5 Reasons to Hike the December Prairie

“Curiosity, imagination, inventiveness expand with use, like muscles, and atrophy with neglect.”  —Paul Gruchow

****

December mornings dawn bright and clear. Venus dazzles in the southeast, just before first light.

venus in the dawn sky 121018WM.jpg

Step outside. Brrrrr! Hello, December, with your mercurial weather and often-frigid temps.

It may seem like a daunting month to hike the prairie. After all, there’s not much going on, right?

Backyardprairiepatch12618WM.jpg

Wrong. For those who venture out to the tallgrass, there are wonders to be had.  Here are five reasons to bundle up, get outside, and go take a look.

1. Critters 

Love ’em or can’t stand ’em, you can’t get away from squirrels in December. Despite their inroads on my backyard bird feeders, I’m a bit of a fan. Walk through any prairie savanna or check the trees scattered across the prairie, and you won’t have to look too hard.

Squirrel in black walnut tree SPMAWM 12818 (12).jpg

Check out this tree on the edge of the prairie. How many squirrels can you see?

squirrel tree (12) SPMA12818WM.jpg

I counted at least a dozen, possibly more.  A group of squirrels like this one is called a scurry. Perfection, right?  Those leafy nests high up in the trees are the squirrel condos. You can see one in the above photo, on the left. Squirrel homes, and sometimes a squirrel family group, are called a drey or sometimes, dray.

Most squirrels were enjoying a snack. The scritch scritch scritch scritch of so many furballs gnawing on black walnuts was the soundtrack to our prairie hike.

Not a squirrel fan? Walk on… .

2. Ice Capades

Temperature ups and downs on the prairie leave ponds and streams a virtual canvas for weather to paint its delights upon. Crystals, ice shelves, frozen droplets…the scene changes from moment to moment with the rays of the sun.

Willoway Brook SPMA 12818WM.jpg

Unless you visit the prairie in December, you’ll miss the magic.

Ice crystals SPMA 12818WM.jpg

Isn’t it important for us to witness the beauty in the world?

Backyard prairie pond 12718WM.jpg

As Annie Dillard writes, “Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.”

backyardpondprairieWM121018.jpg

3. Shifts of Weather

Woolly bear, woolly bear, what do you see? Traditionally, the banded woolly bear caterpillar is the foreteller of winter weather. The longer the black stripes, the longer the winter. This little bear looks as if it’s predicting a mild winter, doesn’t it? But it was out in 17 degree weather! And, we’ve already had one blizzard in the Chicago region. Hmmm.

Woolly Bear 12818SPMAWM.jpg

The woolly bear caterpillar will emerge in the spring as the isabella tiger moth. Woolly bear, you’re cute.  But I might stick to watching meteorologist Tom Skilling’s weather report.

SPMAsnowponds12818WM.jpg

4. The Splendors of Grass

We think of grass as juicy, green, and supple. But one of the many delights of prairie grass is its winter wardrobe. Nuanced, ranging through metallic tones of bronze, silver, and gold, the tallgrass changes colors with the slant of the sun.

Bridge over SPMA 12818WM.jpg

Sure, the recent snows flattened the tallgrass. Take a look, and see how your perspective on the prairie changes when the grasses and forbs, towering over your head just a month or two ago, no longer obstruct the view. New vistas open up. Grass takes on different role in December.

5. Mindful Hiking

What does the prairie have in store for you in December? Smell the tang of cold air. Feel the hot sun on your face on a frigid day. Listen to the sounds of the winter residents of the prairie and the prairie savanna; woodpeckers drumming along the edges, the rustle of squirrels dashing from tree to tree on the prairie edges. Taste the last dollop of snow. Check out the coyote scat on the trail to see what “trickster” has been sampling. Persimmons? Meadow vole? The fur and seeds tell the story for those who take time to look. Check the ponds and streams and see who is hanging out there.

blue heron Dupage River restorationWMMA 12818.jpg

It’s easy to get caught up in the baking, shopping, socializing, and other activities of the holiday season. Need a break? A walk on the prairie may be just the thing to clear your head. What are your motivations to hike the December prairie? Please share them in the comment section below.

Because we all need a little extra push to get outside this month.

Happy hiking!

*****

The opening quote is from Boundary Waters: Grace of the Wild by Minnesotan Paul Gruchow (1947-2004). Gruchow writes compellingly about the rural life and the natural world in his books. If you haven’t read him before, try Grass Roots: The Universe of Home, or A Prairie Journal.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Venus in the dawn sky, author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL: little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; eastern fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) on the edge of the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; three eastern fox squirrels (Sciurus niger) on the edge of the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ice on Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: ice crystals on Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  ice on author’s backyard prairie pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; ice on the author’s backyard prairie pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; woolly bear (Pyrrharctia isabella) caterpillar on the prairie trail, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; snow patches on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: bridge in December on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blue heron (Ardea herodias) with a few mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), East Branch of the DuPage River Restoration, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

4 responses to “5 Reasons to Hike the December Prairie

  1. Thanks for the list of books. I am reading the Wolf book that is currently popular. It is a good read. thanks for the weekly reads. I look forward to reading them.

    On Tue, Dec 11, 2018 at 7:14 AM Tuesdays in the Tallgrass wrote:

    > Cindy Crosby posted: ““Curiosity, imagination, inventiveness expand with > use, like muscles, and atrophy with neglect.” —Paul Gruchow **** > December mornings dawn bright and clear. Venus dazzles in the southeast, > just before first light. Step outside. Brrrrr! Hello, Decemb” >

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Every time you post, you are able to put into words and pictures what I experience walking the Prairie. I get all excited spending time with you. It’s the excitement I feel with the Prairie. Our Prairie has been so wet for the last month and a half walking has been infrequent. Working, tending the Prairie most difficult. Two days ago I had the chance be in the Prairie and the joy was palpable. I realized that I have a personal relationship with the Prairie and I really missed that connection. There’s the excitement of discovery. Your Blog brings that front and center. An awareness of an emptiness because I wasn’t in the Prairie. I get centered and grounded as I enter the Prairie.
    Winter opens my awareness to Prairie and not just the myriad of work I could do to support the Prairie. So different to walk and just drink in the Prairie, leaving behind the should do , could do, what needs to be done.
    That’s plenty of reason to enter the Prairie in December.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello, William, and what a lovely response. Thank you for sharing your experiences in hiking the prairie at this time of year. I especially appreciate that you feel as if you have a personal relationship to the prairie. That comes of time invested. Grateful you are finding the blog meaningful to you in your own prairie work and tallgrass adventures. Happy hiking!

      Like

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