Category Archives: Prairie

How to Spark (Prairie) Wonder

“While we are born with curiosity and wonder, and our early years full of the adventure they bring, I know such inherent joys are often lost. I also know that, being deep within us, their latent glow can be fanned into flame again by awareness and an open mind.”–
Sigurd Olson

***

I’m thinking about the above quotation as I hike through prairie snow. The temperature? Below zero. Not an optimal day for outdoor adventures. But after more than five decades of wanderings—and at the beginning of a new year—I’ve been wondering. How do I keep my sense of curiosity and wonder in a cynical world? How do I “fan the flame;” “stay aware” as Olson writes? It’s so easy to become insular.

Then, I look around.

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Time outdoors. Perhaps that’s always the answer.

 

SPMAwasharea123117.jpgEven a short walk in the brutal cold is a mental palate cleanser. It sweeps clean the heavy holiday fare. Too much travel. Noise. Not enough time to think.

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I breathe in. The air sears my lungs; seeps into my gloves, painfully nips my hands. Then all feeling recedes.

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Above me, the wild geese fly in formation over the prairie, calling to each other. The sound carries clearly in the cold, crisp air. I inhale again, and feel the fuzziness in my mind begin to dissipate.

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I think of Mary Oliver’s poem, “Wild Geese.” When I worked as a ranger on a wilderness island, one of my many non-glamorous tasks was sweeping the visitor center floor at the end of the day. As I’d push the broom, back and forth, back and forth, I’d try memorizing a new poem each week, written on a card in my pocket. It made the task more pleasant. “Wild Geese” was one poem I memorized that became a favorite.

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Lost in remembrance, I almost miss what’s under my feet. The prairie and meadow voles have been busy tunneling through the snow, on a seed-finding mission.

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The short winter list of prairie birds and animals are easier to name than the lengthy  roll call of plant species. Winter plant ID is a guessing game. The once-familiar wildflowers have shed their leaves and bleached their colors. Some I can be fairly certain of, like these thimbleweeds, with their tufts of seeds in various stages of blow-out along a sheltered edge of the prairie.

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Or the pasture thistle, in its familiar spot next to the path.

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The compass plant leaf, even when cold-curled like a bass clef, is unmistakable.

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But other wildflowers, sans identifying colors, scents, or leaf shapes, are a mystery. Is this one an aster? Sure. But which one? I realize how limited my naturalist skills are every winter.

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Such a jumble of seasonal botanical leftovers! All in various stages of decay. Monarda? Check. Blackberry canes? Check. And is that tiny curl a bit of carrion flower vine? But which species?

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Hours could be spent in this fashion; looking, listening, hypothesizing, thinking, remembering. It takes so little to rekindle the spark of curiosity and wonder. To wake up. To be refreshed.

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Just a short hike. A moment’s attention toward what’s happening around your feet. A glance at the sky.

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And suddenly, you feel it: the embers of curiosity and wonder begin to glow again.

***

Sigurd F. Olson (1899-1982) wrote nine books, including my favorite, The Singing Wilderness.   Many of his essays are about the Boundary Waters Canoe Area and North Woods, and a few are about the prairie. Some include beautiful scratchboard illustrations from artist Francis Lee Jaques,  who was born in Illinois. Olson was a conservation activist and one of the greatest advocates for natural areas in recent times. The quote that begins this blog post is from his book, Listening Point.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): West Side bridge, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Orland Grassland, Forest Preserve Districts of Cook County, Orland Park, IL;  Orland Grassland, Forest Preserve Districts of Cook County, Orland Park, IL; fence line at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Canada geese (Branta canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie vole (Microtus ochrogaster), or meadow vole (Microtus pennsylvanicus) tunnels, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasture thistle (Cirsium discolor), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; compass plant leaf (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; aster (unknown species), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blackberry canes (probably Rubus argutus), bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), and carrion vine (Smilax, unknown species), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  Saul’s Lake Bog and Prairie, Land Conservancy of West Michigan, Rockford, MI; sunrise, Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL.

Why (Prairie) Words Matter

“‘Remember, the firemen are rarely necessary. The public itself stopped reading of its own accord.’”– from Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, on burning books.

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While hiking an unfamiliar prairie this past weekend, I came to a stream, limned with ice.

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The bridge spanning the waterway was gone. Hmmm. My choices were simple. I could turn back. Hop from slick rock to slick rock. Or, wade the shallows to the other side, and get my feet wet. Reluctantly, I chose the path of least resistance and retraced my path. The rest of the prairie would have to wait for another day’s exploration, better footwear, or the bridge repair.

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As one who seeks to know new places more intimately, I’m reminded that the loss of bridges—connecting points—-matter.

As a writer, I get that as well. Words are bridges. They have the capability to connect us to places—and to dynamic ideas. They elicit memory. They provoke action. They stimulate emotion. They are a springboard for the imagination.

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How many times has a parent told you, “Her first word was—-.”  Or a grieving person: “His last words were—–.” Words are significant! Our ancestors also knew the importance of words. The First Amendment notes, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press… .” Words matter. Losing words matters.

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When we lose particular words about place, we lose part of the collective memory of our people. These words comprise a slice of our identity. They are the language of the place in which we live. More specifically, when we lose prairie-related vocabulary, we break links that join us to the tallgrass; specific identifiers that bind us to a place.

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Words are one way we give human voice to a land that speaks in prairie dropseed, bobolinks, and dung beetles. Naming things brings them to our attention, just as learning the name of someone we meet makes them more memorable, more “real” to us.

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When we learn the name for a particular sedge or a specific bee, we can visualize it, even when it isn’t in front of us.  In a time when tallgrass prairie is dubbed one of the most threatened natural areas on earth, to lose any of these names is to lose some of our momentum in cherishing and caring for it.

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We’re lazy.  We don’t have enough time, do we? It’s easier to use non-descriptive, bland words that trip easily off the tongue. Ecosystem. Landscape. Grasses. Plants. Bugs. Use generalities and the prairie becomes a blur, a non-entity.

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There is rhythm and motion in the prairie vocabulary; joy in the particulars. Delight in the common names: Canada wild rye. Regal fritillary. Hoary puccoon. Cream wild indigo. Try saying some of the scientific names out loudBison bison. (That double whammy! Like a drumbeat.) Or, Monarda fistulosa. Spiza americana. Let these descriptive words roll off your tongue: Mesic. MollisolsLoess.

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Speak the words. Keep them in front of people.

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It’s a fragile hold we have on these words.  Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

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As we draw toward the winter solstice on Thursday—the shortest, darkest day of the year—remember the light that words can bring into the world. Words of color and sound. Words of hope. Words of restoration. Words of promise.

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Specific words matter.

Let’s use them.

*****

Ray Bradbury’s (1920-2012) short, powerful book Fahrenheit 451, written in 1953 about a post-literate society, seems almost prophetic more than six decades later. Bradbury’s writing spanned many genres, from science fiction to fantasy, as well as a terrific book, Zen in the Art of Writing on the craft of putting words together well. My favorite is Dandelion Wine, his fictional memoir of growing up in Illinois.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; blown-out Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota) seedheads on Afton Prairie, Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb County Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL;  Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Afton Prairie, Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb County Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL;  mixed grasses with smartweed (Polygonum spp.)  around the pond at Afton Prairie, Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb County Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL; mountain mint (probably Pycnanthemum virginianum), Afton Prairie, Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb County Forest Preserve DeKalb, IL;  mixed grasses including Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) on Afton Prairie, Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb County Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL; mixed grasses with little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) on Afton Prairie, Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb County Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL; Canada wild rye, Afton Prairie, Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb County Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL; unknown sunflower seedheads (Helianthus spp.) with Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis) Afton PrairieAfton Forest Preserve, DeKalb County Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL; wild cucumber (Echinocystis lobata), Afton Prairie, Afton Forest Preserve, DeKalb County Forest Preserve, DeKalb, IL; sunset, Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Thanks to John Heneghan and Tricia Lowery for taking us to Afton Prairie for our first visit there. And thanks to Joshua Clark and the good folks at DeKalb County Forest Preserve who care for Afton Prairie and its associated beautiful natural areas. Once again, a big shout-out to Paul Marcum and the ID gurus at Illinois Botany Facebook page for help with wild cucumber.

A Prairie Wish and a Prayer

 “Labor brings a thing nearer the heart’s core.” –Mary Webb

***

For prairie volunteers, it’s impossible to walk the tallgrass in December and not think of endings. This month is the symbolic culmination of a year’s worth of stewardship; the grand finale of planning, sweat, risk, small successes and—sometimes—epic failures. Three steps forward, two steps back.

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Take a deep breath. Look around you. Everything that can go to seed has flossed out; emptied itself into the wind and soil. Wade into the tallgrass. Bits of seed silk fly out in  pieces all around, a little prairie mock snowstorm.

Sun slants through seedheads; sparks stalks and stems into silver and gold.

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Hike the trails and mull over the season that has passed. Muse on the new season still to come. 

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In the distance, smoke hazes the prairie, tumbles above the treeline. 

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Natural resource managers, taking advantage of the warm, dry conditions, lay down prescribed burns in the nearby woodlands and wetlands. But not yet on the prairie. Soon, we tell the tallgrass. Very soon. Your turn will come.

December has been, by turns, warm and balmy; all sunshine then thunder; bitter and breezy.

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Listen closely as you hike the prairie trails and you’ll hear the tell-tale sounds of the end of juice and sap. The rustle of switchgrass. The brittle rattle of white wild indigo seed pods.

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The indigo stems snap off in 50 mph winds then roll, tumbleweed-like, across the prairie, scattering their progeny.

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Broken—but accomplishing their evolutionary task of moving around their DNA. In years to come, we’ll see the results: those incomparable white wild indigo blooms. Close your eyes. Imagine.

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But for now, look closely.  Who knows what you’ll see? A heightening of intense rusts and coppers, right before the final brutal bleaching freezes of January and February.

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Keep looking. You may see the occasional fluke or strange oddity as nature deals the tallgrass a wild card.

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Admire the blown-out stars of asters, spent for this season. Think of the seeds they’ve dropped in the rich black prairie soil, which now harbors a constellation of future blooms for the coming summer.

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New beginnings. They’re all here. Think of what weeding, a bit of planting, and a little dreaming might help this prairie become.
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So much possibility.
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Make a wish. Say a prayer.
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Your hard work may be mostly done for this season. But it has brought this little patch of tallgrass very close to your heart. Let your imagination run wild for what this prairie might become.

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Because on the prairie in December, anything for the coming year seems possible.

***

Mary Webb (1881-1927), who penned the opening quote, was an award-winning English poet and romantic novelist. Her health ultimately failed from Grave’s Disease; her marriage failed as well and she died alone and with her last novel unfinished at age 46. Her writing reflects her fatalism and compassion for suffering. Gone to Earth (1917) expresses her horror of war; Precious Bane (1924), whose heroine has a disfiguring impairment, received the Prix Femina Vie Heureuse Anglais award, a French literary prize. She is known for her intense creativity, mysticism, and her love for the natural world.

***

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Schulenberg Prairie in December, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; cream wild indigo (Baptisia leucampha), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  unknown brome (Bromus spp.), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL; prescribed burn, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla) seed pods, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla) upside down stalks, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie in December, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata) with mutation because of fasciation (viral, genetic, chemical), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL; unknown aster, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, The Nature Conservancy, Downer’s Grove Park District, Downer’s Grove, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias  syriaca) pods, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) pappus, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; hand with common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) pappus, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Nomia Meadows Farm Prairie, Franklin Grove, IL.

Thanks to Illinois Botany FB page for their help with my question about fasciation and the round-headed bush clover, especially Paul Marcum. 

Our National Tallgrass Treasure

“Tallgrass prairie is a national treasure. Prairie reconstructions and restorations require a commitment of time, resources, and ongoing management. Progress may be slow, but the processes and product are exciting, fulfilling, and perhaps, life changing. –Dr. Daryl Smith

***

It’s sunset. The small patch of prairie remnant glows.

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The Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve is a wedge of about 10 acres of tallgrass tucked into an unlikely spot between a golf course, freeways, and subdivisions, deep in the Chicago suburbs. Look west across the prairie, and you can’t help but think of a more subdued Albert Bierstadt painting in the Hudson River School style, or perhaps the shadowy drama of an Andrew Wyeth rural landscape.

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Turn in another direction, and the view is more “Chicago Suburban School of Realism.”

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As I walk these and other pockets of remnant prairie in the Chicago suburbs, I wonder how these tiny prairie acres hung on by a thread when others were destroyed. Each has a story. Most revolve around a person who recognized the value of a plant or bird or butterfly and called it to someone’s attention before the land was bulldozed.

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Oh, the stories these plants that remain could tell us! Tales of a time when Illinois was covered with 22 million acres of tallgrass prairie. Survival despite the odds. And yet, so much of what was once here is lost. Gone forever, never to be replaced.

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Although only a few thousand of those original acres remain, the ink has not completely faded from the original prairie pages. We read what we see there.

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Inspired—we continue to plant and reconstruct new prairies for the future.

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Yet, no matter how many new acres of tallgrass we plant, we can’t seem to replicate the original remnants. To come close will require genius, research, and ingenuity— know-how that we don’t have yet. And even so, our efforts  may not be enough. The planted prairies are similar, yet not the same. They are missing some of the insects. Some of the “words” from the original prairie pages. And also…

If you walk a remnant prairie at sunset, do you feel a different sense of place there than you feel when you walk a planted prairie, or a reconstructed prairie? And you wonder… can we ever replicate that?

Perhaps this is not a question any scientist would care to tackle.

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We do know this: The remnants we cherish may be the last of their kind. Irreplaceable.

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And so, they are almost dreamlike in their tenuous grasp on the land…and in their hold on our imagination.

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That’s why I hike the trails of the prairies this month. To see the remnants. To think about what was lost. To feel that irreplaceable sense of place. To treasure what is left. And to remember.

At the end of November.

***

Dr. Daryl Smith is one of four authors (with Dave Williams, Greg Houseal, and Kirk Henderson) of the iconic book, The Tallgrass Prairie Center Guide to Prairie Restoration in the Upper Midwest (University of Iowa Press). Anyone who is interested in prairie would benefit from having this comprehensive manual on their bookshelf.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom) pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) seedheads, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove Park District, The Nature Conservancy of Illinois, Belmont Prairie Preservation Association, Downer’s Grove, IL; trail at sunset, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove Park District, The Nature Conservancy of Illinois, Belmont Prairie Preservation Association, Downer’s Grove, IL; homes and buildings at the prairie’s edge, Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove Park District, The Nature Conservancy of Illinois, Belmont Prairie Preservation Association, Downer’s Grove, IL; unknown seedhead with spiderweb thread, Danada Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Wheaton, IL;  cream gentian seedheads (Gentiana alba) Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove Park District, The Nature Conservancy of Illinois, Belmont Prairie Preservation Association, Downer’s Grove, IL;, sunset on the Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild quinine seedheads (Parthenium integrifolium), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove Park District, The Nature Conservancy of Illinois, Belmont Prairie Preservation Association, Downer’s Grove, IL; thimbleweed seedhead (Anemone virginiana), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove Park District, The Nature Conservancy of Illinois, Belmont Prairie Preservation Association, Downer’s Grove, IL; leaf at sunset, Danada Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Wheaton, IL; Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downers Grove Park District, The Nature Conservancy of Illinois, Belmont Prairie Preservation Association.

Evening of a Prairie Year

“Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” — Marie Curie.

Lately I’ve been reading the poetry of Jane Kenyon, which somehow seems to match these gloomy November days. “Let evening come,” she wrote in a poem by the same name, and it does come, doesn’t it? Whether you welcome it or not, we’re hurtling toward the winter solstice on December 21. Now, in November, it feels like the evening of the year is here.

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In this seasonal twilight, November on the prairie can seem a desolate month. Perhaps the vivid color and bright birdsong of late summer and autumn are still freshly imprinted on our minds.

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There is plenty of beauty in the November prairie. But it has a different sort of allure than previously found. It’s more of the way you feel drawn toward a much-loved person, all wrinkled and worn, and call her beautiful, even though others may call her plain.

It’s in the spirit of the place…

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…the familiarity of that place; its grace—perhaps more evident now in this season, without the fripperies of wildflowers or pageantry of butterflies; with less of a backdrop of birdsong.

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November is more about the beauty that comes from the love you have for a place that you’ve invested in. A place that has given back to you in a thousand intangible ways. This is, perhaps, what makes the prairie enchanting in your eyes, even in November.

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I remind myself of this as I walk the tallgrass trails in that classic November weather which makes it so difficult to be outside this month. The paths are by turn limned with ice or sloppy with mud depending on the vagaries of the temperature. Big snow flurries slapped us in the face with winter last week. Quickly melted.  Winds—cold winds that slice through your warmest jacket—made a howling appearance. Sunshine warms up the day for a few hours then disappears.

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Oh, November. At times, the gray days bring with them an unshakeable gloom. As the daylight hours become shorter, so does my temper. I have less margin. Motivation dwindles. Hibernation begins to sound attractive. Tallgrass-WBHHprairieIowa11917

November will never be July, or May, or even September, no matter how much I wish it to be sometimes. I love the sun! These gray days try the spirit.

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But experiencing November will take me a long ways into understanding December and January… and these experiences will make me a different person — one that is tougher, more appreciative, more open to change. More resilient.

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November has its own rhythms.

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Its own astonishments.

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Its particular slants of light and patterns.

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Rather than sigh and tuck myself indoors with a book, I’m going to meet November halfway.

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Off I go. Unafraid of the gloom and even darker days ahead. Trying to embrace November.

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How about you?

****

Scientist Marie Curie (1867-1934), whose quote opens this post, was Polish in a time when being Polish was to be persecuted, and a scientist in a time when women were not welcomed as scientists. Unable to pursue higher education as a woman in her home country, she completed a PhD in France, and became the first person to win two Nobel prizes.

Jane Kenyon (1947-1995), whose poem “Let Evening Come” is mentioned in this post, writes unsparingly about the joys and terrors of the world. To read more about her and her work, look here.

All photographs copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Herbert Hoover Historic Site Tallgrass Prairie, West Branch, Iowa; Nachusa Grasslands in late summer, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Herbert Hoover Historic Site Tallgrass Prairie, West Branch, Iowa; big bluestem (Andropogon geraradii) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Herbert Hoover Historic Site Tallgrass Prairie, West Branch, Iowa; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Herbert Hoover Historic Site Tallgrass Prairie, West Branch, Iowa; gray-headed coneflower seedhead (Ratibida pinnata), Herbert Hoover Historic Site Tallgrass Prairie, West Branch, Iowa; leaves and acorns on the trail, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) pod, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima) Herbert Hoover Historic Site Tallgrass Prairie, West Branch, Iowa;  bluebird house with tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), Herbert Hoover Historic Site Tallgrass Prairie, West Branch, Iowa; Schulenberg Prairie Savanna , The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.SaveSaveSaveSave

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Space and Place on the Prairie

 

“How long does it take to know a place?…Abstract knowledge about a place can be acquired in short order if one is diligent. The visual quality of an environment is quickly tallied if one has the artist’s eye. But the ‘feel’ of a place takes longer to acquire. It is made up of experiences, mostly fleeting and undramatic, repeated day after day and over the span of years. It is a unique blend of sights, sounds, and smells, a unique harmony of natural and artificial rhythms such as times of sunrise and sunset, of work and play. The feel of a place is registered in one’s muscles and bones… . Knowing a place, in the above senses, clearly takes time. It is a subconscious kind of knowing.”– Yi-Fu Tuan

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I have the good fortune to live next to a respected taxonomist, whose suburban yard overflows with hundreds of native plants. Once, I asked him the best way to go about increasing my own knowledge of the natural world. He thought for a moment, then said, “Look at your backyard, Cindy. Each day, learn a different plant you find there.”

Such simple advice. So difficult to take. Because of course, it requires…time.

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Dr. Yi-Fu Tuan, University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of geography emeritus,  writes, “How long does it take to know a place? Modern man, he says, is so mobile “that he has not the time to establish roots; his experience and appreciation of place is superficial.”

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Time. We race around, doing things, going other places. Knowing where we live is one of the the casualties.  How often I have heard people say, “I wish I had more time… ” “I just don’t have enough time… ” “If only I had time to… ” “There aren’t enough hours in a day… ” “If only I didn’t have to sleep… .”  I’ve said most of the same things myself. With hours in such short supply, should we despair of ever finding time to really “know” where we live? Much less, even something as seemingly simple as the names of the plants in our backyards?

Yes, it takes time to know a place. But, as Tuan also writes, even “an intense experience of short duration…can alter our lives.”

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All of us may attest to the power of short but memorable outdoor experiences that helped us know a place. My list of those experiences might include memories as simple as a childhood playspace under a forsythia bush.

A particular sunset.

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The coyote on a prairie trail in the rain, going about her business, oblivious to me sitting a few feet away. Sandhill cranes unexpectedly landing all around me in a field. An unexpected cloud of ebony jewelwing damselflies arising from a stream bank. Finding a fawn.

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You soak these moments into your bones; they permeate your subconscious mind, they echo through your dreams. These intense experiences inform the way you feel about a place. You don’t forget.

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But, you have to be there to have the experiences.  You have to show up. Even if it is only to sit in your backyard to key out plants, a field guide in one hand, the unknown green leaf in the other. You set aside time to let those moments happen. Or, at the very least, you cultivate an awareness that allows you to be awake to those moments when they do happen. To stop and pay attention to the moment.

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These moments are often unscripted. One evening, more than a dozen years ago, I sat in my car in the high school parking lot, waiting for my children’s band lessons to end.  I turned the ignition off and rolled down the window. The parking lot was unusually quiet. I watched geese lift off the football field and pull together the scarf of the sunset with their black, bowling pin shaped bodies, on their way to Hidden Lake nearby.  A few clouds scrolled across the sky. The hot asphalt, the tic-tic-tic of the car cooling down, and drift of music from the band room were unlikely elements of anything special. The high school parking lot is a bland spot to have any intense experiences about place. But I can still frame that sky, those geese, that place in my memory, more than a decade later. There was an intensity of that moment, and one that was unplanned. It helped wake me up to where I lived at a time when I was struggling to pay attention to my life.

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Now, when I become cynical or jaded about the natural world, I’ll go looking for those moments intentionally. Usually, I head to my favorite prairie trail nearby, and take a walk.  If this fails to wake me up, I’ve found seeing the prairie with a child often often opens it to me in a new way again.

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If you’ve walked with a child, you know they don’t feel the press of time as we do. In summer, they are perfectly content to stop and watch bees work flowers for a good long while, or in winter, explore the holes prairie voles make in snow—look for the entrance and exit spots, mark them with sticks. A child thinks nothing of taking a net outside to catch butterflies in November. And why not? To a child, nothing is yet impossible.

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I need these reminders to slow down. To pay attention. To remember what it was like to be a child, to not use a calendar, to not have a to-do list. To feel time in the way a child does. Recapture that feeling that nothing is impossible, even in November.

I walk the prairie alone today—in November, yes, when much of what is going on in my life does seem impossible and completely unsolvable. This place, this prairie where I walk, is woven into my muscles and bones; it runs in my blood. I’ve walked it almost 20 years now. In my memory are the fires of prescribed burns I’ve helped set that have kept the tallgrass alive and vibrant.

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Ahead months away, in my imagination, are the blooms and grasses of summer, those rather iconic stereotypical pale purple coneflowers and Culver’s root; bright orange butterfly weed and yellow coreopsis; all the colors and pageantry of a landscape gone wild and rich with buzz and bloom; diversity and joy.

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Today, in real time, I hike a more subdued November prairie, its life ebbing; someone seemingly stepping on the brakes; the winds tinted with chill; the sun slanted toward the horizon; blackened stalks stark against the color-drained grasses. And yes. Seedheads shattering into the promise of something new. At least I tell myself this. I believe it because I’ve been on this trail at this time in this place before. And I’ve seen the cycle happen, again and again.

SPMA-11-17.jpg I’m content knowing I’m storing this walk, this sunset, this experience away in my memory. Building my relationship with the land. Continuing to develop a “feel” for a place I’ve loved for a long time, and still want to know better.

Time well spent.

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The opening quote is taken from Dr. Yi-Fu Tuan’s (1930-) Space and Place: The Perspective of Experiencewhich offers fascinating glimpses into our relationship with both the natural and built environment. His book never fails to provoke me to thinking more deeply about the places where I spend my time and how and why I spend it as I do.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): white wild indigo (Baptisia alba), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; two-track in spring, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; tall coreopsis (Coreposis tripteris), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunset, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; white-tailed fawn (Odocoileus virginianus) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; little wood duck (Aix sponsa), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; smooth sumac (Rhus glabra), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; netting butterflies in the off season, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prescribed burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; summer on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunset, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Prairie Ghosts

“O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.” — Thomas Wolfe

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Prairie restoration often seems a paradox.

We set the prairie aflame, to bring life out of the ashes.

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We learn to weld fences—in hope of the return of wild things.

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Although we are organic gardeners; we take tests, earn licenses to spray herbicide to keep aggressive plants at bay in the tallgrass.

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We listen to plants which have no voices; ask them to tell us their stories.

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We construct beautiful buildings to tell the message of open spaces.

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We look for traces of the past in order to create a different future. Ghosts. They linger in out-of-the-way places. A certain wildflower, perhaps. An endangered bird. A rare butterfly. Do they still exist? Or have they vanished forever?

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Even as we search, we wonder at the absurdities. Past generations labored to change these prairies into fields of corn and soybeans. We patiently endeavor to return fields to  prairie.

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Why did we lose so much before we realized its value?

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We envision a different future for the acres we care for. A future that might be possible through the work of our hands, the strength of our longing, the power of our imagination…and a little luck.

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We recognize that the prairie restoration work we do is in part, our desire to know that we can make a tangible difference. That change is possible.  That it is never too late to try.

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We pray that what is now fragile and  broken…

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…and once almost erased…

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…will return again. A shadow of what it once was, perhaps. An echo.

But worthwhile, all the same.

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Because we recognize that when we heal the land, in many ways, we heal ourselves.

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As for how we accomplish both—we make peace with the paradoxes.

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Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938) was the author of Look Homeward, Angel (1929), from which the first quote in this post was taken. This quote is also included as a stunning conclusion to John Madson’s classic book, Where the Sky Began: Land of the Tallgrass Prairie

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Schulenberg Prairie prescribed burn, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bison (Bison bison) herd, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; interpretive sign at Kent Fuller Air Station Prairie, Glenview, IL; the stunning Evelyn Pease Tyner Interpretive Center, Kent Fuller Air Station Prairie, Glenview, IL; prairie burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) seed head, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; small white lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium candidum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) in bloom, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; broken eggshell in a nest, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; icy bison track, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale purple coneflowers (Echinacea pallida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.