Category Archives: spring

The Prairie Whispers “Spring”

“…this spring morning with its cloud of light, that wakes the blackbird in the trees downhill…”—W.S. Merwin

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On March 1, Jeff and I celebrated the first day of meteorological spring by hiking the 1,829-acre Springbrook Prairie in Naperville, IL.  March came in like a lamb.

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From its unlikely spot smack in the middle of subdivisions and busy shopping centers, Springbrook Prairie serves as an oasis for wildlife and native plants. As part of the Illinois Nature Preserves and DuPage Forest Preserve system…

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… it is (according to the forest preserve’s website) “a regionally significant grassland for breeding and overwintering birds and home to meadowlarks, dickcissels, grasshopper sparrows, woodcocks and bobolinks as well as state-endangered northern harriers, short-eared owls, and Henslow’s sparrows.” Some of these birds stick around during the winter; others will swing into the area in a month or two with the northward migration.

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That’s quite a list of birds.  Shielding our eyes against the sun, we see something unexpected.

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A bald eagle! From its “grave troubles” in the 1970s (as the Illinois Natural History Survey tells us), it is estimated that 30-40 breeding pairs of bald eagles now nest in Illinois each year. We watch it soar, buffeted by the winds, until it is out of sight. As we marvel over this epiphany, we hear the sound of a different bird. Oka-lee! Oka-lee!

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We first heard them a week ago as we hiked the Belmont Prairie. Their song is a harbinger of spring.  Soon, they’ll be lost in a chorus of spring birdsong, but for now, they take center stage.

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A few Canada geese appear overhead. Two mallards complete our informal bird count. Not bad for the first day of March.

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The scent of mud and thaw tickles my nose;  underwritten with a vague hint of chlorophyll.

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Strong breezes bend the grasses.

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The temperature climbs as we hike—soon, it’s almost 60 degrees. Sixty degrees! I unwind my scarf, unzip my coat.

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Joggers plod methodically along the trail, eyes forward, earbuds in place. They leave deep prints on the thawing crushed limestone trail. Bicyclists whiz through, the only evidence minutes later are the lines grooved into the path.

Our pace, by comparison, is slow. We’re here to look.

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Bright light floods the grasslands. Mornings now, I wake to this sunlight which pours through the blinds and jump-starts my day. In less than a week—March 8—we’ll change to daylight savings time and seem to “lose” some of these sunlight gains. Getting started in the morning will be a more difficult chore. But for now, I lean into the light.

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What a difference sunshine and warmth make!

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Families are out in groups, laughing and joking. Everyone seems energized by the blue skies.prairieskiesspringbrookprairie3120WM.jpg

Grasslands are on the brink of disappearance. To save them, we have to set them aflame. Ironic, isn’t it?  To “destroy” what we want to preserve? But fire is life to prairies. Soon these grasses and ghosts of wildflowers past will turn to ashes in the prescribed burns.

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Mowed boundaries—firebreaks—for the prescribed burns are in place…

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…a foreshadowing of what is to come. We’ve turned a corner. Soon. Very soon.

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The prairie world has been half-dreaming…

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…almost sleeping.

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It’s time to wake up.

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All the signs are in place. The slant of light. Warmth. Birdsong. The scent of green.

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Spring.

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The opening quote is part of a poem “Variations to the Accompaniment of a Cloud” from Garden Time by W.S. Merwin (1927-2019). My favorite of his poems is “After the Dragonflies” from the same volume. Merwin grew up in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and was the son of a Presbyterian minister; he later became a practicing Buddhist and moved to Hawaii. As a child, he wrote hymns. He was our U.S. Poet Laureate twice, and won almost all the major awards given for poetry. I appreciate Merwin for his deep explorations of the natural world and his call to conservation.

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All photos this week copyright Cindy Crosby and taken at Springbrook Prairie, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County/Illinois Nature Preserves, Naperville, IL (top to bottom):  March on Springbrook Prairie; sign; prairie skies (can you see the “snowy egret” in the cloud formation?); bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus); red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus); possibly a red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) nest (corrections welcome); mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos); rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccafolium); switchgrass (Panicum virgatum); Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans); hiker; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); bee balm (Monarda fistulosa); prairie skies; dogbane or Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum); mowed firebreak; curve in the trail; snowmelt; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca); common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca); grasses and water. “Lean into the light” is a phrase borrowed from Barry Lopez —one of my favorites —from “Arctic Dreams.”

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Join Cindy for a Class or Talk in March

Nature Writing Workshop (a blended online and in-person course, three Tuesday evenings in-person) begins March 3 at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL. For details and registration, click here. Sold out. Call to be put on the waiting list.

The Tallgrass Prairie: A ConversationMarch 12  Thursday, 10am-12noon, Leafing Through the Pages Book Club, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Open to the public; however, all regular Arboretum admission fees apply.  Books available at The Arboretum Store.

Dragonfly Workshop, March 14  Saturday, 9-11:30 a.m.  Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. Free and open to new and experienced dragonfly monitors, prairie stewards, and the public, but you must register as space is limited. Contact phrelanzer@aol.com for more information,  details will be sent with registration.

Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online begins March 26 through the Morton Arboretum.  Details and registration here.

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

Winter’s Prairie Encore

April is the cruelest month — T.S. Eliot

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Oh what a difference a few hours can make on the tallgrass prairie!

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Those of us in the cross hairs of a narrow band of deep snowfall found Sunday’s bizarre blizzard blast a bit of a surprise. Sure, the meteorologists had hyped it, but we’ve heard those gloom and doom predictions before. I paid little attention

On Saturday evening,  Jeff and I went for a hike on the Schulenberg Prairie at the Morton Arboretum. So green!

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Sunday afternoon, our view out the back door of our house, just north of the prairie,  was a bit different.

At least five inches accumulated over the course of the day.  More than 1,000 flights were cancelled out of O’Hare Airport. Flights were also diverted in our backyard. The bird feeders were full of downy woodpeckers, cardinals, nuthatches, and a few shell-shocked goldfinches.

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My backyard prairie patch—with its “Monarch Way Station” sign—was barely visible the next morning. No monarchs returning from Mexico here, although the sightings in the Chicago region have already begun.

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At 6:30 a.m. Monday morning, my prairie pond is snow and slush.

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By 4:30 p.m. Monday, the heavy snow cover is mostly a distant memory, and the marsh marigolds look none the worse for wear. Snowstorm? What snowstorm?

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By late afternoon Monday, the sun is bright, our taxes are filed, and the temperatures have topped 50 degrees. Life is good. Sunday’s sudden snowfall is now a great story to tell. My little prairie patch is showing signs of life again , the grass is bright emerald, and the sky is impossibly  blue. Outside my window I hear the chorus frogs issuing some tentative trills. There’s the sound of water rumbling out of the gutters, and drip-splash, drip-splash from the roof. Everywhere, puddles mirror the sky.

How mercurial is spring!

This past week, I’ve been reacquainting myself with the plants of the prairie and savanna as they appear in miniature. Earlier this week, I went for a walk on the Belmont Prairie in nearby Downer’s Grove.

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Rattlesnake master is up.

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Today’s walk, after a prescribed burn, is a scavenger hunt of sorts.  There’s a shout-out to baseball season…

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…and a nod to the Master’s Tournament in Augusta this past weekend.

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I’ve found old wallets full of half-burned money, weeding tools, broken bottles, and a slew of flotsam and jetsam after a prescribed burn. What have you discovered on your prairie walks? Leave me a note at the bottom of this post, and let me know.

On Saturday, hiking the Schulenberg Prairie, I found plenty of empty snail shells.

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I don’t notice them much when the grasses and wildflowers fill in, so this time of year is my chance to study them more closely.   Recently, I read “The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating,” which won the John Burroughs award for nature writing in 2011. It’s the true story of Elisabeth Tova Bailey, who is bedridden with a chronic illness. A friend brings her a pot of field violets with a small snail hiding under the leaves. She spends her days lying in bed, observing the snail. Of the book, E.O. Wilson says simply, “Beautiful.”

Bailey’s discovery of the amazing life of the snail reminds me of how much life we are unaware of, all around us on the prairie.

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I want her powers of paying attention.

Still thinking about the book, I decide to check on the pasque flowers. Last week I found two plants! One had germinated from seeds sowed from the mother plant. It’s tough to see the plants against the rocky grays and browns of the graveled prairie. But now—oh glorious day—there are FOUR blooms. And three plants.

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They look tenuous, don’t they? I love these pasque flowers, struggling through the rocky substrate of the prairie before anything else is in bloom here. So fuzzy! That pale color! I’ve read that the common name “pasque” is said to mean “passing by” (Passover, from the Hebrew “pasakh”) or “Easter,” because of their bloom period. These are right on time.

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Soon, we’ll transplant our new pasque flower seedlings out to join them, started from seeds we gathered last spring and grew in the greenhouse. We’ll baby them through the summer. Sure, we have hundreds of wildflower species on the prairie, but to lose pasque flowers would leave an impossible void. There is nothing else on the prairie like them.

It’s difficult to see the four pasque flowers on the early spring prairie unless you know where to look. Not true for bloodroot, which has been in bloom all week in the prairie savanna.

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As I hike, I admire the bloodroot. I also discover the tiny leaves of purple meadow rue, the pink-veined leaves of shooting star forming tiny clumps, and  the pale yellow mayapple missile points bulleting up through the soil. All signs the season has turned, even with this brief snowy setback.

The marsh marigolds in my little backyard prairie pond, the bloodroot on the prairie savanna, and the pasque flowers all whisper spring to me—snow or no snow. Sure, we may see another  flurry or two before April is over.

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But under the snow melt, the prairie comes alive. It’s all a part of the seasonal dance: snowflakes and sunshine, ice and bloom, freeze and buzz.

No blast of winter is going to stop spring from coming.

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The opening quote is from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Eliot is probably best known for his series of poems, The Four Quartets. You can hear him read Burnt Norton here, or learn more about T.S. Eliot here.

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All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): half moon over Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie greening up after prescribed fire, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; video of snowfall on Sunday outside author’s back door, Glen Ellyn, IL; goldfinches (Spinus tristis) at the feeder, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; author’s backyard prairie pond under snow, Glen Ellyn, IL; author’s backyard prairie pond at 4:30 p.m. the same day with marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris) in bloom, Glen Ellyn, IL; Belmont Prairie clouds, Downer’s Grove, IL;  rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Belmont Prairie Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; baseball, Belmont Prairie Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; golf ball, Belmont Prairie Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; snail shell (species unknown), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; new growth at Belmont Prairie Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; line of osage orange (Maclura pomifera) trees at East Prairie and Ecological Study Area, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL.

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Cindy’s Classes and Speaking This Week:

Ongoing: Tallgrass Prairie Ecology online continues, through The Morton Arboretum. Next class is in June, register here.

April 18: Spring Wildflower Walk, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: (Sold out)

Discover other classes and speaking at http://www.cindycrosby.com

10 Reasons to Hike the Prairie This Week

“The pleasure of a walk in the woods and the fields is enhanced a hundredfold by some little knowledge of the flowers which we meet at every turn.”–Mrs. William Starr Dana

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Buckets of rain have doused the prairie to life in the Chicago region. Color it technicolor green. Even under cloudy skies.

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In the neighboring savanna, oaks leaf out and invite exploration to see what’s emerging. They seem to say: “Go deeper in.”

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So much new life all around us! Still need a push to get outside? Here are 10 reasons to hike the prairie this week.

10. Pasque flowers are going to seed, as marvelous in this new stage as they were in bloom. Maybe even more beautiful.

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9. Prairie violets are out in profusion.  Not your ordinary lawn violet. These are something special.

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8. Bastard toadflax spangles the landscape with white. The name alone is worth going to see it!

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7. Wood betony is spiraling into bloom. Looks like a carnival has come to the prairie, doesn’t it?

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6. There’s nothing quite like the smell of wild hyacinth opening in the rain. Breathe deep. Mmmm.

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5. New Jersey tea—a prairie shrub—spears its way through the soil and bursts into leaf.

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4. Common valerian is in full bloom this week. Such a strange little wildflower! Supposedly, it smells like dirty socks, but I’ve never gotten a whiff of any unpleasant fragrance.

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3. Jacob’s ladder covers whole patches of the prairie, adding its bright baby blues.

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2. Wild coffee is about to flower. Its other quirky nicknames, “tinker’s weed” and “late horse gentian” are as odd as the plant’s unusual leaves, blooms, and later, bright orange fruits.

 

  1. Shooting star blankets the prairie in low-lying, pale-pink clouds. You don’t want to miss these wildflowers!  Like their name implies, they’ll be gone before you know it.

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Ten very different reasons to take a hike. But I could find a hundred reasons (and not just the wildflowers) to put on a rain jacket, get out of the house, and go for a  walk on the spring prairie this week.

What about you?

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The opening quote for this post is from How to Know the Wild Flowers (1893) by naturalist Francis Theodora Parsons, aka “Mrs. William Starr Dana” (1861-1952), a book I have long coveted and which my wonderful husband gave me for Mother’s Day.  Parsons was educated at a school taught by Anna Botsford Comstock, who is noteworthy for her role in establishing the Nature Study Movement and especially, empowering women to explore the natural world. Parsons’ life was marred by several tragedies. After the loss of her first husband, Parsons went walking with her friend, the illustrator Marion Satterlee, for comfort. From those walks, the book came about. My 1989 edition has 100 lovely black and white drawings from Satterlee, plus 25 rich color illustrations from paintings by the artist Manabu C. Saito.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby from the Schulenberg Prairie and Savanna, The Morton Arboretum (top to bottom): Rainy May day on the prairie; oaks (Quercus spp.) leafing out; pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens) going to seed; prairie violet (Viola pedatifida); bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata); wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis) in bloom; wild hyacinth (Camassia scilloides) in bloom; New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus) in two different stages; common valerian (Valeriana edulis var. ciliata); Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptans); wild coffee from afar and close up, sometimes called tinker’s weed or late horse gentian (Triosteum perfoliatum);  shooting star  (Dodecatheon meadia).

Spring Fever on the Prairie

“It’s spring fever. That is what the name of it is. And when you’ve got it, you want—oh, you don’t quite know what it is you do want— but it just fairly makes your heart ache, you want it so!” –Mark Twain

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Spring? It’s giving us the cold shoulder on the prairie.

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What a wacky, wicked April. Many prescribed burns were done late or not at all. Snowy days. Frigid nights. Wild winds. Plants stubbornly stay put under the blackened soil of the burned prairies. They know what’s good for them.

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On the edges of the prairie, the trees look dormant and colorless. What happened to the flush of green buds, the chatter of birds? Looking and listening, you’d think it was November instead of April.

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There’s hope.

Look carefully, under the fallen autumn leaves moldering in the woodlands and savannas surrounding the prairie. You’ll see the seasons are changing.  Spring beauties tentatively open in the infrequent sunny hours, pinstriped with pink. Euell Gibbons, best known for his books on wild food foraging and for appearing in  Grape-Nuts commercials, lauded the joys of the edible tubers, known as “fairy spuds.” He also cautioned that they were much too pretty to eat. I agree.

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Spring is in the half-dressed bloodroot blooms, unfurling cautiously, testing the air.

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If you look hard, you may find some blooms.  In the past, various concoctions of bloodroot have been used medicinally, including to control dental plaque, but today, those uses come with a lot of cautionary talk.

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Spring is in the hepatica blooming along the edges of the prairie, its persistent leaves worn and ragged after being nibbled during the winter. First the furry buds appear.

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And then…

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Wow, that color!

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We need hepatica in bloom this week! It’s a morale booster.

Spring is in the tender new leaves of Dutchman’s breeches.

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The fringed growth promises delicate flowers, just days away.

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Spring is in the pasque flowers which escaped the flames of a prescribed burn. The buds look furred against the cold.

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In my backyard prairie planting, shooting stars green up, ready to take off…

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…and skyrocket into bloom. Imagine that pink! Soon.

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Sure, the April skies are gloomy. And we’re winter-weary.

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Hang on to hope.  Look for the clues. Bright spots in the landscape—if you pay attention.

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Everything is about to change. Do you feel it? Spring is coming.

Believe it.

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Mark Twain (1835-1910), whose quote opens this post, is the pen name for Samuel Clemens, an American writer, riverboat pilot, failed gold prospector, and inventor.  He grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, on the Mississippi River, and his pen name, Mark Twain, is steamboat slang for “twelve feet of water.” One my favorite Twain quotes: “The secret to getting ahead is getting started.”

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Pasture thistles (Cirsium discolor) in the April snow, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; just-burned Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bare trees in April with an unknown hawk, Kankakee Sands, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN; spring beauties (Claytonia virginica), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot emerging, Schulenberg Prairie Visitor Station, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot in bloom, Schulenberg Prairie visitor Station, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; hepatica (Hepatica nobilis acuta) emerging, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; hepatica (Hepatica nobilis acuta) in bloom, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; hepatica (Hepatica nobilis acuta) in bloom, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) emerging, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) in bloom, Franklin Creek Natural Area, Franklin Grove, IL; pasque flowers (Pulsatilla pantens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia) emerging, author’s backyard prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL; shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia) in bloom, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Kankakee Sands in the middle of April, The Nature Conservancy, Morocco, IN; goldfinch (Spinus tristis), Schulenberg Prairie, the Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.  Note: Please don’t pick, consume, or use wildflowers without permission and/or expert knowledge. Many are toxic and almost all are best left alone for us to conserve and enjoy. Happy spring! 

The (Prairie) Pause that Refreshes

“Now is the winter of our discontent.”–William Shakespeare
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Pause: a “temporary stop” according to the Merriam Webster Dictionary. The Oxford Dictionary defines “pause” as an interruption.  Pause seems like a good word to describe spring on the prairie this past week. Stopped. Interrupted. Although we know this spring pause is temporary in the Chicago region, some of us are feeling cranky about it.

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Spring, with all its flirtatious promises, has seemingly gone AWOL.  The surge and bloom of wildflowers screeched to a halt. And just when spring was beginning to look like it was underway, right? All those tiny green wildflower leaves!

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The sandhill cranes migrating north. The chorus frogs calling. Just days ago. Such a big push spring made; such clamor and green and even some blooms!  And now, sunshine and blue skies have regressed to the soft patter of snowflakes and grayest gloom. 

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The signature song from the Disney movie “Frozen” plays relentlessly in my head (“Let the storm rage on! The cold never bothered me anyway!”) But it’s difficult to let go of my impatience for the new season to arrive.

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You can spend your life wanting whatever is just out of reach, or wish for things over which you have no control. Or you can appreciate the joy of what is right in front of you and already yours. Contentment can be hard-won at this time of year. But I know what I need to do.

I quit grumbling and go for hike on the prairie.

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Flakes sift into my hair; melt on my face. As I hike, the snowflakes turn into tiny icy balls. Graupel.  Small white pellets of supercooled raindrops. We’ve had a lot of it this past month. The perfect transitional precipitation—not quite rain, hail,or snow.  Graupel is water that just can’t make up its mind. Sort of like spring. 

Under snow and ice, the familiar prairie, still unburned, takes on a transitional look of its own.

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The grasses and forbs wear their winter colors, stripped to the architecture of stems and seeds. But the snow caught in their scaffolding seems a foreshadowing of the flowers to come.

The red-winged blackbirds remind me that it’s April, and not winter.

 

The air smells of mud, snow, and decay. Sharp. Cold and invigorating.

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My head clears as I breathe in the icy air. During this past week,  I’ve sampled some of the pleasures of winter again: hot drinks, a warm afghan, and a big stack of library books. Mulled over seed catalogs, but not felt any urgency to get the garden ready.  There’s a sense that everything can wait. 

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It’s been restful, this breath of winter.  This pause.

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For another day or two, I’ll try and savor the stillness that a “pause” brings. Leave my garden tools in the shed.  Put some whipped cream on my hot chocolate. Enjoy these last days of snow and cold.

You heard that right. Enjoy. 

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The weather forecast calls for temperatures in the seventies later this week. 

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I’m looking forward to the warmer days of spring. You too?

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I’ll believe it when it happens.

Until then, I’ll try to appreciate the pause. 

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William Shakespeare (1564-1616), whose quote opens this blog post, was a British playwright, actor, and poet. He’s considered the world’s greatest dramatist. Few of us will make it through life without having read a play or watched a performance written by Shakespeare. Many of his phrases have fallen into common use such as “green with envy,” or “pure as the driven snow.” Check out this fun article from Mental Floss for more:  21 Phrases You Use Without Realizing You’re Quoting Shakespeare.

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): west side prairie planting and the northern Europe Collection, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; toothwort (Dentaria laciniata or Cardamine concatenataseedling, West Side woodland, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bridge to upper prairie, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild bergamot or bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bridge over Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  pale Indian plantain (Cacalia atriplicifolia or Arnoglossum atriplicifolium) with snow, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; video of Schulenberg Prairie in the snow with red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) singing, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; tangled vines and brambles, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie and savanna, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) with snow, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) and snow, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) with snow, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. And thanks to Karen Burkwall Johnson for her observation about “snow flowers” — love that! 

The Prairie Whispers “Spring”

“Every morning I wakened with a fresh consciousness that winter was over.  There was only—spring itself; the throb of it, the light restlessness, the vital essence of it everywhere: in the sky, in the swift clouds, in the pale sunshine, and in the warm, high wind—rising suddenly, sinking suddenly, impulsive and playful like a big puppy that pawed you and then lay down to be petted. If I had been tossed down blindfold on that red prairie, I should have known that it was spring.” –Willa Cather
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Clouds scud across the February skies. The prairie wind howls. The gray days seem endless.

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But wait! Listen closely. There’s a whisper of spring.

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Do you hear the crackle of ice melt?

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Do you see the skunk cabbage, bruised by the cold? It burns through the leaves and unfurls its rubbery leaves.

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Most of the prairie wildflower seeds have vanished. Emptied, the polished shells of milkweed pods grow brittle and loose.

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A few of the less delectable wildflower seeds –like carrion flower–hang on, withered and waiting.

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Indian grass and other prairie grasses are weather bleached to colorless ghosts.

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Still, if you look closely, big bluestem leaves are etched with reds, pinks, chocolates, and yellows.

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Sumac holds its flaming scarlet candles aloft…

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…while switchgrass throws a party, complete with confetti and streamers.glenbard-south-prairie-switchgrass-ribbons-217

 

Near my backyard prairie patch, black-capped chickadees and a cardinal cautiously crunch seeds at the feeder. Startled by a sound, they fly up as one into the maple. There, they tentatively practice their spring mating songs.

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Warmer weather is just around the corner.

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Can you catch a whisper of spring? Do you see the signs? Look. Listen. We’re almost there.

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Willa Cather (1873-1947), whose quote from My Antonia opens this essay, was a Pulitzer Prize winning writer whose books about the Great Plains immortalized prairie for her readers. She hated her birth name, which was Wilella, and she called herself Willie or William. A graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Cather spent most of her adult life in New York City, where she drew on her childhood memories of Nebraska to write stories of the prairie. She was elected a Fellow of the American Arts and Sciences in 1943, although critics dismissed much of her later writing as nostalgic and out of touch with the times. Cather’s best know trilogy of novels, Oh Pioneers! (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915), and My Antonia (1918), are classics on the prairie landscape and the immigrants who lived there.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): power lines over the prairie, Timber Ridge Forest Preserve, West Chicago, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Glenbard South High School Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL;  ice on Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), Lake Marmo, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Glenbard South High School Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; smooth carrion flower (Smilax herbacea), Timber Ridge Forest Preserve on the Great Western Trail, West Chicago, IL;  Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Timber Ridge Forest Preserve, West Chicago, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Glenbard South High School Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; smooth sumac (Rhus glabra), Timber Ridge Forest Preserve, West Chicago, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Glenbard South High School Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) and black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus), author’s backyard feeders by her prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; hiking the Schulenberg Prairie with a butterfly net in February, 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. 

 

Tallgrass Transitions

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We like to plan and schedule. March, however, didn’t get that memo.

It’s unpredictable. In the Chicago suburbs, we’ve just come off one of the coldest Februarys ever recorded here. Yet the meteorological calendar says it’s now spring. Really. Out on the Schulenberg Prairie, Willoway Brook is solid ice and shows few signs of thaw, even after a sunny warm-up day in the 30s this week. It rests under a white snow comforter, quilted into the landscape. Almost invisible.

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The recent dusting of snow makes critter tracks a little more clear. I follow them around, using them as a visual GPS to find their tunnels, snow-caves, and escape holes.

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Under that same snowfall, garlic mustard, that scourge of the prairie savanna, is waiting. Before long, my crew of restoration volunteers will be out on their search and destroy mission. When can we get going? They are restless, ready. But it’s not a date I can put on any calendar. Soon, I tell them. Soon.

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I have to wait. Be flexible. Pay attention to the shift from winter to spring. Look for clues. Watch for the signals that it’s time to start something new.

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At Nachusa Grasslands and at The Morton Arboretum, the natural resources folks plan their prescribed burn strategies after snowmelt. Fire equipment is cleaned and readied. Maps are unfolded and studied. Training commences. Prescribed burn season is about to begin…. but when? Just as soon as that snow disappears.

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People and the prairie hold their breath; poised for the new season.

The prairie reminds us that waiting is part of transitioning from one season to the next. We can only look for hints of what’s around the corner. And be ready.  Meanwhile, we walk the snowy tallgrass and believe that change is possible.

A new season. It’s coming.

Soon. Very soon.

(All photos by Cindy Crosby. Top: Schulenberg Prairie edges, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  Willoway Brook, SP; snow hole, tunnels and tracks, SP; Thelma Carpenter Unit, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; squirrel, SP; upper prairie, SP)