Category Archives: birds

Finding Peace in Wild Things

So much fear in the world right now.

It’s catching. I find myself jumpy, anxious. Feeling like nothing will change. Up against a wall of doubt.

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When the world seems like an impossible place, I go to the prairie. This time, instead of going alone, I go with friends. I need the reminder of how much we need each other.  A reminder that we’re not alone in the world.

The late summer and early autumn greens and reds of the grasses are draining away, creating a new palette of rusts, tans, and browns.

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It’s quiet here.

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Until, suddenly, pheasants fly up – two, three – six! One lands in a tree.

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I admire their vibrant colors — that scarlet head — even while acknowledging that pheasants aren’t native to this place. But there’s room here for them.

We have so much.

A Cooper’s hawk settles in near the black plastic mulched plant nursery, where plants are going to seed, which will be used for future restoration efforts. I love the plant nursery, with its sturdy rows of prairie plants. It’s a visual reminder of how we deliberately cultivate hope for change in the future.

The hawk stares me down. Even when we think we’ve got the way forward all figured out and organized, there’s always a wild card.

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Look! Just around the corner,  a herd of bison spill over the grassy two track.

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One blocks our way.

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We keep a respectful distance. The bison stay together, tolerating our presence.

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I admire their shaggy chocolate coats; their heft and muscle. Their coats gleam and shine in the late afternoon light.

They know where the juiciest grasses are, even now.

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We watch them for a long time before we move away.

The slant of the November sun backlights the prairie like a false frost.

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The milk-washed sky brightens; the smell of old grass and decaying chlorophyll  lifts in the autumn chill. I inhale. Exhale. The autumn prairie is changing, seemingly dying.

It’s not the end. Just a transition to the next season.

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Fur and feathers…and a sea of grass. My fears are not gone, but they begin to dissolve in the late afternoon light. There is so much to be grateful for.

So much in this world that gives us reason to hope.

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All photos by Cindy Crosby from Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (The Nature Conservancy) 

There is a beautiful (copyrighted!) poem by Wendell Berry, The Peace of Wild Things, that I find a good antidote to difficult times. Find it at The Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171140.

Remembering A Prairie Poet

From: The Prairies by William Cullen Bryant

The prairies. 

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Lo! they stretch, in airy undulations, far away…

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As if the ocean in his gentlest swell, stood still, with all his rounded billows fixed, and motionless forever.  

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Motionless? No — they are all unchained again…

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The clouds sweep over with their shadows…

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 And, beneath, the surface rolls…

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And fluctuates to the eye.

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Dark hollows seem to glide along and chase the sunny ridges.

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In these plains, the bison feeds no more.

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Still this great solitude is quick with life;

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Myriads of insects, gaudy as the flowers…

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And birds, that scarce have learned the fear of man are here.

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The graceful deer bounds to the wood at my approach.

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The bee, a more adventurous colonist than man, with whom he came across the eastern deep…

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Fills the savannas with his murmurings.

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William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878) was a keen observer of the natural world. He was editor of the New York Evening Post, and one of the first American writers and romantic poets to be recognized internationally at that time. Martin Luther King, Jr., quoted this immortal phrase from Bryant, “Truth, crushed to earth, will rise again.” The above excerpts are all taken from his poem, The Prairies.

All photos by Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Autumn on the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; October, SP; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) seedheads, SP; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), SP; clouds, SP: prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); grasses, SP; grasses, SP; bison, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; grasshopper, SP; milkweed bugs, SP; red-tailed hawk, SP; fawn, SP; bumblebee in cream gentian (Gentiana flavida), SP;  savanna, SP.

A Prairie Crayon Box

If you’re going to color a prairie landscape, reach for your box of crayons.

Chocolate brown for the bison.

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Butter yellow for the prairie coreopsis.

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Or a slightly smudged, battered yellow crayon for the prescribed burn crew’s jackets, as they set fires that keep the prairies and savannas healthy. (You’ll need the orange crayon for the flames).

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Keep that bright orange crayon out– you’ll need it for the butterfly weed.

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Black for the ebony jewelwing damselfly’s wings. Iridescent green, for the rest of his body, if you can find it. (You might need the big box).

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The scarlet and lime green crayons for sumac in September.

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Contrasted with the pure white of the New Jersey tea flowers in summer. Press hard, or the white won’t show up.

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The softer white of a great egret.

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The pale pink of a thousand shooting stars in spring.

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Shade the pink with the lightest lavender crayon in the box for the pale purple coneflowers of summer. Add more intense purple for the vervain.

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Take out the sky blue crayon. Use it generously.

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Add some violet to the sky blue, reflected in the rich color of gentians, nestled deep in the grasses.

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Then, scribble magenta for the ironweed of autumn.

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Followed by the dark navy globes of the carrion flower, gone to seed, winding through the tallgrass. Shade the globes with purple and black.

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So many colors!

And still.

You’ve only pulled a few of the many crayons you’ll need to color the prairie landscape from your prairie crayon box.

(All photographs by Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): bison, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; prairie coreopsis (Coreopsis palmata), Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prescribed burn crew, NG; butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), SP; ebony jewelwing damselfly, NG;  sumac, NG; New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus), SP; great egret, NG; shooting stars (Dodecatheon meadia), SP; pale purple coneflowers (Echinacea pallida), NG; road to the sky, NG; gentians (Gentiana puberulenta), SP; ironweed (Vernonia altissima), NG, carrion flowers gone to seed, NG (Smilax herbacea).

Water: Agent of Change

Leonardo da Vinci once said, “Water is the driving force of all nature.” When you think of prairie, water may not be the first image that leaps to your mind. Yet, water is a critical agent of change in the tallgrass.

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At Nachusa Grasslands one morning this spring, I hike into the sedge meadow where some of the first dragonflies will emerge from the stream. Rainfall has prompted new spring blooms and quick growth in the grasses. I walk carefully, looking. You never know what surprises are under your feet. This morning, it’s a bone hidden under wild strawberries.

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I pick my way through the crayfish holes that pock the sedge meadow until I reach the water. A little circle of sand marks the spot where water bubbles up to  the surface. Can you find it? Great angelica and marsh marigolds dot the edges.

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As I look for that morning’s elusive dragonflies, a flash of light catches my eye over toward the fen. A pond! Where a pond hadn’t been before. The beavers have been busy constructing a dam. A landscape I thought I knew well has become something different. Time to rethink my preconceptions; to learn to see something familiar in a new way.

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In the ponds under the utility lines that cross the prairie, there is a blur of dragonfly activity. As I skirt the edges of the water, small frogs splash into the pond just a step or two ahead of me. A Northern pintail quietly paddles to the other side. Northern pintails stop in Illinois for a short time in the spring on their migration north for the summer. I’ve never seen one before. The water must have been an invitation for it to rest for a bit.

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Agricultural drain tiles under the ground have made much of the Midwest artificially dry enough for farming. Today, in prairie restorations across Illinois, we are deliberately breaking up some of these old drain tiles and restoring the original hydrology of lands that are prairie and adjacent to prairie. Inviting water to return.

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As water brings changes to familiar landscapes this season, who knows what surprises are in store for us? I can’t wait to find out.

(All photos by Cindy Crosby at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. From top: Pond grasses; bone and wild strawberries (Fragaria virginiana; great angelica (Angelica atropurpurea) and marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris) in the sedge meadow; beaver dam in the fen; northern pintail; pond.)