Category Archives: tallgrass prairie

Prairie Ghosts

“O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.” — Thomas Wolfe

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Prairie restoration often seems a paradox.

We set the prairie aflame, to bring life out of the ashes.

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We learn to weld fences—in hope of the return of wild things.

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Although we are organic gardeners; we take tests, earn licenses to spray herbicide to keep aggressive plants at bay in the tallgrass.

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We listen to plants which have no voices; ask them to tell us their stories.

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We construct beautiful buildings to tell the message of open spaces.

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We look for traces of the past in order to create a different future. Ghosts. They linger in out-of-the-way places. A certain wildflower, perhaps. An endangered bird. A rare butterfly. Do they still exist? Or have they vanished forever?

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Even as we search, we wonder at the absurdities. Past generations labored to change these prairies into fields of corn and soybeans. We patiently endeavor to return fields to  prairie.

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Why did we lose so much before we realized its value?

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We envision a different future for the acres we care for. A future that might be possible through the work of our hands, the strength of our longing, the power of our imagination…and a little luck.

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We recognize that the prairie restoration work we do is in part, our desire to know that we can make a tangible difference. That change is possible.  That it is never too late to try.

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We pray that what is now fragile and  broken…

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…and once almost erased…

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…will return again. A shadow of what it once was, perhaps. An echo.

But worthwhile, all the same.

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Because we recognize that when we heal the land, in many ways, we heal ourselves.

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As for how we accomplish both—we make peace with the paradoxes.

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Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938) was the author of Look Homeward, Angel (1929), from which the first quote in this post was taken. This quote is also included as a stunning conclusion to John Madson’s classic book, Where the Sky Began: Land of the Tallgrass Prairie

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Schulenberg Prairie prescribed burn, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bison (Bison bison) herd, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; interpretive sign at Kent Fuller Air Station Prairie, Glenview, IL; the stunning Evelyn Pease Tyner Interpretive Center, Kent Fuller Air Station Prairie, Glenview, IL; prairie burn, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) seed head, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; small white lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium candidum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) in bloom, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasque flowers (Pulsatilla patens), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; broken eggshell in a nest, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; icy bison track, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale purple coneflowers (Echinacea pallida), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

A Thousand Prairie Details

” …few (if any) details are individually essential, while the details collectively are absolutely essential. What to include, what to leave out. Those thoughts are with you from the start.” –John McPhee

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“What to include, what to leave out?” How do you decide—when you try to describe September on the prairie?

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Look through the tallgrass kaleidoscope. Details change. From hour to hour; moment to moment.

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The prairie is a shape-shifter.

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Color and pattern maker.

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Each insect and plant outlined and highlighted.

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A few shocks of color. Burnt cherry.

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Pure purple.

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Other details, less colorful, still dazzle. Fizzy whites, knitted together by spiders; pearled by dew.

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Sheer numbers sometime disguise the finer elements.

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The particulars lost in a tangle. Taken out of context.

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The familiar becomes unfamiliar.

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The tiniest details create the sum of the whole. The autumn prairie.

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Dreamlike.

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Almost invisible at times. Camouflaged. But unforgettable.

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The magic of a thousand prairie details.

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They all add up to something extraordinary.

***

The opening quote is from John McPhee’s Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process.  McPhee (1931-) is the author of more than 30 books, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999 for Annals of the Former World.

***

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) at the end of a trail, Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN;  white wild indigo leaves with spider silk, Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN; September in the tallgrass, Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN; three butterflies puddling (two male clouded sulphurs (Colias philodice) and an orange sulphur (Colias eurytheme)), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) with morning dew, Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN;  yellow legged or autumn meadowhawk dragonfly (Sympetrum vicinum), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN;  unseasonal bloom on white wild indigo in September (Baptisia leucantha), Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN;  nodding bur marigold (Bidens cernua), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  bison (Bison bison) hair on the trail, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) with dewdrops, Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN; early morning on the prairie, Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN; fog over Taltree Arboretum Prairie, Valparaiso, IN; eastern tailed blue butterfly (Cupido comyentas), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Taltree Arboretum prairie, Valparaiso, IN.

Purple Prairie Haze

“No matter how chaotic it is, wildflowers will still spring up in the middle of nowhere.” — Sheryl Crow
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There’s a plethora of prairie purple right now. (Say it three times, very fast.) The pinky purple of wild geraniums color the prairie edges.

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Here and there–but much more rare–the bird’s foot violet.

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And its close kin, prairie violet.

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Go plum crazy over fragile blue toadflax.

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Do some whoopin’ over purple prairie lupine…

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Seek out the violet wood sorrel, dabbed here and there across the prairie.

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Look up! May skies are often the purple-blue of a storm.

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After the rain, amethyst-colored long-leaved bluets are splattered with grit.

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The rain encourages wild hyacinth’s lavender blues to open. Inhale their fragrance. Wow!

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Sunset prairie purples close many May days on the prairie. Not fiery. Not spectacular. But in true purple form…peaceful.

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No matter how chaotic the world seems at any given time, an hour on the May prairie–with its purple moments–puts things into perspective again.

An hour that is always well-spent.

***

Sheryl Crow (1962-), whose quote opens this blogpost, is an American recording artist perhaps best known for her hits, “Every Day is  a Winding Road,” and “All I Wanna Do.”  She has won nine Grammy Awards, and been nominated for a Grammy 32 times. Her album, Wildflower, has sold almost a million copies.

***

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): wild geraniums (Geranium maculatum) East Woods area, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bird’s foot violet (Viola pedata), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; prairie violet (Viola pedatifida), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; blue toadflax (Nuttallanthus canadensis), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; lupine (Lupinus perennis), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; violet wood sorrel (Oxalis violacea), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; storm over Fame Flower Knob, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; long-leaved bluets after the storm (Houstonia longifolia var.longifolia), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; wild hyacinths (Camassia scilloides), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunset over Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Special thanks to Bernie Buchholz for his restoration work, and for introducing me to several new wildflowers at Nachusa Grasslands.

Fire and Rain

“I’ve seen fire, and I’ve seen rain… .” –James Taylor

Those relentless March rains! Now it’s April—pushing the envelope for fire.

The prairie waits.

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Wildflowers and grasses, urged to life by spring showers, push up through the damp earth. Oblivious to the fire still to come.

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The prescribed burn crew gathers. Light the match! The drip torch ignites.  A crackle and pop… the dry grasses catch.

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Smoke rises; smudges the sun.

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Trees are cast into sharp relief;  wraith-like shadows haunt the grasses.

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Flames devour the prairie; lick the savanna. Whispering. Growing closer.

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Listen. Can you hear the fire advancing? A sound like rain.

 

Last year’s prairie vanishes in moments. Becomes only memories.

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More rain falls. The prairie fizzes over, all chocolates and emeralds.

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Life-giving fire. Life-giving rain.

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The beginnings of something new emerge.

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Hope. Anticipation. Wonder. So much is on the way. Right around the corner.

***

James Taylor (1948-) is a five-time Grammy Award winner who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. His albums have sold more than 100 million copies. Although it only went to #3 on pop charts (1970), his single, “Fire and Rain,” is considered Taylor’s breakthrough song.

All photos and video copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; spring beauties (Claytonia virginica) Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Schulenberg Prairie and Willoway Brook, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie Visitor Station area, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie Visitor Station, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie and Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; video of Schulenberg Prairie and Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Russell Kirt Prairie in my side view mirror, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL; Fame Flower Knob, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; sunset over Russell Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage Natural Areas, Glen Ellyn, IL;  red admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta) on marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris), author’s backyard prairie pond, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Finding our Story on the Prairie

“Stories are compasses and architecture; …to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions. Place is a story, and stories are geography….” -Rebecca Solnit ***

It’s spring.  The geography of the early spring prairie is an unfolding story. It’s a good place to think about where you’ve been and where you are at now.  Where you’re headed next.

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There’s  evidence of what has passed on the March prairie. Bison tracks, filled with ice, glitter under the cold, clear sky.

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You may find an icy stream rearranging itself in the sunshine. Change.

 

The last — or will it be the last? –snowfall melts under the focused blaze of the sun.

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Old attitudes begin to thaw along with the snow and the ice. You feel pliable, flexible, more comfortable with ambiguity.

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There’s still plenty of the old prairie grasses, untouched by fire, to remind us of last season.

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On other prairies, the newly-scorched earth is witness to how life can drastically change within moments.

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In early March, the remains of last year’s prairie seem fragile; transient. Poised on the edge of something new.

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On the first day of spring, a thunderstorm rumbles through. Hail taps against the tallgrass. Who knows what the week ahead will bring? Sunshine or snowflakes; sleet or heat, mud or slush. Then, rewind to winter again. Anything is possible.

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Despite the calendar’s confirmation of spring, on long strings of gray days, it’s easy to feel stuck. Mired in the old.

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But the return of migrating birds; the heightened colors of our regular year-round visitors at the backyard feeders and on the prairie, are a reassurance that something new is coming. Another chapter in the prairie story is beginning. How will our own story be different this time around?

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Spring, with its wildflowers and floods of green, slowly moves onstage; a series of stops and starts.

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We’re impatient to embrace it all. This season, we vow, we’ll be more intentional. Risk  a little, love more, adventure out where we’re uncomfortable. Speak up instead of be silent. Pay attention.

In her book, The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit offers this thought: Will your story be largely an account of what has happened to you? Or will it be an account of what you did?  It’s so easy to stay with what works. Go with the flow. Let the days pass as they always have.

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Take a long hike on the prairie. Think about its story of growth, of testing by fire, of resurrection. Reflect on what you really want to do with the time you have just ahead.

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How will you be intentional about your story this season? What will your story be?

Go, and find out.

***

The opening quote is from The Faraway Nearby, by Rebecca Solnit (1961-), who has written more than a dozen books about the nature of place,  and our place in the world. Another good book from Solnit is Wanderlust: A History of Walking. She is a winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): wetland, Prairie Walk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL: iced bison (Bison bison) track, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; ice melt video, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; beaver (Castor canadensis) dam on the prairie wetlands, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bison (Bison bison) tracks in the mud, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; tallgrass, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; prescribed burn, local prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Prairie Walk Pond and Dragonfly Landing, Lisle, IL; iced bison (Bison bison) track, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis) in a willow (Salix viminalis), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; moon over author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; wildflower street sign, Rochelle, IL; deer (Odocoileus virginianus) at The Morton Arboretum oak savanna, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

 

Learning from Leopold

We shall never achieve harmony with the land, anymore than we shall achieve absolute justice or liberty for people. In these higher aspirations the important thing is not to achieve but to strive.” –Aldo Leopold

***

Getting to know prairie restorations and their communities of plants, animals, and people eventually leads to wanting to see the mother of all prairie restorations. Curtis Prairie, at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum in Madison, is the world’s first known prairie restoration. It’s more than 80 years old, and hosts about 200 different types of birds and 35 species of mammals.

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When I arrive in early December, the prairie is wrapped in fog. The temperature hovers between freeze and thaw, just enough to make the trails through the tallgrass slushy. My hiking boots slurp mud at every step.

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Some of the paths have been cleared; an invitation to explore.

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Whoever thinks December lacks color hasn’t hiked the Curtis Prairie.

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The reds of gray dogwood pushing into the prairie liven up the metallic gold, silver, and bronze of the grasses. Winter elevates some of the humbler, weedier native plants, like this Canada goldenrod below, to new artistry.

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As a prairie restoration steward, I don’t like invasive plants–plants that overwhelm a native landscape. I know too well the damage and havoc they wreak on a prairie. But despite myself, I admire the oriental bittersweet, twining in the tallgrass under the falling snow.  I remember combing the woods as a child with my mother and grandmother in the 1960s, raking vines from trees for Christmas decorations.  Now, I remove oriental bittersweet in natural areas for different reasons.

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It’s quiet on the prairie, except for the sounds of traffic in the distance. There’s not a soul out on the tallgrass trails today but me.

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Maybe no human souls — but I have company. A red-tailed hawk soars overhead as it scans the grasses for a mouse. About 20 wild turkeys skirt the edges of the prairie and savanna, then head for some nearby crabapple trees. Frozen fruit lies on the ground. They’re enjoying a little cold crabapple cider, no doubt, to spice up their morning stroll.

Gobble, gobble.

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I find the reds of the gray dogwood beautiful in the falling snow. But I know restoration managers are concerned about the encroachment of shrubs into the prairie here. My aesthetic enjoyment is another steward’s headache.

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I think of the quote by Leopold that opens this essay. There is joy and inspiration in seeing what restoration efforts like this one have accomplished. There is also reassurance in seeing that other stewards struggle with the same issues I do–native and non-native plants slugging it out for dominance on the prairie; the efforts to provide easy access for visitors during harsh weather;  the desire to foster an appreciation of the prairie in the colder months. The work of restoration is always a process.

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The amazing Curtis Prairie at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum continues to be a benchmark in restoration for all of us who care for and appreciate tallgrass prairies. Long may it stay beautiful and healthy.

Leopold’s words remind me that perfection is elusive. The important thing is to keep working towards our goals–for justice, for liberty, and for harmony with the land. May we all continue to strive toward attaining harmony, wherever we call home.

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Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), whose quote from “Round River,”(Journals of Aldo Leopold) kicks off this essay, was a professor at University of Wisconsin. He is most famous for his book, A Sand County Almanac, which is part of the foundational study of conservation ethics for many who work in prairie restoration and wildlife management.

***

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby at Curtis Prairie, Madison, WI (top to bottom): entrance to Curtis Prairie; road through the prairie, trail through the tallgrass; Curtis Prairie in December; Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis); oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus); gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa); wild turkey (Meleagris gallopavo silvestris); gray dogwood (Cornus racemosa)goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) rosette gall.

Giving Thanks in the Tallgrass

“Be soft. Do not let the world make you hard. Do not let pain make you hate. Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness. Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place.” – attributed to Kurt Vonnegut

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Why would anyone walk the prairie in November? Come and find out.

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See the sandhill cranes, headed south, as they have done from time out of mind. They tell us one season is done; another is unfolding. Are you listening?

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Marvel at the curve of a dried compass plant leaf, which once took its directions from the sun.

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Enjoy the sweep of prairie sky over the bleached grasses. So much contrast!

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Watch the seeds of many different plants lift and float on a breath of wind.

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Others drop and scatter. So many different types of seeds on the prairie! Imagine where they will land…

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…and what each seed might become.  Think about how one seed may eventually give life to other living things.

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Marvel at the spiky rattlesnake master seedheads. So much diversity! It’s what makes the prairie rich and interesting.

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Even the polished spheres of goldenrod galls each hold a tiny insect inside. The humblest prairie plant does its part to provide a home and nourishment for the winter for a prairie creature.

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Miraculous, isn’t it? The world holds wonders. So much diversity; all working together. Everything moving forward.

Take time to look. To  remember. Then, to give thanks.

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The opening quote is sometimes attributed to Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007), shared with me by Carolyn McCready. Vonnegut was a prisoner of war during the bombing of Dresden (1945) and lost many of the people he loved to various tragedies, including divorce, suicide, and cancer. Yet, he still believed the world was a beautiful place.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom) prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata), St. Stephen’s Cemetery PRairie, Carol Stream, IL; sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis) over author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; dogbane or Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum), St. Stephen’s Cemetery Prairie, Carol Stream, IL; seedheads in the tallgrass at St. Stephen’s Cemetery Prairie, Carol Stream, IL; fritillary butterfly (Speyeria spp.) on wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), St. Stephen’s Cemetery Prairie, Carol Stream, IL; goldenrod gall, St. Stephen’s Cemetery Prairie, Carol Stream, IL.