Category Archives: fire

Fire Season

Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next.” -Gilda Radner

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The smell of smoke drifts through our open windows. A few miles away, a white plume rises.

Fire! Prescribed fire.

At the forest preserves, the Arboretum, and conservation sites, flames creep along the woodland floor. Embers smolder. A tree chain smokes.

It’s prescribed burn season in the woodlands, and even on a few prairies and wetlands. In the Chicago region, a stream of blessedly warm, dry days have made conditions right for fire.

Ashes, ashes, we all fall down.

Fall burns are a management tool stewards and site staff use to encourage healthy natural areas. Spring burns will follow in 2021. In late winter or early spring, we burn the tallgrass prairies.

Because of COVID in 2020, many prairie stewards and staff were unable to gather in large groups to use prescribed fire. For those of us used to seeing this predictable cycle of the prairie season, the unburned prairies—now tangled and tall—were one more curveball in an unpredictable year.

I missed the usual spring dance of fire and flammable grasses; the swept-clean slate of a newly-burned prairie this March. Early wildflowers were difficult to find, buried under the thatch of last-year’s Indian grass and big bluestem. The prairies, untouched by flame, seemed out of kilter all summer. Alien.

This spring, prairie willows flowered. For the first time in remembrance on one prairie where I volunteer, prairie roses put on second year growth. Now, in November, the willows are thick and tall. Bright rose hips are sprinkled through the brittle grasses.

Although I’m not working on the fire crews this season, I feel a rush of adrenaline when I see the tell-tale towers of smoke in the distance. They tell me life is back on track again. That there is some semblance of normality. Welcome back, prescribed fire.

Out with the old, in with the new. Sweep away this year. Let’s start over.

Fire can be a destructive force. But these fires are healing.

They bring the promise of rejuvenation. I know next spring and summer, the prairies, savannas, and woodlands will brim with color. Motion. New life.

As I hike the trails and drive through areas being burned, I watch the flames lick the ground clean of the remains of 2020. Hikers stop and gawk. Through the haze, cars move slowly. Driver’s rubberneck. A yellow-slickered volunteer talks to two walkers, waving her hands as she explains why they are torching the woodlands.

It’s a seeming grand finale for the plants on the woodland floor. But under the ashed soil, the roots of wildflowers and grasses wait for their encore. Spring.

Change is on the way.

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Last week, as Jeff and I hiked the prairie trails, we saw them. Woolly bear caterpillars! These forerunners of the Isabella tiger moths were a delightful appearance in the midst of a chaotic week; a sign that the regular rhythm of the seasons was in play. Their appearance was calming. I knew these woolly bears—or “woolly worms” as some southerners call them—were looking for an overwintering spot.The woolly bear’s stripes, according to folklore, predict the coming winter weather.

The small cinnamon stripe I saw on this one points to a severe winter. Hmmm.

Last autumn, the woolly bears I found had a larger cinnamon stripe than this season, indicating a mild winter. I riffled through the old digital records on Google and discovered that in 2019-2020, we had the fourth-warmest December through February period on record.

Way to predict the weather, woolly bear! Although science doesn’t put a lot of stock in these caterpillar forecasts, it’s a fun idea. It will be interesting to see how the 2020-2021 winter season shakes out, stripe-wise.

We like to know what’s coming. We want to know the future. Yet the past eight months, we’ve learned to live with ambiguity. Each day has brought its particular uncertainty—perhaps more than many of us have ever had—in one big gulp.

Life is full of ambiguity, even in the best of times. This year—when even simple rituals like meeting a friend for a morning at the coffee shop have been upended—it’s been draining. Fear and anxiety are constant companions for many of us. Some have lost loved ones. Others have grappled with an illness our medical professionals are still trying to get a handle on. And yes, even the comforting work we do on prairies and natural areas came to a stop for a while.

I’m grateful for the woolly bears, and the normal rhythm of life they represent. I’m also grateful for the fires I see, although for the 100-acre Schulenberg Prairie—like many other prairies—the prescribed burn will be set in the spring. But the mowed firebreaks are a foreshadowing of what’s to come.

New beginnings are ahead.

I feel my spirits lift, thinking about a fresh start. A new season.

I’m ready. Let’s go!

*****

The opening quote is from Gilda Radner (1946-1989) an original cast member of the comedy show “Saturday Night Live.” One of her best-quoted lines, “It’s always something.” She died from ovarian cancer.

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby and are taken at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL, unless otherwise indicated (top to bottom): smoke plume from prescribed burn, East Woods; video of prescribed burn, East Woods; tree on fire, East Woods; smoke in the East woods; ashes after prescribed burn, East Woods; Schulenberg Prairie prescribed burn (2013); Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie; New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), Schulenberg Prairie; rose hips (Rosa carolina), Schulenberg Prairie; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Schulenberg Prairie; burned over prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) on the Schulenberg Prairie parking lot strip; Schulenberg Prairie Savanna in summer; prescribed burn in the East Woods; woolly bear (Pyrrharctia isabella), Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; woolly bear (Pyrrharctia isabella) on stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Schulenberg Prairie (2019); prescribed burn sign; mowed firebreak on the Schulenberg Prairie; bridge at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; possibly a red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), West Side prairie planting.

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Join Cindy for a class—or ask her to speak virtually for your organization–now booking talks for 2021. Email Cindy through http://www.cindycrosby.com.

Register for Cindy’s Literary Gardens Online: Friday, Dec.4, 1-2:30 p.m.CST– Join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby from wherever you live in the world for a fun look at great (and not-so-great) gardens in literature and poetry. From Agatha Christie’s mystery series, to Brother Cadfael’s medieval herb garden, to Michael Pollan’s garden in “Second Nature,” to the “secret garden” beloved of children’s literature, there are so many gardens that helped shape the books we love to read. Discover how gardens and garden imagery figure in the works of Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Goudge, Rumer Godden, May Sarton, Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Gilbert, Henry Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver, and Lewis Carroll–and many more! This class is online. Register here through The Morton Arboretum.

Just released in June! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History. Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org, direct from Northwestern University Press (use coupon code NUP2020 for 25% off), or other book venues. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during these unusual times.

Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (phrelanzer). Or visit her website at http://www.cindycrosby.com. See you there!

Fire and Rain

“I’ve seen fire, and I’ve seen rain… .” –James Taylor

Those relentless March rains! Now it’s April—pushing the envelope for fire.

The prairie waits.

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Wildflowers and grasses, urged to life by spring showers, push up through the damp earth. Oblivious to the fire still to come.

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The prescribed burn crew gathers. Light the match! The drip torch ignites.  A crackle and pop… the dry grasses catch.

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Smoke rises; smudges the sun.

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Trees are cast into sharp relief;  wraith-like shadows haunt the grasses.

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Flames devour the prairie; lick the savanna. Whispering. Growing closer.

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Listen. Can you hear the fire advancing? A sound like rain.

 

Last year’s prairie vanishes in moments. Becomes only memories.

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More rain falls. The prairie fizzes over, all chocolates and emeralds.

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Life-giving fire. Life-giving rain.

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The beginnings of something new emerge.

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Hope. Anticipation. Wonder. So much is on the way. Right around the corner.

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James Taylor (1948-) is a five-time Grammy Award winner who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. His albums have sold more than 100 million copies. Although it only went to #3 on pop charts (1970), his single, “Fire and Rain,” is considered Taylor’s breakthrough song.

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; spring beauties (Claytonia virginica) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Schulenberg Prairie and Willoway Brook, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie Visitor Station area, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie Visitor Station, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie and Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; video of Schulenberg Prairie and Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Russell Kirt Prairie in my side view mirror, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; Fame Flower Knob, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; sunset over Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL;  red admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta) on marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris), author’s backyard prairie pond, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Beginnings

Morning dawns on the prairie.

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A lone red-winged blackbird calls. No breeze rustles the brittle, bleached out stands of little bluestem; the dry stalks of prairie switchgrass. The seedpods of of St. John’s wort and other bloomers have long since cracked open and dropped their seeds. There’s the promise of something new ready to germinate.

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Few flames from prescribed burns have touched the tallgrass here in Illinois … yet. But there is the rumor of fire.

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The temperatures have warmed. The wind whispers “it’s time.”

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Time for everything to begin again.

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To burn off the old; to spark something new.

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With the flames will go our memories of a season now past. What waits for us  …

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…will build on what went before, but is still unknown.

There is a sadness in letting go of what we have.

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Yet to not move forward– to shy away from that which that will seemingly destroy the tallgrass– is to set the prairie back. To keep it from reaching its full potential.

So we embrace the fire.

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We accept that things will change.  IMG_7100

 

We realize there will be surprises. Things we don’t expect.

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We strike the match. Say goodbye to ice and snow.

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Watch the prairie go up in flames.

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We wait to see what will appear.

On the other side of the fire.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby: (top to bottom) sunrise, Meadow Lake prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie grasses and Great St. John’s Wort (Hypericum pyramidatum), Meadow Lake prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prescribed burn, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; Willoway Brook, The Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL; eastern cottontail, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;   prescribed burn, The Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prescribed burn sign, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Meadow Lake prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prescribed burn, The Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; July on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  twin fawns, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Meadow Lake prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prescribed burn, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; two-track through Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. 

 

October’s Fire

Autumn strikes its match against the tallgrass.

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There’s a hiss, then a smolder. Seemingly overnight, the prairie bursts into flame.

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Sumacs catch fire.

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The odd sapling or two torches the tallgrass, creating small flare ups.

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Impossible colors clash.

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Even the butterflies mimic the tallgrass, their wings full of glowing embers.

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The colors crescendo, peak, then begin to fade.

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Compass plants wave leaf flags of surrender.

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Slowly, the elephant-eared prairie dock leaves crumple like old paper bags.

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Little bluestem sparks bright;  then its seeds float away like cinders, still combustible.

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Colors burn out, leaving trails of ash-colored seeds behind.

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The seeds disperse. Only skeletons of the plants remain.

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November is close on the heels of this conflagration. As the prairie moves into a season of rest, it will offer new ways of seeing beauty. Structure, instead of color.

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Until then, we celebrate the last frenzied outpourings.

October’s fire.

 

All photos by Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; road through the October tallgrass, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; sumac (Rhus spp.), NG; October sapling in the tallgrass, NG;  October sapling in the tallgrass, NG; New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae- angliae) against gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa), SP; buckeye butterfly, NG; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), SP; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), SP; Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis), NG; Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), NG; Great Angelica (Angelica atropurpurea), NG.

After the Fire

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

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The Schulenberg Prairie is blackened after a prescribed burn that torched the tallgrass a few days ago. The landscape lies in ruins. Or so it seems.

In other areas of The Morton Arboretum, hundreds of thousands of daffodils are beginning to bloom. It’s no surprise that this is where visitors focus their attention and their cameras.  A burned landscape holds little attraction.

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After the flames pass over the tallgrass prairie, it’s difficult to believe anything will ever grow there again. And yet.

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My hiking boots crunch into the charred surface of the prairie, as I look for signs of life. Instead, I find interesting objects revealed by the flames that have erased the tallgrass.

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There are bones from a tiny mammal that didn’t scamper quite fast enough when the fire moved across the grasses. Snail shells. Metal tags marking some research experiment, now defunct.

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Prairie dropseed hummocks, shorn of all green, look like a squadron of UFO’s that touched down on the landscape. It’s no wonder the early pioneers called dropseed “ankle breaker,” and took care not to trip over the mounds hidden in the tallgrass.

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Anthills are suddenly everywhere, like fantastic dirt castles spun out of soil. Some scientists believe these anthills and other disturbances that change the topography increase the number of different species of plants found on the prairie. Without disturbance, the life of the prairie might be less rich. IMG_4435

I inhale the smell of soot and smoke; brush ashes from my jeans. The old prairie I knew is gone. The landscape is at ground zero.

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Could anything good come out of this devastation?

It seems impossible. 

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Certum est quia impossibile est.

It is certain because it is impossible.

(All photos above by Cindy Crosby are of the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL, except: daffodils on The Joy Path, The Morton Arboretum; white ashes, the author’s backyard prairie spot in Glen Ellyn, IL. The quote is from Tertullian, 160-225 AD.) 

Fire and Ice

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Some say the world will end in fire, 

Some say in ice.

From what I’ve tasted of desire

I hold with those who favor fire.

But if it had to perish twice,

I think I know enough of hate

To say that for destruction ice

Is also great

And would suffice.

–Robert Frost

Frost wrote these lines in a poem noted for its ambiguity. But I find these lines resonate with me as I hike the prairie in early March. Fire and ice – or perhaps, the order should be reversed for the tallgrass: ice and then, fire. But unlike Frost’s poem, without the tempering of fire and ice, the prairie would cease to exist.

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It’s all ice now; beginning to melt into slush as the temperatures start their teasing climb into the 30s and 40s. A little flirting with the low 50s. Where the sun shines brightest, the snowmelt pocks the prairie with mudholes.  Old coyote tracks fill with water. They freeze, thaw again, freeze.

The life of the prairie is on hold. It depends on ice  — or at least a cold winter — for certain seeds to grow and for other plants to have a dormancy period. But, as the Beatles sang, “It’s been a long, cold lonely winter.”

Send us the fire.

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The prescribed burn just around the corner will wipe the prairie slate clean, ready for the sums of a new year to be chalked upon it. The tallgrass needs fire to keep the trees and brush from infilterating —- then dominating —- the landscape. But lightning strikes are suppressed, and Native Americans no longer set intentional fires for hunting. It’s up to restorationists to keep the prairie as an open grassland. We burn it ourselves, mimicking the past.

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The ying and the yang of fire and ice remind me that the prairie has evolved to survive the extremes of Midwestern weather. Sometimes, when I’m going through a rough patch,  this cycle reminds me that the difficulties I’m wrestling with are part of a season that will eventually pass.  Rather than destructive, the seasons of fire and ice are lifegiving.  They set the stage for something new.

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We’ve got the ice. Enough already.

Now, bring on the fire.

(All photos by Cindy Crosby. Top: Tenting at sunset at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; ice, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prescribed burn, SP, 2013; fire on the SP, 2013; ice designs with grass, SP)