoe Public Library. From oaks to sugar maples to the American chestnut: trees changed the course of American history. Discover the roles of a few of our favorite trees in building our nation as you remember and celebrate the trees influential in your personal history and your garden. Registration here.

Plant A Backyard Prairie: Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm CST –Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Register here.

After the Prairie Burn

“Barn’s burnt down. Now I can see the moon.”—Mizuta Masahi

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Look what’s rising over the newly-burned prairies. Sugar Moon? Worm Moon? Paschal Moon? By any name, it is beautiful.

Full moon over Cindy’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL.

At the Morton Arboretum just outside Chicago, there’s another sort of moonscape this week.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The Schulenberg Prairie, which burned a week ago.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Few people walk the just-burned prairie.

Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Can you blame them, when hundreds of thousands of spring bulbs are in bloom in parks and preserves and backyards, not far away?

Crocus (Crocus vernus), Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Native wildflowers are up in the woodlands. Virginia bluebells emerge, with leaves like ping pong paddles.

Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), College of DuPage East Ecological Study Area, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Jacob’s ladder unspools its ferny leaves in the savannas.

Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptans), College of DuPage East Ecological Area, Glen Ellyn, IL.

On the unburned Belmont Prairie just a few miles from my house, rattlesnake master spears through the soil.

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

Native wild strawberries spread their leaves in the sunshine. Soon, white flowers and tiny strawberries will cover the prairie remnant here.

Wild strawberries (Fragaria virginiana), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

So much green growth on the prairies I walk this week! So many signs of spring flowers. You can see why people are out admiring the spring flowers.

Daffodil (Narcissus sp.), Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

No wonder a blackened landscape holds little attraction.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

And yet. There is a different sort of way of experiencing beauty here.

Robin (Turdus migratorius), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

There’s a sense of something given away today in exchange for something in the future. A willingness to let go. To reset. To start over.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Loss is here, make no mistake about it. Fire is deadly. Fire is voracious. The prairie’s old apple tree, a relic of settlement, is burned beyond recognition. After years of surviving prescribed burns, it seemed a certain centenarian. Now, it will not see another season.

Old apple tree (Malus domestica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

I’ll miss passing this little piece of history on my prairie hikes; a reminder that people like the ones who planted this apple tree—or its predecessors —forever changed the Midwest prairies. Another tree not far from it, which was prime real estate for the Baltimore orioles and their nests, will have to be removed for the safety of volunteers and visitors.

Fire-damaged tree on the edge of the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

I walk the black earth and find more casualties. Bones. Two baby turtles, unable to scramble away from the wall of fire. A tiny beetle.

After the prescribed burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

All of these losses—and others—-are small griefs, but griefs none the less. Prairie management means trade-offs. What gives life to one plant or animal may be a death knell for another.

Signs of life are here—if you look closely. Tiny insects buzz along the singed earth.

Unknown insect—maybe a bee or wasp?—Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Mallard ducks quack their way down Willoway Brook.

Mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos), Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

And when I see the charred prairie willows…

Prairie willlows (Salix humulis humulis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…with their spring-soft “puffs”…

Prairie willows (Salix humulis humulis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…I feel the life of the prairie continuing on, more vibrant than before.

After the fire.

*****

Mizuta Masahide (1657–1723), whose quote begins this post, studied poetry under the tutelage of Matsuo Basho (1644 –1694) in Japan. Another of his lovely poems: While I walk on/the moon keeps pace beside me:/friend in the water.

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Join Cindy for an online class! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for a full list of upcoming talks and programs.

Virtual Wildflower Walks Online: Section A: Friday, April 9, 11:30 am to 1:00 pm CST Woodland Wildflowers, Section B: Thursday, May 6, 6:30 to 8:00 pm CST Woodland and Prairie Wildflowers. Wander through the ever-changing array of blooms in our woodlands and prairies in this virtual walk. Learn how to identify spring wildflowers, and hear about their folklore. In April, the woodlands begin to blossom with ephemerals, and weeks later, the prairie joins in the fun! Each session will cover what’s blooming in our local woodlands and prairies as the spring unfolds. Enjoy this fleeting spring pleasure, with new flowers revealing themselves each week. Register here.

A Brief History of Trees in America: Online, Wednesday, April 28, 7-8 pm CST Sponsored by Friends of the Green Bay Trail and the Glencoe Public Library. From oaks to sugar maples to the American chestnut: trees changed the course of American history. Discover the roles of a few of our favorite trees in building our nation as you remember and celebrate the trees influential in your personal history and your garden. Registration here.

Plant A Backyard Prairie: Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm CST –Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Register here.

Prairie Fire Season

“Fire works best in nature as it does in the lab, as a catalyst. It interacts. It quickens, shakes, forces.” — Stephen Pyne

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It’s time.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Rising temperatures. Light winds. Rain, forecast later in the week. There’s a sense of urgency. This is the moment.

Time to burn the tallgrass prairie.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

In 2020, the Covid-19 lockdown occurred during prescribed fire season. For the first time in recent memory, the Schulenberg Prairie—like many prairies—was left unburned.

Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

So much was surreal about 2020; not the least was to see the prairie in its second year growth. Spring wildflowers were partially invisible under thatch and old grasses. Black walnut saplings, sumac, and gray dogwood moved in. Prairie shrubs looked, well, shrubby, without their annual fire regime. Most stunning was the prairie pasture rose, which grew taller than I’ve seen it before, with beautiful rose hips that lingered into spring.

Pasture Rose (Rosa Carolina) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

And now, in a matter of four hours, the last two seasons of tallgrass growth have gone up in smoke.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

A red-tailed hawk hovers, waiting to pounce on any small mammals running ahead of the flames. How do they know what fire will do? I wonder. Nearby, a field sparrow sings from a wild plum tree, oblivious to the spectacle taking place. I often find hawk feathers and other bird feathers on my hikes here; now, there will be no trace. Only ashes and bird song.

Feather, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

A woman pulls her car to the side of the road; rolls down her window. “Do you know why they’re doing this?” she asks. It’s an excellent question. The short answer is this: Prescribed fire helps keep a prairie healthy. Without fire, we would lose our prairies.

Fire keeps brush and trees from taking over the tallgrass and turning it to woodland.

Bur Oaks (Quercus macrocarpa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Spring burns warm the ground. The blackened soil heats up much more quickly than unburned soil. This tells the prairie plants it’s time to grow.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Old leaf litter—dead plants—vanish in the flames, freeing up space for new growth.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Fire also helps control some weedy plants that might otherwise take over the prairie and outcompete native plants. The prescribed burns help prairie stewards maintain diversity.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

I watch the hardworking women and men of the fire crew check the prairie for hikers, then lay down a waterline around each area to be burned.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The water line, back-burns, mowed pathways, and the gravel road create boundaries that help keep the fire within a contained space.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

With the help of a drip torch, different portions of the prairie are set on fire.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Up in flames go the prairie dock leaves.

Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Mountain mint seedheads turn to ashes.

Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The last lingering seeds of carrion flower: vanished.

Upright Carrion Flower (Smilax ecirrhata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Late figwort disappears into the inferno.

Late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The last vestiges of 2020 on the prairie are only a memory.

False sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides) Shadow, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Fire is usually something we fear.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Today, we embrace it. Welcome it. Respect it.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Losing our prairie burn season in 2020 was only one of many losses in a year full of assorted griefs.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

But with today’s prairie fire, I feel joy.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

At last. There’s hope for the season ahead.

*****

Stephen Pyne (1949-) is professor emeritus at Arizona State University, and the author of The Perils of Prescribed Fire from which the opening quote for this post is taken. He’s written 34 other books, most of them about fire. Listen to his Ted Talk How Fire Shapes Everything here.

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Join Cindy for an online class! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for a full list of upcoming talks and programs.

Virtual Wildflower Walks Online: Section A: Friday, April 9, 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. CST Woodland Wildflowers, Section B: Thursday, May 6, 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. CST Woodland and Prairie Wildflowers. Wander through the ever-changing array of blooms in our woodlands and prairies in this virtual walk. Learn how to identify spring wildflowers, and hear about their folklore. In April, the woodlands begin to blossom with ephemerals, and weeks later, the prairie joins in the fun! Each session will cover what’s blooming in our local woodlands and prairies as the spring unfolds. Enjoy this fleeting spring pleasure, with new flowers revealing themselves each week. Register here.

A Brief History of Trees in America: Online, Wednesday, April 28, 7-8 p.m. Sponsored by Friends of the Green Bay Trail and the Glencoe Public Library. From oaks to sugar maples to the American chestnut: trees changed the course of American history. Discover the roles of a few of our favorite trees in building our nation as you remember and celebrate the trees influential in your personal history and your garden. Registration here.

Plant A Backyard Prairie: Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm. CST –Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Register here.

The Prairie Skies in March

“Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them.”–Aldo Leopold

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High winds. First green growth. Warm sunny days, alternating with blustery snowstorms. It’s migration season.

Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis) and a sun halo over Cindy’s backyard prairie this weekend.

This week, Jeff and I walk the Belmont Prairie in Downers Grove, Illinois, a 10-acre remnant hemmed by homes, soccer fields, highways and railroad tracks.

More than 300 species of plants and animals are found here. We go to see what emerges in the warmer temperatures of mid-March. At a glance, the prairie looks much as it did all winter. No prescribed burn has touched it yet.

But look closely. The first weedy black mustard’s emerald leaf florets lie flat against the prairie soil. An insect flies low and slow. Too quick for me to slap an ID on. Blue flag iris spears through the muddy waterway that winds through the dry grass and spent wildflowers. Signs of spring.

Blue flag iris (Iris virginica shrevei), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

I browse online to find more about the prairie and encounter this on the Downers Grove Park District’s site: “… in April of 1970, Alfred and Margaret Dupree presented a photograph of a rare prairie wildflower to an expert at the Morton Arboretum, as they were interested if it represented possible remnants of a native prairie. Upon inspection, it was found that the field had numerous native prairie species, and with the help of The Nature Conservancy, the owners were tracked down and the land was purchased. After officially becoming a part of the Park District, it was named an Illinois Nature Preserve in March, 1994.” I love it that two people paid attention to this remnant—and took time to investigate. It makes me wonder what we’ll see, if we look closely.

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

So much to discover under our feet. But today, the real action is over our heads. The clouds sail fast across the horizon.

A breeze ruffles my hair. The melancholy whistle and the clickity-clack, clickity-clack, clickity-clack of a nearby train fills the air. But there’s another sound vying with the wind, train, and traffic noise. A high pitched babble. Look! There they are.

Riding on the winds above us are the sandhill cranes. Thousands and thousands of sandhills. Chasing a memory of somewhere north where they have urgent business to conduct. Each wave seems louder than the next. They are high—so high—in the sky.

Sandhill crane (Antigone canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2019)

The sun is merciless; so bright, we often lose them in its glare. The cranes wheel and pirouette; now flashes of silver overhead, now vanished.

All the obligatory words rise to my lips: Prehistoric. Ballet. Choreography. Dance. None seemed sufficient for this performance in the theater of the sky. The cranes assemble into a “V”, then slip into a sloppy “S”. Now they kettle, swirling and twirling. I’m reminded of my old “Mr. Doodleface” drawing board from childhood, where I dragged a magnet across black shavings to put hair and a beard on a picture of a man. The cranes seem like black shavings pulled through the sky in intricate patterns. Circles and lines and angles and scrawls. Changing from moment to moment. But always, that heart-breaking cry.

At home, I page through my field guides and bird books, then check online for more about cranes. I read that they are about four feet tall, the size of a first grader, with a wingspan of more than six feet.

Sandhill crane (Antigone canadensis), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL (2019)

The newer scientific name since 2010 for sandhill cranes is Antigone canadensis. My birding guides, all a dozen years or more old, still have the previous genus name, Grus. The common name “sandhill” refers to this bird’s stopover in the Nebraska Sandhills, a staging area for the birds.

Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area, Medaryville, IN (2016)

Sandhill cranes can be found in North America, all the way to the extremes of northeastern Siberia. Three subspecies live in Cuba, Mississippi, and Florida year-round, according to Cornell University. These cranes are omnivores, changing their diet based on what’s available. Small amphibians, reptiles, and mammals may be on the menu one day; grains and plants the next.

Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), Horicon Marsh, WI (2019)

The sandhills mate for life, or until one of the pair dies. Then, the remaining crane seeks a new partner.

Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL (2019)

Although gray, the sandhill crane has a rusty-colored wash on its feathers, caused by the bird rubbing itself with iron-rich mud. The birds have a distinctive scarlet patch on their foreheads.

Sandhill crane (Antigone canadensis), Green Lake, WI (2019)

The form of the crane is one of the first origami shapes many of us learned to make. According to a Japanese legend, if you make a thousand origami cranes the gods will grant you a wish. As I watch them fly over Belmont Prairie, it’s easy to think of what to wish for in the coming year.

As we leave, I find a single bird feather, caught in the tallgrass.

Unknown feather, Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

A crane’s? Probably not. But a reminder of the connection of birds to this prairie remnant.

Later that afternoon, we hang my hammock on the back porch and I swing there with a book, pausing each time to look as the cranes pass overhead.

Crane watching, Glen Ellyn, IL.

A sun halo appears.

Partial sun halo, Cindy’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Magical! How does anyone ever say they are bored when there are clouds, and cranes…and marvels all around us?

Sun halo, Cindy’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The thousands and thousands of sandhills migrating this weekend were barely ahead of Monday’s winter storm.

Snowstorm, Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Snow powdered the prairie with fat flakes and turned our world to white.

Crocus (Crocus sp.) Cindy’s backyard prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I wonder if the cranes knew the storm was coming? Prescient sandhills. Smart birds.

Welcome back.

*****

Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) is best known for A Sand County Almanac, from which the quote that kicks off this post was taken. His book was published shortly after his death and has sold more than two million copies. If you visit New Mexico, you can drive through the miles of the Aldo Leopold Wilderness in the Gila National Forest, named for him in 1980. Driving it, you’re aware of the solace of vast and empty spaces, and the importance of conservation. Find out more about Leopold here.

*****

Join Cindy for an online class! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for a full list of upcoming talks and programs.

A Brief History of Trees in America Wednesday, April 28, 7-8 p.m. Sponsored by Friends of the Green Bay Trail and the Glencoe Public Library. From oaks to sugar maples to the American chestnut: trees changed the course of American history. Discover the roles of a few of our favorite trees in building our nation as you remember and celebrate the trees influential in your personal history and your garden. Registration here.

Virtual Wildflower Walks Online: Section A: Friday, April 9, 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. CST Woodland Wildflowers, Section B: Thursday, May 6, 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. CST Woodland and Prairie Wildflowers. Wander through the ever-changing array of blooms in our woodlands and prairies in this virtual walk. Learn how to identify spring wildflowers, and hear about their folklore. In April, the woodlands begin to blossom with ephemerals, and weeks later, the prairie joins in the fun! Each session will cover what’s blooming in our local woodlands and prairies as the spring unfolds. Enjoy this fleeting spring pleasure, with new flowers revealing themselves each week. Register here.

Plant A Backyard Prairie: Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm. CST –Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Register here.

The Prairie Whispers:”Spring”

“The afternoon is bright, with spring in the air, a mild March afternoon, with the breath of April stirring… .”—Antonio Machado

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It’s 63 degrees. I leave my heavy winter coat, gloves, and scarf in the closet and pull out my windbreaker for the first time in months.

Treeline in bright sun, East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Winter hasn’t quite let go. No mistake about it. But the five senses say a shift in seasons is underway.

Gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) and Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), Dick Young Forest Preserve Prairie, Batavia, IL.

In between the prairie dropseed planted along the edges of my backyard patio, the crocus and snowdrops have emerged from their dark sojourn underground.

Crocus (Crocus sp.) , Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

When I dug them in last October, the pandemic seemed to have gone on forever. Vaccination was only a dream. Spring seemed a long way off. Today, I count the flowers—10, 20, 40… . Look how far we’ve come.

Crocus (Crocus sp.) ,Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Cardinal song wakes us in the morning. The windows are cracked open to take advantage of the smell of clean, laundered air.

Tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

On the prairie trails I see a honey bee, flying low to the ground, looking for something blooming. Not much. Warm temperatures and hot sun have brought the earliest prairie fliers out today. My ears catch the buzz—a sound I haven’t heard in months. Soon, I won’t even register it when the pollinators are out in numbers. Today, that “buzz” is still new enough to catch my attention.

Gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Dick Young Forest Preserve, Batavia, IL.

In the afternoon, hundreds of sandhill cranes pass overhead, their cries audible even inside the house. We stand on the back porch, eyes shielded against the bright sun, watching.

Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), Cindy’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Waves upon waves upon waves. Heading north to the top of the world. Flying determinedly toward something they only dimly remember.

Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), Dick Young Forest Preserve, Batavia, IL.

On the prairie, ice still slicks the trails where shadows lie. We pull on knee-high rubber boots and slosh through slush.

Trail through Dick Young Forest Preserve prairie, Batavia, IL.

In spots the paths are springy like a mattress. The trail gives unexpectedly and I tumble down, sprawling, laughing. It’s like sinking into a pillow– although a cold, muddy one. In spring, there are so many new sounds and scents it’s easy to forget to watch your step.

Bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Burdock burs, grasping at their last chance to hitchhike a ride, catch our clothes. We spend a few minutes pulling them off. Ouch! I’d forgotten how sharp they are. Years ago, I remember our collie getting into a big patch of burdock. Impossible to remove. I spent a good long while with the scissors, cutting the burs out.

Dick Young Forest Preserve prairie blues, early March, Batavia, IL.

All around me are the last seeds of 2020; those that remain uneaten by voles, undisturbed by winter storms. Seed dispersal is so varied on the prairie! Wind and animals; people and birds—we all have a role to play in the continuing life of plants. Even now, the vanishing snow is filtering the fallen seeds into the soil, ready for a new life.

Indian hemp or dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum), East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Inhale. The smell of damp earth. Not the scent of fall’s decay, but something similar.

Goldenrod (Solidago sp.) “bunch gall”, East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The fragrance teases my nose. Tickles my memory. It’s the spring’s “prairie perfume.”

The sky begins to cloud with tiny popcorn cumulus. The warmth of the day takes on a bit of a chill. These are the last days of tallgrass.

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Any day now, fire will come to these prairies. Smoke-plumes will rise in the distance. The old season will be burned away.

After the prescribed fire, Fermilab Interpretive Trail, Batavia, IL. (2018)

Until then, the brittle grasses and battered wildflowers wait, tinder for the flames.

Nachusa Grasslands, prescribed fire on Big Jump Prairie (2016).

Today, spring seems like something exotic, something new.

Cattails (Typha sp.), East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

It’s not a shout yet. It’s barely a whisper.

Wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Dick Young Forest Preserve prairie, Batavia, IL.

But listen.

Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis), East Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Can you hear it?

*****

The quote that opens this post is by Antonio Machado (Antonio Cipriano José María y Francisco de Santa Ana Machado y Ruiz) (1875-1939) from Selected Poems, #3. Machado is regarded as one of Spain’s greatest poets. Reflective and spiritual, his poems explore love, grief, history and the landscape of Spain. A longer excerpt (as translated by Alan Trueblood), reads: “The afternoon is bright, /with spring in the air, /a mild March afternoon,/with the breath of April stirring,/ I am alone in the quiet patio/ looking for some old untried illusion -/some shadow on the whiteness of the wall/some memory asleep/on the stone rim of the fountain,/perhaps in the air/the light swish of some trailing gown.”

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Join Cindy for an online class! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for a full list of upcoming talks and programs.

Virtual Wildflower Walks Online: Section A: Friday, April 9, 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. CST Woodland Wildflowers, Section B: Thursday, May 6, 6:30 to 8:00 p.m. CST Woodland and Prairie Wildflowers. Wander through the ever-changing array of blooms in our woodlands and prairies in this virtual walk. Learn how to identify spring wildflowers, and hear about their folklore. In April, the woodlands begin to blossom with ephemerals, and weeks later, the prairie joins in the fun! Each session will cover what’s blooming in our local woodlands and prairies as the spring unfolds. Enjoy this fleeting spring pleasure, with new flowers revealing themselves each week. Register here.

Plant A Backyard Prairie: Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm. CST –Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Register here.

March on the Tallgrass Prairie

March winds and April showers, bring forth May flowers.Nursery rhyme inspired by Geoffrey Chaucer

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Tempestuous March opened meteorological spring yesterday with a whisper, rather than a shout. In like a lamb…

Twilight blues of the vanished prairies over DeKalb County, IL.

Does that mean March will go “out like a lion”?

Sunset over DeKalb’s vanished prairies.

Those of us in the tallgrass prairie region know that with March, anything is possible.

Willful, changeable, whimsical March.

Stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

March is thaw season. Mud season. Melt season. Even as the ice vanishes by inches in prairie ponds and streams…

Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…we know the white stuff hasn’t surrendered. Not really.

Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

March is the opening dance between freeze and thaw.

Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, IL.

Snow and rain. Fire and ice.

The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

It’s a teasing time, when one day the snow sparkles with sunlight, spotlighting the desiccated wildflowers…

Unknown aster, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…the next, howling winds shatter the wildflowers’ brittle remains.

Pale Indian Plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

March is shadow season. Light and dark. Sun and clouds.

Gray-headed Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

It’s been so long. So long since last spring. So many full moons have come and gone.

Full Snow Moon, West Chicago, IL.

We remember last March, a month of unexpected fear. Shock. Grief. Anxiety for what we thought were the weeks ahead…

Pale Purple Coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…which turned into—little did we know—months. A year. Hope has been a long time coming.

Unknown asters, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

But now, sunshine lights the still snow-covered prairie.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Deep in the prairie soil, roots stretch and yawn.

Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Seeds crack open.

Round-headed Bush Clover (Lespedeza capitata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

A new season is on the way.

Canada Geese (Branta canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

In March, anything seems possible.

Trail through the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Hope seems possible.

******

The nursery rhyme “March winds and April showers, bring forth May flowers” is likely adapted from the prologue to Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. There, it reads a bit inscrutably for modern readers: “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote, The droghte of March hath perced to the roote… . ” Chaucer, who was born sometime between 1340-45, is called “the first English author” by the Poetry Foundation. Troubled by finances, he left The Canterbury Tales mostly unfinished when he died in 1400, possibly because “the enormousness of the task overwhelmed him.” Chaucer is buried in Westminster Abbey; the space around his tomb is dubbed the “Poet’s Corner.”

******

Join Cindy online for a class or program this spring from anywhere in the world. Visit http://www.cindycrosby.com for more.

Sunday, March 7, 4-5:30pm CST: Katy Prairie Wildflowers, offered through Katy Prairie Conservancy, Houston, Texas. Discover a few of the unusual prairie wildflowers of this southern coastal tallgrass prairie. Register here

Thursday, March 11, 10am-noon CST: Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History is a book discussion, offered by Leafing through the Pages Book Club at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (Morton Arboretum members only) Registration information here.

Friday, April 9, 11:30a.m-1pm CST: Virtual Spring Wildflower Walk —discover the early blooming woodland and prairie plants of the Midwest region and hear their stories. Through the Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Register here.

A Tallgrass Prairie Thaw

To the mouse, snow means freedom from want and fear…. To a rough-legged hawk, a thaw means freedom from want and fear.” —Aldo Leopold

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Drip. Drip. Drip.

I’m raking snow off our roof when I hear it. The sun broke through the gray haze like a white hot dime an hour ago, and I’m grateful for its feeble warmth. The gutters groan and bend under their weight of ice. I’ve knocked most of the icicles down, pretty though they are—-lining the roof’s edge like a winter holiday postcard.

Icicles, Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

We have a foot and a half of snow on our roof. Uh, oh! For the first time in our 23 years of living in the Chicago Region, we’re concerned enough to borrow a friend’s roof rake and try to do something about it. As I rake, the snow avalanches down the shingles and I’m sprayed with white stuff. It’s like being in a snowball fight with yourself. The squirrels wait in the trees nearby, ready to return to their assault on the birdfeeders when I finish. I try to imagine what they’re thinking.

Fox squirrel (Sciurus niger), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Then I hear it again. Drip. Drip. Drip.

The sound of thaw.

Icicle, Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The prairie, slumbering under her weight of white, hears the sound. There’s a faint stirring in the ice, especially where the sun strikes in full.

Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Winter is far from over; its icy clasp on the prairie will linger for many more weeks. And yet. There’s something in the air this week, despite the cold haze that hangs over the tallgrass.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie in late February, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Certain sounds—that “drip!” Water trickling in a prairie stream under the ice. Snow melt. The smell of something fresh.

Ice on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2019)

A male cardinal sings his courting call. I stop in my tracks. He doesn’t seem to be daunted by the snow flurries, seemingly stuck on “repeat” this week. He knows what’s coming.

Above the ground, the prairie grasses and wildflowers are smothered in snow drifts. They look bowed and broken by the wild weather thrown at them over the past few months.

Cindy’s backyard prairie patch at the end of February, Glen Ellyn, IL.

A few stalwart plants stubbornly defy the storms and stand tall.

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Their long roots—-15 feet deep or more—begin to stir. You can almost hear a whisper in the dry, brittle leaves. Soon. Soon.

It’s been a beautiful winter.

Ice on Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

But a long one, as winters tend to seem when you’re half past February and not quite close enough to March.

Russell R. Kirt Prairie, viewed through the piled parking lot snow at College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Even as the snow is grimed with soot by car exhaust along the streets, there’s beauty. All around, the particular delights of February. The stark silhouettes of grass stems…

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…the prairie’s geometric lines and angles; devoid of frills and flounces.

Winter at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. (2016)

The gray-blues and rusts of the prairie landscape, seem intensified at this time of year. Everything is clarified. Distilled.

Perhaps because of the long grind of the pandemic, this winter has seemed longer and gloomier than usual. Colder. More difficult.

Hidden Lake prairie plantings, Downers Grove, IL (2019).

But when I open the newspaper over breakfast, the headlines seem less grim. A faint whiff of optimism tinges conversations with friends. I feel hope in the air; hope that we are nearing the end of our long haul through this dark night.

Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

My spirits lift when I see the signs, scent the smells, hear the sounds of a new season on the way.

Spring is coming. Do you sense the thaw? Can you feel it?

Dickcissel (Spiza americana), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. (2017)

I’m ready.

***

Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), whose quote opens this blog post, is best known for his book of collected essays, A Sand County Almanac, published a year after his death. Today, it is considered a critical foundation for conservation and wilderness thinking. Leopold’s book has sold more than two million copies and influences many who work in wildlife and prairie conservation today. Another favorite quote: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Read more about him here.

*****

Last Chance to Register for February 24 Program! Join me online from anywhere in the world via Zoom.

February 24, 7-8:30 p.m. CST: The Prairie in Art and Literature– Online. The tallgrass prairie is usually thought of for its diverse community of plants, animals, and insects. Yet, it is also an inspiration for a creative community! In this interactive online talk, natural history author and prairie steward Cindy Crosby will explore historical and contemporary writers and artists, musicians, and other creatives working in the prairie genre: from Neil Young to Willa Cather to graphic comic artists, quilters, and jewelers expressing the prairie through their work. See the prairie in a new light! Come away inspired to appreciate and express your love of the tallgrass as you enjoy learning about this prairie “community.” Offered by The Morton Arboretum: Register here.

Reading the Tallgrass Prairie

“It’s a story that continues to be written, on the page and in the earth.” — John T. Price

The polar vortex has clamped its icy claws on the Midwest.

Monarch Way Station, Cindy’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I find myself humming Christina Rossetti’s gorgeous Christmas poem/carol, “In the Bleak Midwinter.” Snow on snow, snow on snow.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

My hikes have gotten shorter and shorter this week. Even a trip to fill up the backyard birdfeeders…

Hairy Woodpecker (Dryobates villosus) and House Sparrow (Passer domesticus), Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

….is Brrrr!...enough to send me back inside to brew a mug of hot lapsang souchong tea, shrug on an afghan, and reach for a book about the gorgeous and—painfully cold this week—natural world.

Robin (Turdus migratorius) on Staghorn Sumac (Rhus hirta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

It’s prime reading weather. Time to investigate some prairie literature.

Let’s pull a few books off the shelf and spend some of this week “hiking” through the pages, immersed in prairie.

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Do you love a good story? A great place to begin a prairie literary exploration is with John Price’s edited volume, The Tallgrass Prairie Reader.

It’s an intentionally accessible nonfiction anthology with, as Price says in his introduction, “a variety of forms, voices, and approaches—including adventure narratives, spiritual reflections, literary ethnobotany, animal portraits, ‘personal’ natural history, childhood memoir, travel writing, humor, and reportage.” These are stories, rather than how-to restoration essays. Price groups the readings in three sections—19th, 20th, and 21st Centuries. You can skip around and dip into different readings, or, as he suggests, start at the earliest reading (Black Dog’s “Sun and Moon” creation story) and read it straight through to get a sense of how people at different points in history experienced the tallgrass prairie. Absorbing reading.

If you’re looking for more of a comprehensive natural history (from glaciers to present), one of the classic narratives of the tallgrass prairie is John Madson’s Where the Sky Began.

Madson’s dry wit, his encyclopedic facts narrated in lovely prose, and his passion for prairie make the 340 pages of this book fly by. Where the Sky Began was published in 1982; Madson passed away in 1995. When my new prairie volunteers ask me what book to read to understand what a prairie is and how it came to be, Madson’s book is the first one I recommend. A classic.

Memoir and prairie make good companions, and one of my favorites remains Nature’s Second Chance by Steven Apfelbaum.

After moving to Juda, Wisconsin, where he purchased an old 2.7 acre agricultural homestead, Apfelbaum began restoring it to health. Apfelbaum is founder and chairman at Applied Ecological Services, and has an expert knowledge of what it takes to create tallgrass prairie where it has been obliterated. His story tells how he gained an education in what it means to do so in a community where ecological restoration isn’t well understood. Chapter 10 is my favorite: “Getting to Know the Neighbors.” It will make you smile! This book is a great companion for frigid February evenings when you want a non-fiction prairie book that’s personal, and reads with the flowing narrative of a good novel.

For the same reasons, I love Paul Gruchow’s Journal of a Prairie Year ….

…and Gruchow’s Grass Roots: The Universe of Home.

Both books are collections of thoughtful essays on prairie, rural living, and the natural world. Grass Roots won the 1996 Minnesota Book Award, and contains an essay, “What the Prairie Teaches Us,” that I use in my tallgrass prairie ecology classes. Journal of a Prairie Year is arranged seasonally, and as Milkweed Editions (Gruchow’s publisher) notes, it is “both equal parts phenology and philosophy.” I read portions of Gruchow’s books all year round to remind myself to pay attention to what’s unfolding all around me.

Most prairie wildflowers and grasses are battered or buried under a foot of snow this week. Some are almost unrecognizable at this time of year. I’ve found that a great way to deepen my relationship with plants is to browse some of my ethnobotany books—discovering how people have used these native plants throughout history. Learning the plants’ stories, and how their stories are part of the human story, is an engaging way to pass the winter hours indoors.

Wildflowers of the Tallgrass Prairie: The Upper Midwest by Sylvan Runkel and Dean Roosa is now in its second edition with a new cover and much better photographs than my first edition shown above. The authors include fun snippets of information about the scientific names of more than 100 plants, and stories of how Native Americans and newcomers to the Midwest used native prairie plants medicinally, as groceries, and even for veterinary purposes. It’s easy to pick the book up for a few minutes and renew my acquaintance with a prairie grass or wildflower’s stories—then put it down. This suits my short attention span this month (which I blame on the pandemic). Read about a plant or two each day, and by the time warm weather and prescribed fire have readied the prairie for another growing year, you’ll be all set to greet the first spring wildflowers.

Bumblebee (Bombus sp.) on Wood Betony (Pedicularis canadensis), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Kelly Kindscher’s two seminal works on Kansas prairie plants, Edible Wild Plants of the Prairie and Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie include many stories of grasses and wildflowers native to my area of Illinois as well as further west. Drawings like these below are included, rather than photographs.

Illustration from Kelly Kindscher’s Edible Wild Plants of the Tallgrass Prairie.

Kindscher’s writing is lucid and enjoyable, and a deep dive into a plants ethnobotanical story. And, if these three books on prairie plants whet your appetite for more, immerse yourself in the doorstopper encyclopedic Native American Ethnobotany by Daniel Moerman (shown above with the other three books), a fairly exhaustive compilation of native plant use by specific Native American tribes in North America. It’s an amazing reference book no serious prairie enthusiast should be without.

Now that you know more about the prairie plants’ stories, wouldn’t it be nice to go see a few? Winter is a good time for planning visits to all the prairies I hoped to visit during warmer weather—but didn’t get around to. These three books below stimulate a lot of dreaming about road trips. The Prairie Directory of North America by Charlotte Adelman and Bernard Schwartz is an out-of-print oldie, but goodie. My first edition, published in 2001, has valuable lists of small, off the beaten track types of prairies in the United States and Canada. See if you can find a used copy of either the first or second edition. The directory has been the springboard for many of my prairie hikes.

Exploring Nature in Illinois by Susan Post and Michael Jeffords, while not focused solely on prairies, has some excellent destinations including Goose Lake Prairie State Park, Nachusa Grasslands, Kankakee Sands, and more. Hiking Illinois by Susan Post includes great prairie trips such as Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, McHenry County Conservation District’s 26-mile “The Prairie Trail,” and Winnebago County’s sand prairies.

So many books! So little time. As a former independent bookseller, I’d love to pull each of my prairie books off the shelf and tell you why it’s earned a place there.

Then, you could share your favorites with me (and please do so below in the comments). There are more books than I can name, or show in the photo above, or describe here. Books on prairie restoration, plant ID, bison, birds, blooms; coffee-table photography tomes and books of prairie spiritual reflections. And I have many more prairie books on my wish list. You, too?

Of course, reading about the prairie is no substitute for the prairie itself.

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Blackwell Forest Preserve, Warrenville, IL.

But when the wind chill drops to minus 20 degrees, and winter storms close many of the roads to the tallgrass preserves, “hiking” through the pages of these prairie books is the next best thing to being there.

Happy reading!

*****

John T. Price (1966-) earned his M.F.A. in Nonfiction Writing and Ph.D. in English from University of Iowa. He is the author of Daddy Long Legs: The Natural Education of a Father (2013) and Man Killed by Pheasant and Other Kinships (2008) and Not Just Any Land: A Personal and Literary Journey into the American Grasslands (2004). Price is Professor of English at the University of Nebraska.

*******

Join Cindy in 2021 for an online class! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for a complete list of virtual offerings. Need a speaker? Email me through my website. All classes and programs with Cindy this winter and spring are offered online only. Join me from your computer anywhere in the world.

February 24, 7-8:30 p.m. CST: The Prairie in Art and Literature– Online. The tallgrass prairie is usually thought of for its diverse community of plants, animals, and insects. Yet, it is also an inspiration for a creative community! In this interactive online talk, natural history author and prairie steward Cindy Crosby will explore historical and contemporary writers and artists, musicians, and other creatives working in the prairie genre: from Neil Young to Willa Cather to graphic comic artists, quilters, and jewelers expressing the prairie through their work. See the prairie in a new light! Come away inspired to appreciate and express your love of the tallgrass as you enjoy learning about this prairie “community.” Offered by The Morton Arboretum: Register here.

Readers, I hope you’ll “hunker down” this winter with my book, The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction and my book with awesome co-author Thomas Dean, Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit during this cold spell! Don’t forget your independent bookstores when you order Thanks for reading about and supporting prairie.

5 Reasons to Hike the February Prairie

“If you stand still long enough to observe carefully the things around you, you will find beauty, and you will know wonder.” — N. Scott Momaday

******

Zero degrees. My backyard birdfeeders are mobbed.

White-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis), Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The squirrels take their share. I don’t begrudge them a single sunflower seed this week.

Fox squirrel (Sciurus niger), Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

It’s tempting to stay inside. Watch the snow globe world from behind the window. It’s warmer that way. But February won’t be here for long.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Let’s pull on our coats. Wrap our scarves a little tighter. Snuggle into those Bernie Sanders-type mittens.

Ice and snow on unknown shrubs, West Side, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Need a extra push, during these polar vortex days? Consider these five reasons to get outside for a prairie hike this week.

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  1. Bundle up in February and marvel at the way snow highlights each tree, shrub and wildflower.
East Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Enjoy how the snow drifts into blue shadows on the prairie, punctured by blackberry canes. A contrast of soft and sharp; staccato and legato; light and dark.

Snow drifts into wild blackberry canes (Rubus allegheniensis) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Notice: Rather than being muzzled and smothered by snow, the prairie embraces it, then shapes it to its February tallgrass specifications.

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve prairie plantings, Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Downers Grove, IL. (2018)

Snow in February creates something wonder-worthy.

2. The restrained palette of February demands our attention. Ash and violet. Black and blue. A little red-gold. A bit of dark evergreen.

Prairie plants along the shore of Crabapple Lake, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

You’d think it would be monotonous. And yet. Each scene has its own particular loveliness.

Wetland with prairie plants, East Side, Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

We begin to question our previous need for bright colors…

Bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2018)

…as we embrace the simplicity of the season.

Road to Thelma Carpenter Prairie, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. (2016)

As we hike, there’s a yearning for something we can’t define. More daylight? Warmth? Or maybe, normalcy? Our personal routines and rhythms of the past 12 months have been completely reset. There’s a sense of resignation. It’s been a long winter. February reminds us we still have a ways to go. Keeping faith with our prairie hikes is one practice that grounds us and doesn’t have to change. It’s reassuring.

Possibly burdock (Artium minus), Lyman Woods, Downers Grove, IL.

3. In February, we admire the elusiveness of water. It’s a changeling. One minute, liquid. The next—who knows?

Ice on Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (2017)

Winter plays with water like a jigsaw puzzle.

Ice forms in Belmont Prairie’s stream, Downers Grove, IL (2020)

February’s streams look glacial.

Bridge over the DuPage River prairie plantings in February, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Snuggle into your parka and be glad you’re hiking, not swimming.

4. If you are a minimalist, February is your season.

East Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Everything is pared to essentials.

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardi) leaves, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Many of the seeds are gone; stripped by mice, extracted by birds.

Gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2018)

Everywhere around you are the remains of a prairie year that will soon end in flames.

Prescribed burn sign, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

What you see before you is the last whisper of what is, and was, and what will be remembered.

Hidden Lake in February. (2018)

Look closely. Don’t forget.

5. In February, turn your eyes to the skies. What will you see? The marvel of a single red-tailed hawk, cruising over the tallgrass in the distance?

Prairie planting with red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis0, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

A sundog—that crazy play of sunlight with cirrus that happens best in the winter? Or a sun halo, blinding, dazzling?

Sun halo, Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL. (2020)

Maybe it will be a full Snow Moon at the end of this month, setting sail across the sub-zero sky. Or a daylight crescent moon, scything the chill.

Crescent moon, Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL. (2020)

What will you see? You won’t know unless you go. Sure, it’s bitter cold. But soon, February will only be a memory. What memories are you making now?

Coyote (Canis latrans) on the trail through the Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The prairie is waiting.

*****

N. Scott Momaday (1934-) is the author of Earth Keeper (2020), House Made of Dawn (1968, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Literature in 1969) and my favorite, The Way to Rainy Mountain (1969), a blend of folklore and memoir. Momaday is a member of the Kiowa tribe, a group of indigenous people of the Great Plains. Writer Terry Tempest Williams calls Earth Keeper “a prayer for continuity in these days of uncertainty.”

*****

Join Cindy in 2021 for an online class! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for a complete list of virtual offerings. Need a speaker? Email me through my website. All classes and programs with Cindy this winter and spring are offered online only. Join me from your computer anywhere in the world.

Begins Monday, February 8 (SOLD OUT) OR just added —February 15 (Two options): Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online (Section A or B)--Digitally explore the intricacies of the tallgrass prairie landscape and learn how to restore these signature American ecosystems as you work through online curriculum. Look at the history of this unique type of grassland from the descent of glaciers over the Midwest millions of years ago, to the introduction of John Deere’s famous plow, to where we are today. We will examine different types of prairie, explore the plant and animal communities of the prairie and discuss strategies specific to restoring prairies in this engaging online course. Come away with a better understanding of the tallgrass prairies, and key insights into how to restore their beauty. All curriculum is online, with an hour-long in-person group Zoom during the course. You have 60 days to complete the curriculum! Join me–Registration information here.

February 24, 7-8:30 p.m. CST: The Prairie in Art and Literature Online. The tallgrass prairie is usually thought of for its diverse community of plants, animals, and insects. Yet, it is also an inspiration for a creative community! In this interactive online talk, natural history author and prairie steward Cindy Crosby will explore historical and contemporary writers and artists, musicians, and other creatives working in the prairie genre: from Neil Young to Willa Cather to graphic comic artists, quilters, and jewelers expressing the prairie through their work. See the prairie in a new light! Come away inspired to appreciate and express your love of the tallgrass as you enjoy learning about this prairie “community.” Offered by The Morton Arboretum: Register here.

The Tallgrass Prairie in February

“For if there is one constant in a prairie winter, it is inconstancy.” — John Madson

*****

The winter storm is past, leaving magic in its wake.

Walking to the prairie, Lyman Woods, Downers Grove, IL.

So much snow, on top of the previous week’s white stuff! An old yardstick gives the final tally.

Snowfall measured, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The day after the storm, the sky is “bravo blue”—so bright it makes me want to applaud. Wind-driven cumulus puffs drift over the neighbor’s trees behind my backyard prairie patch.

View from the prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Sunshine lasers its beams on the new-fallen snow and attempts a melt intervention.

Stream snowmelt, Lyman Woods, Downers Grove, IL.

The temperature hovers just at freezing. Blue shadows stretch across the backyard.

Raised beds and blue shadows, Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Our two stone frogs are barely above snowline.

Stone froggies, Cindy’s prairie pond, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Years ago, they were half-buried in my grandma’s garden by lilies and roses. Now that she’s gone, I think of her and smile when I see them by my small pond, blanketed by snow.

Snow slides into the blown-out butterfly weed pods.

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

It outlines fallen trees with a thick, crumbly, white-leaded pencil.

Fallen trees along the trail to the prairie through Lyman Woods, Downers Grove, IL.

Snow turns the prairie and the nearby woods to a confectioner’s sugar concoction; a panorama of powdered sugar.

Prairie bench, Lyman Woods, Downers Grove, IL.

Familiar prairie plants from the summer…

Pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) with pollinator, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…change personality in February against a backdrop of snow.

Pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Lyman Woods, Downers Grove, IL.

Snow highlights.

Bluebird house on the prairie, Lyman Woods, Downers Grove, IL.

Snow softens.

Snow on Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), Lyman Woods prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

Snow gives us a new lens with which to view the world.

Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium purpureum), Cindy’s prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL.

And what a beautiful world it is.

Trail to the prairie, Lyman Woods, Downers Grove, IL.

Why not go for a hike and see?

*****

John Madson (1923-1995) is the author of Where the Sky Began (1982), one of the most influential books about the tallgrass prairie. Madson, a graduate of Iowa State in wildlife biology and a World War II Veteran, became a journalist and conservation advocate. An Iowa native, he eventually moved to Godfrey, Illinois. There, he planted a prairie.

*****

Join Cindy in 2021 for an online class! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for a complete list of virtual offerings. All classes and programs with Cindy this winter and spring are offered online only. Join me from your computer anywhere in the world.

Begins Monday, February 8 OR just added —February 15 (Two options): Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online (Section A or B)--Digitally explore the intricacies of the tallgrass prairie landscape and learn how to restore these signature American ecosystems as you work through online curriculum. Look at the history of this unique type of grassland from the descent of glaciers over the Midwest millions of years ago, to the introduction of John Deere’s famous plow, to where we are today. We will examine different types of prairie, explore the plant and animal communities of the prairie and discuss strategies specific to restoring prairies in this engaging online course. Come away with a better understanding of the tallgrass prairies, and key insights into how to restore their beauty. All curriculum is online, with an hour-long in-person group Zoom during the course. You have 60 days to complete the curriculum! Join me–Registration information here. (Call the Morton Arboretum for information on the February 15 class, which is not yet posted).

February 24, 7-8:30 p.m. CST: The Prairie in Art and Literature Online. The tallgrass prairie is usually thought of for its diverse community of plants, animals, and insects. Yet, it is also an inspiration for a creative community! In this interactive online talk, natural history author and prairie steward Cindy Crosby will explore historical and contemporary writers and artists, musicians, and other creatives working in the prairie genre: from Neil Young to Willa Cather to graphic comic artists , quilters, and jewelers expressing the prairie through their work. See the prairie in a new light! Come away inspired to appreciate and express your love of the tallgrass as you enjoy learning about this prairie “community.” Offered by The Morton Arboretum: Register here.