A Prairie Homecoming

“There’s nothing in the world so strong as grass.” — Ellis Peters


The last few months seem like a dream.

This past week, restrictions in Illinois have lifted enough that I’ve been able to hike the Schulenberg Prairie for the first time since April 1. I go early, when the sun is still climbing the eastern sky and the spider’s thrown webs dazzle with drops of dew.

It’s a bit surreal to be out here again, especially since the prairie remains unburned—and will remain so this season. Without fire, the wild prairie roses are tall and glorious.

The bumblebees work the blooms, joined by other insects.

Carrion flower towers over the prairie, its other-worldly tendrils and seedheads adding to the surreal feeling.

Closer to the ground, prairie phlox—beaded with dew drops—splatters the grasses with lavender, white, and pink in a multitude of hues and tiny patterns.

If you didn’t know better, you’d think the photo above and below were different species. But they are colorful variations of the same.

Near by, I lift up the smooth Solomon’s seal leaves.

Every square inch of prairie holds something to discover.

Me and my prairie volunteers have been absent these past months, but the life of the prairie continued unfolding. A tiny Hobomok skipper nectars at the red clover which hugs the edges of the gravel trail.

I don’t see any monarch butterfly caterpillars on my hike, but this week they showed up in my backyard prairie on my butterfly weed plants. They are likely here as well, but invisible to my eyes in the tallgrass.

Dragonflies are everywhere. Common green darners. Baskettails. A black saddlebag dragonfly or two. A common whitetail dragonfly flutters in front of me on the path, then stops to rest. Warming up.

Deep in the grasses on each side of the trail are teneral damselflies, still not fully colored or able to fly very far. Eastern forktails and stream bluets, like this one below, respond to the warming day with more activity near Willoway Brook.

Because dragonfly monitoring work has not resumed at the Arboretum, I don’t have the pressure—and pleasure!—of counting these species today, or jotting down hash marks on a clipboard to submit data. Yes, I miss it. But I realize I am also free to relax and enjoy my hike, without worrying about my surveys. Accepting this, instead of letting it be frustrating, is a good challenge.

I think about this pause in my normal steward and monitoring work as I hike and reacquaint myself with the wildflowers. The white wild indigo is in its first tentative flush of bloom.

Soon it will flood the prairie with white. The purple meadow rue is open, as are the tiny flowers of prairie alum root. The first pale purple coneflowers are opening. All blessedly normal.

And yet. So much is still dream-like, off-kilter. Other hikers pass me wearing masks. We step off the path, six feet apart. The prairie goes on, but we are changed.

My band of prairie volunteers and monitors hope to resume our data gathering and prairie work soon. We will be different than we were last season. And like all changes, it will take a while to adapt to this “new normal.”

As I pass our prairie planting display beds, overgrown now without us to care for them, I’m caught by something yellow. Moth mullein, a rather benign non-native, enchants me with its resemblance to a moth’s antennae. I’ve seen it with white flowers, as well as the yellow flowers. Because of its charm, I always find it difficult to pull, even when it pops up in one of our planting beds. Today I can leave it in good conscience and enjoy it.

Delayed gratification. My prairie volunteer work here—-and my dragonfly work— will have to wait. Nothing about the tallgrass prairie ever moves quickly, I remind myself. The prairie will be here, waiting for us, when the time is right.

Today, all that remains is to relax…and enjoy being here. At last.


The opening quote is from Ellis Peters’ Father Cadfael Chronicles, An Excellent Mystery, one of 20 books in the series. Ellis Peters was the pen name for Edith Pargeter (1913-1995). Her books were adapted for radio, and later for a television series.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby, and taken at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, unless otherwise noted: mixed grasses with dew; spiderwebs with morning dew; smooth rose (Rosa blanda) with unknown bumblebee; smooth rose (Rosa blanda) with unknown bumblebee and (possibly) the margined calligrapher fly (Toxomerus marginatus); carrion flower (Smilax spp.); prairie phlox (Phlox pilosa); prairie phlox (Phlox pilosa); smooth Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum); Hobomok skipper (Lon hobomok); monarch butterfly caterpillar (Danaus plexippus); common whitetail dragonfly (Plathemis lydia), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; stream bluet (Enallagma exsulans); white wild indigo (Baptisia lactea –species names vary, including “alba,” I am using Wilhelm’s Flora as my source); panic grass or rosette grass (Dichanthelium spp.); bench overlooking the prairie; moth mullein (Verbascum blattaria).

Thanks to Butterflies of the Eastern United States Facebook group for the confirmation on the skipper ID.


Join Cindy for a class online this summer!

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online” begins in September! Work from home at your own pace (with suggested assignment deadlines) for 60 days to complete the material, and meet other prairie volunteers and stewards on the discussion boards and in the optional ZOOM session. Register here.

“Dragonfly and Damselfly Beginning ID Online” through The Morton Arboretum. July 8 and July 10 –two morning classes online, with a day in between for you to work independently in the field. Register here.

Coming soon in June! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History. Pre-order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Morton Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org and other book venues. Or, order now direct through Northwestern University Press and receive 25% off — use coupon code NUP2020 and see the information below. Thank you for supporting small presses and writers during this chaotic time.

Preorder Savings Chasing Dragonflies (1)

Want more prairie while you are sheltering in place? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (@phrelanzer). Or enjoy some virtual trips to the prairie through reading Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit and The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction.

14 responses to “A Prairie Homecoming

  1. Thank you for the tour of the Schulenberg Prairie. I love reading your posts. I am a 4th Gr. Teacher using an outdoor classroom, and during the distance learning, I helped my students discover different nature sites. I used yours as one of them, and they loved looking at your pictures on a weekly basis. So, thank you for sharing your walks and expertise with us.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello, Mona, and what a lovely note. It made my day! I am so delighted that teachers like you are sharing prairie with students. What a lasting legacy. Grateful to be a small part of your work. Thank you!!! Fourth graders are awesome; so are teachers like you. :)— Cindy 🙂


  2. Treva h Whichard

    So much beauty that is is too easy to miss. Thank you for faithfully sharing these hidden treasures.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Treva, for taking a moment to read the blog and leave me a note. I’m so grateful for kindred spirits! Hope you find those hidden treasures on your walks this week. — Cindy 🙂


  3. You’re so right about learning to just relax and enjoy this time when we don’t have all the obligations of normal life. I’ve been surprised over the past couple of weeks how busy my life is starting to get again already — I’m not ready to go back to having a full calendar yet. 🙂 (P.S. I gave myself a treat and spent ALL day yesterday chasing odes — it was so much fun!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I love it that you were able to chase dragonflies yesterday, Kim! I’ve been chasing them at Nachusa Grasslands (where monitoring has been open for the past five weeks) but we’re not allowed to monitor yet at the Schulenberg Prairie. Trying to look at it as an unexpected gift — to just enjoy those Odes without any agenda. Take care, and keep your wonderful blog posts coming! Folks, check out Kim’s “Nature is My Therapy” here –https://natureismytherapy.com/author/kimclairsmith/ — if you haven’t already — you’ll love it. — Cindy 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Priscilla Grundy

    No photos!?!

    Priscilla Grundy

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello, Priscilla — Oh dear, it must be your computer? They may take some time to load, but the post is full of photos. Hope you can see them! Let me know! (You might try refreshing your screen?) Thank you for reading! — Cindy 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Your photos are, as usual, a joy to the eye and mind!
    Was walking in Springbrook prairie today and enjoyed the
    flowers and socialization. Who would ever have thought we would be
    saying “hi” while keeping 6ft. apart. Well, it looks like Mother Nature
    is trying to help us relax and deal with all the issues in our lives today.
    Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • You are so kind, Kathy! I love Springbrook Prairie, and I can imagine what you are writing about — the trails around the perimeter, everyone trying to be friendly but safe! I’m glad to get your note, and grateful you are reading the blog. Thank you for loving prairie, and for taking time to be out on it. Mother Nature is definitely giving us a weather change this afternoon! 🙂 Thank you for dropping me a note, for for taking time to read the blog.
      Cindy 🙂


  6. Having all the time in the world the past months has caused me to focus on time …..passing. My favorite prairies CLOSED. A season has literally come and gone, the grass is tall already. Like sand at the bottom of an hourglass, the missed experiences. Thankfully absence makes the heart grow fonder! (pretty panic grass pic)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Mike —
      I hope you can access your favorite prairies very soon. It’s difficult to not have that solace during these chaotic times. Thanks, as always, for reading and dropping me a note. (Panic grass is one of my favorites!). — Cindy 🙂


  7. Ron Boudouris

    I like my field guides but I think my favorite guide is Tuesdays in the Tallgrass. I often learn something new and you make it enjoyable and meaningful. It is always so nice to go for a walk in the middle of a busy workday. Thanks!

    Liked by 2 people

    • What a lovely compliment! 🙂 That’s so kind, Ron. Thank you for reading, and for taking a moment to drop me such an encouraging note. Thanks for “walking” the prairie through the blog! Grateful. Cindy 🙂


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