Category Archives: schulenberg prairie

Winter Prairie Wonders

“The twitter of a chickadee, a flurry of juncos defying the wind, the industry of a downy woodpecker at the suet won’t warm the day, but they do warm the human heart.” — Hal Borland

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Color January gray so far, with a few bright spots.

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It’s been a wet one, as well, with precipitation in all its myriad forms.

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As I wash dishes one morning, I watch the birds and squirrels outside my kitchen window battle over birdseed.

They bicker and flutter and knock each other off the perches in their search for the very best position. I try to broker a truce by bringing out more sunflower and safflower. More peanuts. But as I step outside, I stop short. Listen! The northern cardinal—is singing! The first time through, I thought it was wishful thinking on my part. Then he pealed out the notes again.  Cheer! Cheer! Cheer! The sound of spring.

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Or maybe not exactly “spring.” After reading more on Cornell’s All About Birds website, I learn the males and females both sing; males may sing all year. Ah! So much for spring thoughts.  I regularly hear the “chip! chip!” at dusk and dawn when the cardinal resupplies at the tray feeder. But I hadn’t heard the cardinal’s full-throated song for a good long while. It makes me happy.

Dishes finished, that sweet music is enough to pull me out of the house and out for a prairie hike.

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No cardinals sing in the savanna, but there is a bit of woodpecker hammering and a lone squirrel or two loping silently through the trees. The  pewter skies and sleet, snow, rain, and ice accentuate the colors of the January prairie.

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As I hike through the prairie savanna, admiring the trees blacked with moisture and bright with lichen…

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…snow falls harder. I wrap my scarf  tightly around my neck to ward off the wet. Everything is soaked.

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Late figwort drips with snowmelt diamonds.

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Hiking along Willoway Brook…

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…I admire the winter water transitions.

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Trees lay everywhere, a reminder of other transitions going on. One tree’s life ends, a multitude of new lives begin from that downed tree. Fungi. Mosses.  These fallen trees will serve as homes and food for members of the savanna community; bringing slow change to this transitional place.

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Emerging into the tallgrass from the savanna, the only sounds are the scrunch scrunch scrunch of my boots in the snow, and the occasional hum of traffic from nearby I-88.

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Other than a few light breaths of wind, the tallgrass is motionless. Willoway runs quiet and clear. This silence suits me today. I value the prairie’s opportunities for quiet and reflection.

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And yet, there are many other reasons besides personal ones to appreciate what I’m a steward of here.

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I’ve been reading more this week about prairies as carbon sinks in preparation for a talk at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Arboretum. What are carbon sinks? Why do they matter? I think about this as I stroll the trails.

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A carbon sink is simply a place where carbon is stored. The prairie soil acts as a “carbon sink.” Unlike a forest, where the carbon is mostly stored above ground, in prairies, carbon is taken in and then, stored (or “sequestered”) in the deep roots of prairie plants.

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That’s good news.  It matters, as this carbon sequestration helps keep our planet healthy.  And, I’m more aware of my impact on the world these days, from the miles I drive or fly, to the choices I make in what I eat, what I put my food in (paper or plastic?), whether I use a straw or sip from a glass, or the amount of trash I generate. My personal consumption habits could be overwhelming and depressing, if I let them be. But that would suck all the joy out of life, wouldn’t it?

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And so. I try and balance the despair I feel sometimes over the brokenness of the world and its dilemmas with the gratitude for the beauty and wholeness I find on my prairie walks. The delights of my backyard prairie patch and pond. Or, the enjoyment of watching the birds at my backyard feeders squabbling with the squirrels.

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One reason I’m a prairie steward is this: caring for a prairie reminds me why my personal choices matter. Seeing the tallgrass in all seasons, in its diversity and transitions, helps me remember the legacy I want my children and grandchildren to have. Prairies, the Nature Conservancy tells us, “clean the air we breathe and the water we drink.” Caring for this prairie as both a place for quiet hiking and reflection—and a place that has value in keeping our world a healthier place—gives me a sense of making a difference. It is a touchstone of hope.

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We live in a beautiful world full of wonders. bridgeoverwillowaySPMA12520WM.jpg

No matter what the future holds…

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…I want these prairies to be here for the next generations; places for my children’s children to hike, for them to find room there to reflect, and to enjoy and delight in all its diversity.

A world full of wonders.

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The opening quote is from Hal Borland’s book: Twelve Moons of the Year, excerpted from his “nature editorials” in the New York Times written before his death in 1978. Borland wrote more than 1,900 of these observational articles for the NYT, and selected 365 for this book. He was a contributing editor to Audubon magazine. Borland wrote more than 30 books, most about the natural world; the genres spanned poetry, fiction, non-fiction, biography, short stories, and even a play. He was also a recipient of the John Burroughs Medal in 1968 for Hill Country Harvest.

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All photos this week taken at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL except where noted (top to bottom): trees in the fog, East Side; melting snow on late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica); video of birds and squirrels at the author’s backyard bird feeders, Glen Ellyn, IL; male and female cardinals ( Cardinalis cardinalis, photo from winter 2019), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie in January, glimpse of Willoway Brook through the savanna; bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa); late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica); Willoway Brook through the prairie savanna; Willoway Brook through the prairie savanna; Willoway Brook through the prairie savanna; bridge and tallgrass; reflections in Willoway Brook; Schulenberg Prairie in January, blackberry (Rubus occidentalis) with snowmelt; prairie grasses in January; native evening primrose (Oenothera speciosa); Schulenberg Prairie savanna; tall goldenrod (probably Solidago canadensis); bridge over Willoway Brook; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum).

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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. (Sold out–call to be put on a waiting list)

The Tallgrass Prairie: Grocery Store, Apothecary, and Love Shop: February 13 (Thursday) 8-9 p.m., Park Ridge Garden Club, Centennial Activity Center 100 South Western Avenue Park Ridge, IL. Free and Open to the Public! Book signing follows.

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 

10 Reasons to Hike the January Prairie

“This life is after all a miracle and we ought to pay fierce attention every moment… .” —Brian Doyle

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January on the prairie is underway, a yo-yo between freeze and thaw; snow and sun.

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Walking the prairie on a gray windy morning, contrasts are everywhere.

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Carrion flower still clutches its inedible fruits; some plump, others desiccated.

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Prairie dock leaves evince a weathered beauty that only comes with age and time.

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They are unrecognizable from the green elephant ears they were in July. The air smells of wet earth and cold. Grasses whisper in the wind. A hawk silently bullets by, rapt on its prey. The hum of traffic in the distance is the only sound. So quiet. Peaceful.

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Until—-scritch scritch scritch. Up in a black walnut tree, a fox squirrel rhythmically gnaws a black walnut. The sound ricochets through the January air. How can a squirrel’s teeth grinding on a nut make so much noise?

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There is so much to experience on the tallgrass prairie in winter. Here are ten reasons to hike the prairie in January.

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10. The drama of winter prairie skies, changing like a kaleidoscope from moment to moment.

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9. The sound of water moving through the prairie; music that is more appreciated in January than July.

 

8. The grace of a single seedhead such as Canada wild rye…canadawildryeSPMA1520WM.jpg

7. …or, the joy of massed individuals, like these large swathes of bee balm.

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6. Possibilities for the future in the mowed firebreaks, ready for the prescribed burn to come.

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5. The glories of prairie plants that are more interesting in seed than in bloom, such as Illinois bundleflower.

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4. Small pleasures like the incredible diversity of lichens on a log in the tallgrass.

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3. Large dramas, such as the sweep of the prairie under a dusting of snow.

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2. The fascination of following animal tracks and trying to understand their stories written upon the landscape.

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1. Ice art, in all its unexpected and temporary forms.

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Welcome to a new year on the prairie.

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There is so much to anticipate this month.

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The opening quote is from Brian Doyle’s (1956-2017)  One Long River of Song. If you haven’t read Doyle, this is a good collection to begin with. Known as a “writer’s writer,” Doyle wrote many novels, essays, and poetry collections. He also won numerous awards, including the John Burroughs Medal and four Pushcart Prizes.

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All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby and taken this week at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (top to bottom): mosses and snow; bridge to the prairie; carrion flower (Smilax spp.); prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); January on the prairie; eastern fox squirrel (Sciurus niger); prairie sky; Willoway Brook; Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); mowed firebreak; Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis); lichens on a log; prairie trail; coyote (Canis latrans) tracks;  ice on the trail; bench on the prairie in the snow.

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Please join Cindy at one of her upcoming classes or talks in the new year!

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.   

August’s Prairie Marvels

Note to readers: This week’s Tuesdays in the Tallgrass is a special Sunday edition! I’ll be back to publishing on Tuesdays and our regular schedule next week. Thanks, as always, for reading.

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“The starting point must be to marvel at all things, even the most commonplace.” — Carl Linnaeus

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When the impatiens open their conical orange and yellow freckled flowers to the delight of the ruby-throated hummingbirds and long-tongued bees, I know that summer is slipping toward autumn.

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Look at enough impatiens’ blooms, and you’ll discover the holes chewed by bumblebees in search of nectar. You can imagine their thoughts: Why work so hard when there are shortcuts to be had?

It seems like an August kind of mentality; slow moving days, high humidity, blue skies and sunshine interspersed with some welcome rain. Listening to the zithering of the cicadas; watching fireflies from the back porch. So much to marvel over.

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The ruby-throated hummingbirds work the cardinal flowers in my backyard, blurred streaks moving from scarlet to scarlet. Each year, I worry that I’ve lost the cardinal flowers, then splash! There they are popping up around the pond; scattered through my prairie patch.

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Goldfinches work the cup plants for water and early seeds as monarch butterflies swarm the Joe Pye weed blooms that tower over my head.

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The black swallowtails love the wild bergamot, as do the bumblebees and sphinx moths. This swallowtail below lost a bit of wing—to a bird, perhaps, or other predator—but still nimbly eludes me when I try to follow it deeper into the tallgrass.

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Hiking the Belmont Prairie this week in Downer’s Grove, IL, I saw the first large groups of dragonflies massing —- for migration? It seems early.  I’m unsure. Last year’s swarms came at the end of August. Almost all of the 80 or so individuals I count are green darner dragonflies; with a few golden wandering gliders mixed in. If you blow up this photo on your computer or phone, you’ll see at least 32 individuals silhouetted against the sky.

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On the Schulenberg Prairie in Lisle, IL; the first New England aster opened this week like a purple omen, noting the seasonal transition in process. They always say “autumn” to me.

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More late summer notes are struck in the ripening of seeds of the spring wildflowers, like prairie parsley (below). As August slides toward its inevitable conclusion, more blooms will be replaced by seeds, gradually tipping the balance from flowers to future progeny.

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Tiny calico pennant dragonflies, less than the length of my pinky finger, chase the breezes, then alight for a moment on the grasses.

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They’re often mirrored by a Halloween pennant or two close by, forging  an uneasy truce for territories.

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Each time I see these two species I wonder if it will be the last time, as their numbers taper off this month. In a week or two, they’ll only be memories.

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The goldenrod opens, offering its sweet nectar to greedy insects.

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The prairie oils the gears of transition. The compass plants point the way.

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These inevitable transitions on the prairie remind me that change, even when not particularly welcome, shakes things up. Jolts us out of our complacency. Reminds us to marvel at what’s happening right now.

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I’ve tried not to take the prairie for granted this summer season.  Each day, each week, I marveled at the joys each particular day offered. But June and July went by too fast and now August seems to be half over. There’s melancholy in the lowering slant of sunshine; the tallgrass elbowing the wildflowers out of the way, the first gold leaf-coins dropping from the trees on the prairie’s edge.

A potent reminder to enjoy the marvels of every summer day on the prairie that we have left.

Let’s go!

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Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) a Swedish botanist, was dubbed the “Father of Taxonomy” and helped formalize the way we organize the natural world. Read more here.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): orange jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL;  cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL;  Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum), Schulenberg Prairie savanna, Lisle, IL; black swallowtail butterfly (Papilio polyxenes) on bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; possibly early migration swarm of green darners and wandering gliders over the Belmont Prairie, Downers Grove, IL; New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie parsley seeds (Polytaenia nuttallii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; calico pennant (Celithemis elisa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Halloween pennant (Celithemis eponina), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; edge of the Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; early goldenrod (Solidago juncea) and chalcid wasp (Leucospis affinis), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; compass plants (Silphium lacinatium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; late boneset (Eupatorium serotinum), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL.

Thanks to Gerard Durrell for his great description of cicada music from My Family and other Animals.

Cindy’s speaking events and classes can be found at www.cindycrosby.com. Drop by!

Extreme Prairie Weather

“Adapt or perish, now as is ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative.”–H. G. Wells

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How do you cope with wild swings of weather? How do you make it through a tempestuous, fickle Midwestern winter?

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Here in the Midwest this week, we’ve seen swings of temperature from -25 degrees  below zero to 50 degrees or more. When I hiked the Schulenberg Prairie on Saturday, February 2, this was the view from the prairie bench:

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Compare it to this same view when I hiked the prairie two days later, on Monday, February 4:

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Oh, the difference two days makes in February!

I’ve coped with all this weather change armed with my arsenal of hot drinks, a stack of library books, and a pile of afghans. You too? But I’m not sure I can say I’ve fully “adapted.”

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We worry about our non-native plants—and sometimes, with good reason—because they aren’t adapted to our harsh conditions. These garden plants come from far-flung places, where their beauty and exotic good looks brighten up our yards here. I’m a sucker for some of these plants (Moonflowers! Zinnias! Gallardia!), although I garden mostly for natives.

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There is something wonderfully comforting about the Illinois prairie and its suite of plants. Sure, some of them disappear from season to season, obliterated by unusual weather conditions.  But most of our native prairie plants are made for a rollercoaster climate.

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How do prairie plants navigate extreme weather? What makes them different than the orchid flowering on my kitchen counter, or the scarlet runner beans in my summer garden? Let’s take a hike on the February prairie together and think about some of the  ways native plants cope.

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Deep Roots

The February prairie may look desolate, in its transitions between freeze and thaw; frigid and mild.

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But underneath the surface, there is a lot going on. Many of the barely-there, brittle grasses and wildflower fragments you see around you in February have deep roots. Roots that plunge 15 feet or more deep. These roots hold the promise of spring. The promise of renewal.

Can you imagine? Like a time bomb of the best kind, ready to go off at the right moment.

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The growing points under the ground and deep roots help ensure survival from year to year. When fires sweep across the prairie—once caused by lightning strikes and Native Americans, and now set intentionally to mimic the historical ones —its no problem.

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These adaptations are mostly about what’s invisible to us, under the ground. But what about the visible?

Narrow Leaves 

This article from the Illinois State Museum helps us understand why so many of the prairie plants  have narrow leaves. Yes, it’s no accident! Skinny leaves, because of their slim profile, lose less water to evaporation than our more broad-leaved plants. Cool!

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But wait! What about those broad-leaved prairie plants? How do they cope? Which brings us to…

Orientation

Compass plant is famous for it. Prairie dock does it as well. Turning north and south—orienting your leaves to lose the least amount of moisture—is a great adaptation by certain prairie plants to avoid losing moisture to a brutal prairie sun. Sure, it’s tough to notice this in the depths of February, when compass plant leaves are barely hanging on…

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…or the prairie dock leaves are battered and torn.

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Easier, perhaps, in the heat of a July afternoon. In the 1800s, some naturalists thought this positioning was because  the plants had taken up enough iron in the soil to become magnetic. Now we know this leaf position is another way for plants to brave the harsh elements of a Midwestern summer. Read more about the prairie dock and its leaf orientation in this excellent article by plant guru Christopher Benda,   His article also includes information about long taproots, another prairie plant adaptation.

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As someone who often struggles to adapt to change, I admire the strategies of these plant survivalists. They live in one of the most vulnerable places on Earth—the tallgrass prairie. Yet, they know how to cope. I’ve only touched on a few of their adaptations. There are many, many more to explore.

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This week, as the temperatures have see-sawed back and forth through extremes, I have a new appreciation for prairie plants. You too? Why not go for a hike and admire these prairie plants in person?

Maybe they will inspire you, as they have me. That adaptation to difficult conditions is possible. And—you can learn to accept change.

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The opening quote is by Herbert George “H.G.” Wells (1866-1946), a prolific writer often referred to as “The Father of Science Fiction.” Wells is best known for his books, The Time Machine, War of the Worlds, and The Invisible Man. A trained biologist, he brought his knowledge to bear in The Island of Dr. Moreau, in which he writes of a doctor who tampers with evolution in animals.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): bridge at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; Schulenberg Prairie bench on Saturday, February 2, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie bench on Monday, February 4, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; author’s backyard prairie during the Polar Vortex (temperature -25 degrees), Glen Ellyn, IL; silhouettes of prairie plants on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray day on the Schulenberg Prairie (looking through the savanna), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; reflections on the Schulenberg Prairie trail, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prescribed burn on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) leaves, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Schulenberg Prairie savanna on February 4, 2019, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Thinking in “Prairie Time”

“The strongest of all warriors are these two — Time and Patience.” — Leo Tolstoy

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It’s a hot day for our prairie team to clear the main visitor trail.  The 90-plus humid mornings and torrential rains have resulted in lush vegetation. The path? Forbidding, overgrown. Visitors walk up to the trail entrance and turn away, put off by the idea of bushwhacking. Who would blame them? Trail clearing is overdue.

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For hours, volunteers work at a snail’s pace, bent over, carefully clipping back wildflowers and grasses to make an accessible path. At the end of the muggy, hot morning, it’s finally time to quit.

“Gosh, that was fun!” said one volunteer, cheerfully, drenched with sweat. Fun? 

She must have seen the look on my face, because she added, “Every week, when we pull weeds, I feel like I don’t see any results.  Sometimes, it seems like years on the prairie pass before we see any progress at all! But when we clear the trail, it’s instant gratification.”

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It’s true.  Instant gratification is unusual in the tallgrass. Sure, once in a while, a brush cutting day or big garlic mustard pull can yield tangible results. When we collect seeds of some prolific grasses or wildflowers, like pale purple coneflower, we have some momentary satisfaction. palepurpleconeflowerWM818

But the time it takes to develop a healthy, functioning prairie community—with all its associated insects, birds, and plants—is the work of decades, if not a lifetime.

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Thinking in “prairie time” requires recalibration of everything society primes us for. Post something on social media? Instantly, “Like! Like! Like!” follows. Too busy to cook? Drive-through restaurant windows put hot food in your hands in minutes. Not so on the prairie. On one tallgrass site where I am a steward supervisor, we battle an agricultural weed called sweet clover. I’ve pulled clover there for 15 years, and I’ve never seen an end to it. For the first time this season, the battle seems almost over. Because of this, our team was able to turn our attention to some other invaders. Giant ragweed. Curly dock. And lately, Japanese hedge parsley, which looks a lot like Queen Anne’s lace.

I’ve been pulling the Queen Anne’s lace from my backyard prairie this month as well, especially around a second-year planting that includes Kankakee mallow. For years, I’d admired it on the prairie….KankakeeMallowspma818wm copy

…and coveted it for my own backyard prairie plot. I found it at a local garden center specializing in natives. The first season, I had a few blooms. Beautiful!

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This year, the bunnies nipped it back until all I had were short, leafy stalks.

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Disappointing. But, as I often remind myself, thinking in “prairie time” is mostly about patience. Same with the cardinal flowers. That flaming color! I always anticipate it. Some summers, my pond and wet prairie has an abundance of screaming scarlet. The hummingbirds go wild! Then, thecardinalflowerCROSBYbackyard81318wm next season, the flowers disappear.

 

Ah, well. Wait until next year.

The prairie reminds me to think in terms of years, not just the immediate.  But, ironically, the prairie also reminds me that every moment is precious.  I know to stop and admire the wildflowers which change from day to day…

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… or pause in my work to marvel at a gathering of swallows, swooping and diving….

 

…or linger at Clear Creek to enjoy the bright blue of a springwater dancer damselfly.  If I rush off, thinking “I’ll look at that next time I’m here,” there is often no “next time.” I miss the moment.

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Then I think of “prairie time” as these moments; small snapshots of color and light and motion I can carry with me in my memory.

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How elastic time is! How odd it is, as well. Something we move through without conscious thought most days. Yet, how treasured time should be.  As I grow older, the idea of time has taken on new meaning. Want to aggravate me? Say you are “killing time!” Time is much too precious to waste.

The prairie teaches me different ways to think about time. It reminds me that the long-term results are worth forgoing instant gratification.  It also prompts me to remember the importance of paying attention to the moment—the fleeting nature of time. Two very different ways to understand the how I’m spending my life.

Two ways of thinking about living in “prairie time.”

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Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) is a Russian writer who is widely regarded as one of the finest to ever wield a pen. The opening quote is from his 1869 epic, War and Peace. He believed in passive resistance; his ideas were said to have influenced Martin Luther King Junior and Gandhi. War and Peace is thought to be one of the great novels in literature; its title has passed into colloquial use. Tolstoy had a rather tumultuous life; he was excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church, and his marriage to his wife, Sophia, was generally considered to be desperately unhappy. They had 13 children, only eight of which survived to adulthood. Tolstoy died of pneumonia at 82.

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL;  pale purple coneflower seedheads (Echinacea pallida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  ebony jewelwing damselfly (Calopteryx maculata), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Kankakee mallow (Iliamna remota) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Kankakee mallow (Iliamna remota) author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; Kankakee mallow  (Iliamna remota) author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) and sweet Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; video of barn swallows (Hirundo rustica) congregating on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; springwater dancer damselfly, male (Argia plana), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Tallgrass Ice Magic

“Everything is always becoming something else.” — Gretel Ehrlich

***

January’s vivid prairie sunsets remind me of the black light posters I had in the early ’70s. Pow! Unbelievable colors. You wouldn’t expect this in a landscape you thought had gone all taupe grasses and gray skies.

COD Sunset Prairie January 16 2018

What amazements winter keeps pulling out of her bag of tricks! The whims and vagaries of weather brought about both ice and thaw this week. My backyard prairie pond glassed in plants and leaves.

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Down in the still-frozen shallows of Willoway Brook on the Schulenberg Prairie, the broken stalks of white wild indigo lay tangled up in blue snow shadows.

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Along the shoreline, milkweed pods stand ready to serve as makeshift boats. Spilled of their floss, they could float downstream in a thaw; sailing a million miles away. My mind seems to drift off that far in January sometimes as well. Anything seems possible.

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Along the brook where the current runs deep, there’s thaw. So much tension! The muscle of ice against water, the push and pull of solid to liquid.

Transitions.

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I always find transitions difficult. But they often signal some sort of breakthrough. January is a good moment to pause and reflect on this. Be encouraged, instead of discouraged by these passages, these changes.

Meanwhile, Willoway Brook wrestles with its own transitions. Ice splinters and fractures. Shards tumble downstream. The water sings of spring on the way. Soon. Soon.

The ice, cold and slick, is a foil for the other sensory pleasures of the prairie this month. Today, it’s bright sun.  Tomorrow, it might be a shroud of fog across the grasses. Breathe in, and you inhale the taste of evaporating snow in the air.

Lean down, and touch a rasp of sandpapery compass plant leaf…

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…or listen to the castanet rattle of milkvetch pods, holed by insects, each with its cache of dry seeds beating time in the breeze. In the clear air of January, sound seems to travel a little farther than other months.

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The brittle and the rough stand in sharp contrast to the last soft brushes of little bluestem, still holding rich color in the otherwise bleached-out grasses.

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All of these pleasures add their joy to these January days. The ever-present geese honk their lane changes, flying across the jet contrails which criss-cross the sky.

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And each day—as the sun burns its way up through the east and then falls in flames to the west—you know the January cycle of freeze-thaw, freeze-thaw, is bringing spring a little bit closer.

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But for now…

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…enjoy every moment of the magic of ice and snow.

*****

Gretel Ehrlich’s quote, which opens this essay, is from her book, The Future of Ice, written about her love for winter and the perils of climate change. My favorite of her books is The Solace of Open Spaces. If you haven’t read her writing, it’s good company for a cold January evening.

All photos/video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): sunset on the Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL; author’s backyard prairie pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; white wild indigo (Baptisia alba macrophylla), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  authors backyard prairie pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; Willoway brook thaw video, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Canada milkvetch (Astragalus canadensis) Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Canada geese (Branta canadensis) and contrails, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunset, edge of the Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL; ice on the author’s backyard prairie pond, Glen Ellyn, IL. 

A Prairie Wish and a Prayer

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

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