Category Archives: native plants

The Art of Prairie Attention

“Paying attention: This is our endless and proper work.” — Mary Oliver

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The sun rises through the fog on the Schulenberg Prairie and Savanna.

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Everywhere, spiders hang misted veils. The spiders are present every day on the prairie—no doubt—but usually, spider webs are invisible. Until, as the writer Richard Powers writes in The Overstorythey are “dew-betrayed.”

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The spiders’ silk draperies, paired with the prairie’s autumn seed heads and dying leaves, coerced my attention for far longer on Monday morning than planned. My hike–which was supposed to be a doctor-mandated 30 minutes—was extended as I lingered. (Just five more minutes!) But how can you tear yourself away from a morning full of magic? One crystal web chandelier led to another….then another… .

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After the hike, as I enjoyed my morning cup of Joe, I stumbled on a wonderful article from BrainPickings about the art of paying attention. It’s framed around Marla Popova’s review of “On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes” by Alexandra Horowitz. The gist of the book’s message is this: we can re-frame the ordinary by using different lenses to see what we usually miss. In the review, Popova recounts how Horowitz accomplishes “seeing” with new eyes by strolling through her city neighborhood with a visually impaired person,  a geologist, and her dog (to name just three lenses). Intrigued? Me too. Papova calls the book “breathlessly wonderful.” (It’s now on hold for me at the library.)

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I’ve been thinking more these days about the art of paying attention, and what it means to see with new eyes. One lens I use is books. Others writers  prod me to understand and view my familiar places through different lenses. I learn from their words. Then, I “see” more completely. tallcoreopsiswestsideprairieplantingMA93019WM.jpg

After surgery seven weeks ago, the simple act of walking my favorite prairie paths is no longer something I take for granted. What follows are a few images from a morning walk in the fog this week. They are paired with  favorite quotes I think about often, and a few new quotes I gleaned from Popova’s review.

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Read the quotes slowly. Reflect on what they say. Then, tuck these thoughts into your days ahead. I hope they speak to you as they have to me.

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“Attention without feeling is only a report.”–Mary Oliver

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“Choice of attention—to pay attention to this and ignore that—is to the inner life what choice of action is to the outer.” –W.H. Auden
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“These days cry out, as never before, for us to pay attention.” — Anne Lamott

 

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“How we spend our days, is of course, how we spend our lives.” — Annie Dillard

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“…we humans generally do not bother paying attention to much other than the visual.” –Alexandra Horowitz

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“For observing nature, the best pace is a snail’s pace.” — Edwin Way Teale

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“To learn something new, take the path that you took yesterday.” — John Burroughs

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“The art of seeing has to be learned.” — Marguerite Duras

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“Half of tracking is knowing where to look; the other half is looking.” — Susan Morse

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“Joys come from simple and natural things; mist over meadows, sunlight on leaves, the path of the moon over water. Even rain and wind and stormy clouds bring joy.” — Sigurd F. Olson

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“As we work to heal the land, the land heals us.”–Robin Wall Kimmerer

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“The art of seeing might have to be learned, but it can never be unlearned, just as the seen itself can never be unseen—a realization at once immensely demanding in its immutability and endlessly liberating in the possibilities it invites.”– Maria Popova

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“Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.” — Annie Dillard

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“Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.” –Simone Weil

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“Only those items I notice shape my mind.” — William James

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“The  thing you are doing now affects the thing you do next.” — Alexandra Horowitz

 

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“For the mind disturbed, the still beauty of dawn is nature’s greatest balm.” — Edwin Way Teale

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It’s an imperfect world.

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Life can be complicated.

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But often, when I hike the prairie, I feel the magic happening. A sense of wonder. The world feels like a beautiful place again. A place where hope is—perhaps—not out of the question. A place where life is always in process.

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Worth paying attention to.

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Mary Oliver (1939-2019) was, as the poet Maxine Kumin wrote, “an indefatigable guide to the natural world.” Among her numerous awards were the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award.  Thanks to my wonderful husband Jeff, I was fortunate to hear her read and speak at Sanibel Island, Florida, for the Rachel Carson Lecture in 2014. Oliver died early this year at the age of 83.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby, taken at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL unless noted otherwise: (Top to bottom)  fog over Willoway Brook; spiderwebs on asters (Symphyotrichum spp.), West Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris) with spiderwebs, West Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris) with spiderwebs, West Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) with spiderwebs; Willoway Brook in the fog; bottlebrush grass (Elymus hystrix), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae); switchgrass (Panicum virgatum); unknown spider’s web; braided ladies tresses (Spiranthes cerneua); unknown spider building its web over Willoway Brook; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum);  big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); spiderwebs on tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris); Hidden Lake Forest Preserve as fog is lifting, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County; Downer’s Grove, IL; unknown spider’s web; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); Schulenberg Prairie covered with dew; dawn over West Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; broken spiderweb; spiderwebs on bur marigolds (Biden spp.), West Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown spider’s webs.

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Cindy’s forthcoming book is Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History with Northwestern University Press (Summer, 2020), illustrated by Peggy Macnamara, artist-in-residence at The Field Museum in Chicago.

Join Cindy for “Nature Writing”, a blended online and in-person class, beginning online Wednesday, October 15! Details here.

Visit www.cindycrosby.com for more information on Cindy’s upcoming speaking and classes.

Backyard Prairie Reflections

 “Tomorrow is forever, and years pass in no time at all.”–Mary Lawson

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Thunderstorms move through the Chicago region, offering blessed relief for prairies and backyard gardens. The cracked concrete earth soaks up the rain; fuel needed for seed creation and the last pumps of blooms ahead. You can feel the relief in the air.

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Pumpkin spice latte signs appear in coffee shop windows. The afternoon light slants lower; a little pixelled, a little grainy.  In stores, school supplies jostle with unicorn costumes and Halloween candy for shelf space. The first school buses cruise the streets, slowing traffic. Where did summer go?

Late summer and fall wildflowers show up: snakeroot, New England aster, goldenrod, blue vervain, boneset.  There is a last flush of swamp milkweed in the wetter areas.

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Green darner dragonflies move in clouds over the tallgrass; sometimes with black saddlebags and wandering glider dragonflies mixed in. Migration season is underway. My ear is tuned for the first northern birds moving south, but so far, it’s the usual suspects at the backyard feeders.

At Nachusa Grasslands, the bison calves have put on weight. Adult bison lounge in the grasses, in no particular hurry to go anywhere. August is about slowing down. Making time.

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Bunch galls, like alien wildflowers, appear on the goldenrods. This seems to be an especially good year for them. The goldenrod bunch galls, like the one below, are made by a tiny midge which feeds on the plant. The abnormal tissue forms a leafy rosette. Pretty, isn’t it? A harbinger of autumn.

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You’ll see other galls on the prairie if you look closely around you: ball galls, elliptical galls, blister galls. They all have different insect artists, busy at work on their creations. Bugguide.com has an excellent overview here.

The damselfly populations are beginning to taper off; but the violet dancers will hang around on the prairie until the end of the month. Common? Yes.  But no less special for their predictability. That violet!

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So much is happening on the tallgrass prairie in August. It’s difficult to miss a moment of it.

This past week, I’ve been regulated to the house for a bit to recover after some unexpected surgery. I’ve been trying to look at this enforced rest as an opportunity to slow down, catch up on reading,  and to enjoy the view from my back porch.  But with August in full swing on the prairie—and at the cusp of dragonfly migration season—it’s been a challenge. Without my prairie work and prairie hikes—or my natural history classes to teach—my backyard prairie patch, garden full of zinnias and tomatoes, and small pond have all been solace.

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You’d think a suburban backyard prairie patch and garden would be predictable and quiet. But I’m discovering the action never stops. From my vantage point on the porch, I see—for the first time—a great spreadwing damselfly. In my backyard pond! I’ve never seen them in the forest preserve where I once monitored, or the two prairie sites where I walk my dragonfly routes. And here in my backyard —right under my nose—he is.

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We look at each other for a bit.

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I admire his reflection in the pond until the wind fingers the water and ripples erase the image.

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He flies from perch to perch around the pond, then finally lands out of sight. Wow. Sometimes the biggest surprises are in your own backyard.

From the porch I watch the butterflies flap over the tomatoes. An eastern tiger swallowtail sips nectar from a zinnia mixed in with the gray-headed coneflowers. Zinnias mingle with my prairie plants. Although the zinnias are native to Mexico rather than Illinois, they are welcome in my garden as a magnet for pollinators.

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The same zinnia is quickly commandeered by a monarch. I haven’t found many caterpillars in my backyard this summer, but there are a lot of adults.

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Nearby, a painted lady takes her turn nectaring on the flowers.

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She floats to the rangy smartweed growing up through the rattlesnake master plants and rests for a bit on some leaves, letting me admire her soft, open wings. I’ve always struggled with the differences between a painted lady butterfly and the American lady butterfly. So similiar! And yet, different, if you know what to look for.  This bugguide.net side by side comparison has really helped me (click on the link). Take a look and see what you think.

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The Joe Pye weed in the backyard prairie patch is also a butterfly magnet. Bees work each individual petal; tiny dusty rose-pink tassels towering over my head. Moths love it too! An Ailanthus webworm moth competes with the bees for nectar, its bright geometric patterns a startling contrast.

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Bumblebees move from the Joe Pye blooms to buzz the ironweed. So many bees! I’ve tried to learn a few species without much success. Maybe now, I’ll have time.

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As I slowly walk through my backyard, I feel my frustration at not being able to go for a prairie hike dissipate.  Maybe….just maybe…this enforced rest and recovery will be an eye-opener. There’s a lot to see, right in front of me, just off my back porch. A lot to pay attention to. Goldfinches, sipping rainwater from the cup plants. The Cooper’s hawk lurking in a nearby maple, watching my birdfeeders for a snack. Cicadas tuning up. The smell of bee balm, the taste of mountain mint. So much color, music, fragrance, taste, and motion here. In the 20 years we’ve lived in the suburbs, I’ve never been more grateful than today that I planted a prairie patch; dug a small pond. I have a feeling the recovery time will fly.

Summer’s not over yet.

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Adventures await. Both in the backyard prairie and beyond.

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The opening quote is from Canadian novelist Mary Lawson (1946-) in her prize-winning first book, Crow Lake (2002). It’s one of my favorite novels about pond communities, rural life, academia, and northern Canada.  I re-read it every year.

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All photographs copyright Cindy Crosby: thunderstorm over the backyard garden and prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) with blue vervain (Verbena hastata) and late boneset (Eupatorium serotinum), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; adult bison (Bison bison) Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; violet dancer damselfly (Argia fumipennis violacea) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bunch gall on goldenrod made by a midge (Rhopalomyia solidaginis), Fermilab prairies, Batavia, IL; pond in author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; great spreadwing (Archilestes grandis), author’s backyard in Glen Ellyn, IL; great spreadwing (Arhilestes grandis), author’s backyard in Glen Ellyn, IL; reflection of great spreadwing damselfly (Archilestes grandis), author’s backyard in Glen Ellyn, IL; yellow eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly (Papilio glaucus) with heirloom Cut and Come Again zinnias (Zinnia elegans) and grey-headed coneflowers (Ritibida pinnata), author’s backyard garden and prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) with heirloom Cut and Come Again zinnias (Zinnia elegans) and gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata), author’s backyard garden and prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; painted lady butterfly (Vanessa cardui) on a Cut and Come Again zinnia (Zinnia elegans), author’s backyard garden and prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; Ailanthus webworm moth (Atteva aurea) on Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; tall ironweed (Vernonia gigantea) with brown-belted bumblebee (Bombis griseocollis), author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; bench on the Schulenberg Prairie in August, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Cindy’s classes and speaking are on www.cindycrosby.com