Category Archives: backyard prairie

January Prairie Dreamin’

“The bumblebee consults his blossoms and the gardener his catalogs, which blossom extravagantly at this season, luring him with their four-color fantasies of bloom and abundance.” — Michael Pollan

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This week is brought to you by the color gray.

Backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, IL.

January gray.

Prairie Cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

As I hike the prairie this week, I find myself humming “California Dreamin'”; —All the leaves are brown, and the sky is gray… .

Tall Coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Gray is trendy. Pantone made “Ultimate Gray” one of its two “Colors of the Year” for 2021.

Even on a blue-sky prairie hike, the gray clouds aren’t far away.

Pretty or not, all this gray is dampening my spirits. The seed suppliers know how those of us who love the natural world feel in January. And they are ready to supply the antidote.

2021 seed catalogs

Every day—or so it seems—a new seed catalog lands in my mailbox. Within its pages, anything seems achievable. After thumbing through Pinetree or Park or Prairie Moon Nursery, when I look at the backyard, I don’t see reality anymore…

Kohlrabi and Kale, backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL.

… I see possibilities. This year, my raised vegetable beds, now buried under snow and ice, will overflow with beautiful produce. Spinach that doesn’t bolt. Kale without holes shot-gunned into it from the ravages of the cabbage white butterflies. Squirrels will leave my tomatoes alone. No forlorn scarlet globes pulled off the vine and tossed aside after a single bite. I linger over the catalog pages, circle plant names, make lists, and dream.

As for my prairie patch! I have so many plans.

Bee Balm (Monarda fistulosa), backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

This will be the year I find a place in my yard where prairie smoke thrives.

Prairie Smoke (Geum triflorum), Prairie Walk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL.

Big bluestem, which has mysteriously disappeared over the years from my yard, will be seeded again and silhouette itself against the sky.

Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Hinsdale Prairie, Hinsdale, IL.

The unpredictable cardinal flowers will show up in numbers unimaginable.

Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) Nomia Meadows, Franklin Grove, IL.

I see the spent pods of my butterfly weed…

Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…and remember the half dozen expensive plants that were tried—and died—in various places in the yard until I found its happy place.

Pearl Crescent (Phyciodes tharos) and Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Now it thrives. The monarch caterpillars show up by the dozens to munch on its leaves, just as I had hoped.

Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) caterpillar, backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

As I walk the prairie trails, admiring the tallgrass in its winter garb, I plan the renovation of my backyard garden and prairie patch this spring. I dream big. I dream impractical.

Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

And why not? Any dream seems possible during the first weeks of January.

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The opening quote is by Michael Pollan (1955) from his first book, Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education. Pollan is perhaps best known for The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Botany of Desire but his debut is still my favorite. I read it every year.

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Join Cindy in 2021 for an online class! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for a complete list of virtual offerings. All classes and programs with Cindy this winter and spring are offered online only. Join me from your computer anywhere in the world.

Begins This Week! January 14-February 4 (Four Thursdays) 6:30-8:30 pm CST Nature Writing II Online. Deepen your connection to nature and your writing skills in this intermediate online workshop from The Morton Arboretum. This interactive class is the next step for those who’ve completed the Nature Writing Workshop (N095), or for those with some foundational writing experience looking to further their expertise within a supportive community of fellow nature writers. Over the course of four live, online sessions, your instructor will present readings, lessons, writing assignments, and sharing opportunities. You’ll have the chance to hear a variety of voices, styles, and techniques as you continue to develop your own unique style. Work on assignments between classes and share your work with classmates for constructive critiques that will strengthen your skill as a writer. Ask your questions, take risks, and explore in this fun and supportive, small-group environment. Register here.

February 24, 7-8:30 CST: The Prairie in Art and Literature Online. The tallgrass prairie is usually thought of for its diverse community of plants, animals, and insects. Yet, it is also an inspiration for a creative community! In this interactive online talk, natural history author and prairie steward Cindy Crosby will explore historical and contemporary writers and artists, musicians, and other creatives working in the prairie genre: from Neil Young to Willa Cather to graphic comic artists , quilters, and jewelers expressing the prairie through their work. See the prairie in a new light! Come away inspired to appreciate and express your love of the tallgrass as you enjoy learning about this prairie “community.” Offered by The Morton Arboretum: Register here.

May on the Prairie

“In May one simply can’t help being thankful . . . that they are alive, if for nothing else.” — L.M. Montgomery

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It’s been a wild ride this week, from weather so warm I itched to plant my tomatoes (but heroically resisted) to hail—or was it graupel?—and snow-ish flurries, then a freeze warning that sent me to the garden beds with armfuls of sheets.  Chives pop up in every crack in the patio, ready to explode into bloom. We’re pulling the first green onions for omelets, and the promise of radishes and spinach are only days away.

A pair of male Baltimore orioles have whistled up spring in the backyard this the past week, but stayed invisible. This weekend, lured by the promise of half an orange and cups of grape jelly, they made an appearance and brightened up a rainy Mother’s Day.

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In the backyard prairie patch, my queen of the prairie is up…

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…its unusual leaves fanned fully open. Last year, it grew to almost five feet tall.

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Later this summer, its plumes of cotton candy pink flowers will drift through the prairie.

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Tallgrass summer wildflowers tend toward purples, yellows, and white. A little pink is a welcome change. I’m looking forward to it.

Less showy, perhaps, is my two-year-old prairie alum root which sends up bud spikes along the patio. Its flowers won’t be as spectacular as those of queen of the prairie, but its leaves are beautiful, aren’t they?

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Sometimes, you’ll hear it called “coral bells,” for its resemblance to the familiar garden plant that’s in the same genus.The name “alum root” refers to its use as a substitute for alum in pickling.  The hummingbirds  nectar at the flowers—another great reason to grow it. I imagine alum root, mingling with the prairie phlox, shoots of lead plant, and sedges this month on the still-closed Schulenberg Prairie where I’d usually be spending my spring hours. I miss seeing it there, but having alum root at home helps alleviate my sadness.

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And look! The first leaves are showing on New Jersey tea. I purchased this pricey shrub last season at a native plant sale, and there was the “will it make it? will it not?” anxiety as it went through the first winter.

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Unlike garden shrubs such as forsythia which bloom on old wood, prairie shrubs, such as New Jersey tea and leadplant, flower on first year wood. It’s an adaptation strategy that allows it to survive prairie fires and still set seed. This summer, I’ll hope to see the first flowers.  Like a foamy cappuccino, don’t you think?

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Or maybe I just need more coffee.

Purple meadow rue’s layered leaves unfold toward the sun. They appreciate my wet backyard, and often tower up to six feet high in the prairie.

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Its distinctive seeds in the fall are different than anything else in my prairie patch.

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Later in the day, a white-crowned sparrow picked at the birdseed scattered across the patio. Its not as flashy as the orioles. But perhaps just as beautiful, in its own way.

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This past Friday, Jeff and I went for a hike at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve to see hoary puccoon, a high-quality prairie wildflower. Hoary puccoon! Hoary puccoon. Everywhere on this remnant is hoary puccoon. What a treasure trove of orange flowers.

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“Puccoon” is an oddball kind of word, and one which Native Americans assigned to plants that were useful for dyes. “Hoary” simply refers to the hairs that fur the plant. Sylvan Runkel and Dean Roosa tell us in  Wildflowers of the Tallgrass Prairie: The Upper Midwest that Native American children blended the red dye from the roots with compass plant resin to create a red chewing gum. The hoary puccoon flower petals (probably dried) could also be used for a yellow-orange colored chewing gum.

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At one time the seeds, Runkel and Roosa tell us, were made into beads by Native Americans for ceremonial use. Today, we value this plant for its beauty and its relative scarcity, rather than any practical use. The seeds of hoary puccoon are difficult to germinate, which makes this plant doubly more precious in the field and highly valued for its place in the prairie community. Flora of the Chicago Region gives it a coefficient of conservatism score of 8 out of 10.

The flowers make me think of my backyard Baltimore orioles.

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As I stroll the Belmont Prairie, I wonder. What’s happening on the Schulenberg Prairie? Is the common valerian in bloom?

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Are the shooting star flooding the prairie with pink?

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There’s no way to know.

But I do know that had I been able to access the Schulenberg Prairie this week, I might not have spent so much time getting to know this Belmont Prairie remnant. And what a joy that has been. Seeing its spring treasures, such as the hoary puccoon and this violet wood sorrel, has been a consolation.

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I stop for a moment at a drift of violet wood sorrel; then think about how its flowers and leaves fold together at night and in cloudy weather. Its tiny, shamrock leaves remind me of origami. Violet wood sorrel leaves Belmont Prairie 5820.JPG

Just off the trail…

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…the tiny prairie violets offer more than just pretty flower faces.

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Here, at Belmont Prairie, there are endless possibilities for investigation and observation this spring. Plenty of prairie to satisfy my soul. Whenever I feel discouraged or stuck…

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A walk here puts the world to rights for the moment.

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Thank you, Belmont Prairie.

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The opening quote by Lucy Maud Montgomery is from her book Anne of Avonlea (1909), from her Anne of Green Gables series.  When she was less than two years old, she lost her mother to tuberculosis, and was mostly raised by her grandparents on Prince Edward Island in Canada. She was a lonely child, and surrounded herself with imaginary friends. It’s not a stretch to see how Anne Shirley, the orphaned protagonist of the series, came into being. Montgomery published 20 novels and numerous short stories and poems.

All photos and video from Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve unless marked otherwise (Schulenberg Prairie photos are from previous seasons), copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Baltimore orioles (Icterus galbula), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn;  queen of  the prairie (Filipendula rubra), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; queen of  the prairie (Filipendula rubra), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; queen of  the prairie (Filipendula rubra), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie alum root (Heuchera richardsonii ), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie alum root (Heuchera richardsonii ) with prairie phlox (Phlox pilosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; purple meadow rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL;  purple meadow rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL;  hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; Baltimore oriole (Icterus galbula), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; common valerian (Valeriana edulis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia); Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; crab spider on prairie violet (Viola pedatifida), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; trail through the Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; violet wood sorrel (Oxalis violacea), kite in a tree, on the Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL in early May.

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Join Cindy for a class online!

“Tallgrass Prairie Ecology” class online in May through The Morton Arboretum is SOLD OUT.   Sign up now to ensure a spot in our June class here.

Nature Journaling is online Monday, June 1 — 11am-12:30pm through The Morton Arboretum:
Explore how writing can lead you to gratitude and reflection and deepen connections to yourself and the natural world. In this workshop, you will discover the benefits of writing in a daily journal, get tips for developing the habit of writing, and try out simple prompts to get you on your way. (WELL095) — Register here.

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.

Prairie Comforts

“If you can’t fly, then run, if you can’t run, then walk, if you can’t walk, then crawl, but by all means keep moving.” — Martin Luther King Jr.

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A bitter wind rattles the windows.  The forecast calls for a possible freeze tonight, jeopardizing my risky plantings of onions, carrots, peas, radishes, kale, and spinach in the backyard garden. Spinach has leafed out. Radishes are up in the raised beds.

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Such tiny seedlings to face a freeze! Enlisting Jeff’s help, I find a sheet and some old towels, then  we drape the raised beds and tuck the ends in with bricks. Now, my garden is ready to face the frigid night ahead.  I hope.

After we finish, I look around the yard and admire what spring has accomplished. Marsh marigolds necklace the pond. Are they blooming in the prairie wetlands right now? I wonder.

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A few marsh marigolds have escaped the pond, leapt the steps leading to the patio, and are in bloom around the hose.

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These enthusiastic wildflowers bring me a lot of joy.  Marsh marigolds are one of the Midwest’s native plants. A similar, but unwelcome yellow flower also stalks my neighborhood: the Ficaria verna, the lesser celandine. On our walks through local subdivisions, Jeff and I spy this invasive hanging out on a street corner and tucked into the edge of a copse of trees.

Ficara Verna-WMlessercelandineLincolnHill41320.jpgAs a prairie steward, I keep my eyes open for this marsh marigold imposter and ruthlessly eradicate it where I can. Give it an inch and it will take over the block. Look at the leaves and flowers of lesser celandine above, then look at the marsh marigolds below. Similar. But different.

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I’m grateful for the marsh marigolds this week. They’re a welcome ray of sunshine. A little bit of comfort .

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On Sunday, Jeff and I drive to our daughter’s house for a subdued Easter celebration. In the spirit of social distancing we set up lawn chairs in a corner of their yard and they watch from the porch as the little ones hunt eggs. Afterwards, we swap holiday food in bags–my bread, their lamb and potatoes—and we head home for our duo Easter dinner.  The sidewalks and neighborhoods are crowded with families riding bikes together; going for walks.

As we drive past the College of DuPage prairies, I notice something different.

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Not a soul in sight.

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Stop! We turn into the parking lot. The skies threaten rain, but that isn’t going to stop us.

COD Russell Kirt Prairie 41420WM.jpgSuch joy!

The prairie at this time of year is a mix of burned areas and unburned areas. The prescribed fires that keep a prairie healthy have done their work. That green! I had forgotten how intense it is.

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Prairie dropseed scrub brushes are distinctive at this time of year when other plants are barely up.

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Rattlesnake master is unmistakeable—one of the first prairie plants to poke its leaves out of the ground.RattlesnakeMaster41220CODWMWM

Look closely at those leaves above. Like yucca, aren’t they? As its scientific name, Eryngium yuccifolium intimates. Over there –is that a sedge? Yes! But I’m not completely sure of its ID. Mead’s sedge? Pennsylvania sedge, maybe? Hmmm. I try keying it out on my iNaturalist app, but the app isn’t, either. A little mystery.

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Along the path, the bee balm, Monarda fistulosa, spreads its tender growth like a throw rug. I crush a tiny leaf and inhale. Mmmm.  Like minty oregano.

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The prescribed burn has cleared most of last year’s grasses from the prairie, blackened the earth. Despite the blustery weather, the prairie will warm up quickly.

Already, the fringed clamshells of compass plants hold promise. Although the shoots are only a bit taller than my index finger, I’ll see blooms this summer on stalks up to 12 feet high.

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What will I be thinking in late July when it blooms? What will the world be like? After experiencing this pandemic, and the closure of so many natural areas—and crowds in others—I doubt I will ever take a prairie hike like this one for granted again.

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A killdeer calls, then scrabbles across the prairie. Looking for a nest site? Perhaps. I feel my spirits lift. Killdeer are always one of the first signs of spring on the prairie.

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The College of DuPage prairies offer Jeff and myself some much needed solace. You may have felt, as I felt at first, that it is selfish in these times to grieve such things as the loss of a regular walk in a familiar place, or the disappointment of missing a particular patch of hepatica in bloom…

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…or the loss of missing the arrival of spring migrants to a patch of woodland you visit. Perhaps you are unable to go into the field to do your science research; work you’ve planned and received funding for this season at great personal outpouring of energy. Or maybe you mourn the disappearance of the simple rhythms of being a natural areas volunteer and the companionship of others working with you to to restore a prairie, woodland, or wetland. You wonder what’s happening in the places you love—-some now closed off to you for the safety and well-being of all. A good thing. But difficult.

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These losses—of course!—are small when weighed against the loss of a job; the loss of our health, the loss of a beloved friend or family member. The sadness when we can’t hug our grandchildren. The fear we feel over something as simple as grocery shopping.  I’ve felt small-minded for even fussing over a prairie closed; a crowded natural area. What are these losses, really?  And yet, I’ve come to realize they are important losses, none-the-less. These places are part of us. These ordinary rituals, these rhythms of our lives, when lost, un-moor us, unsettle us, shake us. They come at a time when other rituals and rhythms of life are also upended. We long for the simple comforts of our familiar places and routines. Many of them will be unavailable to us for a while.

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My sister, a therapist, tells me we are experiencing trauma, and all of us will respond differently to it. And without some of our prairie walks and work in the places we know and love, we are forced to find new rituals and rhythms. Even as we do so, each of our losses must be acknowledged and grieved.

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I’m establishing new rituals and reacquainting myself with some older ones I’ve neglected over the past few years. A neighborhood walk each morning and evening. A little sketching. Planting my garden. Putting more thought into meals. Eating breakfast together every morning with Jeff, instead of rushing off to work. Restarting my journal, which had gone through a period of neglect.

Watching the rhubarb and other perennials in my yard emerge. I planted rhubarb several times in my garden, and it was never happy. But at last, its seems, I’ve found a spot it likes. I think of rhubarb pie in a few weeks. Something to anticipate.

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I’m enjoying the pleasures of clearing my prairie patch and backyard borders of last  year’s dead growth. Watching the crinkled shell-shaped leaves of alum root emerge.

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I pay closer attention to my backyard these days on a daily basis. Each day, my backyard prairie patch—and the prairies in my community—offers surprises. Cup plant leaves appear. Birds return. Forgotten onion bulbs sprout in the vegetable garden. This week, I spotted my first dragonfly—a common green darner. These natural rhythms continue, even when so much seems in disarray.

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I’m learning to live with greater ambiguity. Becoming more comfortable with being uncomfortable. Instead of planning my year, I try to plan a single day. It’s about as far ahead as I can think. Sometimes, I realize, not much will be accomplished. And that’s okay.

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There are new glories in the natural world to appreciate each morning. I only have to remember to look. To pay attention. In a world full of uncertainty, I may not be able to “fly,” as Martin Luther King, Jr, said in the opening quote. But I can keep moving forward, a little bit at a time.

The emerging prairie shows the way.

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Martin Luther King, Jr., (1929-68) was a civil rights activist who advocated non-violence. King won the Noble Peace Prize for his work for racial equality, and was assassinated because of this work in 1968. Listen to his most famous speech, “I Have A Dream.” given on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): radish (Raphanus raphanistrum subsp. sativus) seedlings, author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; invasive lesser celandine (Ficaria verna), neighborhood side of Willowbrook Wildlife Forest Preserve, Glen Ellyn, IL; marsh marigold, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; street signs, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL; bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) overlooking the Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL;  pond on the Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; College of DuPage Prairie in early April; prairie dropseed (Sporabolus heterolepis); Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL: rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas , Glen Ellyn, IL; unknown sedge in the Carex family (possibly Mead’s or Pennsylvania), Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL; compass plants (Silphium laciniatum), Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL; compass plant flower (Silphium laciniatum), Fermilab Natural Areas, Batavia, IL; killdeer (Charadrius vociferus), Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL;  sharp-lobed hepatica (Hepatica nobilis acuta), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (archival photo); Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), College of DuPage Russell Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum) emerging, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL;  prairie alum root (Heuchera richardsonii), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; East Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Thank you to Paul Marcum who helped me narrow down the sedge ID.

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THIS WEEK: Join me for a free spring wildflower webinar through the Morton Arboretum from wherever you are sheltering in place! “Illinois’ Wild and Wonderful Wildflowers,” April 17, 1-2:30 p.m. CST.–No cost, but you must register to receive the link and additional instructions:  Register Here.

The next “Tallgrass Prairie Ecology” class online begins in early May through The Morton Arboretum. See more information and registration  here. The website is updated to reflect current conditions. A free spring wildflower webinar is also in the works! Watch for a link on Cindy’s website, coming soon.

Several of Cindy’s classes have moved online! For updates on classes and events, please go to http://www.cindycrosby.com.

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.

Looking for Light on the Prairie

“The…world becomes even more beautiful the closer you look. All it takes is attention and knowing how to look.” – –Robin Wall Kimmerer

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What stories does a feather have to tell?

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Jeff and I are hiking Belmont Prairie; our last hike, it turns out, for a while. As we follow the shallow stream to where it disappears…

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…the feather comes into focus at my feet. It looks unreal, with its polka-dotted edge and its graceful arch. Such a lovely silken feather, lying in the mud. I wonder. Who did it belong to? Later, I text a photo of it to a birder friend. Downy or hairy woodpecker, he tells me, most likely. I wonder at the stories this feather could tell.

Once, this feather embodied flight. It provided warmth and waterproofing. Now, it is grounded. Soon, it will disappear into the prairie soil and be unremembered. Except by me.

I’ve felt sad this week. A deep grief. There has been so much loss.

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My usual remedy for sadness and uncertainty is to go to “my” prairies and walk, journal, and think. But the options for hiking have narrowed this week. My prairie stewardship is on hold because of our shelter in place orders. One prairie where I lead a regular work group is closed. Another, requires extensive travel, and I’m no longer comfortable with the idea of driving 90 miles each way. Scientific research and monitoring is halted until the end of the month. Or longer.

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And now, a walk on Belmont Prairie—not far down the road from where I live—is becoming an adventure of the sort I don’t want. Narrow trails. Too many hikers.  Each of us is painfully aware of not getting too close to the other.

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Today, instead of enjoying my walk here, I feel tense.  A hiker appears in front of me, wearing earbuds. I step deep into the tallgrass and we smile at each other as he passes. Too close. Another arrives on a bike. Seeing me, she veers away. A bridge requires single file passage. Because there has been no prescribed burn due to the shelter in place, it’s difficult to see someone until we almost run into each other.

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This, I come to understand as I walk, will be my last hike here for a while. Looks like our backyard prairie may be the best place for Jeff and me during the next few weeks.

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Later, I try to sit with my grief over yet another loss. The loss of beloved places. I try not to ignore my feelings. Not set them aside. But I let myself feel this grief for a few moments. It’s slightly terrifying. My old ways of coping by “going for a hike on the prairie”  are no longer available. I realize I have a choice. I can be angry at what’s closed off to me. I can be depressed at what’s been taken away. Or…

I can be grateful for what I do have.

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I don’t want you to think I’m being Polyanna-ish about this. I’ve been mad this week, and I’ve been sad. I mourned when my  stewardship work was put on hold; and cried again when my other prairie was closed to visitation, science work, and stewardship. These were good decisions by good organizations—made for the health of people. But tough for those of us who love a particular place. Each loss hurt—to not see the emerging pasque flowers bud and bloom, to miss the first crinkled shoots of wood betony pushing through the prairie soil. To not watch the killdeer return. The emerald scrub brushes of newly-emerging prairie dropseed will be long and lush before I’m hiking those trails again.

belmontprairiebackside420WM.jpgThe solace of these familiar and beloved places is no longer available to me. I can choose to continue to be unhappy about this.  Or I can take account of what I do have.

What I do have is a backyard. I have my walks. ‘Round and ’round and ’round the block we go each morning, Jeff and I, soaking up the surprisingly diverse natural world of our neighborhood. Grassy lawns full of common wild violets, our Illinois state wildflower.

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Lawns–some full of diversity, others chemical-ed into monocultured submission. Some are power-edged sharply along sidewalks with volcano-mulched trees, aggressively brought to obedience.

Others are softer, more natural. An eastern-cottontail munches clover in one yard against a backdrop of daffodils. We hear loud cries, and look up as sandhill cranes fly over, somewhere above the bare silver maple limbs etched across blue skies and altocumulus clouds. Like stained glass windows to another world we can only dimly perceive.

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In the cracks of the driveways and the sidewalks blooms a tiny flower. I’m not sure if it’s early Whitlow grass or common chickweed. My iNaturalist app isn’t sure of the ID either. I count the petals, and when I return home, consult my field guides. Chickweed has five petals, deeply cleft—which look like ten at a glance, my guide tells me. Early Whitlow grass, I read, has four petals, deeply cleft, looking as if they are eight petals.

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Chickweed it is!

As I walk, I think about the backyard that will be my “hiking spot” for the foreseeable future. When we moved in, and I met our neighbor Gerould Wilhelm, co-author of Flora of the Chicago Region, I asked his advice. What was the best way to learn native plants of our area? He told me, “Key out one plant in your backyard a day, Cindy. By the time a year has passed, you’ll know 365 plants.” It was great advice, and I took it—for a while. Then I quit. Now might be the time to put my backyard ID into more regular practice.

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I walk through my yard, looking. Over there in the prairie patch—new growth of rattlesnake master and shooting star. And —oh no—buckthorn! Garlic mustard has infiltrated the prairie patch, pond, and garden beds. While my attention was elsewhere doing my stewardship work removing invasives the past few years, these bad-boy plants crept into my yard.

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As I slosh through the wetter areas of the yard, I’m reminded that our house is on the downslope of three other homes in our suburban subdivision. Water, water, everywhere. Our raised beds have helped us solve the problem of growing vegetables in the “swamp.” My little hand-dug pond, sited at the lowest point of the yard, holds some of the water and provides great habitat for western chorus frogs, dragonflies and damselflies, and marsh marigolds which came into bloom a few days ago on the perimeter.

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One of the outflows of all this water is the mosses that accumulate.  But what kinds of mosses? With mosses on my mind, I ordered a  “Common Mosses of the Northeast and Appalachians,” recommended by Dr. Andrew Hipp.  (If you haven’t checked out his thoughtful and intelligent woodland blog, give it a look!) Mosses are…. difficult. I begin with a simple moss that appears in the cracks of our neighborhood sidewalks and backyard patio.

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I follow with a photo of a moss from my Belmont hike.

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Hmmm. It’s a good book. But I can see identifying mosses is going to be a challenge. There’s no instant gratification, and it’s a lot more difficult than ID’ing the chickweed. But, it’s a potentially absorbing activity that I can look forward to over the next few weeks in my backyard. I like having something new to focus on that’s available to me.

After a while, I put the mosses book aside and sit in a patch of sunshine. A cardinal pours out his heart to his lady-love. Goldfinches chitter and chat, then swarm the thistle feeder, resplendent in their brightening plumage.

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It’s good to feel a connection with my backyard. A kinship with the natural world.  ID’ing mosses—feeling the warmth of the sun, listening to birdsong—reminds me that I’m not alone. I needed that reminder right now.  You, too?

We’re in this together.

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Keep looking for the light. It’s there.

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Keep watching for signs of hope. Pay attention.

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Hope and light are all around us. We only need to look.

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The opening quote is from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s (1953-) Gathering  Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses (2003). She is best known for Braiding Sweetgrass, but her earlier book is still my favorite.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): downy or hairy woodpecker feather, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; stream trickling to an end at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; trail by Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; raccoon (Procyon lotor) tracks, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; footbridge over the stream through Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; Jeff hikes Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis); Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; common blue violet (Viola sororia sororia); silver maple (Acer saccharinum) with sky and clouds, author’s neighborhood, Glen Ellyn, IL; common chickweed (Stellaria media), author’s neighborhood, Glen Ellyn, IL;   bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), invasive Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota) and native rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), author’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; unknown moss (but hopefully not for long!), author’s neighborhood, Glen Ellyn, IL; unknown moss (but hopefully not for long!); Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; goldfinches (Spinus tristis) at the feeder, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; sun halo over author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL: unknown rock on my neighborhood walk, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Thanks to John Heneghan for help with the bird feather ID.

*****

Cindy’s Speaking and Classes

Cindy’s classes have moved online! For updates on classes and events, please go to http://www.cindycrosby.com. The next “Tallgrass Prairie Ecology” class online begins in early May through The Morton Arboretum. See more information and registration  here. The website is updated to reflect current conditions. A free spring wildflower webinar is also in the works! Watch for a link on Cindy’s website, coming soon.

Want more prairie? 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.

The Rambunctious September Prairie

“Shall I not rejoice also at the abundance of weeds whose seeds are the granary of the birds?” — Henry David Thoreau

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September is in full swing. From my ring-side seat on the back porch overlooking the prairie, garden and pond,  the backyard is a jungle. I’ve been forbidden to pull weeds for the past four weeks (doctor’s orders), and I have another four weeks to go. The rambunctious garden is beautiful in its own way, I tell myself. Yup. Sure it is.

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The invasive sweet autumn clematis vines riot across the perennials—a remnant from a bad gardening decision I made years ago before I veered toward native plants. I’ve pulled out the vines each year and kept them in check. Until now. This season, the clematis has taken full advantage of their temporary reprieve.

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Hopefully, I’ll be green-lighted to weed in time to pull the clematis before it goes to seed. Until then, I breath in its wonderful fragrance and try not worry about the zillions of potential offspring it promises next season. Instead, I distract myself with the morning glories, which have gone rogue in purples and whites and blues. And are those asparagus fronds? Yes–presumably seed-dropped by the birds utilizing the feeder and looking quite healthy.

The overall effect is more impressionist than orderly; more Monet than Modrian.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.” There’s a lot of undiscovered virtue here.

My tallgrass prairie, which borders the back edge of our suburban lot, soldiers on without needing much attention from me. Or so it seems at first glance. Joe Pye blooms, soaring over my head to eight feet tall, make the turn from flowers to seeds. Later this fall, the prairie patch will be covered with the feathery seed puffs of grasses, asters, and goldenrods.

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Cardinal flowers linger on, scarlet exclamation marks in the recesses of my backyard prairie grasses. Some flowers have gone to seed, but others flourish in this cooler weather. My fingers itch to pull the weeds which have crept in around the red blooms; give them some elbow room, open up space for the cardinal flower’s future progeny.  I resist the urge. Instead, I brush the petals with my fingertips. Good luck.

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Goldenrod limns the back edges of the yard with splashes and arches of mustard yellow, a nice foil to the prairie cordgrass and Culver’s root going to seed. The blazes of goldenrod are a filling station for monarchs migrating south.

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As I look more closely at my prairie patch, I see inroads from a host of weeds. Tiny maple tree sprouts lurk in the shade of the grasses, ready to make a break skyward. Queen Anne’s lace has woven its way into the edges, unnoticed until now. And what’s that? A tree is growing in here! Camouflaged in the cup plants. Goldfinches work the cup plants for seeds….cupplantCODprairie9719WM.jpg

…then get a drink from rainwater deep in the “cup” formed by the joined leaves.

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We have a saying in my prairie work group: “Friends don’t give friends cup plants.” A great prairie native, but in the home garden, cup plants often become thugs and bullies. I count the number of cup plants which have multiplied this summer and sigh.  A few months from now, I’ll be digging some out—and perhaps foisting them on another unwary gardener friend. Or putting a few in the compost pile. A native prairie plant—sure! But also potentially invasive in my home garden and prairie.

I’ll deal with it all at the end of October, I promise myself. Until then, I’ll try to relax and enjoy the show.

A newcomer to the prairie patch this season is devil’s beggarticks. What an unprepossessing name!  This weedy native must have ridden in with some of the new prairie plugs I planted this spring. Hmmm. I wonder how much it will spread? I guess I’ll find out.

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It’s not the only newcomer. Garlic chives appear throughout the garden; insidious, silent—and pretty. It turns out they are a magnet for pollinators. Who knew? Each bloom is busier than a runway at Chicago O’Hare International Airport.  The smaller bees and flies work the flowers overtime. Peck’s skippers (shown below) and fiery skippers, whose population has exploded this September, seem to love it.

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The name “skipper” is perfect for them. A perky word for a jaunty butterfly,. It fits these small fall fliers.  Their cousins, the silver-spotted skippers, love to nectar on my heirloom zinnias—welcome non-native flowers from Mexico—which are excellent for attracting pollinators and always have a place in my backyard.

I’ve never noticed skippers much before, but now I see them everywhere: along the sidewalks of the neighborhood when I take my short walk each day, or in the garden and prairie patch.  Is it a just a good year for them? Are some of the “weeds” I’ve let grow attracting them? Or am I just paying more attention to my own backyard?

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Some of our native prairie plants are a little rambunctious—perhaps a bit too rambunctious. I’m reminded of this when I go for a short hike five minutes from my house at College of DuPage’s beautiful Russell R. Kirt Prairie. Jeff drives me there for my sanctioned 10-minute walk one day this week on their wide, mowed paths.

It’s so good to be on the prairie again. I soak up everything I can. Even when it is right on the edge of the path, brushing my sleeves, the Illinois bundleflower’s diminutive flowers are easy to overlook.

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You can see from its leaves how it gets the nickname “Illinois mimosa” or “sensitive plant.” Looks like a mimosa, doesn’t it? (The plant, not the beverage!) This legume’s unusual seed pods are show-stoppers.

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The self-pollinating plants reproduce by seeds. On the Schulenberg Prairie, where I’m a steward, it is quickly taking over whole areas.  It supposedly has a poor tolerance for fire, and the Schulenberg Prairie is burned yearly. An enigma! Why is it doing so well? We don’t know. My prairie team picked the seeds defensively for a few years to keep it from spreading, but for this season, we’re letting the plants do their own thing. Two members of the team are tracking their movements to see what will happen. Will an animal, insect, or plant disease arrive to keep the bundleflowers in check? Or will we have a big showdown with a “bundleflower monoculture” in a year or two? We’ll find out. And make corrective decisions as we go.

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Illinois bundleflower is not supposed to be a “rambunctious” native plant. Go figure. Sometimes, plants have their own ideas about how they want to behave.

The September prairie palette at College of DuPage is whites and golds; rusts and tans. Indian grass is in full flower; each seed head drips with yellow petals.

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There’s a bit of chartreuse and burgundy in the prairie dock leaves turning from emerald to the color of crisp chocolate.

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Off trail, there’s a hint of pink in the gaura, a funky tall wildflower and prairie native.

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Illinois tick trefoil is bloomed out, but its Velcro-like seed pods, called “loments,” find their way onto my shirt, my pants, and my socks.  Tiny hooked hairs help the seeds hitchhike across the prairie—and into my laundry room.

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Most of the summer wildflowers are done for the season. Prairie cinquefoil seeds are ready for collection, like small brown bouquets.

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Big bluestem and Indian grass dominate, mixing in glorious disarray.

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September has arrived, with all its unruly, rough-and-tumble, rambunctious charm.

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Whether its the riot in the backyard garden and prairie “jungle”, or the fall free-for-all on the bigger local prairies, I’m glad to have a front row seat. I can’t wait to see what will happen next this month. You too?

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Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) is best known for his book, Walden and his essay, Civil Disobedience, which argues a government should not make its citizens commit acts of injustice. Thoreau’s contemporary, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), is also quoted in this post.

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All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): wild lettuce (Lactuca canadensis), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; invasive sweet autumn clematis (Clematis terniflora), author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; rambunctious garden, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium fistulosum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; monarch (Danaus plexippus) nectaring on stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; devil’s beggarticks (Bidens frondosa), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; corrected to Peck’s skipper (Polites peckius) on garlic chives (Allium tuberosum), author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; video of silver spotted skipper butterfly (Epargyreus clarus) nectaring on cut-and-come-again heirloom zinnias (Zinnia elegans), author’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL: Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL: biennial guara (Guara biennis), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; Illinois tick trefoil (Desmodium illinoense), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie cinquefoil (Drymocallis arguta), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) with spiderweb, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

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Join Cindy online for Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online beginning September 17.  It’s a work at your own pace class, available through the Morton Arboretum. Registration is here.

Cindy’s other speaking events and classes will resume October 5. Check them out at www.cindycrosby.com.

New Prairie Perspectives

“Gratitude is wine for the soul.”–Rumi

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We’re in the last days of meteorological summer. which ends August 31. For those of us who want to hang on to “summer” a little longer, we default to the astronomical seasons, which put the start of autumn on September 23 this year.  Either way, the seasons are shifting.

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One of the best things about unexpected interruptions is they give you new perspective. These past two weeks,  I’ve been putting in more time observing my backyard prairie out of necessity. Cut loose from my work schedule, sidelined for a bit by surgery, I’ve had to slow down. It’s been a reminder to pay attention to what’s in front of me—my own backyard.

I’ve had time to watch — really watch — the cardinal flowers open their lipstick red petals. To be delighted at how the hummingbirds go crazy over them, flying in and out from their hiding spots in nearby trees to drink from the blooms.

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The hummers boldly check me out where I sit motionless in my deck chair, then take a quick sip of nectar from the feeder. They’re so fast! Audubon tells me that while hovering, ruby-throated hummingbirds beat their wings 50 times per second. They must be on a sugar high.

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Then, they rocket over to the red cardinal flower’s cousin—blue lobelia—dripping with much-needed rain–for another drink. The lobelia have just started to bloom around the pond this weekend; one of the last hurrahs of summer.

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Monarchs sail over garden and pond and prairie, joining the hummingbirds for a nip of nectar.

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Soon, both monarchs and hummers will head south; the monarchs to Mexico, the hummingbirds as far south as Costa Rica.  The backyard will be emptier without them.

Obedient plant (sometimes called “false dragonhead”) is in full bloom in my backyard prairie patch. I move each individual flower sideways with my finger. They rotate then stay put, thus the name. Fiddling with flowers—it’s addicting!

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Queen of the prairie blooms, those cotton-candy pink tufts, have gone to seed; but are perhaps no less beautiful at this stage of life. Just different. So many seeds. So much promise for the future.

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Tiny skippers rev up across the yard; flitting from flower to flower. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources tells me there are more than 3,500 species of skipper butterflies in the world. Wow!

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The skippers are tough to ID. I like Field Guide to the Skippers of Illinois from the Illinois Natural History Survey, now out of print, but fortunately on my bookshelf. Inaturalist, a phone app and online resource, is also useful in ID’ing these little fliers. Between the two, I can sometimes figure out who is who. Is this a fiery skipper in the photo above? Possibly! Nearby, the small bullfrog in my pond startles when I stop at the edge to scan the water, both of us watching for damselflies and dragonflies.

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Earlier this week, I looked at the pond’s water level and realized how long it had been since we’ve had rain. I’m not allowed to carry the hose around yet, so until a storm moves through—or my family helps me—the pond is left to its own devices. It’s a curious thing, letting go of this ability to “do” things that I once took for granted. I gauge everything with an eye to its weight. I look at my day ahead and prioritize where my energy goes, instead of heading into it recklessly, taking whatever comes.  It’s a new perspective on each day.

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Two weeks into recovery this week, I ask my husband to drive us to the Belmont Prairie in Downer’s Grove. I can’t walk the trails here yet—they are too narrow and treacherous with their grassy overlays—but I can admire the prairie from the parking lot. The Maxmilian sunflowers tower over my head.

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Peering in between them, I can see blazing star and rattlesnake master, two August prairie masterpieces. The gray-headed coneflowers are going to seed, and the wild quinine is close behind. The silhouettes of pale purple coneflower are magnets for goldfinches, who know what tasty seeds are inside. The goldfinches move from coneflower seed head to coneflower seed head. Their bouncy flight always makes me laugh.

Not a bad view from the parking lot.

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Later, Jeff drives me to the Schulenberg Prairie where I’m a steward. I walk the short loop of the accessibility trail. I’ve not paid a lot of attention to this part of the prairie, and I’m delighted at the diversity. Big bluestem is coloring up.

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Wingstem, with its unique flower shapes, is in full bloom.

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Virgin’s bower tumbles through the shadier areas. I’ve never noticed it in this spot before.

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Wild golden glow blooms splash their sunshine alongside the paved trail. You might also hear this flower called cutleaf coneflower, or the green coneflower.

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Walking slowly, observing the natural world—both in my backyard, and at the prairies down the road—reminds me that every day is a gift. Sounds a bit cliché, I know.

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But I can’t shake the feeling, especially after this cancer diagnosis. My prognosis is good. I’m one of the lucky ones.  I’m getting stronger every day. As the poet Jane Kenyon wrote, “It could have been otherwise.”  I’m grateful for every new day.

The poet Mary Oliver told us, “Pay attention. Be astonished! Tell about it.” I feel a renewed push to do just that.

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Rumi (1207-1273) also known as Jalal al-Din Rumi and Jalal al-Din Mohammad-e Balkhiwas, was a 13th century Sufi poet, mystic, and scholar. Read more here.

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All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Joe pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL;  ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris); author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), author’s backyard prairie pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus), ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris), on heirloom cut and come again zinnias (Zinnia elegans), author’s backyard garden and prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; skipper, (Hylephila, possibly phyleus–the fiery skipper–thanks John Heneghan) on heirloom cut and come again zinna, (Zinnia elegans), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL;  bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus), author’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, IL;  pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor) with black-and-gold bumblebee (Bombus auricomus), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Maximilian sunflowers (Helianthus maximiliani), Belmont Prairie Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; button blazing star (Liatris aspera), rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), and pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) Belmont Prairie Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon nutans), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana), accessibility loop, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild golden glow, or cut-leaf coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata), accessibility loop, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; entrance to accessibility loop at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

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Cindy’s speaking and classes can be found at www.CindyCrosby.com  

Backyard Prairie Reflections

 “Tomorrow is forever, and years pass in no time at all.”–Mary Lawson

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Thunderstorms move through the Chicago region, offering blessed relief for prairies and backyard gardens. The cracked concrete earth soaks up the rain; fuel needed for seed creation and the last pumps of blooms ahead. You can feel the relief in the air.

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Pumpkin spice latte signs appear in coffee shop windows. The afternoon light slants lower; a little pixelled, a little grainy.  In stores, school supplies jostle with unicorn costumes and Halloween candy for shelf space. The first school buses cruise the streets, slowing traffic. Where did summer go?

Late summer and fall wildflowers show up: snakeroot, New England aster, goldenrod, blue vervain, boneset.  There is a last flush of swamp milkweed in the wetter areas.

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Green darner dragonflies move in clouds over the tallgrass; sometimes with black saddlebags and wandering glider dragonflies mixed in. Migration season is underway. My ear is tuned for the first northern birds moving south, but so far, it’s the usual suspects at the backyard feeders.

At Nachusa Grasslands, the bison calves have put on weight. Adult bison lounge in the grasses, in no particular hurry to go anywhere. August is about slowing down. Making time.

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Bunch galls, like alien wildflowers, appear on the goldenrods. This seems to be an especially good year for them. The goldenrod bunch galls, like the one below, are made by a tiny midge which feeds on the plant. The abnormal tissue forms a leafy rosette. Pretty, isn’t it? A harbinger of autumn.

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You’ll see other galls on the prairie if you look closely around you: ball galls, elliptical galls, blister galls. They all have different insect artists, busy at work on their creations. Bugguide.com has an excellent overview here.

The damselfly populations are beginning to taper off; but the violet dancers will hang around on the prairie until the end of the month. Common? Yes.  But no less special for their predictability. That violet!

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So much is happening on the tallgrass prairie in August. It’s difficult to miss a moment of it.

This past week, I’ve been regulated to the house for a bit to recover after some unexpected surgery. I’ve been trying to look at this enforced rest as an opportunity to slow down, catch up on reading,  and to enjoy the view from my back porch.  But with August in full swing on the prairie—and at the cusp of dragonfly migration season—it’s been a challenge. Without my prairie work and prairie hikes—or my natural history classes to teach—my backyard prairie patch, garden full of zinnias and tomatoes, and small pond have all been solace.

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You’d think a suburban backyard prairie patch and garden would be predictable and quiet. But I’m discovering the action never stops. From my vantage point on the porch, I see—for the first time—a great spreadwing damselfly. In my backyard pond! I’ve never seen them in the forest preserve where I once monitored, or the two prairie sites where I walk my dragonfly routes. And here in my backyard —right under my nose—he is.

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We look at each other for a bit.

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I admire his reflection in the pond until the wind fingers the water and ripples erase the image.

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He flies from perch to perch around the pond, then finally lands out of sight. Wow. Sometimes the biggest surprises are in your own backyard.

From the porch I watch the butterflies flap over the tomatoes. An eastern tiger swallowtail sips nectar from a zinnia mixed in with the gray-headed coneflowers. Zinnias mingle with my prairie plants. Although the zinnias are native to Mexico rather than Illinois, they are welcome in my garden as a magnet for pollinators.

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The same zinnia is quickly commandeered by a monarch. I haven’t found many caterpillars in my backyard this summer, but there are a lot of adults.

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Nearby, a painted lady takes her turn nectaring on the flowers.

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She floats to the rangy smartweed growing up through the rattlesnake master plants and rests for a bit on some leaves, letting me admire her soft, open wings. I’ve always struggled with the differences between a painted lady butterfly and the American lady butterfly. So similiar! And yet, different, if you know what to look for.  This bugguide.net side by side comparison has really helped me (click on the link). Take a look and see what you think.

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The Joe Pye weed in the backyard prairie patch is also a butterfly magnet. Bees work each individual petal; tiny dusty rose-pink tassels towering over my head. Moths love it too! An Ailanthus webworm moth competes with the bees for nectar, its bright geometric patterns a startling contrast.

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Bumblebees move from the Joe Pye blooms to buzz the ironweed. So many bees! I’ve tried to learn a few species without much success. Maybe now, I’ll have time.

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As I slowly walk through my backyard, I feel my frustration at not being able to go for a prairie hike dissipate.  Maybe….just maybe…this enforced rest and recovery will be an eye-opener. There’s a lot to see, right in front of me, just off my back porch. A lot to pay attention to. Goldfinches, sipping rainwater from the cup plants. The Cooper’s hawk lurking in a nearby maple, watching my birdfeeders for a snack. Cicadas tuning up. The smell of bee balm, the taste of mountain mint. So much color, music, fragrance, taste, and motion here. In the 20 years we’ve lived in the suburbs, I’ve never been more grateful than today that I planted a prairie patch; dug a small pond. I have a feeling the recovery time will fly.

Summer’s not over yet.

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Adventures await. Both in the backyard prairie and beyond.

*****

The opening quote is from Canadian novelist Mary Lawson (1946-) in her prize-winning first book, Crow Lake (2002). It’s one of my favorite novels about pond communities, rural life, academia, and northern Canada.  I re-read it every year.

*****

All photographs copyright Cindy Crosby: thunderstorm over the backyard garden and prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) with blue vervain (Verbena hastata) and late boneset (Eupatorium serotinum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; adult bison (Bison bison) Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; violet dancer damselfly (Argia fumipennis violacea) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bunch gall on goldenrod made by a midge (Rhopalomyia solidaginis), Fermilab prairies, Batavia, IL; pond in author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; great spreadwing (Archilestes grandis), author’s backyard in Glen Ellyn, IL; great spreadwing (Arhilestes grandis), author’s backyard in Glen Ellyn, IL; reflection of great spreadwing damselfly (Archilestes grandis), author’s backyard in Glen Ellyn, IL; yellow eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly (Papilio glaucus) with heirloom Cut and Come Again zinnias (Zinnia elegans) and grey-headed coneflowers (Ritibida pinnata), author’s backyard garden and prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) with heirloom Cut and Come Again zinnias (Zinnia elegans) and gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata), author’s backyard garden and prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; painted lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui) on a Cut and Come Again zinnia (Zinnia elegans), author’s backyard garden and prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; Ailanthus webworm moth (Atteva aurea) on Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; tall ironweed (Vernonia gigantea) with brown-belted bumblebee (Bombis griseocollis), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; bench on the Schulenberg Prairie in August, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Cindy’s classes and speaking are on www.cindycrosby.com