Category Archives: nature writing

In Praise of Prairie Pollinators

“Bees do have a smell, you know, and if they don’t they should, for their feet are dusted with spices from a million flowers.”—Ray Bradbury

******

August arrives on the tallgrass prairie.

Summer on the Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Listen! Do you hear the buzz and zip of wings?

Black-and-Gold Bumblebee (Bombus auricomus) on White Prairie Clover, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL (2021).

The patter of tiny insect feet?

Regal Fritillary (Speyeria idalia), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. (2021)

Let’s hear it for the prairie pollinators!

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) Crosby’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL. (2021)

Bees bumble across the wildflowers.

Rusty-patched Bumblebee (Bombus affiinis) on purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) Big Rock, IL. (2021)

Ambling beetles browse the petals.

Margined Leatherwing Beetle (Chauliognathus marginatus) on Common Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum), Ware Field Prairie Planting, Lisle, IL (2019).

Enjoy the aimless ants. Marvel over the butterflies, looking like so many windsurfers…

Orange Sulphur butterflies (Colias eurytheme), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (2014).

Stay up late and enjoy the night fliers…

Beautiful Wood Nymph moth (Eudryas grata), Crosby’s prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL. (2019)

…with their beautiful markings.

Possibly Harnessed Tiger moth (Apantesis phalerata), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL. (2020)

Seek out the wandering wasps, inspiring awe and a little trepidation.

One of the umbrella wasps (Polistes sp.) on aster (Symphyotrichum sp.) , Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL. (2020)

And these are just a few of our amazing pollinators!

Snowberry Clearwing moth (Hemaris diffinis), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL. (2019)

Where would we be without these marvelous creatures?

Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) on Orange Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (2021)

Three cheers for the prairie pollinators!

Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Long may they thrive.

******

The opening quote for today’s post is by Illinois author Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) from his classic book, Dandelion Wine. This book was required reading in my Midwestern high school English classes back in the seventies, and a wonderful introduction to his more than 27 novels and story collections.

******

Join Cindy for a Program in August!

West Cook Wild Ones presents: A Brief History of Trees in America with Cindy Crosby on Sunday, August 21, 2:30-4 p.m. Central Time on Zoom. From oaks to maples to elms: trees changed the course of American history. Native Americans knew trees provided the necessities of life, from food to transportation to shelter. Trees built America’s railroads, influenced our literature and poetry, and informed our music. Discover the roles of a few of our favorite trees in building our nation—and their symbolism and influence on the way we think—as you reflect on the trees most meaningful to you. Free and open to the public—join from anywhere in the world—but you must preregister. Register here.

A Walk on the June Prairie

“Mystery whispered in the grass, played in the branches of trees overhead, was caught up and blown across the horizon line in clouds of dust at evening on the prairies.” — Sherwood Anderson

*****

Come walk with me. The prairie is calling. Who knows what we’ll see?

Coyote (Canis latrans), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

The prairie is awash in wildflowers.

Summer on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle IL.

Pale purple coneflowers bounce like badminton birdies across the tallgrass. Large elephant ears of prairie dock vie with the clear blue-violet spiderwort blooms, which open in the mornings and close when the sun is at its zenith.

Spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Look along the trail. See the pale wild petunias? They pioneer their way along the path edges, and are a host plant for the buckeye butterfly. Oddly enough, they aren’t a close relative of the petunias we see in cultivated borders and flowering baskets.

Wild petunia (Ruellia humilis), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Look up! See the clouds roll in across the unbearably bright prairie sky.

Skies over the Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL, in June.

Kneel down and there’s a whole world waiting to be discovered. Tiny creatures hide in the petals of smooth phlox…

Goldenrod soldier beetle (Chauliognathus pensylvanicus) on smooth phlox (Phlox glaberrima interior) Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

…or buzz along the just-opened flowers of leadplant.

Leadplant (Amorpha canescens) with various insects, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Yet despite all the hustle and bustle, there is peace here.

Glade mallow (Napaea dioica), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

It’s also cooler this week after days of brutal heat and humidity. Such a respite. A relief.

Let’s walk to the bridge over Willoway Brook and sit for a while.

Bridge over Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Dangle your feet over the bridge. Look into the stream. The shadows of cruising stream bluet damselflies ripple when the sun breaks through the clouds.

Stream bluet damselflies (Enallagma exsulans), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Nearby, the female ebony jewelwing damselfly is poised for courtship. The male is just a few feet away, waiting to woo her.

Ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Other damselflies cover the vegetation in tandem, bumper-to-bumper. It’s rush hour.

Stream bluet damselflies (Enallagma exsulans), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Variable dancer damselflies offer a contrast in male and female Odonata coloration. Entomologists call this “sexual dimorphism,” which, simply put, means the female is different than the male in some way that doesn’t have to do with reproduction. In this case, color.

Variable (sometimes called “violet”) dancer damselflies (Argia fumipennis violacea), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL. Male is on the left, female is on the right.

The American rubyspot damselfly stakes out its claim…

American rubyspot damselfly (Hetaerina americana), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

…while a twelve-spotted skimmer dragonfly rests in the shade.

Twelve-spotted skimmer (Libellula pulchella), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Watch out for turtles! A dragonfly or damselfly would be a tasty snack for this red-eared slider.

Red-eared slider turtle (Trachemys scripta elegans), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Life for damselflies and dragonflies is tenuous. The snap of a turtle’s jaws or smack of a bird’s beak and—it’s all over. But what glorious sparks of color these insects give to the summer prairie during their brief time here! They are rivaled in color only by the wildflowers, which are building toward their colorful summer crescendo.

Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Prairie coreopsis are splashes of sunshine across the prairie. Ants investigate the new buds.

Prairie coreopsis (Coreopsis palmata), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

New Jersey tea, one of my favorite prairie shrubs, froths and foams like a cappuccino.

New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Carrion flower—-that strange member of the prairie community—twists and turns as it vines toward the sky. I inhale, and get a good sniff of the fragrance that spawned its name. Whew!

Carrion flower (Smilax ecirrhata), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Culver’s root is one of the most elegant prairie wildflowers, and a magnet for pollinators. Today, though, it’s mostly bare of insects.

Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

There’s so much to discover on the prairie at the end of June.

Summer on the Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Why not go for a hike and see?

*******

Sherwood Anderson (1876-1941), whose quote kicks off this blog post, was best known for his short story cycle Winesburg, Ohio (also adapted as a well-known play). The quote was taken from The Tallgrass Prairie Reader, edited by John Price.

*****

Join Cindy for a Class or Program!

Wednesday, June 29: “100 Years Around the Morton Arboretum” –with Cindy and Library Collections Manager and Historian Rita Hassert. Enjoy stories of the past that commemorate this very special centennial. Join on Zoom June 29, 7-8:30 p.m. by registering here. 

Thursday, July 14 (Zoom online) and Friday, July 15 (in person field class): “Beginning Dragonfly and Damselfly Identification“: Discover these beautiful insects through this two-part class, offered by The Morton Arboretum. Space is limited — register here.

April Prairie Snow

“Snow in April is abominable, like a slap in the face when you expect a kiss.” –Lucy Maud Montgomery

******

It’s been a delightful week, full of adventures. A few days ago, Jeff and I found ourselves in Glenview, IL, to give a talk on prairie ethnobotany for the wonderful Glenview Gardeners and the Glenview Library. We arrived early to go for a hike on the Kent Fuller Air Station Prairie.

Kent Fuller Air Station Prairie, Glenview, IL.

Beautiful interpretive signs connect visitors with the 32-acre remnant prairie and its community, and the more than 160 species of plants, including the Eastern Prairie Fringed Orchid (Platanthera leucophaea).

Kent Fuller Air Station Prairie, Glenview, IL.

It’s a favorite hotspot for birders; a little oasis in the middle of Glenview.

Kent Fuller Air Station Prairie, Glenview, IL.

As I paused to sniff a wild bergamot seed head, still fragrant with mint, joy took me by surprise.

Wild bergmot (Monarda fistulosa), Kent Fuller Air Station Prairie, Glenview, IL.

Sometimes, in the midst of development and growing populations, prairie is recognized as the treasure it is. Kent Fuller Air Force Prairie is proof that prairies and development can co-exist. We can recognize our tallgrass heritage in Illinois, and make a place for prairie in Chicago’s growing suburbs.

View from the pavilion, Kent Fuller Air Station Prairie, Glenview, IL.

On such a gloomy, chilly day—seeing what has been accomplished here—I felt hopeful for the future.

******

Sunday evening, I checked the forecast before I nodded off to sleep.

Forecast April 17, 2022.

Surely nothing will stick.

But when I looked out my bedroom window Monday morning…

A dusting of snow.

Rattlesnake master—that early pioneer of the garden and just-burned prairies—stoically took it in stride.

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The non-native violas, which self-seed all around the garden, didn’t seem to mind a little ice.

Violas (Viola sp.) in the snow, Crosby’s backyard garden, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Marsh marigolds, weighted with the weather du jour, kept on blooming.

Marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Tucked under the eaves of the house the prairie alum root…

Prairie alum root (Heuchera richardsonii), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…the prairie smoke…

Prairie smoke (Geum triflorum), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…and the new shoots of prairie dropseed…

Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis) with spring bulbs, Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…seemed to thrive amid this unexpected turn of weather. It’s only a little snow. What’s the big deal? I could almost hear the plants scolding me for pouting. As I type this on Monday evening, more snow is falling. I’m tempted to complain with the poet T.S. Eliot that “April is the cruelest month,” but I’m going enjoy this twist of temperatures. One of the joys of living in the Midwest is the weather. Always a few surprises. I like that. Mostly.

Never a dull moment on the prairies.

******

The opening quote is from fictional character Anne Shirley, from the series “Anne of Green Gables,” written by Lucy Maud Montgomery (1874-1942).

*****

April Events (find more at http://www.cindycrosby.com)

April 25, 9:30-11am The Tallgrass Prairie: Grocery Store, Apothecary, and Love Charm Shop with Country Home and Garden Club, Barrington, IL (In person). Closed event. For more information on the garden club click here.

Join Cindy for one, two, or three Spring Wildflower Walks at The Morton Arboretum! Learn some of the stories behind these fascinating spring flowers. April 22 (woodland, sold out), April 28 (woodland) and May 6 (prairie, one spot open) (9-11 a.m.). In person. Register here.

Save Bell Bowl Prairie! Find out what you can do at www.savebellbowlprairie.org .

A Very Merry Prairie Christmas

“Life regularly persists through winter, the toughest, most demanding of seasons.” –Allen M. Young

******

It’s the Winter Solstice. Light-lovers, rejoice! Tomorrow, we begin the slow climb out of darkness.

Sunrise over Cindy’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

There is still no significant snowfall here in the Chicago region. Jeff and I joke that we know the reason why. We’ve shoveled our driveway by hand the past 23 years, but after three back-to-back heavy snow events last winter we said, “No more!” This summer, we bought a small snowblower. We figured our purchase should guarantee a snow-free winter. (You’re welcome).

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Glen Ellyn, IL.

But…I miss the snow. Despite December 21st being the first official astronomical day of winter, the prairies and natural areas around me seem to say “autumn.” The upside? Without that blanket of white thrown over the prairies, there are so many visible wonders. Plant tendrils…

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

…and their swerves and curves.

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Ice crystals captured in a shady river eddy.

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

The bridges we regularly hike across are geometry lessons in angles and lines.

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Look closely.

Possibly blue-gray rosette lichen (Physcia caesia), Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

There is life, even here. The lichens remind me of the tatted lace antimacassars so beloved by my great-grandmothers. It also reminds me I need to learn more lichen ID. Winter might be a good time to focus on that.

The soundtrack of the prairie in late December is the castanet rattle of White Wild Indigo pods…

White Wild Indigo (Baptisia leucantha), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

…and the wind’s sizzle-hiss through the grasses. This December in the Midwest, wind has been a significant force. Harsh. Destructive. Here in the Chicago region, we’ve escaped most wind damage. Yet wind makes its presence known. When I’m hiking into it, my face goes numb. My eyes water. Brrrr. But I love the way it strokes and tunes the dry tallgrass, coaxing out a winter prairie tune.

Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

I admire the seed-stripped sprays of crinkled switchgrass wands…

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

…the bright blue of a snow-less sky, feathered with clouds…

Skies over Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

…the joy of spent winter wildflowers.

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

I spy the mallard and his mate.

Mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos), Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Feel delight in the murmur of an ice-free stream.

East Branch of the Dupage River, Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

The way December puts her mark on grasses, leaves and trees leaves me in awe… and happy.

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

All these wonders! All available for any hiker passing through the prairies or woodlands at this time of year—without a single snowflake in the repertoire.

Frost at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Sure, I still check the forecast. Hoping to see snow on the radar. But who needs the white stuff when there are so many other surprises? What a treasure trove of delights December has on offer!

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Why not go out and see them for yourself?

You’ll be glad you did.

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downers Grove, IL.

Happy holidays and Merry Christmas!

******

The opening quote is from Allen M. Young’s Small Creatures and Ordinary Places: Essays on Nature (2000, University of Wisconsin Press). This lovely book includes dragonflies and damselflies; fireflies, silk moths, butterflies, and cicadas—just a few of the many insects he investigates. Several of his essays first appeared in the Sunday Magazine of the Chicago Tribune. Young is Curator Emeritus of Zoology at the Milwaukee Public Museum.

*****

Need a New Year’s Resolution? Help Bell Bowl Prairie, one of Illinois’ last remaining native prairie remnants, which is about to be destroyed by the Chicago Rockford International Airport. Please go to www.savebellbowlprairie.org to discover easy ways your actions can make a difference.

*****

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to my readers! Thank you for (virtually) hiking with me in 2021.

5 Reasons to Hike the November Prairie

“November is chill, frosted mornings with a silver sun rising behind the trees, red cardinals at the feeders, and squirrels running scallops along the tops of the gray stone walls”. —Jean Hersey

*****

November marks a tumultuous halfway point. What a month!

School playgrounds are empty.

Families fear to gather. Headlines promise no quick answers.

Pewter skies. Cold drizzle. Tornado watches. 50-mph winds.

Let’s go look for hope. Peace. Beauty.

Here are five reasons to hike the November prairie.

  1. November’s prairie is a sea of gorgeous foamy seeds. Exploding asters loosen their shattered stars against the winds.

Boneset seeds prepare to set sail on the breeze.

Thistles are an exercise in contrast.

Thimbleweed’s wispy Q-tips hold fast against the wind. A few lose their grip, but most will hang on to their seeds through winter.

So many seeds.

So much promise for 2021. Hope for the future.

2. November’s prairie offers the solace of gray skies. Depressing? No. Curiously calming to the spirit, even in high winds, which carve curves in the clouds.

On mornings when the temperature drops below 30 degrees, the freeze softens plants; breaks them down. They crumple. Ice pierces succulent plants from the inside out.

The skies are misted and vague.

The future seems uncertain. But the skies, cycling between sunshine and steel, remind us how quickly change is possible.

3. November’s prairie is full of music. Autumn’s orchestra is fully tuned now, with winter whispering soft notes in the wings. Switchgrass and Indian grass hiss in high winds, like onions sizzling in a frying pan.

Geese cry overhead. on their way to nowhere special.

A train blows its mournful whistle.

I listen until the sound fades away.

4. Leaves are the stars of November’s tallgrass. Prairie dock leaves are topographic maps of the world.

Rattlesnake master masters the curves. I’m reminded of the Olympic ribbon dancers; rhythmic gymnastics performed in taupes and beiges.

Yet these leaves are immobile. Grace and motion frozen in high winds.

Other leaves signal surrender. Tattered and shredded by weather.

I kneel by the compass plant, trying to read its leaves for direction.

It seems as lost as I am.

5. November’s prairie is art in process. What will you see there?

Works by the impressionists.

Echoes of Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World.

Modern art?

Perhaps.

The prairie paints a thousand pictures every day. Sings a hundred songs. Tells stories.

Ready for more?

Let’s go.

*****

Jean Hersey (1902-date of death unknown) was the author of The Shape of a Year. She wrote about gardening, houseplants, herbs, grief, flowering shrubs, and penned many homespun articles for Women’s Day magazine.

All photos this week are from Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove, IL unless tagged otherwise (top to bottom): deserted school playground, Glen Ellyn, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca); Belmont Prairie in November; Belmont prairie boardwalk; panicled asters (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum); tall boneset (Eupatorium altissimum); pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor); thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica); mixed grasses and forbs; gray skies over Belmont Prairie; hard freeze (prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL): Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripterus); Canada geese (Branta canadensis); Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium); unknown prairie forb; unknown prairie forb; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); mixed grasses; Belmont Prairie edges; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) in November; Jeff hikes Belmont Prairie; trail through Belmont Prairie in November.

*****

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.

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.

Chasing Dragonflies Final Cover 620.jpg

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!