Category Archives: hiking

Three Reasons to Hike the February Prairie

“For a relationship with landscape to be lasting, it must be reciprocal.” —Barry Lopez

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I heard the cardinal’s spring song this week for the first time this year. Maybe it was practicing. Maybe it was dreaming. Snow is still piled on the ground and my little pond is frozen, but now I listen for that cardinal song anytime I step outdoors. February is half over. There is plenty of snow and cold ahead. Yet the thought of spring persists.

Wildflowers and grasses, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Spring! But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Winter in the Midwest has a lot to recommend it.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Really?

Oh yes. Let’s get outside and discover three reasons to hike the February prairie.

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  1. Interesting Plants

Hike the prairie in February, and you’ll be aware of the temporal nature of life.

Prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Everywhere are remnants of what was once a vibrant wildflower, now aged and gone to seed.

Carrion flower (Smilax sp.) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Along the trail is wild bergamot, still redolent with thymol.

Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Dried grasses are broken and weighted with snow.

Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

And yet, life is here, under the ground. Emergence is only weeks away.

Round-headed Bush Clover (Lespedeza capitata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Pollinators are a distant memory. What will a new season bring?

Indian Hemp/Dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum), Schulenberg Prairie, Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

These are the prairie’s closing chapters. The hot breath of prescribed fire whispers. Soon. Soon. When conditions are right. By April, this will have vanished in smoke.

Purple Prairie Clover (Dalea purpurea) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Take in every moment of winter. While it lasts.

2. The Joy of Tracking

Who moves across the winter prairie? It’s not always easy to tell.

Along Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Follow the streams and you’ll see signs of life. I know a mink lives along Willoway Brook—are these her prints?

Tracks along Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Who took a frigid plunge?

Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The freeze/thaw freeze/thaw over the past week has blurred and slushed the tracks, adding to the mystery.

Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Who is it that prowls the tallgrass prairie in February? Who swims its streams?

Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

I’m not always sure, but it’s enough to know that life persists in February.

3. The Exhilaration of Braving the Elements

Hiking the prairie in February involves a little bit of risk, a little bit of daring.

Hiking the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Bundle up.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

See these prairie skies, how they change from moment to moment? Bright—then dim—then bright? What a joy to be outside!

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Sure, the temperatures are in the teens. Wrap that scarf a little tighter around your neck. Breathe in that cold, clarifying prairie air.

Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Sometimes, you may arrive, only to turn back when the trail has iced beyond acceptable risk.

Iced-over trail at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

But isn’t it enough to be there, even if only for a few minutes?

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

I think so. Why not go see? It won’t be winter much longer.

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Barry Lopez (1945-2020) was an American writer who loved the Arctic and wolves, and wrote 20 books of fiction and non-fiction exploring our relationship to the natural world. The opening quote for today’s blog is from his National Book Award winner, Arctic Dreams (1986), which is still my favorite of his works.

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Join Cindy for a class or program in February!

February 26 — Plant a Little Prairie in Your Yard for Citizens for Conservation. Barrington, IL. (10 am-11am.) Open to the public with registration. Contact them here.

February 26 –Conservation: The Power of Story for the “2022 Community Habitat Symposium: Creating a Future for Native Ecosystems” at Joliet Junior College. Tickets available at (https://illinoisplants.org/). (Afternoon program as part of all-day events)

A Tallgrass New Year

“Year’s end is neither an end nor a beginning but a going on, with all the wisdom that experience can instill in us.” —Hal Borland

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And so 2021 comes to a close.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

On the prairie, the tallgrass colors transition to their winter hues.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The prairie is stripped to bare essence.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)and Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The deep roots of prairie plants continue to hold the tallgrass through the winter.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

As Paul Gruchow wrote, “The work that matters does not always show.”

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

2021 has been another tough year. We’ve attempted to make each day meaningful in the midst of uncertainty and loss.

Ball gall, Lyman Woods prairie kame, Downers Grove, IL.

We’ve pulled from our reserve strength until we wonder if there is anything left. Trying to keep a sense of normalcy. Trying to get our work done. Trying. Trying. It all seems like too much sometimes, doesn’t it? In When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chӧdrӧn writes, “To be fully alive, fully human, is to be continually thrown out of the nest.” The past two years have made us realize how comfortable that “nest” used to be.

Prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

But we keep moving forward, little by little. Reaching for that extra bit of patience. Putting away the media for a time out. Setting aside a morning to go for a walk and just be.

Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Listening to our lives. Listening to that interior landscape.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

We’ve learned we are fragile.

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

We’ve also learned we are more resilient than we ever knew we could be.

Thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Lyman Woods, Downers Grove, IL.

In 2019, we had no idea of the challenges ahead.

Lyman Woods, Downers Grove, IL.

And yet, here we are. Meeting those challenges. Exhausted? You bet! It’s not always pretty, but we keep getting up in the morning and getting things done.

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

We’re making the best of where we find ourselves.

Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Trying to keep our sense of humor, even when there doesn’t seem to be much to laugh about.

Random tree creation found in Lyman Woods, Downers Grove, IL.

With less margin, we are learning to untangle what’s most important from what we can let go of.

Dogbane or Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

We are making life work, even if it’s messy. Knowing that whatever is ahead in 2022, we’ll give it our best shot.

Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

We’ll hike—the prairies, the woodlands, or wherever we find ourselves—aware of the beauty of the natural world. We’ve never appreciated the outdoors spaces like we have these past months.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

We’ll give thanks for joys, big and small. Grateful in new ways for what we have.

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

And we’ll encourage each other. Because we need community, now more than ever before.

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Keep on hiking. The road has been long, but we’ve got this. Together.

New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) in late December, Lyman Woods, Downers Grove, IL.

Happy New Year!

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Hal Borland (1900-1978) was a naturalist and journalist born in Nebraska. He is the author of many books of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and plays, and wrote a tremendous number of nature observation editorials for The New York Times. He was also a recipient of the John Burroughs Medal for Distinguished Nature Writing. I’m so grateful for his “through the year” books— I love books that follow the months and seasons! Thanks to blog reader Helen Boertje, who generously shared her copies of Borland’s books with me. I’m so grateful.

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Making a New Year’s resolution? Don’t forget Bell Bowl Prairie! Commit to doing one action on the list you’ll find at Save Bell Bowl Prairie, and help us save this rare prairie remnant from the bulldozers.

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Happy New Year, and thank you for reading in 2021. What a year it’s been! I’m grateful to have this community of readers who love the natural world. I’m looking forward to virtually hiking the prairies with you in 2022. Thank you for your encouragement, and for your love of the natural world.

‘Tis the Season of Prairie Grasses

“There is nothing in the world so strong as grass.” —Brother Cadfael

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I’m baking sourdough bread and humming Van Morrison’s song “When the leaves come falling down.” It’s mid-November, but the trees glow. Today’s wind and snow are conspiring to loosen leaves from their moorings.

West Side, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Through my kitchen window, I see my prairie patch covered with yellow silver maple leaves from my neighbor’s yard. The gold flies through the air; sifts into Joe Pye weeds, cup plants, prairie cordgrass, culver’s root, and compass plants. When it comes time to burn next spring, these leaves will help fuel the fire.

When the leaves come falling down.

When the leaves come falling down.

Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

Outside, the air is sharp and earthy. It smells like winter. Daylight grows shorter. The last chapter of autumn is almost written.

In an open meadow, a coyote stalks and pounces. Missed! It’s a field mouse’s lucky day.

Coyote (Canis latrans), Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Mallards paddle ponds in the falling snow, oblivious. Their emerald heads shine like satin. Mallards are so common in Illinois we rarely give them a second glance. But oh! How beautiful they are.

Mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos), Lake Marmo, Lisle, IL.

I scoot closer to the water for a better view. A muskrat startles, then swims for the shoreline to hide in the grasses.

Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus), Lake Marmo, Lisle, IL.

Across the road in the savanna, virgin’s bower seed puffs collect snowflake sprinkles. Bright white on soft silk.

Virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

The savanna is striking in the falling snow.

Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Lisle, IL.

But I only have eyes for the prairie. November is the season for grass.

Indian grass.

Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Big bluestem.

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL. (2019)

Prairie dropseed.

Prairie dropseed (Panicum virgatum), and leadplant (Amorpha canescens), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

So much grass.

In My Antonia, Willa Cather wrote of the prairie:

“… I felt motion in the landscape; in the fresh, easy-blowing morning wind, and in the earth itself, as if the shaggy grass were a sort of loose hide, and underneath it herds of wild buffalo were galloping, galloping …” 

Bison at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. (2016)

In Where the Sky Began: Land of the Tallgrass Prairie, John Madson told us that weather extremes favor grasses over trees. No wonder the Midwest, with its wild weather vagaries, is a region of grass.

Bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (August, 2020)

In her essay, “Big Grass,” Louise Erdrich writes: “Grass sings, grass whispers… . Sleep the winter away and rise headlong each spring. Sink deep roots. Conserve water. Respect and nourish your neighbors and never let trees get the upper hand.

Grass.

In November, grass slips into the starring role.

The best fall color isn’t in the changing leaves.

It’s here. On the tallgrass prairie.

Why not go see?

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The quote that kicks off this post is from An Excellent Mystery by Ellis Peters, the non de plume for scholar Edith Mary Pargeter (1913-1995). She was the author of numerous books, including 20 volumes in The Cadfael Chronicles; murder mysteries set in 12th Century England. I reread the series every few years and enjoy it immensely each time.

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Join Cindy for a class or program!

Winter Prairie Wonders: Discover the December Delights of the Tallgrass! Dec. 3 (Friday) 10-11:30 am (Central): Make yourself a cup of hot tea, snuggle under a warm afghan, and join prairie steward and writer Cindy Crosby virtually for this interactive online immersion into the tallgrass prairie in winter. See the aesthetic beauty of the snow-covered grasses and wildflowers in cold weather through colorful images of winter on the prairies. Follow animal tracks to see what creatures are out and about, and see how many you can identify. Learn how birds, pollinators, and mammals use winter prairie plants;  the seeds for nourishment and the grasses and spent wildflowers for overwintering, protection, and cover. Then, listen as Cindy shares brief readings about the prairie in winter that will engage your creativity and nourish your soul.  This is scheduled as a Zoom event through The Morton Arboretum. Register here.

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Just in time for the holidays! Northwestern University Press is offering The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction and Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History (with watercolor illustrations by Peggy MacNamara) for 40% off the retail price. Click here for details. Remember to use Code Holiday40 when you check out.

Please visit your local independent bookstore (Illinois’ friends: The Arboretum Store in Lisle and The Book Store in Glen Ellyn) to purchase or order Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit for the holidays. Discover full-color prairie photographs and essays from Cindy and co-author Thomas Dean.

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Save Bell Bowl Prairie! Visit the website to find out how you can help keep this critical remnant from being bulldozed in Illinois. One phone call, one letter, or sharing the information with five friends will help us save it.

September Spins Its Prairie Stories

“To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee… .”–Emily Dickinson

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The prairie thumbs through September’s pages, already more than halfway through this 2021 chapter. The month is going so quickly! Blink, and you miss something—a wildflower blooming, a redstart heading south. Every trail has a surprise.

Nachusa Grasslands in September, Franklin Grove, IL.

But—where is the rain? Take a step, and it’s like walking on Rice Krispies cereal: Snap! Crackle! Pop!

Rocky knoll at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

And yet. So much happens in September, rain or no rain. I don’t want to miss a moment. It’s the reason that I drink my coffee on the back porch this month, listening to the cries of the Cooper’s hawk stalking the bird feeders. Or sprawl in the backyard hammock, watching the sky for migrating birds and dragonflies silhouetted against the clouds. It’s why I stroll through the garden, hike the prairie trails. I want to see what shows up.

iNaturalist tells me this is the fork-tailed bush katydid (Scudderia furcata), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Indoors, I think about the outdoors. What’s happening that I’m missing? Is it a migrating warbler, or a lone red saddlebags dragonfly that has a tendency to show up in my yard at this time each year? Or even something as simple as the slant of light on the prairie, percolating through the haze across the grasses and goldenrod?

The Schulenberg Prairie in September, Lisle, IL.

In the garden, I find half-eaten tomatoes on the porch; a relic of a chipmunk’s breakfast. It’s okay. We’ve had a surfeit of Sungolds, and Sweet Millions—it’s difficult to grudge the wildlife a few. Zucchini pumps out green cylinders; I’ve run out of recipes as squash turns to baseball bat-sized vegetables overnight.

Monarchs drift over my backyard. I see them everywhere on the prairie as well, about one every five minutes, pausing to sip from the blazing star…

Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) on blazing star (Liatris aspera), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

… and nectar at the sunflowers.

Monarch (Danaus plexippus) on sawtooth sunflower (Helianthus grosseserratus), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Not all the butterflies choose wildflowers. These viceroys prefer scat.

Viceroy butterflies (Limenitis archippus) on scat, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

What? Yes, you heard me right. They enjoy a heapin’ helpin’ of amino acids and salts from ….er, dung…that they can’t get from plants. Sometimes they “puddle” on minerals and salts in the soil, like this puddle club of eastern-tailed blues.

Eastern tailed-blue butterflies (Cupido comyntas), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

I hike the trails, touching the sandpaper-rough compass plant leaves, inhaling prairie dropseed’s hot buttered popcorn fragrance. The scent follows me home on on my clothes, as if I’ve been in a movie theater. Crunch. Crunch. Crunch. Everything is so dry. Dust and grasshoppers spray up as I step on the parched ground. So many grasshoppers!

Red-legged grasshopper (Melanoplus femurrubrum) on sawtooth sunflower (Helianthus grosseserratus), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Chinese mantis turn up in unexpected places, on the look-out for prey. I admire their stealth.

Chinese mantis (Tenodera sinensis), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

This lucky eastern forktail damselfly enjoys a mid-morning snack. You can tell she’s a mature female by her powdery-blue coloration.

Eastern forktail female damselfly (Ischnura verticalis), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Only a few steps away, an autumn meadowhawk dragonfly basks in the morning sun. The meadowhawks have been few this season, and I’m not sure why. Not enough rain, maybe? Whatever the reasons, I’ve missed them.

Autumn meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum vicinum), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Grasshopper. Mantis. Damselfly. Dragonfly. Any of these might be lunch for the northern leopard frog, which is looking for its next meal.

Northern leopard frog (Lithobates pipiens), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

September is a month of eat-or-be-eaten in the tallgrass. Although I’d love to take off on a wind current like a monarch, bound for the south; or spring-jump like a grasshopper into the little bluestem, I’m grateful to be human. Insects see the prairie from a much different perspective than I do.

Alongside all the tension of who will eat who, is the continuing jazz festival of fall gentians. I memorize their deep blue, knowing they are a fleeting pleasure that will be gone all too soon.

Prairie gentian (Gentiana puberulenta), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

I want to remember September. Soak up the bright lemon evening primrose.

Evening primrose (Oenothera biennis), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Delight in the juxtaposition of sneezeweed and great blue lobelia along a prairie stream.

Common sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale) and great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

I store away these colors, scents, and sounds of autumn for the winter.

Heath aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

There are stories here to be read. To listen to these stories, I have to show up. To be there. As the writer Annie Dillard tells us, it’s the least we can do.

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

What about you?

Will you be there?

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I’ve always enjoyed the opening quote for this week’s blog, from the poet, Emily Dickinson (1830-1886). I use the poem in its entirety at the start of a chapter in The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction on “What is a Tallgrass Prairie?” However, as a prairie steward, I would have loved to have sat down with Emily in her room in Amherst and ask her a few followup questions. When she said “clover,” just what clover species was she referring to? Dalea candida? Or, Melilotus officinalis ? Ditto on the bees. Honey or native? And Emily—have you ever seen a tallgrass prairie? Or did you write your poem from the accounts you read from others, in the reclusive solitude of your room? Read her complete poem here. It’s an easy one to memorize, and one that will stick with you as you hike the prairie. Regardless of that “clover” species.

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Join Cindy for a program or class!

IN PERSON September 27, 7-8:30 p.m.–-“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Arlington Heights Garden Club. Please visit the club’s website here for guest information, event updates pending Covid positivity in Illinois, and Covid protocol.

ONLINE –Nature Writing Workshop 2 (through the Morton Arboretum): Deepen your connection to nature and improve your writing skills in this  online guided workshop from The Morton Arboretum. This interactive class is the next step for those who’ve completed the Foundations of Nature Writing (N095), or for those with some foundational writing experience looking to further their expertise within a supportive community of fellow nature writers. Please note: This is a “live” workshop; no curriculum. For details and registration, click here. Online access for introductions and discussion boards opens October 12; live sessions on Zoom are four Tuesdays: October 19, October 26, November 2, and November 9, 6:30-8:30 pm.

For more classes and programs, visit Cindy’s website at http://www.cindycrosby.com. Hope to see you soon!

Wishing You A Very Prairie Holiday

“The day greys, its light withdrawing from the winter sky till just the prairie’s edge is luminous. Light, then dark, then light again. A year is done.”—W.O. Mitchell

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The Winter Solstice is past, and the daylight hours begin to lengthen. A new year is in sight.

It’s quiet on the prairie. Peaceful.

The temperature flirts with warmth, but the wind is cold. I keep my scarf wrapped tight around my neck and my hands in my pockets. A sharp bite in the air hints at snow flurries. Maybe.

Hanukkah is ended, and Christmas is only a few days away. The prairie is decked out in festive array for the holidays. The silver of wild white indigo leaves.

The gold wash of grasses and spent wildflowers across a prairie remnant.

Broken Baptisia seedpods hang like cracked bells on brittle stems.

The seeds—which make the pods into delightful rattles—are long-gone; either noshed on by weevils or dropped to the receptive prairie soil.

Ribbons of grass play with the ice.

Pearled wild quinine seedheads ornament the tallgrass.

Wild grape vines wrap tall goldenrod stems.

As I hike past the stiff tutus of the pale purple coneflower seedheads, the soundtrack of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker ballet begins to play in my mind.

It’s a beautiful season on the prairie. A world full of wonders, waiting to be discovered.

Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas to all! May your week be filled with peace and joy.

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The opening quote is from Who Has Seen the Wind by W.O. Mitchell. His novel has sold more than one million copies in Canada since its publication in 1947. The title is taken from a Christina Rossetti poem. Thanks to the many blog readers who wrote me, both publicly and privately, to recommend this book. A Canadian classic.

All photos taken at either the Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve (BP) in Downers Grove, IL or the Schulenberg Prairie (SP) at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, this week unless otherwise noted (top to bottom): sunrise at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Downers Grove, IL; bench on the Schulenberg Prairie; Schulenberg Prairie in winter (SP); cream wild indigo leaves (Baptisia bracteata) savanna edge, (SP); December on the Belmont Prairie; Belmont prairie mixed grasses and forbs (BP); white wild indigo pods (Baptisia alba) (SP); big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and ice (SP); wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium) (BP); wild river grape vine (Vitis riparia) and tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima) (SP); pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) BP.

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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 courses with Cindy this winter are offered online only.

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.

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 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.

The Prairie in November

“November comes–And November goes–With the last red berries–And the first white snows.”—Elizabeth Coatsworth

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They’re leaving!

Winds from the northwest. Blue skies. Temperatures falling. I see the text from Jeff at work alerting me, and hurry outside. I don’t have to ask “who” is leaving. It’s that time of year. Look up and—Yes! There they are.

Hundreds of sandhill cranes choreograph their way over the house, a tsunami of sound.

Their high-pitched cries, unlike anything else in nature, carry for up to two and a half miles. As they fly their intricate patterns, they become invisible for a moment. I shade my eyes against the sun and then—-there. They turn and are visible again. Headed south. The cranes pirouette in some previously agreed upon rhythm, scatter, then reform their arcs across the blue–blue–blue sky.

I watch until they’re gone.

See you next year.

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We’re on the downhill side of November, with the year’s finish line appearing just over the horizon. Last week, Jeff and I unpacked the Christmas lights and decorations, longing for the spirit of the season to buoy our spirits.

The neighbors are doing the same. My 2019 self might have made wisecracks about the resulting mishmash of scarecrows and snowmen; leftover Halloween pumpkins and poinsettias; cornucopias and candy canes. But my 2020 self silently cheers them on as I walk the neighborhood and admire the latest decorations. My yard reflects the same holiday collision.

On the tallgrass prairie, plunging temperatures, random snows, high winds, and then—strange balmy days full of sunshine—have burnished the prairie to metallics.

Golds.

Rusts.

White golds.

Bronzes.

Pewters.

Glimpses of mixed metals appear in the Illinois bundleflower seedheads scattered along the prairie streams. I love how the sunshine sparks the interior of the seedpods ember-red.

Willoway Brook runs low and cold…

…reflecting the mood of the skies, which capriciously swing from sunshine to clouds to rain to snow and back again, all in the space of 24 hours.

The prairie’s newly-mown edges are ready for spring burns. Bring it on!

Everywhere, as I drive around town, are rising columns of smoke. Stewards lay fire to woodlands and wetlands, mostly, but a few prairies as well. These fires, made by humans but emulating nature’s processes, will ensure healthy, vibrant natural areas for generations to come.

In the evenings, brilliant sunsets, shrouded by smoky skies, tell of the hard work done by prairie stewards.

The sandhill cranes will continue moving through these brilliant skies in the weeks to come. As I hike, I wonder. What will life look like when they return from migration in the spring?

I feel hopeful. Until they return, my prairie hikes and walks outdoors will help keep me feeling that way.

You, too?

Elizabeth Coatsworth (1893-1986) was a prolific author and a Newberry award winner (1931) for The Cat Who Went to Heaven. Her husband, Henry Beston, was author of The Outermost House, and her daughter, Kate Barnes, was the first poet laureate of Maine. She lived in Maine and Massachusetts.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, unless tagged otherwise (to to bottom): November skies; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), author’s prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), author’s prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; rose hips (Rosa carolina); wild grapevine (Vitas spp.); Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium); side-oats grama (Bouteloua curtipendula); late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica); wild blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis); Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis) reflections in Willoway Brook; November skies on the edge of the prairie; mown prairie in November; prescribed fire (2014); November sunset, author’s prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); hiking the prairie in November.

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

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 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.

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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!

The Peace of Prairie

“Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.” — Frederick Buechner

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Take a deep breath.

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Let’s go to the prairie.

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Look around.

The natural world goes on. The sandhill cranes scrawl their way north, their annual aerial ballet and vocalizations announcing spring.

In the tallgrass this week, some of the prescribed burns may be delayed, but the warmth and light invite the first shoots out of the soil.

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The last seeds cling to their pods…

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…then drop to the ground, pummeled by March’s rain and snow-sleet.

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I walk the paths, pausing to check for new growth of the pasque flowers. None up yet. Or are they camouflaged? Pasque flowers are notoriously difficult to find at any stage of growth. But I enjoy the blush of little bluestem that lends its color to the sandier areas of the March prairie;…

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…and the tubed bee balm flowerheads waving in the wind.

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I remember walking this same prairie on 9/11. Quiet. So quiet! Later that frightening week, no contrails crisscrossed the sky as jet travel ground to a halt.

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Today, as I hike, I wonder. What will happen tomorrow? The next week?

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There’s no way to know what direction events will take.

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Nothing to do, really, but look out for each other. Keep walking. Move forward.

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Everywhere, the flattened prairie seems defeated.

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And yet.

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Underneath the dry grasses and battered wildflowers…

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…new life is waiting. Mostly invisible. But there.

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In a time when much of our normal routine is closed off to many of us—our work, the coffee shop, the banality of “normal”—we have the sky…

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…the beauty of clouds…

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…the sound of a stream running…

…and the return of birds.

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I feel a renewed sense of gratitude for what we have. Our families.

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Our friends, even when we don’t see them face to face. The joys of a sunrise. Longer daylight hours. The delights of the natural world, coming to life. Greening up.

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Each day is a gift. The days have never seemed more precious than now.

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The opening blog quote is from American writer and theologian Frederick Buechner (1926-). His books include Whistling in the Dark, and Telling Secrets. Thank you to my sister, Sherry, who shares this quote frequently. (Love you, sis.)

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All photos and videos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom):  Sunset after the burn, College of DuPage Russell Kirt Prairie, Glen Elllyn, IL; Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; new plant shoots on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; skies over the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; hiking the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis); Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; evening primrose (Oenothera clelandii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale prairie plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Willoway Brook and prairie skies, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Willoway Brook in March, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: empty bird’s nest, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; hiking the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: sunset on the College of DuPage Russell Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

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For current updates on Cindy’s speaking and classes, visit http://www.cindycrosby.com

November Prairie Focus

“Young prairie plants put down deep roots first; only when these have been established do the plants invest much energy in growth above ground. They teach us that the work that matters doesn’t always show.” -Paul Gruchow

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The cold, gray days of November are here. Beautiful? Yes, in their own way. They offer time for reflection on a year mostly past.

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The sky becomes a slate backdrop to plants which spike and angle and curve. Like silhouette cut-outs.

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Grace notes. Some more interesting now in seed and shape than they were in bloom.

It’s easy for me to overlook what’s good about November. Easier to long for sunshine and warmth; for the fireworks of July wildflowers—purple leadplant spikes and bright orange butterflyweed and lemon-yellow coreopsis. The fresh emerald spikes of grasses pushing through the dark prairie soil in spring. Or even the golds and violets of the autumn prairie.

Seems like we missed part of that season with our early snows.

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As I walk, I think of John Updike’s poem, November:

The stripped and shapely

Maple grieves

The loss of her

Departed leaves.

The ground is hard,

As hard as stone

The year is old

The birds are flown…..

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Much of what I see on the prairie is a matter of focus. In November, I have to remind myself that beauty is here. That the work of restoration is moving forward. It’s a more difficult season than spring when everything is full of promise and possibility. The “prettiness” and promise of the prairie is more obvious in the warmer months. November’s calibration of what constitutes headway, success on a prairie, is different.

Gray. Beige. Black. Brown. The prairie smells of wet earth. Snowmelt. Decay. You’d think this would be distressing, but it’s strangely pleasant. Invigorating.  It’s the fragrance of a work in progress. The cycling of nutrients. The prairie finishes its work of the growing season, then lays the groundwork for the future.

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Sometimes, I look at the November prairie and all I see is the unfinished work of a prairie steward. The native brambles taking over, arcing their spiny branches across the prairie and shading out wildflowers.

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It’s discouraging. Impatience surges. Are we really making a difference here? Or are we like Sisyphus, rolling a boulder uphill, only to have it roll back.

Then, I remember. There was a time when I didn’t  think about these “brambles” because the invasive buckthorn, honeysuckle, and sweet white and yellow clovers were consuming all my stewardship hours. It’s a luxury  now to have most of these problem plants licked (Hubris, don’t strike me down!) and room to think about how to tackle new management  issues.

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Despite my self-reassurance, as I hike I see other potential issues. Are the native grasses dominating the wildflowers? Is the false sunflower spreading too aggressively  in the corner by the bridge?

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I tuck my cold fingers into my pockets and stand on the bridge over Willoway Brook.  Reed canary grass chokes the shoreline. A never-ending problem. Then I look closer. I’m missing the lovely configurations of ice and stream; leaf and stone.

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Just across the bridge is a new “menace.” The past several years I’ve moaned about Illinois bundleflower making inroads into the prairie; it has become a monoculture in spots. Is it a desirable plant? Sure. It belongs on the prairie. But how much is too much? Decisions about how to manage it causes me some frustrating hours. But today, I take a few moments to admire it. Wow. Look at those seed pods.

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There are plants that “don’t belong” on a prairie restoration, and other plants that do, yet get a bit rambunctious. It’s so easy to focus on what’s wrong. Sometimes its tougher to remember what we’ve done well. To focus on the beauty, instead of the chaos.

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Nearby are ruined choirs of cup plants; taller than I am, growth-fueled by rain. Cup plants are the bane of my backyard prairie patch—aggressive thugs that elbow my Culver’s root and spiderwort out of the way.

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But here, on the 100-acre prairie, they are welcome. When I think about it, I realize I’ve not seen them in this area before. They are part of the first waves of prairie plants making inroads in an old field we’re restoring by the Prairie Visitor Center. A sign of success. A sign of progress.

Among the rusts and tans, there are bright bits of color. Carrion flower, now gone to inedible seeds.

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The last flag-leaves of sumac.

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Sumac is also an issue in parts of this prairie. But for now, I relax and enjoy the color.

Nuthatches call from the savanna. The breeze rustles the grasses. Looking over the prairie, focusing on its draining colors and dwindling seedheads…

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… I remember what Paul Gruchow wrote about the tallgrass prairie: “…The work that matters doesn’t always show.”

The day suddenly feels brighter.

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Paul Gruchow (1947-2004) was a Minnesota writer who wrote such beautiful books as Travels in Canoe Country; The Boundary Waters: Grace of the Wild; Journal of a Prairie Year; The Necessity of Empty Places; and Grass Roots: The Universe of Home from which this opening quote was taken. There’s nothing like the power of a good book—especially those passages that stick in your mind and are available when you need them the most.

John Updike’s lovely poem November” is found in A Child’s Calendar, first published in 1965. If you’re unfamiliar with his poetry, check out Facing Nature: Poems, Collected Poems: 1953–1993, and Americana and Other Poems (2001).

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken on the Schulenberg Prairie and Savanna at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, unless noted:  Willoway Brook in November; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); maple leaf (Acer saccharum) by the Prairie Visitor Station; silky wild rye (Elymus villosus) and log; prairie under snow in November; common blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis); prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides); Willoway Brook; Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) and unknown asters; cup plants Silphium perfoliatum); carrion vine (probably Smilax ecirrhata); staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina); false sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides).

Please join Cindy for one of these upcoming classes or talks:

Saturday, December 7, 1:30-3 p.m.—Sterling Stories from the Arboretum Stacks: Grab a friend and spend a lively hour together sipping hot beverages while you enjoy little-known stories about the Morton Arboretum. What’s that old fountain doing in the library? Why was there a white pine planted in the May Watts Reading Garden? Who is REALLY buried in the Morton Cemetery—or not? What book in the Sterling Morton Library stacks has a direct relationship to a beheading? Why does the library have glass shelves? How has salt been a blessing —and a curse—to the Arboretum over its almost 100 years? Listen as 33-year Arboretum veteran library collections manager Rita Hassert and  Cindy Crosby spin entertaining tales of a place you thought you knew….until now.    A lovely afternoon enjoying little known Arboretum’s stories, and a quiet respite from the holiday hustle and bustle. Register here.

Sunday, December 8, 2-3:30 p.m.: Tallgrass Conversations at Prairieview Education Center, 2112 Behan Road, Crystal Lake, IL 815-479-5779 Book signing after the talk! Free and open to the public.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology online wraps up this month! Watch for the next course in March. Registration opens on November 19 here.

Nature Writing continues at The Morton Arboretum, on-line and in-person through November 20. Next session begins March 3, 2020. Watch for registration soon!

Find more at www.cindycrosby.com  

Prairie Walking

“The path is made in the walking of it.” — Zhuangzi

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On one side of my desk are precarious stacks of hiking books. Next to them is a list of more books on walking that I’ve lost or loaned out over the years, and now need to beg, borrow, or buy. As I prep for a talk on “Great Hikes in Literature” in a few weeks I already feel a bit overwhelmed by the amount of books on this topic. Books on the Appalachian Trail. Books on the Pacific Crest Trail. Tomes on hiking through America, Alaska, Great Britain, Australia. Fictional quests by the hobbit Frodo for the “one ring to rule them all. ” Children on walking adventures in “The Chronicles of Narnia.” Not to mention all the one-off essays compiled in outdoorsy collections.

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At the core of these books are central themes: We hike to try to understand something about ourselves. We hike to work through grief, loss, or pain. We hike to make a statement or protest. We hike to find a spiritual dimension in our lives. We hike to challenge our idea of what our limits are. We hike to understand more about the world around us. We go on quests! We hike when we’ve lost our way.

When life falls apart, we go for a walk.

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And sometimes, we just feel the urge to put one foot in front of the other. For as long as it takes. For as far as we can go.

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When my two kids were teenagers and I was cranky and out of sorts, they’d look at each other knowingly. “Mom, did you go for your walk on the prairie today?” Often the answer was “no!” They could see the difference that a simple hike made.

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Now, my children are grown and have children of their own. But I still find that hiking is as necessary to me as breathing.  There is something about walking that stimulates creativity, lowers stress levels, and opens us to different perspectives. Besides, going for a walk is a time honored tradition!  You can’t help but think of that oft-quoted line from John Muir: “I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”

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My first big solo hike was 30-plus miles. As I prepared to leave, a friend told me—“I could never do that! How can you be alone with your thoughts for so long?” True words. The greatest enemy of a long solo hike is not fear. It’s listening to your life, without the distractions and white noise that our everyday work pressures and social life mask.

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Today, I’m hiking the prairie as an observer. Not much of a personal agenda. For those who love wildflowers, I would argue that there is no better month than July to see a wash of electric color across the tallgrass prairies. Lately, drenching rains have alternated with baking heat. It’s brought forth a bevvy of blooms.

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Few people visit the prairie this month because of the high temperatures, humidity, and bugs. It’s true these are issues. Whenever I check the weather report before I go for a walk, I get the same posting. “EXTREME MOSQUITO ACTIVITY.” Well, whatever. That’s what mosquito headnets are for, right?

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The dragonflies, like this widow skimmer below, appreciate the clouds of mosquitoes in a way I never will. Probably much as we enjoy a mecca of restaurants spread out along the freeway to choose from on our travels.

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These past few weeks, me and my prairie volunteers are busy collecting seeds. Many of the early spring blooming plants have seeds that are ripe and ready. It’s not easy to find the shooting star seed capsules or cream wild indigo pods under the burgeoning grasses. So green, lush, and high! At the end of a work morning, our backs ache from stooping and searching. Today,  I spot some prairie parsley seeds. I pull some, and leave the ones that aren’t quite ready.

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I pop the ripe seeds into my shirt pocket. Later I’ll put them in a brown paper bag, label it, and leave it in the cool, dark tool room for our staff. Ready to reseed a new prairie restoration. The dry seeds rattling around in my pocket feel like hope for the future.

Our pasque flower seeds, collected earlier this season, are in the greenhouse now. We cross our fingers and hope that these notoriously difficult to grow seeds will germinate. If they do, we’ll plant them on the prairie next spring. It’s difficult to remember the joy I felt at the pasque flower’s pale lavender blooms back in April. The first of its delicate color on the prairie. Now, in July, the prairie is profligate with pops of purple. I appreciate this haze of bright color in a different way than I did the pasque flower’s more subtle hues earlier in the season.

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Walking the tallgrass trails in the high humidity, I notice that the air is saturated with the smell of common milkweed. Surely one of the most underrated fragrances in the natural world! A little prairie aromatherapy.

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The pink of the common milkweed is more pastel and subdued than the July sunsets, which lean toward the color of neon flamingo yard ornaments. These sunsets grow more brilliant each evening.

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The crickets and cicadas tune up in the dwindling light as I finish my hike. The temperature drops. I think of the sunset to come and feel peaceful. Quiet.

My prairie walks this week aren’t anything epic. They are over in an hour or so, unlike the quests and hundreds-of-miles hikes I’ll be teaching about in a few weeks. I’m not counting my steps, nor am I challenging myself to see how far I can go, or grieving anything particular. But these short hikes are a good reminder of some of the many reasons why we walk.

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To try and know ourselves. To pay attention. To look for signs of hope. And to continue to marvel at the delights and complexity of the natural world.

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Zhuangzi is an ancient Chinese writer, who is credited with many parables and sayings. “Zhuangzi” also refers to Chinese text by the same name (476-221 BC) which contains fables and quotes such as the one opening this blog post. The idea of spontaneous, carefree walking is a common theme among these writings.

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Love to hike? Or do you enjoy reading about epic walks from the comfort of your easy chair? I’ll be leading a lecture and discussion called “Great Hikes in Literature” at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL on Sunday afternoon, August 5, 2018. Click here to register: Great Hikes in Literature. Hope to see you there!

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): stack of “great walks” books, author’s desk, Glen Ellyn, IL; rocky knob, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) bloom, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera) on Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bottlebrush grass (Elymus hystrix), Schulenberg Prairie savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; the Schulenberg Prairie in mid-July, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie cinquefoil (Drymocallis arguta), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea) with widow skimmer (Libellula luctuosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie parsley (Polytaenia nuttallii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunset, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; pearl crescent butterfly (Phyciodes tharos), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.