Cindy Crosby is the author, compiler, or contributor to more than 20 books. Her most recent is "The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction," (2017 Northwestern University Press). Look for her new book, "Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit" in spring of 2019 (with Thomas Dean, Ice Cube Press). Her writing is also included in "The Tallgrass Prairie Reader" (2014, University of Iowa Press). She teaches prairie ecology, prairie literature, and prairie ethnobotany in the Chicago area, and is a prairie steward who has volunteered countless hours in prairie restoration. See Cindy's upcoming speaking and teaching events at www.CindyCrosby.com.
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Category Archives: Prairie
“Let us go on, and take the adventure that shall fall to us.” — C.S. Lewis
Wolf Road Prairie! How could anyone resist visiting a nature preserve with a name like this one? It seems ripe with possibilities for adventure.
The sunshine over the 80-acre preserve is welcome, although the wind makes the temperature seem colder than the high 20s.
Jeff and I drive around the preserve, unsure where where the trails are. We can see prairie plants, so we know we’re in the right place. Hmmm.
Time to ask directions. A helpful member of the “Save the Prairie Society” is shoveling snow, getting ready for an open house at the historical structure on the property. He greets us warmly, and shows us where the trails begin.
We see right away we’re not alone on the prairie. Look at those tracks! Rush hour.
Little critters have left their imprints, like sewing machine stitches, across the prairie.Who made the tracks? We wonder. Prairie voles? Mice? Difficult to tell.
We cross through a wetland…
…and see other signs of the preserve’s inhabitants.
A nest of a bird, long flown.
I’m puzzled by the interesting galls on the sunflowers. My gall knowledge is limited. Sunflower crown gall, maybe?
There’s a goldenrod bunch gall–sometimes called a rosette gall—I recognize on the other side of the trail. Like a dried out winter flower of sorts.
I make a mental note to refresh my gall knowledge—at least of the goldenrod galls! There’s so much to learn while hiking the winter prairie. Always something new, something different. Later at home, I’ll chase down different bits of information, based on our hike. Crown gall. Bunch gall. Adventures of a different kind.
As we hike the south-side prairie savanna remnant…
…we find sidewalks, left over from a pre-Depression Era time when this acreage was slated for a housing development. The contractors got as far as putting in the sidewalks before the project was scrapped. Jeff, who’s a history buff, is delighted.
I’m excited, too. According to an excellent article by the Salt Creek Greenway Association, the preserve was threatened again by a proposed housing development in the 1970s. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources and Forest Preserve District of Cook County were able to acquire the acreage and save the fine examples of savanna and black soil prairie remnant. What a success story!
In January 2019, the story continues. Although the cooler palette of Wolf Road prairie in winter tends toward white, brown, and blue, with bits of pale yellow…
…little bluestem warms up the tallgrass with reds and golds. Its last clinging seeds sparkle in the sunshine.
Winter on the prairie brings certain plants into focus. Little bluestem is only one example.
In the summer, I appreciate pale purple coneflowers for their swash of pink-purple color across the grasses. In January, I find myself focusing on a single plant’s structure.
Culver’s root, bereft of summer pollinators and long past bloom, takes on sinuous grace and motion in stark relief against the snow.
Even the rough and tumble goldenrod assumes a more delicate beauty in silhouette.
I imagine what this prairie, savanna, and wetland preserve will look like in a few months. Covered with wildflowers. Limned with birdsong. Full of diverse color and motion. Still, seeing Wolf Road Prairie under a layer of snow in the sunshine has its own beauty.
We almost lost this prairie. Twice.
I’m grateful to hike it today.
In a time when so many of our natural areas are threatened, Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve stands as an example of what can happen when people care. What other prairies or natural areas should we speak up and protect today, which might otherwise be lost, underfunded, or developed? These are adventures in caring. Adventures in making a difference.
Somewhere, a new prairie adventure is waiting.
The opening quote is from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, a book in the series “The Chronicles of Narnia,” by C.S. Lewis. I love this series, and read it out loud to my adult children when they were growing up.
All photos this week are from Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL; copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): sky over the wetland; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) in the prairie display garden; hiking the north side of Wolf Road Prairie; small mouse or vole tracks in the snow; cattail (Typha latifolia, Typha angustifolia or Typha x glauca); unknown bird’s nest; possibly sunflower crown gall (a plant disease); goldenrod gall bunch or rosette—made by a goldenrod gall midge (Rhopalomyia solidaginis); prairie savanna with bur oaks (Quercus macrocarpa); old sidewalk under the snow in the savanna; snow shadows on the prairie; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium); pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) seedhead; Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum); goldenrod (possibly Solidago canadensis); sign for Wolf Road Prairie; trail headed south with little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), a rusty orange haze along the trail and in the distance.
Thank you to the members of the Save the Prairie Society and Heritage Project Committee who so generously pointed out trails, gave us a tour of The Franzosenbusch Prairie House Nature Center and Museum, and were warm and welcoming on our visit there. Check out their Facebook page and other social media.
“Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.” — John Milton
Did you make a New Year’s resolution? One of mine is to visit nearby prairies and natural areas I’ve overlooked. Today, it’s Ferson Creek Fen Nature Preserve, in the western Chicago suburb of St. Charles.
I have a soft spot for preserves with a mosaic of different habitats. Ferson Creek Fen ticks off a lot of boxes. Restored prairie.
The Fox River.
A boardwalk stretches through part of the preserve, protecting the sensitive wetlands. You can see the Fox River as a sliver of light in the distance.
It’s quiet in the 50-degree weather of this early January day. Our winter coats feel unnecessary.
A gull flies upstream.
Ice drifts in the current, not yet melted in the bright sun.
Downstream, a few kayakers brave the frigid water. The wetlands are painted with freeze and frost in the shadows. Cold is relative, when the sun is shining unexpectedly and the air teasingly whispers “spring.”
The warm planks of the boardwalk offer secure footing in the sunlight.
A steady hum of traffic to the west, punctuated by the squeaky calls of a white-breasted nuthatch nearby, compose the soundtrack for our hike. In the distance, Jeff and I see half a dozen unknown birds roosting in a tree. We step off the boardwalk to investigate. Hoping for something unusual, we plunge ahead on the grassy trail and discover…
…a tree full of….
…common mourning doves.
They fly up at our approach, and despite myself, I marvel at the gradation of pastel colors in their feathers, dotted with inky black. The pink feet. Their eyes like polished jet-black beads. I remember my grandmother, a science teacher, teaching me the call of the mourning dove. It was the first bird call I ever learned.
It’s a good reminder for me. There is beauty in the ordinary.
Complexity in everyday things.
All we have to do to is look. Take a moment to reflect. Remember.
And be grateful.
John Milton (1608-1674) was a British poet and writer, best known for his epic poem Paradise Lost. He also wrote the speech, Areopagitica, in a time of political and religious unrest (1644), an argument for freedom of speech, of the press, and of expression. He eventually went blind (probably from untreated glaucoma) in his late forties, then was imprisoned by a hostile regime and forced to leave his home. His poetry and works on religion and politics continue to be read long after his death.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby at Ferson Creek Fen Nature Preserve, St. Charles, IL (top to bottom) common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) with unknown aster seedheads; remains of an unknown sunflower; ice on duckweed (probably common duckweed Lemna minor, but could be greater duckweed Spirodela polyrhiza or star duckweed (Lemna trisulca) and cattail base (Typha, either common latifolia, narrow-leaved angustifolia or hybrid xglauca); floodplain forest; the Fox River in January; view from the boardwalk; boardwalk through the nature preserve; Fox River reflections in January; unidentified gull flying downstream on the Fox River; ice floes on the Fox River; view from the boardwalk; probably a red oak (Quercus rubra) leaf on the boardwalk; grassy trail; mourning doves (Zenaida macroura) roosting in a tree; willow pinecone gall made by the gall midge (Rabdophaga strobiloides); cattails (Typha latifolia, angustifolia, or xglauca) backlit by the sunlight.
Thanks to John Heneghan and Tricia Lowery for telling us about the preserve!
“In late December I feel an almost painful hunger for light…It’s tempting to think of winter as the negation of life, but life has too many sequences, too many rhythms, to be altogether quieted by snow and cold.” — Verlyn Klinkenborg
Christmas morning dawns, cold and overcast. The scent of snow is in the air.
On the prairie this week, it’s been mostly sunny. Quiet.
Willoway Brook provides the December soundtrack: water moving fast over rocks. Ice lingers in the shoreline’s shadows.
Wildflower seedheads silhouette themselves along the edges of the stream.
Prairie dock leaves, aged and brittle, offer their own late season beauty. Lovelier now, perhaps, than in their first surge of spring green. Spent. No towering yellow blooms to distract us. The marks of age—wrinkles and splotches—will soon end in a flurry of flames.
Along the edge of the prairie, fragrant sumac fruit could pass for furry holly berries—with a bit of imagination.
Blown out stars of sudsy asters froth along the gravel two-track.
Crumpled leaves of pale Indian plantain create stained glass windows when backlit by the winter sun. The woods are often called “cathedrals'” by writers. A bit of a cliché. But it’s not much of a stretch to call the prairies the same. The tallgrass offers its own benedictions to those who hike it. Especially in solitude.
Flattened by an early November blizzard, the prairie reminds me of the ocean, washing in grassy waves against the coast of the savanna. I think of Willa Cather, who wrote in “My Antonia”: “As I looked about me I felt that the grass was the country, as the water is the sea…and there was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow to be running.”
The end of the year is just a breath away.
Who knows what wonders we’ll see on the prairie in the new year? I can’t wait to discover them. How about you?
Happy holidays and Merry Christmas to all!
The opening quote is from Verlyn Klinkenborg’s The Rural Life. Klinkenborg (1952-) was raised on an Iowa farm. He teaches creative writing at Yale University. Listen to Klinkenborg speak about his writing here.
All photos (copyright Cindy Crosby) in the blog post today are from the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, except where noted (top to bottom): bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); the Schulenberg Prairie in late December; Willoway Brook reflections; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) seedheads; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica); unknown aster; pale Indian plantain leaves (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium); prairie grasses and savanna; sunset at College of DuPage’s East Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.
“Since we go through this strange and beautiful world of ours only once, it seems a pity to lack the sense of delight and enthusiasm that merely being alive should hold.” — Sigurd Olson
As the days shorten, hurtling us toward the Winter Solstice Friday, a sunny day is especially welcome. A prairie hike seems in order. Where to go? On the edge of a subdivision not far from where I live, hedged in by apartment buildings, two interstates, and a golf course, lies the Belmont Prairie Preserve. A little unplowed prairie remnant, barely hanging on in the suburbs. Let’s go!
I move slowly on the overgrown path, recovering from knee surgery that will get me back in tallgrass action come spring. So I take the trail a little more deliberately than usual, which of course, has its own rewards. When you don’t rush, the prairie opens up more of her secrets to you. All around me, the morning frost evaporates. Ragged compass plants look otherworldly, backlit by bright sunshine.
The melting ice glitters on the grasses.
A few compass plant seedheads, with their seeds mostly stripped away, silhouette themselves against the deep blue winter sky.
Its last leaves are wearing away, barely attached to the stem.
Looking at them, I think of Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Dillard’s remark in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: “I am a frayed and nibbled survivor in a fallen world, and I am getting along. I am aging and eaten and have done my share of eating too. I am not washed and beautiful, in control of a shining world in which everything fits, but instead am wondering awed about on a splintered wreck I’ve come to care for…and whose beauty bats and shines not in its imperfections but overwhelmingly in spite of them.”
It’s difficult to imagine anything nibbling the sandpapery compass plant leaves in December. But all grasses and forbs are parsed down to their essence. I continue to study the compass plants. Rough, cracked stems are patched with resin. Scratch the patches, and you’ll inhale a tang of pine fragrance.
Compare the rough and ready compass plants to the fluidity and grace of big bluestem. Sure, big bluestem is dried out and desiccated now; most of its seeds disappeared into the beaks of birds. When green, its foliage is so delicious for wildlife, the plant is sometimes nicknamed “ice cream grass.” But its beauty is only enhanced as the focus shifts from waving turkey-foot seedheads to dry, ribbon-like leaves and hollow stems, flushed with subtle pastel colors.
Another contrast nearby: Pale purple coneflowers still hold their forbidding seedheads. You can see why the scientific name “Echinacea” means “hedgehog” or “sea urchin.” Handle with care! The seeds inside are mostly long gone, harvested by goldfinches and grassland birds.
More contrasts: Thimbleweed holds its soft clouds of seedheads aslant in the cold. I rub the cottony tufts between my fingers, admiring their softness. Like Q-tips.
The thimbleweed is echoed close by in the brushy, bristly seedheads of round-headed bush clover. A fun name to say out loud, isn’t it? Try it. Its scientific name, found at the end of this post, is just as enjoyable.
It’s these little nature preserves, like the Belmont Prairie remnant, that encapsulate the future of restoration. On a beautiful sunny winter’s day like this one, the future seems full of possibilities.
So many delights for the senses to be discovered on a remnant prairie in December! And in a world where so many of our natural resources are in jeopardy, isn’t it encouraging to know that here, at least, the tallgrass prairie will live on. As long as we continue to hike it, protect it, and share it with others so they will love and protect it, too.
What other delights will you find this month on the prairie? Go take a look, and find out.
Sigurd Olson (1899-1982) was the Chicago-born author of many books and key environmentalist instrumental in bringing attention to and preserving the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. His writings about wilderness, including the opening quote of this blog post taken from the chapter “Aliveness” in Reflections from the North Country, continue to inspire those who care about the natural world. Read more about Olson here.
All photos copyright Cindy Crosby, and taken at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve in Downer’s Grove, IL: Belmont Nature Preserve in December; backlit compass plant (Silphium terebinthinaceum); grasses matted down after the blizzard and glistening with frost; compass plant (Silphium terebinthinaceum); compass plant (Silphium terebinthinaceum); compass plant (Silphium terebinthinaceum); big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) seedheads; thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica); round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata); Belmont Prairie in December.