January 6, 2015 Winter is finally here in full force in the Midwest, with subzero temperatures and a couple of inches of snowfall on the prairie. Terms like Clipper Snow and Polar Vortex are salted into everyone’s conversations, and our shovels are finally getting a workout.
The threatening forecasts, icy roads, and frigid weather ensure time alone on the 100-acre Schulenberg Prairie, just down the road from my house. Everyone else at The Morton Arboretum seems to be parked at the Visitor Center, no doubt drinking hot chocolate and watching nature from more comfortable window seats overlooking Meadow Lake. Despite the urge to join them in the cozy cafe, I continue driving out to the West Side to take a walk in the tallgrass.
The sun is bright and there is not a soul in sight. Seemingly, the life of the prairie is on pause. It’s late in the morning; even the birds are silent. The prairie is empty.
Or not. The snow cover tells another story. Although mine are the first boot prints to mark the trails, there is ample evidence that several four-footed critters have been up and about. The clover-shaped tracks of a coyote show where it paced the parameters of the prairie and savanna; out for a stroll, perhaps, or more likely looking for something for breakfast. As I hike further in, I see the tunnels of prairie voles crisscrossing the paths; tiny mouse prints stitch pretty patterns from one side of the trail to the other. Those, and a few squirrel tracks, belie the illusion that I have the place to myself.
It’s quiet – the grasses, weighted by snow, don’t even rustle in the rising, biting wind. Writer Paul Gruchow called the winter months a time of “sweet peace” on the prairie. He also believed you could tell the temperature by the way the snow sounds under your boots. Does it crunch? It’s probably over 20° F, he said. If it squeaks, you’re likely hiking in zero degree weather.
Today is a squeaky snow day. I loop the trails, adding my prints to the tracks of the invisible creatures that have already blazed the trail. At the wooden bridge, I spend a few minutes watching Willoway Brook run clear under the surface ice, in the throes of freezing. The ice is sprinkled with feathered snow crystals, each so intricate they take my breath away. I watch the water make designs under the ice until realize I no longer feel my fingertips. Time to head back.
The life of the prairie and the natural world happens whether we are there to witness it or not. Paying attention just takes a little extra energy, a little discomfort, and a willingness to take time to listen and look.
Most of the things in life that matter require the same.
(All photos by Cindy Crosby of the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum).