Despite the weekend weather, Jeff suggested a prairie hike in the drizzle. I admit the siren call of a good book and the warmth of the fireplace made me hesitate. But I slipped on my boots and headed out.
As always, once we got there, the beauty of the prairie and savanna made up for the weather. In the savanna, the Virginia bluebells have held onto their blooms in the chilly temperatures.
The celandine poppies are bright spots in the rain.
As we leave the savanna and move onto the prairie, I note the first shooting star.
It’s the earliest of so many more shooting star blooms to come. I doublecheck the prairie smoke which is holding its flowers nicely in the cold weather. The Xerces Society tells me bumblebees are the primary pollinators for the prairie smoke, using a process called buzz pollination. Same for the shooting star. Cool!
The size of our prairie smoke is so tiny. But it packs a lot of punch—that hot pink–for such a little wildflower.
Low to the ground, the bastard toadflax offers its pearled cream blooms to those of us willing to get down on our knees to appreciate them.
Easier said to “kneel down” than done for some of us, but it’s a good way to eyeball these spring wildflowers. They bloom right at about early May’s grass height. Prairie wildflowers will continue to unfurl just above the grasses until July, when suddenly, the grasses will make a break for the sky, and the compass plant, cup plant, and prairie dock will hoist their sunny blooms high. Next we’ll have the autumn wildflowers—goldenrods, asters, bonesets—waving tall and signaling the season’s end. But autumn seems far away. For now, it’s all about new beginnings.
There is plenty to contemplate in this newly emerging prairie landscape. So much to imagine. So much to anticipate.
Everywhere, the cream wild indigo pushes its asparagus-looking stalks through the cindered earth. It, along with the wild white indigo, is toxic to mammals, so early farmers had to ensure their livestock didn’t graze on its leaves. I admire the indigo for its blue-hued stems and the gorgeous creamy blooms that will sprawl across the prairie in just a few weeks.
Meadow rue’s distinctive leaves catch the rain. Soon, it will be almost as tall as I am.
And look at those compass plant leaves! Miniature delights.
In an unburned part of the acreage, the first prairie violets bloom.
Unlike their cousins, the blue violets (Illinois’ state flower), prairie violets have distinctive deeply-lobed palmate leaves. We don’t have many of this species on this prairie, so I appreciate the prairie violets where I find them.
As we reach the bridge, Jeff and I pause to comment on the low water levels in Willoway Brook. As if in answer, the heavens open and rain begins. I pull my coat a little tighter around me.
The rain becomes sleet. Then graupel, that tiny soft hail. Brrrrr.
It’s been a tough day for a hike. We’re thoroughly chilled by the time we make it back to the parking lot and turn the heater on full blast. And yet.
I’m glad Jeff suggested we go for a prairie walk in the rain today.
Just think of what we would have missed if we stayed home!
What will you discover on your hike today?
I hope it is full of wonders.
The opening quote is from William Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1, Act 4, Scene 1. You can watch one performance of this play here.
Join Cindy for a Class or Program this Spring
Spring Wildflower and Ethnobotany Walk—Thursday, May 4, 5-7 p.m., The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Registration information here. (This walk is SOLD OUT; please call and ask to be put on a waiting list) Walks move indoors for a classroom program if weather prohibits meeting outside.
Illinois’ Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers—Thursday, May 11, 9:30-10:30 a.m. Sponsored by the Hilltop Gardeners Garden Club, Oswego Public Library, Oswego, IL. Free and open to the public. For more information closer to the date, check here.
Dragonflies and Damselflies: Frequent Fliers of the Garden and Prairie, Tuesday, May 16, 10-11:30 via Zoom with the Garden Club of Decatur, IL (closed event for members). For information on joining the club, visit here.
I’m excited to moderate “In Conversation Online with Robin Wall Kimmerer,” June 21, 2023, 7-8 pm via Zoom. Brought to you by “Illinois Libraries Present.” Number of registrations available may be limited, so register here soon!
“One dragonfly—even the most silent of ponds comes alive.”—Scott King
They’re here. All around us. In the prairie wetlands. Scattered in the tallgrass ponds.
Dragonflies, that is. When the sun shines on cold days. While the ice is deep on the prairie ponds.
“What?” you might say. “Cindy, there aren’t any dragonflies flying through the snow.” Truth. And yet…under the water’s surface, rumbling across the substrate of silty river bottoms, dragonfly nymphs are going about their business. They look a bit different in their larval stage, don’t they?
These tiny nymphs eat. Grow. Molt. Eat some more. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Until that magical day when nature tells each species GO!
They emerge, exchanging a life in the water for a short life in the air.
Their lives will flare into color, channeling sunlight. And then, all too soon, their time is up. It might end with the snap of a bird bill. The splash of a fish, as it snatches the dragonfly in motion. Or a bullfrog, tonguing the dragonfly out of its flightpath.
Now you see it.
Now you don’t.
Or, if a dragonfly is lucky, it will live a few weeks before dying its natural death.
A life so short! Shouldn’t we admire them while we can?
And then, there are the migratory dragonflies. Big, bright, and ready to return to the Midwest this spring.
Not all dragonflies migrate. But the ones that do—common green darners, wandering gliders, black saddlebags, and other migratory species—left in the autumn en masse, bound for warmer climes. The Gulf of Mexico, perhaps, or even Central America. And now, their progeny return singly. We’ll see them as early as March in Illinois, ready to complete the remarkable cycle.
The wandering glider, found on every continent but Antarctica, is known to travel more than 8,000 miles!
Dragonflies don’t have the excellent press agents that monarch butterflies do, so it’s up to citizen scientists, researchers, and organizations such as The Xerces Society to collect data and learn more about these far-ranging insects.
For most of us, it’s enough to know dragonflies will soon be back in the Midwest to brighten our gardens and enliven our world. Returning migrants and also, the nymphs living in the water here, will appear. They’ll zip around stoplights, catch bugs at ballparks, and pose on wildflowers.
Though snow still flies in the Chicago region, my dragonfly “EDS”—early detection system—is on high alert. What species will I see first? When will I spot it? Where?
From that moment on, my days will see constant attention on the skies and wetlands. I can’t wait.
Let the dragonfly chasing season begin!
The opening quote is from Scott King (1965-2021) in his book with Ken Tennessen and Kobayashi Issa, Dragonfly Haiku (Red Dragonfly Press, 2016). King, an engineer who grew up in northern Minnesota, was also a naturalist who wrote several books about insects. He was the founder of Red Dragonfly Press, which relied on vintage typesetting and printing equipment, and he hand-bound the poetry chapbooks he published with needle and thread. In a tribute to Scott in the Minnesota Star Tribune, he was lauded by one friend as “that rare combination of technical genius and poetic soul.” Said another friend, “He was constantly drawing your attention to what is around you that you might not be seeing or noticing.”
Requiem for Bell Bowl Prairie
On March 9, 2023, despite public opposition, one of Illinois last prairie remnants was bulldozed by the Chicago-Rockford International Airport. Once a prairie remnant is lost, we are unable to replicate it. Let this travesty be a wake-up call for all of us who love and care for tallgrass prairies anywhere. Wherever you hike, volunteer, or see a prairie, ask yourself—is this prairie legally protected? If not, advocate for its protection now. Let this be the last prairie remnant we lose in what we’re so proud to call “The Prairie State.”
Join Cindy for a Class or Program in March
Illinois’ Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers ONLINE — March 15, 7-8:30 p.m., Hosted by Bensonville Public Library. Free and open to the public, but you must register for the link by calling the library. Contact information here.
Illinois’ Wild and Wonderful Early Bloomers ONLINE –March 16, 7-8:30 p.m., Hosted by the Rock Valley Wild Ones. This event was formerly a blended program and is now online only. Open to the public; but you must register. Contact information is here.
Literary Gardens — In Person —– Saturday, March 18, 9am-12:30 pm. Keynote for “Ready, Set, Grow!” Master Gardeners of Carroll, Lee, Ogle, and Whiteside Counties through The Illinois Extension. Dixon, IL. Registration ($25) is offered here.
The Morton Arboretum’s “Women in the Environment Series”: The Legacy of May T. Watts— (in person and online)—with lead instructor and Sterling Morton Librarian extraordinaire Rita Hassert. March 24, 10-11:30 a.m., Founders Room, Thornhill. Registration information available here.
Literary Gardens–In Person — Wednesday, March 29, 7-8:30 p.m. La Grange Park Public Library, LaGrange, IL. (free but limited to 25 people). For more information, contact the library here.
See Cindy’s website for more spring programs and classes.
“Listen!—it rains; it rains! The prayer of the grass is heard… .” –Frederick J. Atwood
Rain stormed in with lights and fireworks this weekend, bringing long-needed relief to the Chicago western suburbs. And, a few flooded basements. This was substantial rain; rain that meant business. Rain that overflowed creek and river banks. Rain that soaked deep.
In the prairie planting, asters and goldenrod bowed under the water’s weight. Great blue lobelia and black-eyed Susans, at the mercy of my garden hose for the past week, perked up at a chance for real water. Rain.
Spider webs sprang into view, bedazzled by raindrops.
In the front yard prairie pollinator planting, I parted the sodden flowers of showy goldenrod. Deep inside were sheltering insects, including one rain-soaked bumblebee.
As the clouds passed and the flowers dried, pollinators shook off the wet and took wing. I spent some time on iNaturalist and with various online insect guides before naming this one below. I believe it is the transverse banded drone fly, sometimes called a “flower fly.”
I’m still learning insect ID (thanks, gentle readers, for your correction of the wasp to the hover fly in last week’s blog), so I’m not 100 percent certain. But by any name, it’s a stunning little insect.
Showers brought out sky blue aster blooms in my front yard planting. I’m delighted to see the three plants I put in this spring made it to the fall finish line, after being nibbled almost to death by rabbits all summer.
The scientific name of this aster—Symphyotrichum oolentangiense—is a mouthful. Originally, the name was in honor of Ohio’s Olentangy River by botanist John Riddell, but the river’s name was misspelled. For a short time, the New York National Heritage Program tells us it was Aster azureus, which is much easier for naturalists like myself to pronounce, until the genus became Symphyotrichum. Ah, well. Nobody said botany would be easy.
I was grateful beyond words for the rainfall, but also, for the cooler, sunny weather of the past week. Meals moved back to the patio as the temperatures swung from “steamy” to “crisp and cool.” This gave us a a front row seat this weekend to keep an eye on the moonflower vine, whose two buds we’ve been watching with rapt attention.
No, it’s not a native plant. But I make a place for it in my prairie garden each season. It’s a long wait from the direct sowing the seeds to that first flower. About two months, most seasons. This year it has been a little longer, likely because of the dry weather, and of the five or so seeds I planted, only one survived. Just this week I noticed it had leapt from the trellis by the patio to the arborvitae. That’s a first! Usually I wind the vining tendrils up and down and across the trellis. This one got away from me.
On Saturday, after reading on the back porch for a while, I put down my book on the patio table and went in to fix dinner. When I brought out dinner, one of the moonflower buds had opened. Wow! Jeff and I “oohhed” and “aahhed” as our dinner cooled and we admired the first bloom of the season. It must have been waiting for the Harvest Moon to open. Our moonflower has a light fragrance, something like vanilla. After dark, I went to admire it one last time before bed.
The song “Nights in White Satin” comes to mind. We never have very many moonflowers; frost kicks in around the first or second week of October in our part of Illinois and crumples the vine just as it gets going in earnest. Each bloom only lasts one night. By morning, this one was only a memory. Such a fleeting pleasure! Is it worth it to give it a space? I’ve always thought so. Night-blooming flowers are rare in my region, and this one’s a beauty.
However, not all vines give me this much pleasure. Last week I mentioned I was besieged with the non-native perennial vine sweet autumn clematis (Clematis terniflora). It covers part of my garden like a snowdrift. Or maybe kudzu. The doc says I can’t pull weeds for three more weeks, so I can only stand back and sigh. At least it smells pretty! But, it is suffocating my two pricey spice bush saplings, my blazing star, my white wild indigo, my….well, you get the idea. It’s out of control. It makes my rambunctious native arrow-leaved asters look well-behaved.
I wrote last week that I was considering replacing the sweet autumn clematis next year with virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana), an Illinois native. One of the reasons I love being a part of the prairie and garden community is learning from my readers, who sent me emails and comments this week strongly recommending against it. Evidently, virgin’s bower plays nicely on prairies and savanna edges, but goes berserk when planted in some home gardens. Espie Nelson, one of my favorite prairie experts (and long time steward with her husband, Don) wrote to me saying one of her native virgin’s bower vines had taken over a 15 foot area in her yard. She plans on totally eliminating it this season. Another reader, Mary, told me virgin’s bower is a “thug.” She had to pull it out when it invaded a neighbor’s yard.
As Espie wisely wrote me, “Don’t trade one exotic plant for a native plant that has the same vigorous growth patterns.” Good advice. I’ll enjoy virgin’s bower in my favorite natural areas, and not in my yard. Looks like I’ll invest in more non-vining natives, instead.
Meanwhile, another reason for dining on the back porch—besides watching moonflowers—is migration. Monarchs are moving through, although my backyard has only attracted them one at a time. Jeff and I saw a small swarm of common green darner dragonflies massing over the backyard this weekend, doubtlessly headed south. Cornell University said it also expected us to see “massive” bird movement this past weekend, with an estimated 316 million to 400-plus million migrating birds moving through each night across the United States. If I sat on the patio and squinted against the bright blue sky, I could make out a few birds high up, moving south.
I filled the feeders, and crossed my fingers. But, the backyard seemed to only harbor the usual suspects; goldfinches pulling out cup plant and hyssop seeds for their supper, and a few hummingbirds browsing the zinnias….
…and at the nectar feeders.
Hummingbirds seem to be everywhere right now, passing through my backyard on their way to Mexico and Panama. Can you find the one in my next-door neighbor’s oak tree? It’s scoping out the competition at my nectar feeders.
Hummingbirds arrive around the end of April in Chicago’s western suburbs and vanish by mid-October. I’ll miss their whizz-whirr of wings and their tiny chirps when they’re gone.
We’ll have to enjoy other backyard wildlife. Chipmunks, perhaps. They’ve set up house under the patio, and play tag across the patio as I drink my coffee in the mornings. And the squirrels, busy burying their nuts in the lawn.
Yep. We won’t lack for squirrels. Too bad ours are so camera shy.
We’ve learned not to leave breakfast on the patio table unattended. Ahem.
Speaking of food. In last week’s post, I mentioned something about the tomatoes “slowing production.” The garden must have been listening. Although the tomatoes are indeed slowing down, and Jeff pulled some of the plants that won’t set anymore ripe fruit before frost, the pole beans are pumping out Kentucky Wonders at a steady rate. There’s also plethora of sweet peppers that needed picked…
…and the thornless ichiban and prickly black beauty eggplants are in overdrive. This summer, I planted two plants on my south wall of the porch, with concrete at their feet. It’s the hottest spot in the garden.
I’ve picked almost a dozen in the past week, which is more eggplant than I know what to do with. After giving some away, I tried making the Mediterranean dip baba ganoush for the first time. Loosely following a recipe from Cookie & Kate, I cut the eggplants in half, brushed them with olive oil, then roasted them at 450 degrees Fahrenheit for 45 minutes. When they cooled, I scooped out and strained the insides, then mixed the goop with tahini (a sesame seed paste), fresh garlic and parsley from the garden, a little cumin, and lemon juice. Yum! It’s now my favorite way to eat eggplant. And it uses up a lot!
As I walk around the garden and prairie, I’m aware of the lowering slant of the sun, the cooling temps. Monarchs and dragonflies heading south. Prairie wildflowers and grasses going to seed.
September is a dynamic month, exploding with color and change. I’m glad I’ve got a front row seat, here in my backyard prairie and garden.
Words from Kansas poet Frederick J. Atwood’s poem “The Breaking of the Drought” (1902, Kansas Rhymes and Other Lyrics) open the blog today. This short poem continues: The thirsty ground drinks eagerly; As a famished man eats bread; The moan of the trees is hushed; And the violets under the banks; Lift up their heads so gratefully; And smilingly give thanks. Thanks to Kansas on the Net for republishing the poem.
Join Cindy for a Program or Class this Autumn!
Monday, September 19 –-A Brief History of Trees in America, Downers Grove Garden Club, Downers Grove, IL. In-person, free and open to the public, but please visit here for details and Covid protocol.
Saturday, September 24 —In-Person Writing and Art Retreat at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, Spend a day immersed in nature with guided writing and art workshops. Set aside time to disconnect from the day-to-day and focus on the natural world through writing and art. Sessions will explore nature journaling, sketching, developing observation skills, and tapping into your creativity. Throughout the day, you will learn from professional writers and artists, take in the sites of the Arboretum, and explore nature with fellow creatives. Appropriate for all levels. Cindy will be teaching the morning sessions. Click here for more information, Covid protocol, and to register (only a few spaces left!).
“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.
Listen! Do you hear the buzz and zip of wings?
The patter of tiny insect feet?
Let’s hear it for the prairie pollinators!
Bees bumble across the wildflowers.
Ambling beetles browse the petals.
Enjoy the aimless ants. Marvel over the butterflies, looking like so many windsurfers…
Stay up late and enjoy the night fliers…
…with their beautiful markings.
Seek out the wandering wasps, inspiring awe and a little trepidation.
And these are just a few of our amazing pollinators!
Where would we be without these marvelous creatures?
Three cheers for the prairie pollinators!
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 Americawith 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.
“When despair for the world grows in me… .” — Wendell Berry
It’s tough to find words this morning. So—let’s go for a walk.
There is solace in watching damselflies. They flaunt and flirt and flutter in the cool July streams…
Their cares are so different than my own. What do they worry about, I wonder?
Perhaps they keep an eye out for darting tree swallows, or a floating frog.
Maybe they watch for a ravenous fish, lurking just beneath the stream’s surface. Or even a hungry dragonfly.
As I walk and look around the prairie, I feel myself become calmer. The bumblebees and honeybees and native bees go about their life’s work of visiting flowers. Not a bad way to live.
The poet Mary Oliver writes in her poem, “Invitation”: “It is a serious thing/ just to be alive/ on this fresh morning/ in this broken world.”
I wade into the stream and watch the damselflies. Some scout for insects. Others perch silently along the shoreline.
Others are busy dancing a tango with a partner…
…laying groundwork for the future.
Today, all I can do is walk in this world. All I can do is look.
I don’t want to stop feeling. Or stop caring.
I never want to be numb to the grief in this world, even when it feels overwhelming.
But it feels like too much sometimes.
And even though the world seems broken beyond repair right now, when I look around me….
… I’m reminded of how beautiful it can be.
What will it take for things to change?
Never give up. We need to leave this world a better place than we found it. Even when putting the pieces back together feels impossible.
I need that reminder today.
Wendell Berry (1934-) is a writer, environmental activist, novelist, essayist, and farmer. The beginning of his poem, “The Peace of Wild Things,” opens this blog. You can read the complete poem here. It’s a good one.
Upcoming Classes and Programs
Learn more about dragonflies and damselflies in Beginning Dragonfly and Damselfly ID, a two-part class online and in-person. Join Cindy on Thursday, July 14, for a two-hour Zoom then Friday, July 15 for three hours in the field at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL. Register here.
“Ah summer! What power you have to make us suffer and like it.” — Russell Baker
Happy Summer Solstice! The longest day of the year.
And hello, first day of summer, astronomically speaking. We’re on track for one of the hottest days in the Chicago Region this year. Our local WGN weather bureau forecasts a high of 99 degrees and a heat index in the triple digits. Whew! Not a record, but close enough to make a little shade sound good.
We need rain. Despite this, the prairies overflow with flowers.
As I hike three prairies across two states this week, I chant the wildflower names to refresh my memory. Scurfy pea.
Bumblebees work the white wild indigo as the air hums with humidity.
Ants explore goat rue.
There are so many insects associated with these prairie wildflowers! So many insects unfamiliar to me. The more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know.
I pause to admire a dragonfly, performing his balancing act.
I love the male twelve-spotted skimmer; one of the easiest dragonflies to remember. It looks just as you’d expect from the name. As I get older, and my recall is less reliable, I’ll take any low hanging fruit I can get.
And don’t get me started on the juvenile birds…
…which may look different than their parents.
I spot my first buckeye butterfly of the season. Those rich colors!
Then I puzzle over some wildflowers whose name I struggle to remember. I snap a photo with iNaturalist, my phone app.
Wild four o’clocks! A non-native in Illinois. And this one?
I have to look it up with my app, then revisit Gerould Wilhelm and Laura Rericha’s Flora of the Chicago Region when I return home. Venus’ looking glass is a weedy native, but no less pretty for that.
Well, at least I can identify these mammals without an app. No problem with the scientific name, either.
I love the juxtaposition of the bison against the semis on the highway. A reminder of the power of restoration.
All these wonders under June skies.
So much waiting to be discovered.
Hello, summer. Welcome back!
Russell Baker (1925-2019) was a columnist for the New York Times who won the Pulitzer Prize for his book, Growing Up. He also followed Alistair Cooke as the host of Masterpiece Theater.
Join Cindy for a Class or Program this Month
Wednesdays,June 22 and June 29: “100 Years Around the Morton Arboretum” –with Cindy and Library Collections Manager and Historian Rita Hassert at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL. Enjoy stories of the past that commemorate this very special centennial. Join us in person June 22 from 6:30-8:30 pm (special exhibits on view for 30 minutes before the talk) by registering here (only a few spots left!); join us on Zoom June 29, 7-8:30 p.m. by registering here. Masks required for the in-person presentation.
“Gardens console us, welcome us, connect us. They humble. They teach… . Couldn’t prairies exist in our backyards in some meaningful form?” — Benjamin Vogt
Snow. 70 degrees and sunshine. Sleet. 75 mph wind gusts.
It is March in the Midwest, full of twists and turns…and wonder. We wake up, not knowing if we’ll put on sweaters and boots or shorts and sandals. Each day offers surprises, like crocus suddenly in bloom.
The first daffodils and hyacinths spear green shoots through the prairie dropseed in my backyard. Welcome back!
Redpolls cluster at the feeder, seemingly loath to begin their trip to their Arctic breeding grounds. They remind me of myself getting ready to go somewhere. “Hold on—let me do one more thing before we go… .”
A male redpoll feeds a female redpoll some thistle. Is this courting behavior? I’m not sure. This was our first year to have redpolls at our backyard feeders in Illinois and I know very little about them. What an unexpected delight! Who knows if we’ll see them again? I’ll miss the redpolls when they are gone. They’ve left us with some beautiful memories, and the reminder that life is full of these unexpected amazements —-if we pay attention.
There will be other birds to enjoy. The female downy woodpeckers hang around all year…
…and so do the males, with their bright scarlet splash of color.
Our backyard prairie, lank and leaning after months of weather, gets a facelift with the falling snow. Magical!
Even the pawpaw tree—though leafless—is lovely with its snow-piled limbs.
Temperatures hover around freezing, but our pond remains thawed from Saturday’s wild 70-degree temperature binge.
Gently, I bend the fall-planted buttonbush shoots near the pond. They feel supple, rather than brittle. Tiny buds. A flush of color. It has survived the winter. Last summer, with its drought and weather swings, was a tough year for newly-planted perennials.
My New Jersey tea hasn’t done as well. Under the eaves, close to the house, this native shrub gets plenty of warmth but not as much moisture and sun as it would in the bigger prairie planting. Should it be moved this year? Hmmm.
It’s a stick! Not much to write home about, is it? Every spring I think I’ve lost this shrub, and each spring New Jersey tea surprises me. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.
Other natives like prairie smoke….
…and prairie alum root still hold some green. They look alive and ready for the growing season.
We’re one week into the month of March.
A week of blustery wind and snow. A week of warmth and rain. A week of good news, as Covid numbers recede. A week of terrifying events on the other side of the world.
A week of wondering. What’s Mother Nature going to throw at us next?
As the snow falls and ices the prairie with wonder, I remind myself: There’s a lot to look forward to in the new year. Plenty of astonishments and delights ahead that we can’t even imagine.
I can’t wait.
The opening quote is by Benjamin Vogt (1976-) from his book, A New Garden Ethic: Cultivating Defiant Compassion for an Uncertain Future, which calls us to reconsider lawns, and plant our gardens thoughtfully. Read more about Vogt here.
“Year’s end is neither an end nor a beginning but a going on, with all the wisdom that experience can instill in us.” —Hal Borland
And so 2021 comes to a close.
On the prairie, the tallgrass colors transition to their winter hues.
The prairie is stripped to bare essence.
The deep roots of prairie plants continue to hold the tallgrass through the winter.
As Paul Gruchow wrote, “The work that matters does not always show.”
2021 has been another tough year. We’ve attempted to make each day meaningful in the midst of uncertainty and loss.
We’ve pulled from our reserve strength until we wonder if there is anything left. Trying to keep a sense of normalcy. Trying to get our work done. Trying. Trying. It all seems like too much sometimes, doesn’t it? In When Things Fall Apart, Pema Chӧdrӧn writes, “To be fully alive, fully human, is to be continually thrown out of the nest.” The past two years have made us realize how comfortable that “nest” used to be.
But we keep moving forward, little by little. Reaching for that extra bit of patience. Putting away the media for a time out. Setting aside a morning to go for a walk and just be.
Listening to our lives. Listening to that interior landscape.
We’ve learned we are fragile.
We’ve also learned we are more resilient than we ever knew we could be.
In 2019, we had no idea of the challenges ahead.
And yet, here we are. Meeting those challenges. Exhausted? You bet! It’s not always pretty, but we keep getting up in the morning and getting things done.
We’re making the best of where we find ourselves.
Trying to keep our sense of humor, even when there doesn’t seem to be much to laugh about.
With less margin, we are learning to untangle what’s most important from what we can let go of.
We are making life work, even if it’s messy. Knowing that whatever is ahead in 2022, we’ll give it our best shot.
We’ll hike—the prairies, the woodlands, or wherever we find ourselves—aware of the beauty of the natural world. We’ve never appreciated the outdoors spaces like we have these past months.
We’ll give thanks for joys, big and small. Grateful in new ways for what we have.
And we’ll encourage each other. Because we need community, now more than ever before.
Keep on hiking. The road has been long, but we’ve got this. Together.
Happy New Year!
Hal Borland (1900-1978) was a naturalist and journalist born in Nebraska. He is the author of many books of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and plays, and wrote a tremendous number of nature observation editorials for TheNew York Times. He was also a recipient of the John Burroughs Medal for Distinguished Nature Writing. I’m so grateful for his “through the year” books— I love books that follow the months and seasons! Thanks to blog reader Helen Boertje, who generously shared her copies of Borland’s books with me. I’m so grateful.
Making a New Year’s resolution? Don’t forget Bell Bowl Prairie! Commit to doing one action on the list you’ll find at Save Bell Bowl Prairie, and help us save this rare prairie remnant from the bulldozers.
Happy New Year, and thank you for reading in 2021. What a year it’s been! I’m grateful to have this community of readers who love the natural world. I’m looking forward to virtually hiking the prairies with you in 2022.Thank you for your encouragement, and for your love of the natural world.
“The little bluestem was exquisite with turquoise and garnet and chartreuse; and the big bluestem waved its turkeyfeet of deep purple high against the October sky, past the warm russet of the Indian grass.” — May Theilgaard Watts
Drip. Drip. Drip.
Rain at last. A welcome opening to October! Sure, we’ve had a few intermittent showers just west of Chicago in September, but rainfall is far below normal. The garden shows it. My prairie patch—so resilient—is also suffering. No amount of watering with the hose is quite the same as a good cloudburst.
Ahhhh. The air smells newly-washed…as it is. As I walk the neighborhood, the leaves drift down, released by wind and water.
Welcome, rain! Stay awhile. We need you.
Dry conditions suit prairie gentians. They linger on, adding their bright color to an increasingly sepia landscape.
Goldfinches work the pasture thistles.
Bright male goldfinches of spring and summer are gradually changing to the olive oil hues of autumn and winter. When I see them working over the seed pods in my backyard, I’m glad I left my prairie plants and some garden plants in seed for them. They love the common evening primrose seeds.
This past week, the dragonflies put on a last-minute show. Most will be gone in mid-October; either migrated south, or their life cycle completed. It’s been great to see meadowhawks again. Usually ubiquitous in the summer and autumn, this group of skimmers have gone missing from my dragonfly routes on both prairies where I monitor this season. Suddenly, they are out in numbers. Mating in the wheel position…
…then flying to a good spot to oviposit, or lay eggs. Everywhere I turn, more autumn meadowhawks!
Ensuring new generations of meadowhawks to come on the prairie. A sign of hope. I love seeing that brilliant red—the bright scarlet of many of the species. Autumn meadowhawks have yellow-ish legs, which help separate them from other members of this difficult-to-identify group. The white-faced meadowhawks have, well…. you know.
The face is unmistakeable. Many of the meadowhawks are confusing to ID, so I was grateful to see my first band-winged meadowhawk of the year last week, with its distinctive amber patches.
If only all meadowhawks were this easy to distinguish as these three species! It’s a tough genus. I’m glad they showed up this season.
Other insects are busy in different pursuits. Some skeletonize plants, leaving emerald cut lace.
Northern leopard frogs, now in their adult stage, prepare for hibernation. As I hike through the prairie wetlands, looking for dragonflies, they spring through the prairie grasses and leap into the water.
Whenever I see them, I’m reminded of the Frog & Toadbooks I love to read to my grandchildren, and the value of true friendships, as evinced in those stories. Strong friendships, worth hanging on to.
As we begin to navigate our second pandemic autumn, I feel a renewed gratitude for close friends, an appreciation for family, and an appreciation for the peace and solace to be found in the natural world.
I can’t wait to see what the prairie holds for us in October.
Why not go see for yourself?
The opening quote is from Reading the Landscape of Americaby May Theilgaard Watts (1893-1975). Watts was the first naturalist on staff at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL, and a poet, author, and newspaper columnist. Her drawings and words continue to illuminate how we understand a sense of “place.”
Join Cindy for a program or class!
Wednesday, October 13, 10-11:30 a.m. (CT): “A Cultural History of Trees in America” ONLINE! Offered through The Morton Arboretum. Join Cindy from the comfort of your couch and discover the way trees have influenced our history, our music and literature, and the way we think about the world. Register here.
Friday,December 3: WINTER PRAIRIE WONDERS–ONLINE, 10-11:30 a.m. (CT): Discover the December Delights of the Tallgrass! Make yourself a cup of hot tea, snuggle under a warm afghan, and join prairie steward and writer Cindy Crosby virtually for this interactive online immersion into the tallgrass prairie in winter. See the aesthetic beauty of the snow-covered grasses and wildflowers in cold weather through colorful images of winter on the prairies. Follow animal tracks to see what creatures are out and about, and see how many you can identify. Learn how birds, pollinators, and mammals use winter prairie plants; the seeds for nourishment and the grasses and spent wildflowers for overwintering, protection, and cover. Then, listen as Cindy shares brief readings about the prairie in winter that will engage your creativity and nourish your soul. Registration information here.
“At once [the buffalo] is a symbol of the tenacity of wilderness and the destruction of wilderness…it stands for freedom and captivity, extinction and salvation.”—Steven Rinella
Let’s take a hike “where the buffalo roam.”
I’m chasing dragonflies at one of my favorite preserves in Illinois: Nachusa Grasslands. Approximately two hours west of Chicago, Nachusa Grasslands is a 3,800-acre mosaic of tallgrass prairies and savannas. Woodlands and wetlands. Today, as a dragonfly monitor at Nachusa with access inside the bison unit, I hope to collect Odonate data at one of my favorite pond routes. But the bison have other plans for my morning. As I wade into the wetland surrounding the pond, admiring the dragonflies…
…I hear a bellow. Uh, oh. That’s the sound of a bison bull kicking up some trouble.
When you’re working in a bison unit, you don’t wait around when you hear that sound. I immediately head for my car. It doesn’t take long. Here they come!
Mamas. Papas. Baby bison.
They make a beeline for my dragonfly pond, ready to join the frogs and cool off on this sunny morning.
I enjoy watching them wade into the water and graze on the juicy vegetation. But time passes. My plans for collecting dragonfly data this morning are shot. These bison aren’t going anywhere soon.
I make myself comfortable in the car, hoping they’ll eventually move on. I don’t get out. Bison are one of the most dangerous animals in North America. Males may weigh more than 2,000 pounds. And—they’re fast! I’ve watched them tear across the prairie at top speeds of 30 mph for no apparent reason. It’s important to respect these incredible animals.
I only take photos of bison with a zoom lens from the safety of my vehicle. Even then, while working in the bison unit, I’m careful to keep my car a good distance away.
Bison can jump, too! Up to six feet. They won’t let a fence keep them from something they really, really want to do. I admire that kind of determination.
I’m grateful for the bison at Nachusa—and not only because I enjoy watching them. Without them, the prairie is incomplete. They are an important piece of the prairie puzzle. As they wallow and churn through the prairie with their hooves…
…they create spaces for other members of the prairie community to thrive.
Bison grazing habits may also free up space for prairie wildflowers.
They also fertilize the prairie with their dung. Bison patties! Good stuff for prairies.
Time passes. The bison show no sign of leaving. Looks like it’s going to be “Plan B” today. I start the car and back up, then turn around on the gravel two-track. I’ve got plenty of alternatives besides this pond for a dragonfly-chasing hike. So many exciting areas to explore!
With so many wildflowers in bloom at Nachusa…
…and plenty of other interesting prairie creatures around….
… my alternative hike on the prairie this morning will still be time well spent.
The bison are fun to see, but they’re only a bonus on a trip to Nachusa. There is so much else to discover!
Why not go for a hike and see it for yourself?
The opening quote is from American Buffalo: In Search of A Lost Icon by Stephen Rinella (2008).
All photos in this week’s blog are from Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.
Visit Nachusa Grasslands, and see the bison herd from the road pull-offs or from the beautiful new outdoor Prairie Visitor Center. Know bison safety protocol before you go: find it here. Respect the bison, and always observe them from a safe distance outside the bison unit. Want a closer look? Join Nachusa Grasslands bison tours during the “Autumn on the Prairie” celebration Saturday, September 18 to get an inside-the-bison unit view. For more information on public hiking trails and bison, visit Friends of Nachusa Grasslands’ website.
Join Cindy for a class or program this summer!
August 17, 7pm-8:30 pm —in person —“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Bloomingdale Garden Club, Bloomingdale, IL. Please visit http://www.bloomingdalegardenclub.org/events-new/ for more information and Covid safety protocol for the event and for current event updates.
September 9, 9:30-11 am– in person–“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Oswego Hilltoppers Garden Club, Oswego Public Library. Please visit the club’s Facebook page for guest information, event updates and Covid protocol.
New to the prairie? Want to introduce a friend or family member to the tallgrass? Check out The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction (Northwestern University Press). No jargon, no technical terms — just a fun guide to navigating prairie hikes and developing a deeper relationship with the beautiful grasslands that make the Midwest special.
Cindy Crosby is the author, compiler, or contributor to more than 20 books. Her most recent is "Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History" (Northwestern University Press, 2020). She teaches prairie ecology, nature writing, and natural history classes, and is a prairie steward who has volunteered countless hours in prairie restoration. See Cindy's upcoming online speaking events and classes at www.cindycrosby.com.