The Tallgrass Prairie: A Cabin Fever Cure

“I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure in the landscape—the loneliness of it—the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it; the whole story doesn’t show.”–Andrew Wyeth

*****

There’s something about a Midwestern cold snap. Suddenly, I have an urge to bake bread. Read books by the fireplace. The coffeemaker perks from dawn until dusk.

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I halfheartedly look for my hiking boots to go for a prairie hike, then pause. Wind howls around the house and rattles the windows. My weather app tells me  the “real-feel” temperature is minus 16 outside.  I go back to my book. Wimp! I scold myself. But I feel a deep desire to hibernate.

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As the snowfall ended and hypothermic temperatures dissolved Monday into manageable levels, indoor pleasures palled. I had read through a large stack of library books over the weekend, baked more sourdough bread than Jeff and I could ever possibly eat, and drank enough coffee and tea to keep myself awake for a month.  Cabin fever. Now, I was ready for a prairie hike.

You too? Let’s go.

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Jeff and I arrived at Belmont Prairie Monday to find an empty parking lot. Looks like a prairie hike isn’t on most people’s agenda. Snow underlies the prairie, with the occasional frozen pool showing the effects of sleet and rain over the weekend.

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Grasses are bowed by drifts.

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Others are upright, but shorn of their seedheads, like these big bluestem.

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It looks like January—winter at last—on the prairie, from the bare trees on the rim of the tallgrass to the golds of the grasses.

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The prairie is mostly quiet, except for the occasional skein of Canada geese calling overhead.

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As we hike, we see a few tracks here and there, showing that at least one person has trekked these paths since Saturday. Mostly, the paths are full of a different kind of print. Squirrel tracks. Deer. The occasional mouse or vole hole. As we move down the trail, Jeff grabs my arm. Look! Five white-tailed deer bound away. We watch them go, blurs in the distance.

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This prairie remnant—untouched by the plow and left undeveloped—holds a treasure-trove of native plants.

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Each in its particular stage of senesce. Each with its own particular allure.

Carrion flower.

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Bee balm—or wild bergamot as some prairie stewards like to call it—is everywhere. Its scientific name, Monarda fistulosa, is apt: fistulosa means “hollow reed” or “tubular.” No wonder hummingbirds and hummingbird clearwing moths swarm this plant in the summer.

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Pewter-colored wild quinine is as pretty in January as it is in bloom. Gardeners would call these plants “winter interest.”

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Ditto for rattlesnake master, whose yucca-like leaves have interesting texture and a rough-hewn elegance.

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Some of the rattlesnake master seedheads remind me of straw-colored dahlias.

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Not everything I admire is native. Even though Queen Anne’s lace is an invasive, I always enjoy it in January. I love its structure. Later, in the growing months, I’ll weed it out on the prairie and in my backyard. But for now, I can see its delicate grace.

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The clouds begin to break up, and the sun suddenly throws the prairie into sharp relief.

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We’ve reached the far side of the preserve now, and the stream is just ahead.

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The bridge is a bit treacherous, but I’ve got Yaktrax on for the first time this season.  These rubber stabilizers pull on over my hiking boots and help me keep my footing on the ice. Today, they are a complete mismatch, as I’ve lost one each from two different pairs (one has a strap, one is without). But they see me across the icy trails and bridge without mishap.

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The creek through Belmont Prairie, full after Saturday’s rains, is mostly frozen now.

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I stop and take a closer look.

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Ice art is everywhere, a dance between ice and thaw. It’s as if the prairie grasses have scribbled designs in the stream.

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I love the abstract shapes and delicate traceries. Some seem to reflect the clouds of a prairie sky.

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The melted places add their own filigreed patterns.

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The tips of growing plants—blue flag iris, perhaps?—are barely visible, spearing through the ice and snow.

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Green plants! Signs of life. They make me think of spring. But—hold on. I don’t want to rush this season. We need the snow cover and cold each year for the health of the tallgrass. Winter is an important chapter in the prairie’s story.

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I can’t help the jolt of happiness I feel, though.  The green plant tips seem to hold a promise. Spring is coming.

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As we hike back to the car, I’m grateful for the bracing prairie hike. Glad to see the beauty of the ice and snow. Grateful—yes, really—for the cold that blew so many cobwebs out of my mind. I feel rejuvenated. My mind is clear.

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Cabin fever? Not me. Not anymore.

Thanks, tallgrass.

*******

Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009) was a controversial painter specializing in realism. Love his work—-or find it cheesy—he was an important figure in the popular culture of the mid-1900s. His most famous painting is probably Christina’s World. Charles Schulz fans will remember in Schulz’s “Peanuts” comic strip that when Snoopy’s dog house burned down, Snoopy replaced his Van Gogh with a Wyeth painting. Wyeth received the National Medal of Arts in 2007.

*****

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken this week at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL (top to bottom): ice crystals on the prairie trail; ice crystals on prairie grass;  trail through Belmont Prairie; view in to Belmont Prairie; grasses in snow; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); mixed grasses and trees; Canada geese (Branta canadensis); white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus); pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida); carrion vine (Smilax spp.); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa);wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium); rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium); rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium); invasive Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota) trail through Belmont Prairie; trail through Belmont Prairie; bridge over the stream; stream through Belmont Prairie; stream through Belmont Prairie; ice art, ice art; ice art; ice art with growing tips of unknown plant; thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica); unknown plant; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans).

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.

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

15 responses to “The Tallgrass Prairie: A Cabin Fever Cure

  1. Jeanne Iovinelli

    Your blog feeds my soul. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have lived in Downers Grove for many years. I had no idea that Belmont was a prairie remnant!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is such a special place here in the Chicago suburbs, and one of the last pieces of original prairie we have left in Illinois (there are some “buffer” acres there as well). I believe the remnant is about 10 acres. A wonderful prairie! Thank you for reading, and for taking time to share, Paula! Happy hiking.–Cindy 🙂

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  3. Love the beauty you find in common observation. Ice! Who’d have thought such beauty within. Thanks, Cindy. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    • Connie, thank you for reading and for taking time to leave me a note! Ice continually amazes me — such a welcome “gift” of an otherwise (and sometimes) treacherous feature of winter. Grateful for your kind encouragement! Stay warm! — Cindy 🙂

      Like

  4. I love ice art. I saw some nearby in the pygmy forest a few months ago in the late afternoon and was reminded how much I miss it. Although we get a lot of frost, we don’t get much ice (except on car windows).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello, Sondra — so good to hear from you, and thank you for reading and taking time to leave me a note from out west. Your blog “The Nature of Spirituality” is beautiful (check it out, California friends!), and I hope you are feeling “at home” in your new place after several years of living there. Grateful to hear from you! — Cindy 🙂

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  5. I was out working at a prairie on Sunday afternoon. Although the wind chill was 4- or 5- degrees Fahrenheit, the sun made it feel about 40 degrees warmer. I was too warm. I had to take off my balaclava and use only the hood of my cotton duck jacket to protect my head. I also unzipped my jacket relying only on a fleece and my t-shirt to insulate my chest. I was out for two hours and forty minutes. I only really started to feel the cold as I walked into the full force of the western wind walking back when the sun was getting lower on the horizon.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There is nothing like working outdoors to really warm up, right James? Thank you for your good work on the prairie. It’s folks like you that keep it healthy and thriving — even in the wintertime! Appreciate you dropping me a note here. Stay warm! — Cindy 🙂

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  6. Always love reading your posts and following you on IG! I need to take a hike today. You’ve inspired me!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Gayle, it’s so wonderful to hear from you! I’m glad you are inspired to take a hike. It really does clear the mind, doesn’t it, especially in winter? Folks if you haven’t checked out Gayle’s gorgeous prairie jewelry, take a look at https://www.etsy.com/shop/gayledowell/ . I own a beautiful “Twilight on the Prairie” piece, and have my eye on saving for several more pieces. Grateful for your note, and thanks for the good work you do for prairie! — Cindy 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. You ‘paint’ the best pictures with your words. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. The hardest part for me is the long march from my car to where I am working and back. I gave up doing the cutting, hauling, and burning workdays years ago because I found them to be too physically taxing. Now I only go to places where they let me paint herbicide on the basal bark or into frills and leave the dead wood in place. When all I do is apply herbicide, I don’t come home exhausted. The sun did more to keep me warm than the work.

    Liked by 1 person

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