Category Archives: the morton arboretum

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.

It’s enough to make you weep.treesatkankakeeS41518watermark.jpg

 

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! 

Bright White Delights on the Prairie

Bright colors aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

Need convinced? Hike the prairie and prairie savanna on a fine spring day in May and look for flashes of white. Among the blooms, you might see…

…the small white lady’s slipper orchids. After the seeds germinate, it takes almost a dozen years for the plant to produce flowers. No instant gratification here… but it’s worth the wait, isn’t it?

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Frequent pollinators include this halictine bee. Almost as beautiful as the bloom.

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Common valerian  looks anything but common. The blooms smell like dirty socks, but it appears its antsy visitors don’t mind the scent. As the flowers fade, the stalks turn bright pink. Who knew?

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If you hike the prairie savanna nearby, you may stumble on a cluster of large-flowered trillium. Instinctively, you’ll drop to your knees to appreciate them more fully. Wow.

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Whoever named “blue-eyed grass” had a sense of humor. It’s not in the grass family (rather, it’s an iris) and this particular species is not blue.  Despite its name, this “common blue-eyed grass” is uncommonly beautiful.

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I have an affinity for violets, although my neighbors think of them as weedy trespassers. On the prairie, the common white violets line the trails. They rarely venture into the tallgrass arena, where they’d have to duke it out with tougher plants.

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Smooth and false Solomon’s seal are starting to bloom in the savanna and in the shadier areas  of the prairie. But the real showstopper is starry Solomon’s seal, sprinkled through the grasses.

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One of the first prairie plant names I learned was bastard toadflax, which colonizes large areas, dabbing the prairie with dots of white. Its seeds were once a tasty trail snack, when eaten in small amounts, for hungry Native Americans on the move.

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Even the lone dandelion that blooms unwelcomed by the trail puts on a colorless, star-like show. Love ’em or hate ’em, the dandelion has its own ethereal beauty as it throws its starred seeds to the wind.

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Sure, it’s no lady’s slipper.

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But even dandelion seeds take on a bit of bright white glamour on a fine spring day in May. Why not take an hour  or two and go see for yourself?

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby at the Schulenberg Prairie and Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL (top to bottom): small white lady’s slipper orchids (Cypripedium candidum), small white lady’s slipper orchids with halictine bee (Cypripedium candidum), common valerian (Valeriana edulis var. ciliata), large-flowered trillium (Trillium grandiflorum),  white blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium albidum), white violet (Viola blanda), starry Solomons seal (Maianthemum stellatum), bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata),  dandelion (Taraxacum officinale),  small white lady’s slipper orchid (Cypripedium candidum). 

 

Leaning into the Light

There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light. ~Barry Lopez

 

April rains soak the prairie. At last–May arrives.

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Days grow longer in the tallgrass. The prairie, burned just a few short weeks ago, is carpeted with emerald.  Sunshine warms the newly arisen plants.

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Prairie dock waves in the breeze.

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Compass plants unfurl their ferny leaves.

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The first few tentative blooms on the prairie appear.

Leaning into the light.

Violets spill over from the woodlands…

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Prairie smoke nods in shocking pink, ready to throw out its silks.

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Prairie dropseed spikes across the prairie in electric green.

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A few wild geraniums tentatively skirt the edges of the prairie, as does…

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… toothwort, spreading through the oak savanna.

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A barrage of bluebells stuns the eyes.

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A prairie trillium lifts its blood-dark bloom…

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…as wood betony spins its petals in swirls of butter yellow.

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Shooting stars appear as if from nowhere, arcing in a dance choreographed by the breezes.

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The long days of winter and darkness are over.  You can feel spring bubbling up through the landscape.

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Welcome back, light.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): storm, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; after the rain, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) leaf uncurling, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; common violet (Viola sororia), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie smoke (Geum trifloum), Meadow Lake prairie planting, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  wild geranium  (Geranium maculatum), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; cut-leaf toothwort (Dentaria laciniata, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bluebells (Mertensia virginica) , The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie trillium (Trillium recurvatum), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL;  shooting stars (Dodecatheon meadia), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sand boil, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

The longer quote shortened at the beginning of this essay is from Barry Lopez’s book, Arctic Dreams and is as follows: How is one to live a moral and compassionate existence when one finds darkness not only in one’s culture but within oneself? There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light. ~Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams

A Walk on the Spring Prairie

Every spring is the only spring — a perpetual astonishment. ~Ellis Peters

 

A cold wind blows through Illinois, then relents. The hot sun unleashes heat on the world. It suddenly feels like spring.

Early wildflowers press their way into view around the edges of the prairie.

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The last pasque flowers open, then fade in the heat.

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Squirrels munch withered crabapples, gaining strength for the new season ahead. The mamas tend their babies, born just weeks ago.

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The prairie ponds are freed from their scrims of ice. The water, released, stands open and clear.

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The first dragonflies and damselflies emerge from their underwater nurseries. Green darners, mostly, but Halloween pennants…

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…and violet dancers are not too many weeks behind.

 

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If you’re patient enough–and lucky enough– you can see the dragonflies emerge to their teneral stage; not quite nymph, not quite adult. Slowly, their fragile new wings pump open. Then, they take on colors, warm to their new lives, and fly.

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As you walk the prairie, a butterfly or two may stir the air with its wings. Only the early ones are out–the commas, the mourning cloaks, a cabbage white or two. But they remind  you that a whole kaleidoscope is on the way. Like this swallowtail.

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There’s not much for them to sip now on the prairie, but more nectar-rich flowers are coming. The tallgrass will soon be ablaze with color and light.

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Soon, you whisper.

Very soon.IMG_3615.jpg

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom) Spring beauties (Claytonia virginica), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; dogtooth violet/yellow trout lily (Erythronium americanum), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pasque flower fully opened (Pulsatilla patens), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; pasque flower (Pulsatilla patens) fading, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; squirrel, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Meadow Lake with prairie plantings, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Halloween pennant, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; violet dancer,  Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; dragonfly, teneral stage, Busse Woods, Forest Preserve of Cook County,  Schaumburg, IL;  Canada swallowtail, John Deere Historic Site, Grand Detour, IL; butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa); prairie at Fermilab, Batavia, IL.

Ellis Peters, whose quote begins this essay, is the author of the “Brother Cadfael” medieval mystery novels.

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. 

 

Signs of Spring

It’s coming. Have you noticed?

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Forget the scraps of snow still visible in the shadier corners of the prairie.

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Overlook the still-cold temperatures.

The first signs of spring are everywhere. Sunrises are earlier.

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Sunsets are later.

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In our gardens and yards, daffodils, crocus, and hyacinths knife up their bundles of leaves.

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Temperatures tease us by briefly climbing into the upper 50s. Snowdrops heed the signal; offer their first blooms. Who will break the news to them that a winter storm is in the forecast, only days away?

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All our glimpses of early spring are not sweetness and light. This week, warm winds howled up to 60 mph across the prairie. A spring tantrum, more than a winter storm.

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No longer frozen, the prairie paths shout “mud season!” Go for a hike, and your boots slurp, slurp, slurp with every step.

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The ice that limned the creeks and streams has disappeared …  temporarily, anyway. Water runs fast with snowmelt; cold and clear.

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Faintly familiar, but long-gone birds reappear and begin adding notes to the tallgrass soundtrack. Killdeer. The first tentative notes of red-winged blackbirds.  Winter’s juncos still hang around, not getting the spring memo. But give them a few weeks and they’ll pack their bags and head north. Soon the dickcissels and bob-o-links will be back on their regular tallgrass perches.

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In the last days of February, I study the prairie sky for migrating snow geese. I see them thick as storm clouds on weather radar reports. Yet, the sky remains empty, except for a few ubiquitous Canada geese.

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Nonetheless, I like knowing the snowies are flying somewhere above me. A sign of spring. On the move north.

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On the move, like the life of the prairie. The end of one season;

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… the beginning of something new.

Yes, there will be more snow and ice. February’s full moon is named by  Native American’s as the “Full Snows Moon.” I watched it rise last night; a harbinger of more snow and cold on the way.

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But we’ve gotten our first whiff of spring.  And it is good.

 

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom):  Rice-Lake Danada prairie planting, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Wheaton, IL; trail, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sunrise looking east from author’s backyard prairie patch,  Glen Ellyn, IL; sunset, Nachusa Grassland, Franklin Grove, IL; crocus shoots, author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; snowdrops, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; storm over the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; muddy trail, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  dickcissel, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; Canada geese over the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; snow geese and Ross’s geese, Bosque del Apache, San Antonio, New Mexico; sunset, Russell Kirt Prairie East, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL (looking west); full moon, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, 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.