Category Archives: january

The Joy of January Mud

“How long the winter has lasted–like a Mahler symphony or an hour in the dentist’s chair. In the fields, the grasses are matted and gray… .” — Jane Kenyon

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The fiery mornings of winter dawn, cold and clear.

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The temperature begins rising.  40. 50. 55 degrees. Ahhhh. We throw open the windows. Could this be January? Without bothering to grab our coats, we go outside to hike the prairie trails.

The ice that laces the river’s edges has vanished.

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High in the trees, the chickadees sing their spring song for the first time, trying out a few tentative notes. Their music mingles with the mallards’ quack quack quacks and the honk honk honks of Canada geese.

Along the path, sun backlights the last remaining weedy burdock seeds lurking in the prairie grasses.

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A few leaves still hang on shrubs and trees, not ready to let go of what is past.

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Canada wild rye throws her stiff seedtail comets across the tallgrass.

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Sunshine ignites sparks of light as the ice melts.

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Look up, and Canada geese seem to tangle in the bare trees.

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A paper wasp nest hangs like a marbled empty lantern.

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Nobody’s home.

Look down. Embossed into the thaw are prints. The heart-shaped tracks of deer.

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The pawprints of a dog, out for a walk, with sneaker tracks close beside.

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The small handprints of raccoons, on their way home from the river.

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It’s an anomaly, this brief blast of spring. There is joy in January mud. But, rationally, we know that winter will follow this warm, muddy morning with a truckload of snow and more gray, gray, gray. You thought the sunshine would last? Sucker! 

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Yet, as much as I enjoy the change of seasons, I try to prolong the feeling of spring; arrange bright tulips in a vase…

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…and daydream about the first prairie blooms which, this morning, seem as if they could be right around the corner.IMG_2163.jpg

On this unusual day in January, the warmth and sunshine feel like a little Post-It-Note from spring. The note reads: Don’t give up.  These gray days won’t last forever.

I’ll fling myself with joy into the morning or two of warmth and light that shows up unexpectedly this winter. Savor that temporary lift of spirits; that bracing shot of courage for whatever is ahead.

Because, on a sunshine-filled, 55 degree January day, anything seems possible.

***

The poet Jane Kenyon (1947-1995), whose line from the poem, “Walking Alone in Late Winter” opens this essay, graduated from University of Michigan, where she met and married professor Donald Hall, later poet laureate of the United States (2006).  They moved to his family’s ancestral farm in New Hampshire, where many of her poems are set. She won a Guggenheim Fellowship (1992) and was the poet laureate of New Hampshire when she died of leukemia at age 48. Kenyon wrote movingly of her struggles with depression (“Having it out with Melancholy”), and found joy in the particulars of the natural world. Two poems of hers to sample: “Let Evening Come,” and “Otherwise.” 

***

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): January sunrise, author’s prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; Canada geese (Branta canadensis) and mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), West Branch of the DuPage River, McDowell Grove Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Naperville, IL;  burdock (Arctium minus) seeds, McDowell Grove Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Naperville, IL;  last leaf, McDowell Grove Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Naperville, IL; Canada rye (Elymus canadensis), McDowell Grove Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Naperville, IL; wild blackberry (Rubus allegheniensis) cane with melting ice, McDowell Grove Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Naperville, IL; Canada geese (Branta canadensis), McDowell Grove Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Naperville, IL; paper wasp (Polistes fuscatus) nest, McDowell Grove Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Naperville, IL; ; white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) track, McDowell Grove Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Naperville, IL; dog ( Canis lupis) and people  (Homo sapiens) tracks, McDowell Grove Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Naperville, IL; raccoon (Procyon lotor) print, McDowell Grove Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Naperville, IL;  bridge over Willoway Brook in the snow, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: bouquet of tulips (Tulipa, unknown species)  author’s window overlooking her prairie spot, Glen Ellyn, IL; pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

Ten Reasons to Hike the Prairie in January

Your car won’t start. Going outside means donning a scarf, gloves, hat, coat, and at least three layers underneath. The driveway is a sheet of ice. You’re out of sidewalk salt.

Welcome to January, a month a lot of suburban Chicago folks love to hate. It’s tempting to skip our trips to the tallgrass prairie. Too cold. Too slick. Short days. No flowers.

But missing prairie encounters after the turn of the year means losing out on some magical moments.  Consider these ten reasons to hike the prairie in January.

#10. Ice, ice, baby. The designs change from minute to minute.

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#9. Snow becomes a journal for prairie stories you missed. Invisible critters become visible.

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#8. Structure.

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#7. Unbelievable skies.

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#6. Snow pooled in the grasses gives the prairie a new look.

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#5. Noticeable transitions.

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#4. The color blue.

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#3. Unexpected contrasts.

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#2. Intriguing seedheads

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#1. Slow hikes.

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Yes, it’s treacherous underfoot. But walking carefully, picking our way through ice and snow, offers opportunities to slow down and to pay attention.

Thanks, January.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby. (Top to bottom) Snow and ice rim Willoway Brook, which runs through the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; squirrel tracks, SP; tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum), SP;  prairie grasses, lake, and sunrise at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; grasses, SP;  Schulenberg Prairie savanna; Clear Creek winding through Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL;  robin on smooth sumac (Rhus glabra), SP; round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata), SP; hiking the Schulenberg Prairie in the snow.

(*SP is an abbreviation for the Schulenberg Prairie)

The Silence of Emptiness

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There’s a quietness in the tallgrass; the silence of emptiness.

Hike in the tallgrass in the spring, and you’re overwhelmed by the green shoots of new growth and pretty wildflowers. Summer is a riot of colorful blooms; the air full of dragonflies and unusual birds. Fall is all about waves of grasses and fat seedheads.

Then comes winter, and January.

At first glance, it appears that all life has fled the prairie. The once-lavender blooms of wild bergamot, or bee balm as gardeners like to call it, are now globes of hollow papery tubes. Each tunnel was once filled with tiny black seed grains that I could shake like pepper into my hands. Now, I try to rattle them and come up empty. Someone has beat me to it. Birds and small prairie creatures, likely, looking for breakfast.

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Not much here that seems worthwhile on the surface. The tallgrass colors have gradually bleached out with age and cold. No blossoms and nectar remain for bees and butterflies to linger over.

Queen Anne’s lace is stripped of everything but the basics.

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The blown-out stars of the asters take on a different personality in winter. Without the blooms, I’m free to admire the infrastructure.

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The gift of January is this: the comparative emptiness of the winter season allows us to see the scaffolding upon which the prairie is built. It reminds us that rest is as important as activity; that looking at things over time gives us a different perspective on what we thought we knew well. New ways of seeing open up. If we pay attention.

The prairie is pared away to the bare essentials. It rests, quietly, waiting for the emptiness to pass and a new season to come.

(All photos by Cindy Crosby at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL)