Category Archives: snow

Transformed by Prairie Snow

“How is it that the snow amplifies the silence, slathers the black bark on limbs, heaps along the brush rows?”–Robert Haight

Love it, hate it, delight in it, complain about it—it’s here. Snow. A blizzard dropped almost eight inches of snow on  the western Chicago suburbs overnight this week.  According to our Chicago weather guru Tom Skilling and friends, this month is now tied for the third snowiest November on record here.

A snowfall can transform the prairie in a matter of hours.  Brittle grasses and spent wildflowers, under the influence of snow, become something otherworldly.  Magical, even.

Trees are down, cracked and slung to the ground by the weight of the wet white stuff.  On the prairie, the tallgrass is broken and smothered, reshaped  by wind and weather. Snow has given the prairie sharp new geometric angles; while at the same time softened some of the rough edges.

The blizzard-strength gusty winds, greater than 35 mph, pounded snow into the bird feeders by my backyard prairie patch. As the storm slowed Monday morning, hungry birds began lining up at the feeders like planes at O’Hare Airport. This downy woodpecker, below, was working hard to get peanuts without much success until my husband, watching the bird hammer fruitlessly on the snowed-over tube, took pity and trudged outside to chip the ice off.

In nearby forest preserves and natural areas, coyotes took advantage of the weather to go for a stroll and admire their tracks.

These coyotes, birds, and other fauna of my backyard and the regional prairies are grateful for temps that hover in the low thirties. Ponds and streams, limned by snow, none-the-less stay open. Drinking water is secure. The dark open water of my backyard prairie pond is an inkblot in the bright, white snow.

Under periodic sun, the snow-sprayed prairie sparkles. It’s impossible not to marvel, especially this early in the season when a snowfall hasn’t lost its power to enchant us. Later in the winter, of course, we’ll become less captivated by its charms. Does snow have its downsides? Sure. Ask those who threw out their backs shoveling driveways, or  my neighbor whose tree crumpled under the heavy white stuff and smashed her family room window. The family who is—24 hours after the storm—waiting for power to be restored to their neighborhood. Those whose flights are cancelled. The drivers who wait for a tow truck, after sliding off the icy roads.

Snow can be dangerous, and at a minimum, an inconvenience.

But, as you scrape off your car windshield this morning, or add those extra scarves, gloves, and warm layers to prepare for your morning commute, take a moment to consider the grace of snow. How it transforms the familiar to the unfamiliar.  How it takes the prairie and the rest of our world by storm, then gives it a makeover.

After a snowfall, I see the world differently.  The transformation of the November prairie overnight by snow jolts me out of the ordinary;  gives me pause. If this large-scale transformation of the landscape can happen in such a short time, are there other transformations, less visible, that are possible for myself?

This massive snowfall, which altered everything I see around me, reminds me of how much change is possible in only a day. How everything can be renewed, on a large scale as well as small. I’m prompted to see—again—that the world is a beautiful place; full of wonder. 

I needed this encouragement, here at the end of November. You too?

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Robert Haight, whose thoughtful words about snow begin this blog,  is a writer and environmentalist who teaches at Kalamazoo Valley Community College in Michigan. Among his books of poetry are Feeding Wild Birds and Water Music. You can read the full poemHow is it that the Snowhere.

Robert Haight is a writer who teaches at Kalamazoo Valley Community College.  Among his books of poetry are 

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL: virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana) Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: author’s prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; downy woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens) at the  feeder by the author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; Schulenberg Prairie Savanna with coyote (Canis latrans) at sunset a few years ago at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: author’s backyard prairie pond, Glen Ellyn, IL; wild grape vine (Vitis unknown species) in winter, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Gold Medal Prairie Snowfall

“The problem with winter sports is that —follow me closely here—they generally take place in winter.”–Dave Barry

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It’s been a few days since the snow-pocalypse here in the Chicago suburbs. Prairie streams and lakes exhale steamy clouds of change. The thermometer free-falls toward zero, then cycles back toward thaw. Everything is covered in white stuff.

Deep snow makes hiking the tallgrass trails more difficult. But worth the extra effort it takes.

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Snow plows fling impassible tall white palisades along the highways and streets. Those same snow plows caused me to mutter frustrated words as they passed my driveway this weekend, slushing it with a dirty wintry mix as I shoveled. I felt like Sisyphus. Shovel out. Snow falls. Shovel out. Snow plow goes by. Shovel out. More snow falls. Repeat.

If there was an Olympic gold medal for snow shoveling, I’d be a contender.

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And yet, how can I complain? At last! We have our necessary winter snow. We’ve been below our average snowfall all season. Made up for it in one glorious February weekend.

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Sure, it stings a little.

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But love it, hate it, we need it. Snow helps moderate the Earth’s temperature. It melts; adds much-needed water to reservoirs and lakes. If you brushed your teeth this morning, ate something grown by a farmer, drank a glass of water or made a pot of coffee, then snow matters to you.

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A substantial snowfall makes everything—including the prairie—a little brighter in February.

Here’s a fun word: albedo. It’s a measure of how much sunlight is reflected by snow back into the atmosphere.  According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center  (yes, there is such a center!),  snow reflects up to 90 percent of sunlight. Simply put, this reflected solar energy helps cool our planet.

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Snow insulates.  It conserves moisture in the prairie soil, then keeps that moisture from evaporating.

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Aesthetically, snow reminds us of the beauty of prairie plants. Provides a background for us to admire their architecture. Like this Joe Pye weed.

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Snow reminds us that the prairie is home to many seemingly invisible creatures who share the world with us. Their stamped luge chutes and prints deboss trails through the tallgrass and savanna.

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Here in the Chicago suburbs, weather forecasters say the piles of snow will melt by the end of the week. Difficult to believe today, looking at our world of icy white.

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Enjoy this event while it lasts. Even if the price of admission is some heavy shoveling.

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Miami journalist and humorist Dave Barry (1947-) received the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1988 for his “consistently effective use of humor as a device for presenting fresh insights into serious concerns.” Barry often chronicles the strangeness of the state of Florida and aging in his 30-plus books; many of which are good cures for winter doldrums. Take a look here.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Willoway Brook tributary, the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; East Side prairie planting along the Northern Europe Collection, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: probably late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bald-faced hornet (Dolichovespula maculata) nest, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; February on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; February on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) tracks through the snow, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; visitor (Homo sapiens) hiking the Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. 

Beginnings

Morning dawns on the prairie.

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A lone red-winged blackbird calls. No breeze rustles the brittle, bleached out stands of little bluestem; the dry stalks of prairie switchgrass. The seedpods of of St. John’s wort and other bloomers have long since cracked open and dropped their seeds. There’s the promise of something new ready to germinate.

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Few flames from prescribed burns have touched the tallgrass here in Illinois … yet. But there is the rumor of fire.

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The temperatures have warmed. The wind whispers “it’s time.”

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Time for everything to begin again.

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To burn off the old; to spark something new.

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With the flames will go our memories of a season now past. What waits for us  …

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…will build on what went before, but is still unknown.

There is a sadness in letting go of what we have.

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Yet to not move forward– to shy away from that which that will seemingly destroy the tallgrass– is to set the prairie back. To keep it from reaching its full potential.

So we embrace the fire.

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We accept that things will change.  IMG_7100

 

We realize there will be surprises. Things we don’t expect.

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We strike the match. Say goodbye to ice and snow.

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Watch the prairie go up in flames.

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We wait to see what will appear.

On the other side of the fire.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby: (top to bottom) sunrise, Meadow Lake prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie grasses and Great St. John’s Wort (Hypericum pyramidatum), Meadow Lake prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prescribed burn, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; Willoway Brook, The Schulenberg Prairie, Lisle, IL; eastern cottontail, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;   prescribed burn, The Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prescribed burn sign, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Meadow Lake prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prescribed burn, The Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; July on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  twin fawns, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Meadow Lake prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prescribed burn, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; two-track through Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. 

 

In Praise of Snow

What is it about snow? We moan when we see the forecast. Act as if we are personally offended that the white stuff is coming down. Shrug as we salt our driveways and sidewalks for the umpteenth time.

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We seem surprised. Although—isn’t February in Illinois usually about snow?

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The prairie reminds us that snow can be beautiful.

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Snow paints still life after still life, using a limited palette.

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Without the full range of colors available, the prairie in February relies heavily on getting the structures right.

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Tallgrass blanketed with falling flurries offers  both stillness and motion.

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February’s snowy prairie is not so much about growing.  

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True, the deep root systems that plunge beneath the soil line spell life for the season ahead.

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Yet, the prairie’s icy surface tells the story of life on pause; at rest.

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Observing this, we are reminded to take stock of where we have been—and what has been— no matter how painful or difficult it is to look.

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To contemplate who and where we are in the here and now.

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To dream about what the landscape of our future might be.

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It’s this yearly rhythm of growth and rest …

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… that gives us space to reflect. To remember. To imagine.

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It’s  a lot to think about …  the next time we’re shoveling snow.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): savanna, Hidden Lake Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; squirrel in the snow, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; old field with prairie planting, East Side, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), East Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum; asters (Aster spp.), East Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum;  Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), East Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum; goldenrod (Solidago spp.), East Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum; Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum;  Nachusa Grasslands in winter, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; brambles and snow, East Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum; Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), East Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum; the path, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) on the snow, Meadow Lake, The Morton Arboretum; East Side prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum;  prairie plants and savanna at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL.

 

Ten Reasons to Hike the Prairie in January

Your car won’t start. Going outside means donning a scarf, gloves, hat, coat, and at least three layers underneath. The driveway is a sheet of ice. You’re out of sidewalk salt.

Welcome to January, a month a lot of suburban Chicago folks love to hate. It’s tempting to skip our trips to the tallgrass prairie. Too cold. Too slick. Short days. No flowers.

But missing prairie encounters after the turn of the year means losing out on some magical moments.  Consider these ten reasons to hike the prairie in January.

#10. Ice, ice, baby. The designs change from minute to minute.

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#9. Snow becomes a journal for prairie stories you missed. Invisible critters become visible.

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#8. Structure.

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#7. Unbelievable skies.

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#6. Snow pooled in the grasses gives the prairie a new look.

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#5. Noticeable transitions.

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#4. The color blue.

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#3. Unexpected contrasts.

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#2. Intriguing seedheads

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#1. Slow hikes.

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Yes, it’s treacherous underfoot. But walking carefully, picking our way through ice and snow, offers opportunities to slow down and to pay attention.

Thanks, January.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby. (Top to bottom) Snow and ice rim Willoway Brook, which runs through the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; squirrel tracks, SP; tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum), SP;  prairie grasses, lake, and sunrise at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; grasses, SP;  Schulenberg Prairie savanna; Clear Creek winding through Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL;  robin on smooth sumac (Rhus glabra), SP; round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata), SP; hiking the Schulenberg Prairie in the snow.

(*SP is an abbreviation for the Schulenberg Prairie)

Seeding the Snow

Early January can’t make up its mind between rain or snow. Water droplets cling to plants…

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…then begin to freeze.

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A squirrel, oblivious to the precipitation, snuggles into the crook of a walnut branch. Its scritch, scritch, scritch, of teeth against hull breaks the silence.

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I find her cast-off walnut hulls in the tallgrass.

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The prairie, once plump with seeds of every sort in October, is in the throes of letting go. Partially-nibbled or mostly gone is the rule  for seeds now. Birds, insects, and wind have done their work.

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Carrion flower fruits wrinkle in the cold.

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Its deep purple berries are a welcome bit of color. The January prairie is more about structure than bright hues.

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The colors of the tallgrass are muted.

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…in a veil of drizzle turning to snow.

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Tree limbs, battered by winter weather, fall into the tallgrass. Their soft wood will become a nursery for fungi, moss, lichens, and insects.

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White wild indigo seed stalks snap off at the base. The wind tumbles them across the prairie into the  brook. They pile up like a dam. Their seeds are now scattered through the tallgrass, waiting to sprout in the spring.

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All across the prairie, seeds loosen their grip on stalks; drop onto the waiting frozen ground. The cold and snow begin to work their magic, readying the seeds for the moment in the spring when everything shouts……

GROW!

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Bright colors are in there — invisible. Tucked into the dull, lifeless looking seeds.

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We believe in what’s coming. The miracle of hard, dry seeds dropped onto ice and mud that will transform the prairie and seed the snow.

Until then, we watch. Wait for miracles…that will come out of the snow.

All photos by Cindy Crosby (top to bottom)  figwort (Scrophularia marilandica) with water drops, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; squirrel with walnut, SP: black walnut hull, SP; grey-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) seedhead and Illinois bundleweed (Desmanthus Illinoensis) seedhead, SP; carrion flower (Smilax herbacea) seedhead,  SP;  gray skies, SP;  prairie in the drizzle, SP; grasses, SP:;  bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) seedheads; white wild  indigo (Baptisia alba) plants, SP ; tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris)  Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; Michigan lily (Lilium michiganense), NG; black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) with katydid, SP; bottle gentians (Gentian andrewsii), NG.

Abbreviations SP, NG: Schulenberg Prairie, Nachusa Grasslands.

 

‘Round the December Prairie

A heavy November snow steamrolled the prairie into submission. A 50 degree day or two then melted the snow into invisibility. What’s left behind around Willoway Brook looks as if a giant paperweight has pressed the tallgrass flat.

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December on the prairie opens with a brand new look. Before the deep snow, the prairie grasses brushed my shoulders, towered over my head; a thick, vertical wall. Now, in many places, a springy carpet of grasses lies under my feet.

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For most of the autumn, the prairie has been drawn by an artist who loved vertical lines.

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But now, with the verticals knocked to the ground, a new shape takes prominence.

Circles. One of the simplest shapes in geometry. I see them everywhere.

The prairie dock leaves, drained of their chlorophyll, remind me of a dress I once owned made of dotted swiss material.

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The globes of bee balm repeat the circular pattern; clusters of tiny yawning tubular tunnels.

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Sunken balls of carrion flower catch the afternoon light.

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Tall coreopsis seeds dot the sky like beads suspended on wires.

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Overhead, thousands of cranes are migrating south, punctuating the quiet with their cries. They circle and loop; circle and loop.

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The gray-headed coneflower seeds have half-circle pieces missing.

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Crinkled round ball galls look like they’ve dropped from another planet. Anybody home?  No sign of life inside.

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Even the downy leaves of ashy sunflowers echo the pattern; try to loop  into circles.

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The compass plant leaves curl into ringlets, stippled with tiny full moons.

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Freckled and fanciful.

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I miss November’s bold, vibrant tallgrass, upright and waving in the wind from horizon line to horizon line. A flattened prairie seems defeated, somehow. Beaten down by the elements.

But I’m glad for the unexpected gift of seeing a prairie pattern I might have otherwise missed. Losing a familiar way of viewing the world opens up a different perspective. Today, I’m seeing the prairie in the round.

Who knows what else I’ll learn to see in a new way before the year is done?

 

All photos by Cindy Crosby taken at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL except where noted  (top to bottom): Willoway Brook; prairie grasses, prairie clover (Dalea purpurea, Dalea candida) , prairie dock leaf (Silphium terebinthinaceum), bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) ,carrion flower, tall coreopsis; sandhill cranes; Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata; ball gall; ashy sunflower (Helianthus mollis); compass plant  (Silphium laciniatum);  compass plant(Silphium laciniatum).