Category Archives: prairie restoration

A Prairie Thanksgiving

“I can stop what I am doing long enough to see where I am, who I am there with, and how awesome the place is.” —Barbara Brown Taylor

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Late November.

Sandhill cranes cry high above the prairie, scribbling indecipherable messages in the sky. They’re on the move south.

Sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), Glen Ellyn, IL (Spring 2021).

I’ll scan the skies the next few weeks, admiring them as they leave. The prairie skies will be emptier this winter when they’re gone. Months from now, I’ll see them again, heading north in the spring. What will the world look like then? It’s impossible to know.

The prairie in November.

I hike the prairie, deep in thought. It’s so easy to focus on what is being lost. November, with its seasonal slide into long nights and short days, seems to invite that. I have to remind myself to pay attention to what is in front of me. What the season offers. Seeds. Everywhere, the prairie is an explosion of seeds.

Silky seeds.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca).

Flat seeds.

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum).

Silvery seedheads.

Mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum).

Seeds like pom poms.

Savanna blazing star (Liatris scariosa nieuwlandii).

Seeds born aloft, in spent flower heads, like so many antenna.

Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa).

Seedheads are skeletal. Architectural.

Sweet joe pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum).

Seeds are impressionistic.

Bridge over Willoway Brook.

Seeds reflected.

Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis).

Seeds wind-directed.

Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis).

Bird-nibbled seeds.

Gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata).

Seeds feathered.

Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium).

Seeds flying high in the prairie sky.

Prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum).

Seeds caught in mid-fall. Almost there. Almost.

Black walnut (Juglans nigra) in American bladdernut shrub (Staphylea trifolia).

The pandemic has dragged on and on. Just when I thought we’d turned a corner—almost!—it feels like we’re headed in the wrong direction again. Seems we’re not out of the woods yet.

Schulenberg Prairie Savanna.

It’s easy to get distracted, worrying about the future. Sometimes my mind turns over my fears in a relentless cycle. Reading the newspaper over breakfast just fuels the fire. I forget to remind myself of all I have to be grateful for.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum.

Family. Friends. Food on the table. A roof over my head. This prairie to help care for.

Schulenberg Prairie entrance, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

It helps me to list these things. And then, to remind myself what’s good and lovely in the world.

Bridge over Willoway Brook.

I’m thankful to see the prairie seeds.

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii).

They remind me that another season has passed.

Oak (Quercus spp.) leaves, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna.

A new season is just months away. Seeing the prairie give its energy to creating life through its seeds fills me with hope. Such a cycle! What a marvel.

The prairie in November.

Here, in the tallgrass, I see a world full of color. Motion. Sound. Beauty. The only tallgrass headlines are “Wow!”

The prairie in November.

How wonderful it is to be alive.

Schulenberg Prairie Savanna.

I walk, and I look, and I walk some more. How amazing to have the luxury of going to a beautiful place, with time just to think. How grateful I am to have a strong knee now, to take me down these trails that just three years ago gave me tremendous pain to hike.

Prairie two-track.

How overwhelmed with thanks I am that my body is cancer-free, after two years of uncertainty and fear. How grateful I am for this reprieve. There are no guarantees. We can only, as the late writer Barry Lopez wrote, keep “leaning into the light.”

Stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum).

Your list of worries is probably different than mine. So, I imagine, is your list of what you’re thankful for. I hope this week finds you in a good place. I hope you have your own list of what brings you joy, in the midst of whatever you are dealing with.

The prairie in November.

This week I’m going to put aside my worries about the future. I’m going to focus on joy. There’s a lot to be thankful for. The prairie reminds me of this. I hope you can go for a hike, wherever you find yourself, and be reminded, too.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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All photos this week unless otherwise noted are from the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

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The opening quote is from Barbara Brown Taylor’s (1951-) An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith. She is also the author of Learning to Walk in the Dark and many other books.

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Join Cindy for a program or class!

Winter Prairie Wonders: Discover the December Delights of the Tallgrass! Dec. 3 (Friday) 10-11:30 am (Central): 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.  This is scheduled as a Zoom event through The Morton Arboretum. Register here.

Just in time for the holidays! Northwestern University Press is offering The Tallgrass Prairie: An Introduction and Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History (with watercolor illustrations by Peggy MacNamara) for 40% off the retail price. Click here for details. Remember to use Code Holiday40 when you check out.

Please visit your local independent bookstore (Illinois’ friends: The Arboretum Store in Lisle and The Book Store in Glen Ellyn) to purchase or order Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit for the holidays. Discover full-color prairie photographs and essays from Cindy and co-author Thomas Dean.

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Save Bell Bowl Prairie! Visit the website to find out how you can help keep this critical remnant from being bulldozed in Illinois. One phone call, one letter, or sharing the information with five friends will help us save it.

A Salute to Prairie Week

“The prairie is one of those plainly visible things that you can’t photograph. No camera lens can take in a big enough piece of it. The prairie landscape embraces the whole of the sky.”—Paul Gruchow

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“Prairie Week,” so designated by the Illinois legislature as the third week in September, draws to a close today.

Summer on the Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

When you think of the word “prairie,” what comes to mind?

Sunset, College of DuPage East Prairie Study Area, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Is it prescribed fire, decimating the old, and encouraging the new?

Prescribed burn, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Is it the sweep of the charred land, with a whisper of green?

After the fire, Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Is it the prairie in springtime, covered with shooting star?

Shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Or do you imagine the summer prairie, spangled with blooms?

Pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL.

Is it the smell of prairie dropseed, tickling your nose in the fall? Mmmm. That hot buttered popcorn smell, tinged with something undefinable.

Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), Crosby backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Or do you see prairie limned with snow, in its winter colors?

Sorenson Prairie in January, Afton, IL.

When you think of the word “prairie,” what comes to your mind?

Is it the call of dickcissel?

Dickcissel (Spiza americana), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Is it a butterfly that you see in your mind’s eye?

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

Or is it bison, claiming the Midwest tallgrass as their own?

What comes to your mind when you think of prairie?

Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea), Vermont Cemetery Prairie, Naperville, IL.

It isn’t as important what you think of when you imagine prairie as this: That you think of prairie at all.

Monarchs (Danaus plexippus) and viceroys (Limenitis archippus) on stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

Often.

Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

And then, make it your own.

Wild lupine (Lupinus perennis), Kankakee Sands, Morocco, IN.

Here, in the prairie state.

Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

Our landscape of home.

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The opening quote is from Paul Gruchow’s  (1947-2004) wonderful book, Journal of a Prairie Year. The full quote reads: . “The prairie is one of those plainly visible things that you can’t photograph. No camera lens can take in a big enough piece of it. The prairie landscape embraces the whole of the sky. Any undistorted image is too flat to represent the impression of immersion that is central to being on the prairie. The experience is a kind of baptism.” Gruchow’s legacy of love for the prairie continues to connect and engage people’s hearts and minds with the tallgrass.

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Join Cindy for a program or class!

Just moved ONLINE: September 27, 7-8:30 p.m.–-“The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden” Arlington Heights Garden Club. Please visit the club’s website here for guest information.

ONLINE –Nature Writing Workshop 2 (through the Morton Arboretum): Deepen your connection to nature and improve your writing skills in this  online guided workshop from The Morton Arboretum. This interactive class is the next step for those who’ve completed the Foundations of Nature Writing (N095), or for those with some foundational writing experience looking to further their expertise within a supportive community of fellow nature writers. Please note: This is a “live” workshop; no curriculum. For details and registration, click here. Online access for introductions and discussion boards opens October 12; live sessions on Zoom are four Tuesdays: October 19, October 26, November 2, and November 9, 6:30-8:30 pm.

For more classes and programs, visit Cindy’s website at http://www.cindycrosby.com. Hope to see you soon!

Internet issues delayed today’s post. Thank you for your patience!

The Many May Delights of Prairie and Woods

“Let all thy joys be as the month of May”—Francis Quarles

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Is there a more beautiful time in the Midwest than mid-May?

It’s been a week for the birds. Migrating birds, that is. In the woods, the great crested flycatcher calls. Such a distinctive voice!

Great crested flycatcher (Myiarchus crinitus), Norris Woods Nature Preserve, St. Charles, IL.

I’ve read that the great crested flycatcher weaves unusual items into its nest: snakeskin, cellophane, plastic wrappers. Wouldn’t I love to spot one of those nests! This is the first great crested flycatcher I’ve ever seen. How did I miss it all these years? Likely I was busy looking down, not up: at the wildflowers.

Twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphyllagone) with seed capsule, Norris Woods Nature Preserve, St. Charles, IL.

Seeing the flycatcher is one of the wonderful benefits of hiking with knowledgeable birding friends. If I had been hiking alone, I would have been looking at wildflowers, and likely missed it.

Probably white baneberry or doll’s eyes (Actaea pachypoda), Norris Woods Nature Preserve, St. Charles, IL.

In his poem The May Magnificant, Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote: “Question: What is Spring–Growth in everything–Flesh and fleece; fur and feather; Grass and green world altogether… .” As we hike through the green, green, green woods, we discover a single, random feather. Our birding friends tell us it may be a young owlet’s. I would love to know how it came to be here along the trail.

Young owlet feather, Norris Woods, St. Charles, IL.

High in a tree, an indigo bunting surprises us. I love Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s description of the bunting; “a scrap of sky with wings.”

Indigo bunting (Passerina cyanea), Norris Woods Nature Preseve, St. Charles, IL.

Most of the “blues” I see in the bird world belong to the blue jays that stop by my feeder. This past week, there’s been the color orange as well—the Baltimore orioles who love the grape jelly and orange halves we put out for them.

Baltimore oriole (Icterus galbula), Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

This weekend, while I listened to the birds at the feeders, I dug newly-purchased prairie seedlings into my prairie patch. White wild indigo.

White wild indigo (Baptisia alba), Cindy’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Meadow rue.

Meadow Rue (Thalictrum dioicum), Cindy’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Prairie coreopsis. Great angelica. Prairie smoke. Anise hyssop. So many plants! When I ordered earlier this season, where did I imagine I could put them all? At the end of the day—a lonnnnng planting day—every plant had a seat in the prairie. Now it’s up to them and the weather.

As I turned on the hose to wash the dirt from my hands, I heard the first American toad of the year in our little pond. I turned the water back off to listen. Have you ever heard the American toad? No? You can hear it here. At night, when we crack open our bedroom window for the breeze, the sound can be deafening. In the forest preserve wetlands, lakes, and ponds, the American toad trillllllllll is a warm weather soundtrack for our hikes.

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Birds! Toads. Plants. Wildflowers. The writer Ellis Peters wrote, “Every spring is a perpetual astonishment.” It’s difficult to know where to look. So much is happening on the prairies and in the woodlands. How can I choose where to hike? And so much is happening, right under my nose, here in my yard!

Near my prairie patch, the pawpaw tree is in bloom. Such an unusual flower color! That brownish-maroon reminds me of wild ginger blooms. For fun, I try to match the flower color to a lipstick shade. The closest I find is “Cherry Cocoa” or maybe, “Love in Maroon.” What do you think?

Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) tree in bloom, Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Butterflies pass me as I examine the pawpaw flowers. Cabbage white butterflies showed up early this spring, stopping to lay a few eggs on my overwintered kale and kohlrabi. I don’t grudge them a few leaves. Especially since this year’s overwintered crop is a bonus. A gift to share.

Overwintered kale (Brassica oleracea, Acephala group) and kohlrabi (Brassica oleracea, Gongylodes group) going to seed, Cindy’s garden, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I saw my first tiger swallowtail last week, and a few friends have reported monarchs. Pearl crescent butterflies pass through the prairies and savannas, taking a moment to pause and let me admire their bright colors. They’re a common sight, and will continue to be throughout the summer. But no less delightful, for being so ubiquitous.

Pearl crescent butterfly (Phyciodes tharos), Norris Woods, St. Charles, IL.

The pearl crescent butterflies enjoy a wide variety of flowers. There are plenty of blooms to choose from in the middle of May. Wild geraniums are still going strong on the prairies and in the woodlands. Is it my imagination, or are they lingering longer this year? Maybe it’s the cool weather?

Wild geranium (Geranium maculatum), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2017)

I’m grateful, whatever the reason.

Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum), Norris Woods Nature Preserve, St. Charles, IL.

Prairie, woodland, and savanna spring wildflowers are best seen up close.

Examining the wild hyacinth (Camassia scilloides), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Then, when something unusual comes along, you’ll have a ringside seat.

Nessus Sphinx Moth (Amphion floridensis) on wild geranium (Geranium maculatum), Norris Woods Nature Preserve, St. Charles, IL.

And—you’ll thank your lucky stars—so grateful and glad that you went for a hike in the middle of May.

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The opening quote is by Francis Quarles (1592-1644), an English poet. One of his descendants was the poet Langston Hughes (1901-1967), a celebrated poet and author.

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Join Cindy for a program or class!

The Tallgrass Prairie: Illinois Original Garden Online: June 2, 7-8:30 p.m. Illinois’ nickname is “The Prairie State.” Listen to stories of the history of the tallgrass prairie and its amazing plants and creatures –-from blooms to butterflies to bison. Discover plants that work well in the home garden as you enjoy learning about Illinois’ “landscape of home.” Presented by Sag Moraine Native Plant Community. More information here.

Literary Gardens Online: June 8, 6:30-7:30 p.m. Join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby for a fun look at gardens in literature and poetry. From Agatha Christie’s mystery series, to Brother Cadfael’s medieval herb garden, to Michael Pollan’s garden in “Second Nature,” to the “secret garden” beloved of children’s literature, there are so many gardens that helped shape the books we love to read. Discover how gardens and garden imagery figure in the works of Mary Oliver, Henry Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver,  Lewis Carroll–and many more! See your garden with new eyes—and come away with a list of books you can’t wait to explore. Registration through the Downers Grove Public Library coming soon here.

Plant A Backyard Prairie: Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm CST –Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Offered through The Morton Arboretum. Register here.

Thanks to Tricia Lowery and John Heneghan for the afternoon hike, the gift of the prairie plants, and help with spotting wonderful flying critters this week.

After the Prairie Burn

“Barn’s burnt down. Now I can see the moon.”—Mizuta Masahi

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Look what’s rising over the newly-burned prairies. Sugar Moon? Worm Moon? Paschal Moon? By any name, it is beautiful.

Full moon over Cindy’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL.

At the Morton Arboretum just outside Chicago, there’s another sort of moonscape this week.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The Schulenberg Prairie, which burned a week ago.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Few people walk the just-burned prairie.

Prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Can you blame them, when hundreds of thousands of spring bulbs are in bloom in parks and preserves and backyards, not far away?

Crocus (Crocus vernus), Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Native wildflowers are up in the woodlands. Virginia bluebells emerge, with leaves like ping pong paddles.

Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), College of DuPage East Ecological Study Area, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Jacob’s ladder unspools its ferny leaves in the savannas.

Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptans), College of DuPage East Ecological Area, Glen Ellyn, IL.

On the unburned Belmont Prairie just a few miles from my house, rattlesnake master spears through the soil.

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

Native wild strawberries spread their leaves in the sunshine. Soon, white flowers and tiny strawberries will cover the prairie remnant here.

Wild strawberries (Fragaria virginiana), Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL.

So much green growth on the prairies I walk this week! So many signs of spring flowers. You can see why people are out admiring the spring flowers.

Daffodil (Narcissus sp.), Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

No wonder a blackened landscape holds little attraction.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

And yet. There is a different sort of way of experiencing beauty here.

Robin (Turdus migratorius), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

There’s a sense of something given away today in exchange for something in the future. A willingness to let go. To reset. To start over.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Loss is here, make no mistake about it. Fire is deadly. Fire is voracious. The prairie’s old apple tree, a relic of settlement, is burned beyond recognition. After years of surviving prescribed burns, it seemed a certain centenarian. Now, it will not see another season.

Old apple tree (Malus domestica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

I’ll miss passing this little piece of history on my prairie hikes; a reminder that people like the ones who planted this apple tree—or its predecessors —forever changed the Midwest prairies. Another tree not far from it, which was prime real estate for the Baltimore orioles and their nests, will have to be removed for the safety of volunteers and visitors.

Fire-damaged tree on the edge of the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

I walk the black earth and find more casualties. Bones. Two baby turtles, unable to scramble away from the wall of fire. A tiny beetle.

After the prescribed burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

All of these losses—and others—-are small griefs, but griefs none the less. Prairie management means trade-offs. What gives life to one plant or animal may be a death knell for another.

Signs of life are here—if you look closely. Tiny insects buzz along the singed earth.

Unknown insect—maybe a bee or wasp?—Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Mallard ducks quack their way down Willoway Brook.

Mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos), Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

And when I see the charred prairie willows…

Prairie willlows (Salix humulis humulis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…with their spring-soft “puffs”…

Prairie willows (Salix humulis humulis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

…I feel the life of the prairie continuing on, more vibrant than before.

After the fire.

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Mizuta Masahide (1657–1723), whose quote begins this post, studied poetry under the tutelage of Matsuo Basho (1644 –1694) in Japan. Another of his lovely poems: While I walk on/the moon keeps pace beside me:/friend in the water.

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Join Cindy for an online class! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for a full list of upcoming talks and programs.

Virtual Wildflower Walks Online: Section A: Friday, April 9, 11:30 am to 1:00 pm CST Woodland Wildflowers, Section B: Thursday, May 6, 6:30 to 8:00 pm CST Woodland and Prairie Wildflowers. Wander through the ever-changing array of blooms in our woodlands and prairies in this virtual walk. Learn how to identify spring wildflowers, and hear about their folklore. In April, the woodlands begin to blossom with ephemerals, and weeks later, the prairie joins in the fun! Each session will cover what’s blooming in our local woodlands and prairies as the spring unfolds. Enjoy this fleeting spring pleasure, with new flowers revealing themselves each week. Register here.

A Brief History of Trees in America: Online, Wednesday, April 28, 7-8 pm CST Sponsored by Friends of the Green Bay Trail and the Glencoe Public Library. From oaks to sugar maples to the American chestnut: trees changed the course of American history. Discover the roles of a few of our favorite trees in building our nation as you remember and celebrate the trees influential in your personal history and your garden. Registration here.

Plant A Backyard Prairie: Online, Wednesday, June 9 and Friday, June 11, 11am-12:30pm CST –Bring the prairie to your doorstep! Turn a corner of your home landscape into a pocket-size prairie. If you think prairie plants are too wild for a home garden, think again! You can create a beautiful planted area that welcomes pollinators and wildlife without raising your neighbors’ eyebrows. In this online class, you will learn: how to select the right spot for your home prairie; which plants to select and their many benefits, for wildlife, and for you; creative ways to group plants for a pleasing look, and how to care for your prairie. Plus, you’ll get loads of inspiration from beautiful photos and stories that will bring your backyard prairie to life before you even put a single plant in the ground. Register here.

5 Reasons to Hike the February Prairie

“If you stand still long enough to observe carefully the things around you, you will find beauty, and you will know wonder.” — N. Scott Momaday

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Zero degrees. My backyard birdfeeders are mobbed.

White-breasted nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis), Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The squirrels take their share. I don’t begrudge them a single sunflower seed this week.

Fox squirrel (Sciurus niger), Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

It’s tempting to stay inside. Watch the snow globe world from behind the window. It’s warmer that way. But February won’t be here for long.

Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Let’s pull on our coats. Wrap our scarves a little tighter. Snuggle into those Bernie Sanders-type mittens.

Ice and snow on unknown shrubs, West Side, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Need a extra push, during these polar vortex days? Consider these five reasons to get outside for a prairie hike this week.

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  1. Bundle up in February and marvel at the way snow highlights each tree, shrub and wildflower.
East Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Enjoy how the snow drifts into blue shadows on the prairie, punctured by blackberry canes. A contrast of soft and sharp; staccato and legato; light and dark.

Snow drifts into wild blackberry canes (Rubus allegheniensis) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Notice: Rather than being muzzled and smothered by snow, the prairie embraces it, then shapes it to its February tallgrass specifications.

Hidden Lake Forest Preserve prairie plantings, Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Downers Grove, IL. (2018)

Snow in February creates something wonder-worthy.

2. The restrained palette of February demands our attention. Ash and violet. Black and blue. A little red-gold. A bit of dark evergreen.

Prairie plants along the shore of Crabapple Lake, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

You’d think it would be monotonous. And yet. Each scene has its own particular loveliness.

Wetland with prairie plants, East Side, Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

We begin to question our previous need for bright colors…

Bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2018)

…as we embrace the simplicity of the season.

Road to Thelma Carpenter Prairie, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. (2016)

As we hike, there’s a yearning for something we can’t define. More daylight? Warmth? Or maybe, normalcy? Our personal routines and rhythms of the past 12 months have been completely reset. There’s a sense of resignation. It’s been a long winter. February reminds us we still have a ways to go. Keeping faith with our prairie hikes is one practice that grounds us and doesn’t have to change. It’s reassuring.

Possibly burdock (Artium minus), Lyman Woods, Downers Grove, IL.

3. In February, we admire the elusiveness of water. It’s a changeling. One minute, liquid. The next—who knows?

Ice on Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (2017)

Winter plays with water like a jigsaw puzzle.

Ice forms in Belmont Prairie’s stream, Downers Grove, IL (2020)

February’s streams look glacial.

Bridge over the DuPage River prairie plantings in February, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Snuggle into your parka and be glad you’re hiking, not swimming.

4. If you are a minimalist, February is your season.

East Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Everything is pared to essentials.

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardi) leaves, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Many of the seeds are gone; stripped by mice, extracted by birds.

Gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. (2018)

Everywhere around you are the remains of a prairie year that will soon end in flames.

Prescribed burn sign, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

What you see before you is the last whisper of what is, and was, and what will be remembered.

Hidden Lake in February. (2018)

Look closely. Don’t forget.

5. In February, turn your eyes to the skies. What will you see? The marvel of a single red-tailed hawk, cruising over the tallgrass in the distance?

Prairie planting with red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis0, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

A sundog—that crazy play of sunlight with cirrus that happens best in the winter? Or a sun halo, blinding, dazzling?

Sun halo, Cindy’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL. (2020)

Maybe it will be a full Snow Moon at the end of this month, setting sail across the sub-zero sky. Or a daylight crescent moon, scything the chill.

Crescent moon, Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL. (2020)

What will you see? You won’t know unless you go. Sure, it’s bitter cold. But soon, February will only be a memory. What memories are you making now?

Coyote (Canis latrans) on the trail through the Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

The prairie is waiting.

*****

N. Scott Momaday (1934-) is the author of Earth Keeper (2020), House Made of Dawn (1968, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Literature in 1969) and my favorite, The Way to Rainy Mountain (1969), a blend of folklore and memoir. Momaday is a member of the Kiowa tribe, a group of indigenous people of the Great Plains. Writer Terry Tempest Williams calls Earth Keeper “a prayer for continuity in these days of uncertainty.”

*****

Join Cindy in 2021 for an online class! See http://www.cindycrosby.com for a complete list of virtual offerings. Need a speaker? Email me through my website. All classes and programs with Cindy this winter and spring are offered online only. Join me from your computer anywhere in the world.

Begins Monday, February 8 (SOLD OUT) OR just added —February 15 (Two options): Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online (Section A or B)--Digitally explore the intricacies of the tallgrass prairie landscape and learn how to restore these signature American ecosystems as you work through online curriculum. Look at the history of this unique type of grassland from the descent of glaciers over the Midwest millions of years ago, to the introduction of John Deere’s famous plow, to where we are today. We will examine different types of prairie, explore the plant and animal communities of the prairie and discuss strategies specific to restoring prairies in this engaging online course. Come away with a better understanding of the tallgrass prairies, and key insights into how to restore their beauty. All curriculum is online, with an hour-long in-person group Zoom during the course. You have 60 days to complete the curriculum! Join me–Registration information here.

February 24, 7-8:30 p.m. CST: The Prairie in Art and Literature Online. The tallgrass prairie is usually thought of for its diverse community of plants, animals, and insects. Yet, it is also an inspiration for a creative community! In this interactive online talk, natural history author and prairie steward Cindy Crosby will explore historical and contemporary writers and artists, musicians, and other creatives working in the prairie genre: from Neil Young to Willa Cather to graphic comic artists, quilters, and jewelers expressing the prairie through their work. See the prairie in a new light! Come away inspired to appreciate and express your love of the tallgrass as you enjoy learning about this prairie “community.” Offered by The Morton Arboretum: Register here.

Little Prairie in the City

“Wherever we look, from the dirt under our feet to the edge of the expanding cosmos, and on every scale from atoms to galaxies, the universe appears to be saturated with beauty.”–Scott Russell Sanders

********

We went looking for beauty. We found it in the northwest corner of Illinois, on a day both foggy and cold.

The 66-acre Searls Park Prairie and wetland is tucked into a mosaic of soccer fields, jogging trails, picnic grounds, and a BMX bike track. Once part of a 230-acre family farm homesteaded in the 1850’s, today the prairie is a designated Illinois Nature Preserve and part of the Rockford Park District.

Fog drizzles the tallgrass with droplets, but no light sparkles. Staghorn sumac lifts its scarlet torches in the gloom, bright spots of color on this gray, gray day.

This remnant is mostly mesic prairie; or what I call the “Goldilocks” type of prairie—-not too wet, not too dry. Well-drained. Just right. Black soil prairie was once coveted by farmers as a fertile place for crops—farmers like the Searls, no doubt. For that reason, most black soil prairies have vanished in Illinois.

It’s quiet. Even the recreational areas are empty in the uncomfortably damp late afternoon. No soccer games. No picnics. The BMX bike track is closed.

The prairie seems other-worldly in the silence.

Prairies like this, tucked into cities, are important sanctuaries. Searls Park Prairie is known for hosting three state-listed threatened or endangered plant species. I don’t see any of the rare or endangered plants on my hike today. But I do see Indian grass….lots and lots of Indian grass.

Its bright bleached blades are etched sharply against the misty horizon. The colors of the drenched prairie are so strong, they seem over-exposed.

Thimbleweed, softly blurred in the fog, mingles with…

…round-headed bush clover, silvery in the late afternoon.

Canada wild rye is sprinkled with sparks.

Gray

Inhale. Ahhhh. Gray-headed coneflower seedheads are soggy with rainwater, but still smell of lemons when you crush them.

I pinch the hoary leaves of bee balm. Thymol, its essential oil, is still present. But the fragrance is fading.

Mountain mint has lost most of its scent, but still charms me with its dark, silvery seedheads.

Stiff goldenrod transitions from bloom to seed, not quite ready to let go of the season.

Overhead, a flock of tiny birds flies over, impossible to identify. There are rare birds here, although I don’t see any today. On our way to the prairie, we marveled at non-native starlings in the cornfields along the interstate, moving in synchronized flight. I’ve never been able to get this on video, but there are great examples of this flight found here. I’ve only seen this phenomenon in the autumn; one of the marvels of the dying year. Once seen, never forgotten.

On the edge of the prairie, wild plums spangle the gloom.

Such color! Such abundance.

I’ve read there is high-quality wet prairie here, full of prairie cordgrass, blue joint grass, and tussock sedge. We look for this wetter area as we hike, but the path we’re on eventually disappears.

No matter. So much prairie in Illinois is gone. So little original prairie is left. I’m grateful to Emily Searls for deeding her family’s farm to the city of Rockford almost 80 years ago, ensuring this prairie is preserved today.

So much beauty. We hardly know where to look next.

The sun burns briefly through the fog like a white-hot dime.

Dusk is on the way, a little early. We make our way back to the car, just ahead of the dark.

There are many different ways to think of beauty.

It’s always available for free on the prairie, in all its infinite variations.

Why not go see?

********

The opening quote is from Scott Russell Sanders’ (1945-) The Way of Imagination. Sanders is professor at Indiana University in Bloomington, IN, where Jeff and I lived for a dozen or so years. After writing the opening quote, he follows it with “What are we to make of this?” and later “How then should we live, in a world overflowing with such bounty? Rejoice in it, care for it, and strive to add our own mite of beauty, with whatever power and talent we possess.” Oh, yes.

All photos from Searls Park Prairie, Rockford, IL (top to bottom): fog over the Searls Park Prairie; Illinois nature preserve sign; staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina); white vervain (Verbena urticifolia); dedication plaque; foggy landscape; indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica); round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata); canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis); gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum); fog on the prairie; stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum); indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) and wild plum (Prunus americanus); wild plum (Prunus americanus); autumn colors; Jeff on the Searls Park Prairie; sawtooth sunflowers (Helianthus grosseserratus) in the mist; foggy day on the Searls Park Prairie; prairie landscape in the fog; unknown umbel.

*****

Join Cindy for a class—or ask her to speak virtually for your organization–now booking talks for 2021. Email Cindy through http://www.cindycrosby.com.

Literary Gardens Online: Friday, Dec.4, 1-2:30 p.m.CST– Join master gardener and natural history writer Cindy Crosby from wherever you live in the world for a fun look at great (and not-so-great) gardens in literature and poetry. From Agatha Christie’s mystery series, to Brother Cadfael’s medieval herb garden, to Michael Pollan’s garden in “Second Nature,” to the “secret garden” beloved of children’s literature, there are so many gardens that helped shape the books we love to read. Discover how gardens and garden imagery figure in the works of Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Goudge, Rumer Godden, May Sarton, Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Gilbert, Henry Mitchell, Barbara Kingsolver, and Lewis Carroll–and many more! This class is online. Register here through The Morton Arboretum.

Just released in June! Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History.

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Order now from your favorite indie bookstore such as the Arboretum Store and The Bookstore of Glen Ellyn, or online at bookshop.org, direct from Northwestern University Press (use coupon code NUP2020 for 25% off), or other book venues. Thank you for supporting small presses, bookstores, and writers during these unusual times.

Want more prairie? Follow Cindy on Facebook, Twitter (@phrelanzer) and Instagram (phrelanzer). Or visit her website at http://www.cindycrosby.com. See you there!

The Tallgrass Prairie: A Cabin Fever Cure

“I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure in the landscape—the loneliness of it—the dead feeling of winter. Something waits beneath it; the whole story doesn’t show.”–Andrew Wyeth

*****

There’s something about a Midwestern cold snap. Suddenly, I have an urge to bake bread. Read books by the fireplace. The coffeemaker perks from dawn until dusk.

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I halfheartedly look for my hiking boots to go for a prairie hike, then pause. Wind howls around the house and rattles the windows. My weather app tells me  the “real-feel” temperature is minus 16 outside.  I go back to my book. Wimp! I scold myself. But I feel a deep desire to hibernate.

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As the snowfall ended and hypothermic temperatures dissolved Monday into manageable levels, indoor pleasures palled. I had read through a large stack of library books over the weekend, baked more sourdough bread than Jeff and I could ever possibly eat, and drank enough coffee and tea to keep myself awake for a month.  Cabin fever. Now, I was ready for a prairie hike.

You too? Let’s go.

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Jeff and I arrived at Belmont Prairie Monday to find an empty parking lot. Looks like a prairie hike isn’t on most people’s agenda. Snow underlies the prairie, with the occasional frozen pool showing the effects of sleet and rain over the weekend.

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Grasses are bowed by drifts.

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Others are upright, but shorn of their seedheads, like these big bluestem.

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It looks like January—winter at last—on the prairie, from the bare trees on the rim of the tallgrass to the golds of the grasses.

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The prairie is mostly quiet, except for the occasional skein of Canada geese calling overhead.

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As we hike, we see a few tracks here and there, showing that at least one person has trekked these paths since Saturday. Mostly, the paths are full of a different kind of print. Squirrel tracks. Deer. The occasional mouse or vole hole. As we move down the trail, Jeff grabs my arm. Look! Five white-tailed deer bound away. We watch them go, blurs in the distance.

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This prairie remnant—untouched by the plow and left undeveloped—holds a treasure-trove of native plants.

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Each in its particular stage of senesce. Each with its own particular allure.

Carrion flower.

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Bee balm—or wild bergamot as some prairie stewards like to call it—is everywhere. Its scientific name, Monarda fistulosa, is apt: fistulosa means “hollow reed” or “tubular.” No wonder hummingbirds and hummingbird clearwing moths swarm this plant in the summer.

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Pewter-colored wild quinine is as pretty in January as it is in bloom. Gardeners would call these plants “winter interest.”

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Ditto for rattlesnake master, whose yucca-like leaves have interesting texture and a rough-hewn elegance.

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Some of the rattlesnake master seedheads remind me of straw-colored dahlias.

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Not everything I admire is native. Even though Queen Anne’s lace is an invasive, I always enjoy it in January. I love its structure. Later, in the growing months, I’ll weed it out on the prairie and in my backyard. But for now, I can see its delicate grace.

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The clouds begin to break up, and the sun suddenly throws the prairie into sharp relief.

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We’ve reached the far side of the preserve now, and the stream is just ahead.

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The bridge is a bit treacherous, but I’ve got Yaktrax on for the first time this season.  These rubber stabilizers pull on over my hiking boots and help me keep my footing on the ice. Today, they are a complete mismatch, as I’ve lost one each from two different pairs (one has a strap, one is without). But they see me across the icy trails and bridge without mishap.

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The creek through Belmont Prairie, full after Saturday’s rains, is mostly frozen now.

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I stop and take a closer look.

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Ice art is everywhere, a dance between ice and thaw. It’s as if the prairie grasses have scribbled designs in the stream.

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I love the abstract shapes and delicate traceries. Some seem to reflect the clouds of a prairie sky.

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The melted places add their own filigreed patterns.

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The tips of growing plants—blue flag iris, perhaps?—are barely visible, spearing through the ice and snow.

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Green plants! Signs of life. They make me think of spring. But—hold on. I don’t want to rush this season. We need the snow cover and cold each year for the health of the tallgrass. Winter is an important chapter in the prairie’s story.

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I can’t help the jolt of happiness I feel, though.  The green plant tips seem to hold a promise. Spring is coming.

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As we hike back to the car, I’m grateful for the bracing prairie hike. Glad to see the beauty of the ice and snow. Grateful—yes, really—for the cold that blew so many cobwebs out of my mind. I feel rejuvenated. My mind is clear.

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Cabin fever? Not me. Not anymore.

Thanks, tallgrass.

*******

Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009) was a controversial painter specializing in realism. Love his work—-or find it cheesy—he was an important figure in the popular culture of the mid-1900s. His most famous painting is probably Christina’s World. Charles Schulz fans will remember in Schulz’s “Peanuts” comic strip that when Snoopy’s dog house burned down, Snoopy replaced his Van Gogh with a Wyeth painting. Wyeth received the National Medal of Arts in 2007.

*****

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby and taken this week at Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL (top to bottom): ice crystals on the prairie trail; ice crystals on prairie grass;  trail through Belmont Prairie; view in to Belmont Prairie; grasses in snow; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); mixed grasses and trees; Canada geese (Branta canadensis); white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus); pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida); carrion vine (Smilax spp.); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa);wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium); rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium); rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium); invasive Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota) trail through Belmont Prairie; trail through Belmont Prairie; bridge over the stream; stream through Belmont Prairie; stream through Belmont Prairie; ice art, ice art; ice art; ice art with growing tips of unknown plant; thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica); unknown plant; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans).

Please join Cindy at an upcoming event or class this winter:

THE TALLGRASS PRAIRIE: A CONVERSATION, January 30 (Thursday) 9-11:30 a.m.  University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum, Curtis Prairie Visitor Center–Auditorium, Madison, WI. More information and tickets here.

Nature Writing and Art Retreat, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL, February 22 (Saturday) 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Cindy will be facilitating the writing portion. Sold Out. Waiting list –Register here.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online begins March 26.  Details and registration here.

Nature Writing Workshop (a blended online and in-person course, three Tuesday evenings in-person) begins March 3 at The Morton Arboretum. For details and registration, click here.  

See more at http://www.cindycrosby.com

August’s Prairie Pairings

“When despair for the world grows in me…I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds… .”–Wendell Berry

******

A festival is in full swing on the east side of the 1700-acre Morton Arboretum. Hundreds of cars, thousands of people.

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But I’m alone on the west side trail here, except for the mosquitoes. Destination: Prairie. Good thing I brought my headnet, I think as I trek through the old gravel two-track through the  savanna. The bugs buzz around my ballcap and plaster themselves against my face, trying to bite through the mesh.

A male violet dancer damselfly perches on a grass blade along the trail. Thanks, I tell him, only half kidding. I know he’s doing his part to eat as many of these mosquitoes as possible.

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I leave most of the mosquitoes behind as the prairie spreads out before me. I smell the prairie dropseed in bloom, the scent reminiscent of hot buttered popcorn or cilantro. In the first days of August, the tallgrass shimmers in the heat, a mass of wildflowers and grass… grass, grass, so much grass.  Beauty in the aggregate, like a wall of big bluestem shooting toward the sky.

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Clouds of lavender bee balm blooms drift through the tallgrass, seducing butterflies, bees, moths, and hummingbirds with their delectable nectar. I could sit and watch a patch for hours.

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They are gorgeous en masse. But there is also delight in the singular, like this tiny jewel-like fly, part of the Condylostylus genus. That face!

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So much to discover. A double-striped bluet damselfly hangs out at the edges of the savanna, less than an inch long. I almost walk right by him.

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The female turns up also; different color, same double-stripe. I rarely see the double-striped bluets, so they are an unexpected treat. Two in one afternoon? Joy!

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I love the juxtapositions on the prairie in August. The surprises. The discoveries. The  “prairie pairings,” like these two stream bluet damselflies, forming the mating wheel.

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The prairie plants have their own pairings, like these wild petunia “twins” —native prairie plants—growing directly in the mowed path.

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Deep in the grasses—just past the wild petunias—carrion vine has balled up its seeds. The lavender bee balm acts a backdrop; a prairie pairing that tells me we’re sliding toward autumn. Soon the carrion vine seeds will turn a dark purple. The bee balm will drop its tubular petals before the snow flies, but its fragrance will linger through the winter in its leaves and stems, scenting the tallgrass.

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Nearby, a male eastern amberwing dragonfly rests on the pored and veined surface of a compass plant leaf, ready for take-off at my slightest move. The amberwing dragonflies will be around another few weeks or so, then their season will be over. Summer is going too fast.

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Tiny butterflies stir the grasses, colorful blurs. The eastern tailed-blue butterfly is a common prairie flier, but no less delightful for its ubiquity. This one sips nectar from a showy tick trefoil bloom. See its uncurled proboscis, sipping nectar? Like a flexible straw! But it’s so much more. Read about new butterfly proboscis research here.

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I love the crazy contrasts of rattlesnake master’s globed blooms, which mix and mingle with budding blazing star.

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Or the almost clichéd pairing of monarchs and butterfly weed. Their bright orange POP of dynamic duo color is unmatched by anything else on the prairie. Except, perhaps…

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…the royal catchfly in bloom, hot soloists, riffing on red.

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Bee balm sings backup. What a pairing!

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Sure, not all the prairie juxtapositions are welcome. I could do with a few less mosquitoes buzzing around my headnet or no Japanese beetles making inroads on the showy tick trefoil.

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But its all a part of fully experiencing summer on the prairie.

What “prairie pairings” do you enjoy? Leave me a note and let me know. Can’t think of any? There’s no better time to go out and find some for yourself!

*****

Wendell Berry (1934), whose words are at the top of this blog post, is a writer, conservationist, farmer, and philosopher.  This week is a great time to revisit his complete poem, The Peace of Wild Thingsfrom which the opening words of this blog were taken. He lives in Kentucky.

*****

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby, and taken this week at the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL (top to bottom): bridge over Willoway Brook; male violet dancer damselfly (Argia fumipennis var. violacea);  big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); fly (Condylostylus spp.); male double-striped bluet damselfly (Enallagma basidens); female double-striped bluet damselfly (Enallagma basidens); male (blue) and female (greenish) stream bluet damselflies (Enallagma exsulans); wild petunias (Ruellia humilis); possibly upright carrion vine (Smilax ecirrhata) and bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); male eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemus tenera) on compass plant (Silphium laciniatum); eastern tailed-blue butterfly (Cupido comyntas) with showy tick trefoil (Desmodium canadense); rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) with blazing star (Liatris aspera); butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) with monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus); royal catchfly (Silene regia); royal catchfly (Silene regia) with bee balm (Monarda fistulosa);  Japanese beetles (Popillia japonica) on showy tick trefoil (Desmodium canadense).

*****

Visit cindycrosby.com for more information on Cindy’s speaking, classes, and events.

Showers of Prairie Flowers

 

Rain is grace; rain is the sky condescending to the earth; without rain, there would be no life.– John Updike

*****

So much rain. Will it ever end?

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Rain or shine, it’s migration week on the prairie. New birds arriving daily.

Egrets stalk the prairie streams, or perch high on dead snags.

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Red-tailed hawks keep their own vigils, alert for unwary prey.

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Resident bluebirds intensify their coloration to deepest sapphire and rust,  busy about the business of home building and finding mates. No holding still. See ya later.

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In the savanna, the early spring ephemerals are beginning to wane, but there are plenty of exciting flowers if you know where to look. Wild ginger holds its maroon flowers close under its leaves, a secret to all but those in the know. And now that’s you.

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The Virginia bluebells cover the woods and savannas in sheets of pinky-purple-periwinkle. This plant has a tiny pollinator.

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Not to be outdone, the wild blue phlox pinwheels bloom under rain-washed skies. Wow. That fragrance! Sweet, without cloying.

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On the prairie, more blues: Jacob’s ladder, just coming into full flower. Like chips from a pale sky.

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Two partially-parasitic prairie wildflowers, bastard toadflax…

bastardtoadflaxWM5619.jpg …and wood betony (pictured below) are just beginning to flower. The “parasitic” part sounds forbidding in name, but is actually a plus. As a prairie steward, I value these two plants as they create openings for wildflowers and damp down the grasses a bit when the grasses threaten to monopolize the prairie. Read more here for additional info.

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On a less scientific note, some Native Americans carried the root of wood betony as a love charm, or used it in various ways to bring feuding couples together. No word on how well it worked for those purposes. But I love the idea that a prairie plant could be so powerful, don’t you?

The new kid blooming on the block this week is hoary puccoon. So unexpected…that orange! A punch of color in the middle of all this rain-inspired green.

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And look—common valerian, Valeriana edulis ciliata. A very high quality plant on the spring prairie–Wilhelm’s Flora gives it a “10” out of a possible “10.” Love seeing it throw its “stinky socks” scent into the prairie air. The leaves are edged with thick white hairs, giving them a distinctive silver edge. Valerian’s thick stalks and bunchy flowers remind me a bit of sprigs of cauliflower.

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These blooms, these birds, those skies —- alternating between thunder and sunshine, rain and rainbows, cumulus and cirrus—announce that the fast-paced spring life of the prairie is underway. It’s nonstop now. From the tiniest crayfish in its burrow, living their lives mostly unnoticed…

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…to the powerful bison, a charismatic megafauna that rules the prairie in all seasons…

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…to the familiar field sparrows, now in steep conservation decline—trilling from prairie shrubs, trees, and utility wires….

 

…the days begin to fill with birdsong, wildflowers, grasses, sedges, new life.

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Get ready, the prairie seems to whisper. Fasten your seatbelt. I’ve got so many surprises in store for you.

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So much to see now.

So much to anticipate.

*****

The opening quote is by John Updike (1932-2009),  an American writer. Most readers think of him as a novelist (Rabbit, Run; The Witches of Eastwick), but I prefer his poetry. If you haven’t read Seagulls or November, click through and see what you think.

*****

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): rain over Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; great egret (Ardea alba), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, the Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild ginger (Asarum canadense reflexum) Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild blue phlox (Phlox divaricata), Schulenberg Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptans);  bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata); wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens); common valerian (Valeriana edulis ciliata), DuPage County, IL; devil crayfish (Cambarus diogenes), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; bison (Bison bison), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; field sparrow (Spizella pusilla)— a species in steep decline–Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; discovering the spring prairie, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

A Prairie Valentine

How important it is to walk along, not in haste but slowly, looking at everything and calling out Yes!”– Mary Oliver

*****

Ask for their top 10 list of February destinations, and most of my friends would tell you “anywhere warm.” I agree. Toward the end of a Chicago region winter, I’m  ready to shed the shivery cold for a few days and escape to some far-flung beach down south.

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But the beach in February is not my number one destination. I include walking trails through prairie remnants in winter a little higher on my list.

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Tonight, Jeff and I are walking the Belmont Prairie in Downer’s Grove, Illinois. It’s small, as prairies go, but as a remnant—part of the original Illinois tallgrass prairie which escaped development and the plow—it’s special.  Writer John Madson wrote in Where the Sky Began that his “feeling for tallgrass prairie is like that of a modern man who has fallen in love with the face in a faded tintype. Only the frame is still real; the rest is illusion and dream.” Remnants remind me of those “faded tintypes.” Ghosts.

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Very little of our original prairies have survived; about 2,300 high quality acres are left in Illinois. Another reason to be grateful for Belmont Prairie’s 10-acre remnant.

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The grasses are weather-bleached and flattened now. You can imagine how references to the prairie as a sea came to be. Walking the trails here, amid the waves of winter tallgrass, can leave you unsteady on your feet, a little like wading through the surf and sand.belmontprairiegrasseswaves2919WM.jpg

A creek glistens. Puddles of snowmelt glow.  I’ve been re-reading Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series this winter, and the creek puts me in mind of Galadriel’s silver elvish rope that helped Frodo and Sam continue their quest to darkest Mordor. Magical. A tiny sliver of creek is also iced in on the right—can you see it in the grasses? Barely visible, but the setting sun sets it alight.

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As we hike, Canada geese begin to settle in, pulling their V-string necklaces across the twilight overhead.

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Geese have a bad rap here in the Chicago suburbs, but I admire their sense of direction, their seamless ability to work as an aerial team, their perfectly spaced flight pattern. Their confidence in knowing the way home.

Honk-honk! The soundtrack of dusk.

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A crescent moon scythes its way across the burgeoning gloom.

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Still enough light to see. The reflections of ice spark the last light.

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Poke around. In the mud and snow pockets, trapped in north-facing crevices, there are signs of spring to come. A few spears of green. Water running under the ice.

BelmontPrairiesnowmelt21019WM.jpgLook closely, and you may find a few tracks. Mammals are out and about in the cold. Birds.  In my backyard, close to the prairie patch, we’ve been feeding the birds extra food during the bitter temperatures, and they, in turn, have graced us with color, motion, and beauty.  As I scrubbed potatoes before having some friends over for dinner this weekend, my mundane task was made enjoyable by watching the interplay at the feeders outside my kitchen window. Scrubbing potatoes became meditation of sorts. Outside were squabbling sparrows.  The occasional red-bellied woodpecker. Juncos–one of my favorites–nun-like in their black and white feathered habits. The occasional burst of cardinal color.  Darting chickadees. Nuthatches, hanging upside down, zipping in for a peanut or two. Downy woodpeckers, like this one.

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The seeds on the ground attract  more than birds. There are gangs of squirrels, well-fed and prosperous. If I wake early, I might spot a large eastern cottontail scavenging seeds, or even a red fox, whose antics with her kits have delighted us in the neighborhood over the years (and kept the resident chipmunk herds in check). Once in a while, over the years, we’ll surprise her on our back porch.

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Another backyard visitor through the year is the opossum, who finds the seeds under the bird feeders a nice change of diet.

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The opossum’s face looks a bit like a heart, doesn’t it? It reminded me that Valentine’s Day is Thursday. Time to find or make a card, and perhaps shop for a book or two for my best hiking partner. Speaking of him….

As Jeff and I head for the parking lot at Belmont Prairie, the great-horned owl calls from the treeline that hems the tallgrass. I hear the soft murmur. Who-Who- Hoooo.

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Jeff and I once found a great horned owl here—perhaps this very one— in daylight, high in a tree on the edge of the grasses. I owl-prowl sometimes through the woods, hunting for bone and fur-filled scat pellets under trees. Find a pellet under a tree, look up, and you’ll occasionally get lucky and see an owl.

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I think about Mary Oliver’s poem, “Little Owl Who Lives in the Orchard,” which begins….”His beak could open a bottle… .” As someone who teaches  nature writing in the Chicago region, I love to read this poem to my students. The sounds of Oliver’s word choices  (“black, smocked crickets”), her contrasts of terror and sweet, and her descriptions  (“when I see his wings open, like two black ferns”) remind me of the joy of words, images, and our experiences outdoors.

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Oliver’s poem about the owl ends; “The hooked head stares from its house of dark, feathery lace. It could be a valentine.”

The owl calls again. I think of the people and prairie I love. And, the joy that sharing a love of wild things with others can bring.

It’s a happiness not quite like any other. Try it yourself. And see.

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Mary Oliver (1936-2019), whose words from Owls and Other Fantasies opens this blogpost, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet (1984, American Primitive) and winner of the National Book Award (1992, New and Selected Poems). Her admonition, “Pay attention. Be astonished! Tell about it.,” is some of the best advice I know. She died in January.

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All photographs copyright Cindy Crosby, from Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL, unless noted (top to bottom): beach umbrellas, Sanibel Island, Florida; sawtooth sunflowers (Helianthus grosseserratus); Canada rye (Elymus canadensis); parking lot at sunset;  grasses on the prairie;  creek through the prairie; Canada geese (Branta canadensis) heading home; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) at sunset; crescent moon over the tallgrass; ice in the grasses; creek ice with new growth; downy woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; red fox (Vulpes vulpes), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; sunset over the prairie; Belmont Prairie treeline;  treeline at the edges of the prairie; Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) with common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) pappus.