Category Archives: Cemetery Prairie

A Very Prairie Cemetery

“The prairie landscape insists on patience and commitment. It does not give up its secrets and wonders easily.” — James P. Ronda

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It’s the end of the work day at home, and I’m scrolling through Twitter. Then I see it —a tweet by tallgrass artist Liz Anna Kozik about a local prairie awash in shooting star blooms. A prairie I’ve never seen before! It’s only 30 minutes from my home. Jeff looks over my shoulder and sees the photo Liz has posted. Wow! We look at each other.

Let’s go!

The 37-acre Vermont Cemetery Prairie is part of the Forest Preserve District of Will County. One acre of the pioneer cemetery is designated as an Illinois Nature Preserve. This acre, untouched by agricultural plows which destroyed most of Illinois’ original 22 million acres of tallgrass prairie, is a rare piece of our history.

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The cemetery is home to the federally endangered  and state threatened Mead’s milkweed. Illinois has about two dozen native milkweeds, all of them host to the monarch butterfly caterpillar. I’ve seen many of these native milkweeds. But the Mead’s has been elusive. Maybe later this summer, I’ll see it here.

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As we get out of the car, I’m disappointed. Prairie plants? Sure. The immediate area around the parking lot seems to be prairie wetland, and we spot some familiar species.

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Birds are moving through. A killdeer. A mallard. Another mallard. And—what’s that?

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Lesser yellowlegs? I think so. Tringa flavipes. For fun, I look up the meaning of its scientific name. I discover “Tringa” is “a genus of waders, containing the shanks and tattlers.”  Hilarious! The Latin name flavipes is pretty straightforward: flavus is “yellow” and pes means “foot.” I love the scientific names; they always have a story to tell about a member of the natural world. I check the lesser yellowlegs’ range in Cornell’s All About Birds; it seems they are stopping here on their way to their breeding grounds up north.

We watch the lesser yellowlegs move through the wetlands for a while, then continue looking for the cemetery.   Jeff spies it first—-the black fencing in the distance is a tip-off. The Tall Grass Greenway Trail runs parallel to the prairie, between the fence and railroad tracks, flanked by towering power lines.

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A mammoth subdivision borders the other side of the preserve. House after house after house. But few people are at the prairie.

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The fence, which keeps us out, is necessary, as the prairie would easily be damaged by vandalism or poaching. Remnants like this have almost vanished in Illinois; only about 2,300 high quality original prairie acres remain. Remaining prairie remnants tend to be along old railroad tracks, on rocky knobs unsuitable for farming (such as you find at Nachusa Grasslands in Franklin Grove, IL), or in cemeteries, such as these.

Jeff and I walk the perimeter. Outside the cemetery fence, even the ditch and buffer zones are a treasure trove of prairie plants. Golden Alexanders.

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And its cousin, heart-leaved golden Alexanders.

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Compass plants.

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Wild strawberries.

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Tall coreopsis.

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Prairie dropseed.

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All this on the outside of the fence! Magical. Could it really be any better inside?

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We look in.

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Wow.

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So much shooting star. We see bumblebees among the graves, working the flowers in the early evening light.

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Among the shooting star is wood betony…

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..and so much hoary puccoon! These pops of orange are startling among the yellow of wood betony and the pink of shooting star. A few bastard toadflax throw white stars in the grasses.  Sedges are in bloom too! But what species?HoaryPuccoonVermontPrairieCemetery51220WM

I have no idea.

The health of this prairie is a tribute to long-time dedicated stewards Don and Espie Nelson. (Watch a video about their work on this prairie here.) Without the efforts of this dynamic duo, this prairie would not be the vibrant, diverse place we see today. It also owes its existence to Dr. Robert Betz, a professor at Northeastern Illinois University, who worked to restore this remnant in the 1960s through cutting brush and using prescribed fire. He’s one of our Illinois prairie heroes.

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I wonder what those who were buried here would have thought about the importance we put on the prairie flora found here today. Curious, I look up Wilhelmine Grabe, whose name appears on a gravestone with her husband, John Grabe.  She was born in Germany, immigrated here, and died in 1895, at the same age as I am today. What did she think, when she came from the forests of Germany and first walked through a tallgrass prairie? Was she enchanted? Or was she afraid of the vast, empty spaces that became her new home? Did she and her husband, John, work hard to break the prairie sod so they could farm and grow food for their family? Would it puzzle her to see how much we value the last vestiges of prairie here?

I look up other names I see on the markers, but find nothing. There are many other gravestones worn beyond deciphering. All of these markers ask us to remember people who called the prairie state home for a portion of their lives. All of them are now at rest in one of the most beautiful cemeteries I’ve ever seen.

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This prairie…these beautiful prairie wildflowers. This unexpected evening. This visit is a surprise that lifts my spirits and revives my sense of wonder.

The surprises have not all been good ones this week. My ginkgo tree, resilient and indestructible—-I thought — had leafed out. Then—wham! All of its leaves died this week.

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Will it survive? I email the Morton Arboretum’s plant clinic, a free service the Morton Arboretum offers to anyone, anywhere. Sharon, a repository of expert plant knowledge,  diagnoses freeze damage. She says it’s possible my little tree will summon enough energy to put out a new set of leaves.

Or not.

All I can do, she said, is watch…and wait.

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I’ve gotten more practiced at watching and waiting the past two months. No problem.

Another surprise:  Sunday evening, three and a half inches of rain fell in a few hours. The Arboretum is still closed because of the pandemic, so we drive to Leask Lane which borders the west side of the Schulenberg Prairie to see how the prairie has fared. There, we pull off the road to peer through the fence. Willoway Brook rampages wide and wild. As a steward, I know the seeds of invasive plants are coming in with this deluge, and will require attention as the waters subside.

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It’s a challenge I anticipate. But it will be a few more weeks before the Morton Arboretum is open. Although my steward work won’t resume for a bit longer, I’ll be able to hike the Schulenberg Prairie again in less than two weeks.  At last. At last.

I’m anxious to see what the past two months have brought to the prairie. I look over the fence and wonder. Are the small white lady’s slipper orchids in bloom? This should be their week. I remember the delight of discovering them nestled deep in the new grasses.

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It’s a discovery that has never lost its charm, year after year.

What about the shooting star? Will they be visible, even with the old growth, unburned, still in place? Try as I might, I can’t see them. But I remember them, from previous years.

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I think of these years, and how beautiful the wildflowers were. I imagine the queen bumblebees, alighting on one bloom after another,  using their strong thoracic muscles—-performing “buzz pollination”—to loosen the pollen. Like salt sprinkled from a salt shaker.  One thought led to another. Had the federally endangered rusty patched bumblebee emerged? Was it out and about in the wildflowers?

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I wonder if the first eastern forktail damselflies are emerging along Willoway Brook, and what effects the water’s rise and fall are having on the dragonfly and damselfly populations.

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So much is happening! So much to anticipate. June 1, I’ll be back on the prairie I’ve grown to love for the past 22 years where I’ve been steward for almost a decade. Less than two weeks to go now. Until then, I peer through the fence.

It will be worth the wait.

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James P. Ronda, whose quote kicks off the blog today, is the author of Visions of the Tallgrass from University of Oklahoma Press. If you haven’t seen this book of lovely essays with gorgeous photographs by Harvey Payne, check it out here.

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All photographs taken at Vermont Cemetery Prairie, Forest Preserve District of Will County, Naperville, IL unless otherwise noted; copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): sign; view of the wetlands; lesser yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes); approach to cemetery remnant; approach to cemetery remnant; golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea); heart-leaved golden Alexanders (Zizia aptera); compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); wild strawberries (Fragaria virginiana); tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis); cemetery fence; shooting star and gravestone (Dodecatheon meadia); shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia); shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia) and gravestone; wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis), hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens) and bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata); prairie and power lines; ginkgo tree (Ginkgo biloba), author’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; small white lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium candidum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL–photo from previous years; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL–photo from previous years; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia); eastern forktail (Ishnura verticalis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Tremendous thanks to Liz Anna Kozik  for the heads up about Vermont Cemetery Prairie. Check out her tallgrass prairie graphic comics and other art here.

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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 7 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.

Spring on the Prairie

“All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” — J.R.R. Tolkien

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Spring! It’s here—at last—on the Chicago region’s prairies.

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Hiking the prairie in April is like going to a class reunion. So many friends you haven’t seen for a long time. Look! Cream gentians.

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You realize how much you’ve missed each native plant species since you last saw them a year ago in April. Ahhhh. Spring beauties.

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And, like any reunion, there are a few old acquaintances you wish hadn’t shown up. Oh no...garlic mustard.

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After a wild week of snow and sunshine, Jeff and I left the confines of our house to explore the East Prairie at College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn. With almost 30,000 commuting students, COD is the largest community college in Illinois and a hop, skip, and a jump from our house. Its large, modern buildings and campus are set in the midst of several well-tended planted prairies, which owe a lot to the work of Russell Kirt, a now retired professor there.

The weather has taken an abrupt turn toward warmth and blue skies. It feels so good to be outdoors…and somewhere other than our backyard. Our dilemma was only — should we look up?

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Those skies! Or should we look down…

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…so much green growth and change. Everywhere, the life of the prairie and its adjacent wetlands offered something to marvel over. Small pollinators hummed around the willows. Try as I might, I’m not able to get a good insect ID.

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Relax, I tell myself. Just enjoy the day. And so I do.

*****

Less than a mile from COD’s prairies—in my suburban backyard—the first cabbage white butterfly appeared this week, drawn to the wreath of marsh marigolds in my small pond. After two snows in the past seven days…

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…the marsh marigolds were a little worse for wear, but not defeated. A cardinal soundtrack—Cheer Cheer Cheer Cheer Cheermade Monday’s sunny afternoon feel even more spring-like.

I sat on the back porch and watched the cabbage white until it was out of sight. Usually, the first butterfly I see on the marsh marigolds is the red admiral. Had it already arrived—-and I missed it? Or was it slower to emerge this season? And—where were the chorus frogs that called from my little pond last year? They didn’t show up in March.  My Kankakee mallow is absent from the prairie patch this April. Shouldn’t it be up by now?

So many questions. What other changes will unfold? Will the bullfrogs appear this summer? What about the great spreadwing damselfly that appeared in the pond last summer? I wonder. What will the next months bring?

Every spring has a tinge of uncertainty. This April has more than its share.

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Earlier this week, Jeff and I checked to see how April is progressing at St. Stephen Cemetery Prairie, a small two-acre remnant in DuPage County. It was great to see it had been burned at a time when many prescribed fire events have been postponed. Kudos to Milton Township and its volunteers! Bee balm, goldenrod and asters are visible through the chain-link fence opening.

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Purple meadow rue shows off its distinctive leaf forms.

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I love the history of this place. Once, there was a little community called Gretna close to Carol Stream. A Catholic church, founded in 1852, put two acres of native prairie aside to reserve them as potential cemetery plots for its members, many who had immigrated from Germany. These acres were never plowed. Never grazed.

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This was the first prairie where I saw wild senna. More than 50 native species are preserved here, including Culver’s root, spiderwort, and prairie dock. Nearby are the gravestones with the names: Miller, Dieter, Stark. The little community of Gretna and its church are gone, but the prairie lives on.

As we hike past the cemetery, we notice a brochure box.  Being cautious, as we have to be in these times, we read as much as we can through the plexiglass. A Midwestern cholera epidemic in the 19th Century killed infants and small children. Some are buried here.

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When we returned home, I read more about the cholera epidemic and the 1918 influenza epidemic in the Midwest. I found an interesting article by Dr. Walter J. Daly in 2008 in The U.S. National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health, which concluded:

There was an important difference in public attitude about the two epidemics, 19th Century cholera in the Midwest and 1918 influenza: in the case of cholera, the people believed the local atmosphere was at fault, consequently flight was attractive. In 1918, they knew the disease was contagious, whatever it was; they knew it was everywhere; flight would not be successful. Nevertheless, some fled.  Since mid-19th Century, the people have moved ahead. Public opinion is still influenced by business interests and the editors of news distributors. Certainly, they expect more of medical science than did their ancestors. Yet some reactions are probably imbedded in human behavior: to seek explanations and accept unworldly ones if others do not satisfy, to blame strangers among us, to flee if a safer place might be available, to postpone action, and then to forget rather than to learn from it, once the disaster is past.

Sounds familiar.

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I’m struck by the predictable and the unpredictable as I hike the different prairies this week. Many of the rhythms of the prairie continue, oblivious to the unfolding chaos around them. Spring comes to the prairie as it does any other year: rattlesnake master…

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…and gentians and bee balm emerging alongside shooting star.

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Spring beauties and violets are in bloom. April is underway, as it has been for thousands of years in the tallgrass.

Yes, there are changes. In many places, prescribed fire has been cancelled. Some prairies are seeing an influx of hikers longing to get outside; other prairies are closed to the public for the first time for safety.

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In Illinois, our shelter in place was announced March 20. As I write this on April 20, uncertainty reigns. When will life be “normal” again? Will it ever be the same? If the pandemic comes to an end, what will we have learned —as individuals, as a nation? Or, as Dr. Daly asks after recounting responses to the cholera epidemic and influenza epidemics more than 100 years ago, will we forget what we’re learning once the disaster is past?

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So many media articles these past weeks advise me what to do with my “sheltering in place” time. Organize a closet. Try a new recipe. Get my finances in order. The days pass so quickly, sometimes without much seemingly getting done. Some mornings I count  successful if I’m up and dressed. My one priority has been to get outside and walk. Some days, it seems,  that this is the main event.

I’ve decided that’s okay. It’s these wildflowers and spring birds; pollinators and cloud-painted skies that keep me searching out quiet prairies to hike, when my usual prairies are closed or unavailable to me. Each time I go for a walk, I’m reminded of the beauty of the world. After each hike, I come home refreshed. I feel more hopeful. I find renewed energy to tackle the deceptively normal demands of home and work.

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There’s so much we don’t know.  Even the “predictable” rhythms of the natural world are subjected to interruptions and change. An expected butterfly fails to show up. My pond is empty of frogs. A reliable plant fails to appear in its appointed place.

When change comes, I have my memories of past springs. The call of the chorus frogs. The contrast of the red admiral against the marsh marigolds. That Kankakee mallow bloom—wow! I remember its pink. And–as I miss the prairies and savannas I frequented that have been temporarily closed to the public, I can remember what’s in bloom there now; the pasque flowers, the bloodroot in the little copse of trees…

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…the first tentative flowering of wood betony, and the tiny pearls of bastard toadflax.

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I miss those prairies I can no longer access, closed or inaccessible because of the pandemic, but I feel comfort in thinking about them. Because of my relationship to these prairies—mornings spent on hands and knees ID’ing plants, hours spent logging dragonfly data, hiking them in all weathers—their stories are part of my story. My absence now doesn’t change that relationship.

If a time comes when I get older that I’m unable to hike anymore,  I will be grateful to have these memories.  I’ll be hiking these prairies then in my memories and dreams.

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Today, I’m grateful for the memories I have tucked away of my favorite places. Even as I find new places to hike, I follow the progress of those prairies I’m missing and know so well in my mind and my heart.

Not even a pandemic can change that.

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The opening quote is from Oxford English language scholar J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973), best known for The Hobbit and  The Lord of the Rings series. He was also known for speaking out on environmental issues in the 1960s. His imaginary “Middle-earth” brought hours of read-aloud delight to our family.

All photos and video clip  copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; invasive garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), Glen Ellyn, IL; cream gentian (Gentiana alba), College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; spring beauty (Claytonia virginica), College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) with some unknown bedstraw (Galium spp.), College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; unknown willow (Salix sp.) and pollinators, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris) under snow, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; video clip of marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris), author’s backyard pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; St. Stephen Cemetery and Prairie, DuPage County, IL; probably purple meadow rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum), St. Stephen Cemetery and Prairie, DuPage County, IL; St. Stephen Cemetery and Prairie, DuPage County, IL; brochure box, St. Stephen Cemetery and Prairie, DuPage County, IL; prairie dropseed (Sporobolis heterolepis), College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia), College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL;  common blue violet (Viola sororia sororia), College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; various mosses and their associates, St. Stephen Cemetery and Prairie, DuPage County, IL; box elder (Acer negundo), St. Stephen Cemetery and Prairie, DuPage County, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) and bee fly (Bombylius sp.), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (taken in 2019); bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (taken in 2019); red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus), College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL.

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TONIGHT: “THE NATURE OF CONSERVATION” panel discussion with Peggy Notebaert Museum. FREE!

Join me from wherever you are sheltering in place for “The Nature of Conservation,” April 21, 6:30-8:30 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.

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.

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