“The twitter of a chickadee, a flurry of juncos defying the wind, the industry of a downy woodpecker at the suet won’t warm the day, but they do warm the human heart.” — Hal Borland
Color January gray so far, with a few bright spots.
It’s been a wet one, as well, with precipitation in all its myriad forms.
As I wash dishes one morning, I watch the birds and squirrels outside my kitchen window battle over birdseed.
They bicker and flutter and knock each other off the perches in their search for the very best position. I try to broker a truce by bringing out more sunflower and safflower. More peanuts. But as I step outside, I stop short. Listen! The northern cardinal—is singing! The first time through, I thought it was wishful thinking on my part. Then he pealed out the notes again. Cheer! Cheer! Cheer! The sound of spring.
Or maybe not exactly “spring.” After reading more on Cornell’s All About Birds website, I learn the males and females both sing; males may sing all year. Ah! So much for spring thoughts. I regularly hear the “chip! chip!” at dusk and dawn when the cardinal resupplies at the tray feeder. But I hadn’t heard the cardinal’s full-throated song for a good long while. It makes me happy.
Dishes finished, that sweet music is enough to pull me out of the house and out for a prairie hike.
No cardinals sing in the savanna, but there is a bit of woodpecker hammering and a lone squirrel or two loping silently through the trees. The pewter skies and sleet, snow, rain, and ice accentuate the colors of the January prairie.
As I hike through the prairie savanna, admiring the trees blacked with moisture and bright with lichen…
…snow falls harder. I wrap my scarf tightly around my neck to ward off the wet. Everything is soaked.
Late figwort drips with snowmelt diamonds.
Hiking along Willoway Brook…
…I admire the winter water transitions.
Trees lay everywhere, a reminder of other transitions going on. One tree’s life ends, a multitude of new lives begin from that downed tree. Fungi. Mosses. These fallen trees will serve as homes and food for members of the savanna community; bringing slow change to this transitional place.
Emerging into the tallgrass from the savanna, the only sounds are the scrunch scrunch scrunch of my boots in the snow, and the occasional hum of traffic from nearby I-88.
Other than a few light breaths of wind, the tallgrass is motionless. Willoway runs quiet and clear. This silence suits me today. I value the prairie’s opportunities for quiet and reflection.
And yet, there are many other reasons besides personal ones to appreciate what I’m a steward of here.
I’ve been reading more this week about prairies as carbon sinks in preparation for a talk at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Arboretum. What are carbon sinks? Why do they matter? I think about this as I stroll the trails.
A carbon sink is simply a place where carbon is stored. The prairie soil acts as a “carbon sink.” Unlike a forest, where the carbon is mostly stored above ground, in prairies, carbon is taken in and then, stored (or “sequestered”) in the deep roots of prairie plants.
That’s good news. It matters, as this carbon sequestration helps keep our planet healthy. And, I’m more aware of my impact on the world these days, from the miles I drive or fly, to the choices I make in what I eat, what I put my food in (paper or plastic?), whether I use a straw or sip from a glass, or the amount of trash I generate. My personal consumption habits could be overwhelming and depressing, if I let them be. But that would suck all the joy out of life, wouldn’t it?
And so. I try and balance the despair I feel sometimes over the brokenness of the world and its dilemmas with the gratitude for the beauty and wholeness I find on my prairie walks. The delights of my backyard prairie patch and pond. Or, the enjoyment of watching the birds at my backyard feeders squabbling with the squirrels.
One reason I’m a prairie steward is this: caring for a prairie reminds me why my personal choices matter. Seeing the tallgrass in all seasons, in its diversity and transitions, helps me remember the legacy I want my children and grandchildren to have. Prairies, the Nature Conservancy tells us, “clean the air we breathe and the water we drink.” Caring for this prairie as both a place for quiet hiking and reflection—and a place that has value in keeping our world a healthier place—gives me a sense of making a difference. It is a touchstone of hope.
We live in a beautiful world full of wonders.
No matter what the future holds…
…I want these prairies to be here for the next generations; places for my children’s children to hike, for them to find room there to reflect, and to enjoy and delight in all its diversity.
A world full of wonders.
The opening quote is from Hal Borland’s book: Twelve Moons of the Year, excerpted from his “nature editorials” in the New York Times written before his death in 1978. Borland wrote more than 1,900 of these observational articles for the NYT, and selected 365 for this book. He was a contributing editor to Audubon magazine. Borland wrote more than 30 books, most about the natural world; the genres spanned poetry, fiction, non-fiction, biography, short stories, and even a play. He was also a recipient of the John Burroughs Medal in 1968 for Hill Country Harvest.
All photos this week taken at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL except where noted (top to bottom): trees in the fog, East Side; melting snow on late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica); video of birds and squirrels at the author’s backyard bird feeders, Glen Ellyn, IL; male and female cardinals ( Cardinalis cardinalis, photo from winter 2019), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie in January, glimpse of Willoway Brook through the savanna; bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa); late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica); Willoway Brook through the prairie savanna; Willoway Brook through the prairie savanna; Willoway Brook through the prairie savanna; bridge and tallgrass; reflections in Willoway Brook; Schulenberg Prairie in January, blackberry (Rubus occidentalis) with snowmelt; prairie grasses in January; native evening primrose (Oenothera speciosa); Schulenberg Prairie savanna; tall goldenrod (probably Solidago canadensis); bridge over Willoway Brook; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum).
Please join Cindy at an upcoming event or class this winter:
THE TALLGRASS PRAIRIE: A CONVERSATION: January 30 (Thursday) 9-11:30 a.m. University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum, Curtis Prairie Visitor Center Auditorium, Madison, WI. More information and tickets here. (Sold out–call to be put on a waiting list)
The Tallgrass Prairie: Grocery Store, Apothecary, and Love Shop: February 13 (Thursday) 8-9 p.m., Park Ridge Garden Club, Centennial Activity Center 100 South Western Avenue Park Ridge, IL. Free and Open to the Public! Book signing follows.
Nature Writing and Art Retreat, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, February 22 (Saturday) 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Cindy will be facilitating the writing portion. Sold Out. Waiting list –register here.
Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online begins March 26. Details and registration here.
Nature Writing Workshop (a blended online and in-person course, three Tuesday evenings in-person) begins March 3 at The Morton Arboretum. For details and registration, click here.
See more at http://www.cindycrosby.com