The Art of Prairie Attention

“Paying attention: This is our endless and proper work.” — Mary Oliver


The sun rises through the fog on the Schulenberg Prairie and Savanna.

Willoway Brook SPMA93019WM.jpg

Everywhere, spiders hang misted veils. The spiders are present every day on the prairie—no doubt—but usually, spider webs are invisible. Until, as the writer Richard Powers writes in The Overstorythey are “dew-betrayed.”


The spiders’ silk draperies, paired with the prairie’s autumn seed heads and dying leaves, coerced my attention for far longer on Monday morning than planned. My hike–which was supposed to be a doctor-mandated 30 minutes—was extended as I lingered. (Just five more minutes!) But how can you tear yourself away from a morning full of magic? One crystal web chandelier led to another….then another… .


After the hike, as I enjoyed my morning cup of Joe, I stumbled on a wonderful article from BrainPickings about the art of paying attention. It’s framed around Marla Popova’s review of “On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes” by Alexandra Horowitz. The gist of the book’s message is this: we can re-frame the ordinary by using different lenses to see what we usually miss. In the review, Popova recounts how Horowitz accomplishes “seeing” with new eyes by strolling through her city neighborhood with a visually impaired person,  a geologist, and her dog (to name just three lenses). Intrigued? Me too. Papova calls the book “breathlessly wonderful.” (It’s now on hold for me at the library.)


I’ve been thinking more these days about the art of paying attention, and what it means to see with new eyes. One lens I use is books. Others writers  prod me to understand and view my familiar places through different lenses. I learn from their words. Then, I “see” more completely. tallcoreopsiswestsideprairieplantingMA93019WM.jpg

After surgery seven weeks ago, the simple act of walking my favorite prairie paths is no longer something I take for granted. What follows are a few images from a morning walk in the fog this week. They are paired with  favorite quotes I think about often, and a few new quotes I gleaned from Popova’s review.


Read the quotes slowly. Reflect on what they say. Then, tuck these thoughts into your days ahead. I hope they speak to you as they have to me.


“Attention without feeling is only a report.”–Mary Oliver


“Choice of attention—to pay attention to this and ignore that—is to the inner life what choice of action is to the outer.” –W.H. Auden
“These days cry out, as never before, for us to pay attention.” — Anne Lamott



“How we spend our days, is of course, how we spend our lives.” — Annie Dillard

Big bluestemdewfog SPMA 93019WM.jpg

“…we humans generally do not bother paying attention to much other than the visual.” –Alexandra Horowitz


“For observing nature, the best pace is a snail’s pace.” — Edwin Way Teale


“To learn something new, take the path that you took yesterday.” — John Burroughs


“The art of seeing has to be learned.” — Marguerite Duras


“Half of tracking is knowing where to look; the other half is looking.” — Susan Morse


“Joys come from simple and natural things; mist over meadows, sunlight on leaves, the path of the moon over water. Even rain and wind and stormy clouds bring joy.” — Sigurd F. Olson


“As we work to heal the land, the land heals us.”–Robin Wall Kimmerer


“The art of seeing might have to be learned, but it can never be unlearned, just as the seen itself can never be unseen—a realization at once immensely demanding in its immutability and endlessly liberating in the possibilities it invites.”– Maria Popova


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

Hidden Lake Forest PreservefogdewWM93019.jpg

“Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.” –Simone Weil


“Only those items I notice shape my mind.” — William James


“The  thing you are doing now affects the thing you do next.” — Alexandra Horowitz


SchulenbergPrairieMorton Arboretum 93019WM.jpg

“For the mind disturbed, the still beauty of dawn is nature’s greatest balm.” — Edwin Way Teale



It’s an imperfect world.

imperfectbreakspiderwebfogdewSPMA93019WM copy.jpg

Life can be complicated.


But often, when I hike the prairie, I feel the magic happening. A sense of wonder. The world feels like a beautiful place again. A place where hope is—perhaps—not out of the question. A place where life is always in process.


Worth paying attention to.


Mary Oliver (1939-2019) was, as the poet Maxine Kumin wrote, “an indefatigable guide to the natural world.” Among her numerous awards were the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award.  Thanks to my wonderful husband Jeff, I was fortunate to hear her read and speak at Sanibel Island, Florida, for the Rachel Carson Lecture in 2014. Oliver died early this year at the age of 83.


All photos copyright Cindy Crosby, taken at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL unless noted otherwise: (Top to bottom)  fog over Willoway Brook; spiderwebs on asters (Symphyotrichum spp.), West Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris) with spiderwebs, West Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris) with spiderwebs, West Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) with spiderwebs; Willoway Brook in the fog; bottlebrush grass (Elymus hystrix), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae); switchgrass (Panicum virgatum); unknown spider’s web; braided ladies tresses (Spiranthes cerneua); unknown spider building its web over Willoway Brook; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum);  big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); spiderwebs on tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); Hidden Lake Forest Preserve as fog is lifting, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County; Downer’s Grove, IL; unknown spider’s web; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); Schulenberg Prairie covered with dew; dawn over West Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; broken spiderweb; spiderwebs on bur marigolds (Biden spp.), West Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown spider’s webs.


Cindy’s forthcoming book is Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History with Northwestern University Press (Summer, 2020), illustrated by Peggy Macnamara, artist-in-residence at The Field Museum in Chicago.

Join Cindy for “Nature Writing”, a blended online and in-person class, beginning online Wednesday, October 15! Details here.

Visit for more information on Cindy’s upcoming speaking and classes.

14 responses to “The Art of Prairie Attention

  1. Oh my, what a selection of images and words! There are times when being in a fog is the place to be. I’m glad you were there.

    I assume you are taking care and grateful for that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • What a lovely note. Thank you, Ed! I love fog on the prairie; so many discoveries. I could have stayed all morning. But I was good! 🙂 Sort of.
      Thank you, as always, for reading and taking time to leave me a comment. Happy October! — Cindy 🙂


  2. Lovely post!!
    And it’s funny, but a few days ago I realised something similar: my husband and I were at a panorama viewpoint at a place I already knew. And I started to get bored. So I asked my husband to tell me what he was seeing…..and it was completely different from what I noticed.
    So after reading your post, I think I should really ask him (and other people) more often what they see.

    Beautiful pictures as well btw 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi, Discovering — thanks for dropping me a line here. I see things differently when I’m with me husband — I see MORE actually — he has a different way of scanning the landscape than I do. I love it that you pointed this out. So many ways to put on “new eyes.” I appreciate the reminder — I need to take him with me next time. 🙂 Appreciate you reading! Happy October. — Cindy 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Many, many thanks for these gorgeous pictures in the fog and dew! Loved the quotes as well. Did anyone notice a butterfly migration on Monday, September 30, 2019? After three wet days, Monday was warm and sunny. Husband and I lost count of the number of monarchs rising out of our prairie and heading southwest. We watched for about an hour that morning (hated to leave) but had to go to work.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Marcy — Ohhhh! Monarchs rising! That sounds so beautiful. Are you in the Chicago region? I’ve seen ebbs and flows in the western suburbs this week. My backyard was buzzing with painted ladies this morning, and the monarchs were in full force as well. Still getting hummingbird hits on the feeder. Grateful for your insights — thanks for taking time to share your experience, and thank you for reading and leaving this lovely comment. — Cindy 🙂


  4. The lovely quiet tones + outlines are a deep breath before the oncoming color of autumn. Just as the edge of frost on my garden’s leaves catch my eye later in the season. Your quote “antennae” are top notch!
    Thank you, Cindy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dear Sandy, it is always so wonderful to see your comments. How beautifully written your “deep breath” insight is! I love that. A wonderful compliment. I hope you enjoy these first days of October, and as always, thank you for taking time to drop me a note. Grateful. — Cindy 🙂


  5. Beautiful photo set and great bokeh. And all taken at my favorite woods and prairies nearby.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank You Cindy for sharing your many gifts here each week. The spiders in my house are also about and spinning! Eeek!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Hello, Mike, and it’s so good to hear from you. Thank you for reading so faithfully, and taking time to drop me a note. I didn’t post the “eekiest” photo — a tree with more than a hundred spider webs. I figured it would keep people up at night. ;). Happy October!–Cindy 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I was trying to take a photo of a beautiful yellow orbweaver’s web the other day and it wasn’t easy so I’m appreciating, and very much impressed by, all your beautiful spider web photos. What a feast for the eyes.
    Mary Oliver is one of my favorite poets and Brainpickings is the other blog I’ve been following for a while. It’s always nice to see/be reminded of “old” quotes and to learn new ones and I love how your blog lends itself to both. I particularly enjoyed Robin Wall Kimmerer’s “Braiding Sweetgrass” and seeing the earth and our interactions with it in a different light.
    I hope you are well on the road back to a full recovery and appreciate your keeping the blog going even while you were recuperating. Thank you so much for a lovely and always informative blog.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Lai for reading and taking time to pen such a thoughtful response (with so many lovely compliments). It’s so great to “meet” so many kindred spirits like you through the blog! Grateful for your words. — Cindy :0


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