These Crazy-Cold Prairie Days

“If the world seems cold to you, kindle fires to warm it.” —Lucy Larcom

*****

I’ve been looking up words in the thesaurus to describe the Chicago region’s prairie temperatures this week.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Here’s what I’ve found so far: Chilly. Freezing. Icy.

Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Frigid. Frosty.

Big bluestem, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Piercing. Numbing. Sharp.

Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Biting. Bitter.

Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Glacial. Wintry. Raw.

Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Stinging. Subzero.

Unknown prairie plant, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Penetrating. Hypothermic. And did I say…. cold?

Prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

And….refreshing. These temperatures are a wake-up blast that jolts you clear down to your toes. Until you can’t feel your toes anymore.

What do you think? How would you describe the cold this week?

Ice bubbles, Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

After I hiked the prairie this weekend in the snow, rising temperatures and a misty rain laid an icy glaze across the sidewalks and driveways; shellacked the front steps to our house. It looked as if Mother Nature got down on her hands and knees and buffed the snow to a high gloss.

Iced snow, Glendale Heights, IL.

Monday’s sunshine helped melt it a bit. Now everything is slick with ice. It’s treacherous out there.

Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

I can see my backyard prairie patch from the kitchen window. What solace! The prairie dock leaves are brittle and brown; the compass plants curl like bass clefs. Wild bergamot satisfies my need for aesthetics as much in winter as it does in full bloom during the summer. Rattlesnake master’s spare silhouette is more striking now than it was in the warmer seasons.

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Along the side of the house, prairie dropseed pleases in its mound-drape of leaves. What a pleasure this plant is. Every home owner should have it. So well-behaved.

Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), Crosby backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

But it’s the rough and tumble of joe pye, goldenrod, asters, swamp milkweed, cup plant, culver’s root, mountain mint and other prairie community members as a whole that I appreciate as much as parsing out a single species.

Crosby backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I’m reminded that underneath the snow is a world of color and motion and growth, just waiting to happen at the turn of the temperatures toward warmth. These bitter temperatures are a necessary pause in the life of the prairie.

New prairie smoke (Geum triflorum), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Meanwhile, I’ll wait for the ice to melt…

Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

… and remind myself that one of the reasons I planted prairie in my yard is for days just like this one. Is my backyard prairie good for the environment? Absolutely. Essential for pollinators? You bet. And…

Grayheaded coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…it’s a winter pleasure that warms my spirits, as I look through the window on a brutally-cold, iced-in day.

******

Lucy Larcom (1824-1893) was a writer, abolitionist, and teacher. As one of nine children, whose father (a sea captain) died when she was eight, Larcom worked with her mother to run a boardinghouse to keep the family afloat in Lowell, Massachusetts. She worked in Lowell’s mills at eleven years old, where the “mill girls” established a literary circle and she became a friend of the poet John Greenleaf Whittier, who was a support and encouragement. At twenty, she moved with an older sister to the Illinois prairies, where she taught school. She later moved back East and wrote for such magazines as the Atlantic. Her poetry collections include Similitudes, from the Ocean and Prairie (1853). She is best known for her autobiography, A New England Girlhood, Outlined from Memory which the Poetry Foundation calls “a richly detailed account of gender, and class in mid-nineteenth century New England.”

*****

Join Cindy for a program in January!

“100 Years Around the Morton Arboretum” — Wednesday, January 26, 6:30pm-8:30 pm. Watch history come to life in this special centennial-themed lecture about The Morton Arboretum. Celebrating 100 years, The Morton Arboretum has a fascinating past. Two of the Arboretum’s most knowledgeable historians, author Cindy Crosby and the ever-amazing library collections manager Rita Hassert, will share stories of the Mortons, the Arboretum, and the trees that make this place such a treasure. Join us in person, or tune in via Zoom from the comfort of your home. (Please note changes in venue may be made, pending COVID. Check the day before to ensure you know the most current details of this event). Register here.

6 responses to “These Crazy-Cold Prairie Days

  1. I’ll describe the past week as ice-clad, mind-numbing and ethereal! The cold didn’t keep me indoors as much as the ice but the ice WAS pretty – from indoors. As in your photos, I can see some of my garden plant tags from the back windows and I know that as surely as the snow and temperatures fall, spring will return. Stay warm, looking forward to the 100 Years program!

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  2. I wrote a blog about Lucy Larcom when I worked as an archivist at the Armstrong Browning Library at Baylor University. https://blogs.baylor.edu/armstrongbrowning/2013/10/15/giving-nineteenth-century-women-writers-a-voice-and-a-face-lucy-larcom-1824-1893/

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  3. The snow looks like it’s waxed, it reminds me of my mom and her electric buffing machine that she would use after waxing the kitchen floor….How far we’ve come! Thanks for the photos and inspiration during this cold cold week!

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  4. Cathy Montgomery

    Thank you for another great take on the prairie. The prairie needs the rest and so do we. My word is “anticipation.” Anticipation about good things to come & the beauty of the awakening prairie is one of them. Happy Winter, Cindy.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. “Bone chilling” works for me!
    Thanks for the reminder that underneath the prairie snow and ice,
    Spring will be arriving before we know it.

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  6. Most people would describe the winter landscape as depressing and dead. But “underneath the snow is a world of color and motion and growth” – we need to get the word out so they can see winter with new eyes. Thank you for this prairie tour!

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