Category Archives: the nature conservancy illinois

The Trouble with “Leave No Trace”

Perhaps, you will absorb something of the land. What you absorb will eventually change you. This change is the only real measure of a place.”–Paul Gruchow

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We are taught to “leave no trace” when we visit a natural area, such as the prairie. Pack out our trash. Stay on the path. Respect what we find. Yet, there is another side to this simple saying.

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Hike the prairie early in the new year. Look carefully. In the shady hollows, there are transitory marvels. Rock candy sticks of ice linger until the sun strikes. Then…vanish.

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The old is finished.

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The past months melt away.

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There are lingering signs of the life of the prairie to come.

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To hike a prairie is to be prompted to want to know more about it. Paying attention is one way to grow more deeply in understanding the tallgrass. Helping restore it with others is another.

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When we care for a place, we are more “careful” of that place. But familiarity sometimes breeds carelessness. So… How do we break out of the same patterns of thinking?

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How do we become less rigid in the ways of “knowing?”

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How do we open ourselves to seeing and thinking about prairie in new ways?

Come with me, and surf the grasses; ride the waves of the prairie in January. Admire the tweediness of the grass colors, bleached and burnished.

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Follow a path not taken before; explore in all directions. Who knows where you’ll end up? What might be found on the other side?

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It might not all be softness and light. The prairie can be harsh, unforgiving.

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No surprise. It’s a landscape that must be burned again and again to become strong.

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Through beauty and terror–and even, the ordinary–the prairie imprints itself on the heart.

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It reminds us of our insignificance in the big scheme of things.

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And yet.

It also whispers: “One person who lives intentionally can make a difference in the bigger life of a community.” Even if only a trace.

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Yes, if you’re careful and pay attention–stick to the trails, carry out your trash, speak softly, admire the blooms but don’t pick them– you may “leave no trace” in the tallgrass. If you give back to the prairie–learn the names of its community members, help gather its seeds, pull weeds —you may leave traces on it of the best kind.

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But be warned. The trouble with “leave no trace” is that the prairie does not follow the same principles you do. It will cause you to think more deeply. To care more fully. To pay attention more intently.

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The prairie will leave its traces on you. And you will be forever changed by the encounter.

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The opening quote in this essay is by Paul Gruchow (1947-2004) from Journal of a Prairie Year (Milkweed Editions). Gruchow suffered from severe depression; for many years he found solace in the outdoors and on the prairie. Among his other works are Boundary Waters: Grace of the Wild; The Necessity of Empty Places; Travels in Canoe Country;  and Grass Roots: The Universe of Home.  His writing is observational, wryly humorous, attentive to detail, and reflective. If you haven’t read Gruchow, let this be the year that you do.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): snow on the tallgrass, Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL; ice crystals on the path, Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL; pale purple coneflower seed head (Echinacea pallida), Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL; snow pocket melting in the sun, Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL; Indian hemp (Apocynum cannabinum), Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL; removing invasives, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) leaf, Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL; ice, Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL; grasses in January, Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL; prairie road, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL; prescribed burn, Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis), Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL;  hiking on New Year’s day, Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, IL; working to restore bison, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; snowy road, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; tracks through frost, Fermilab prairie (interpretive trail), Batavia, 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. 

 

The Best Prairie Restorations

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

–Annie Dillard

 I can’t get Dillard’s simple observation out of my head.

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How do I want to spend my days? This new year?

I want make time. To be there.

To look at the prairie up close, and marvel at a seed head’s complexity.

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To listen to the empty wild white indigo pods, tap-tap-tapping in the wind.

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To notice the tracks of a coyote in the snow and follow them…

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…find the remains of her dinner in the snow…

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…a reminder of how fleeting and precious life is.

How violence and beauty coexist in the natural world.

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Let me soak up the colors of prairie grasses around a lake…

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…marvel at the ice forming on the grasses…

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Take time to notice the kaleidoscope of the sky.

Sunrises.

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Sunsets.

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And all the ways the clouds configure themselves in-between. Such ongoing drama! Yet, the bison on the prairie graze beneath the sky, oblivious.

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Don’t they know? Each day may be our last.

I want to admire the unpopular opossum, with his face like a valentine.

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Be there to see the moon rise in the East,  like a smile.

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Appreciate the play of light and shadows on snow.

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Why? Making time to be fully present to life on the prairie helps me be fully present to life off the prairie. To the people I love. To the work that I do.  It is restoration of another kind. The restoration of my soul.

There might come a time when I may no longer be able to hike the tallgrass. Until then, I’m storing away images in my mind.

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Inhaling deeply so the smells of the prairie are etched into my memory. Mentally recording the sounds of the sandhill cranes and the song sparrow. Remembering how the tallgrass brushes my face.

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If  the time comes when I can no longer physically hike the prairie, I’ll still be able to sit and think back on how I spent my days. The images will be there, like pages in a scrapbook. I’ll count my life richer for this: paying attention.

All photos by Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): figwort (Scrophularia marilandica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) SP; unknown seed, SP; white wild indigo pods (Baptisia alba), SP; coyote tracks, SP; squirrel kill, SP; coyote, SP: grasses, Meadow Lake, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; grasses and ice, ML; grasses and ice, ML; sunrise, Newton Park, Glen Ellyn, IL; sunset, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; clouds over bison, NG; opossum, author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; crescent moon over author’s prairie, GE; blue shadows, SP; coyote, SP; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), SP.

Note: SP, NG, GE: Schulenberg Prairie, Nachusa Grasslands, Glen Ellyn.

Quote from  Annie Dillard is from The Writing Life.

 

Finding Peace in Wild Things

So much fear in the world right now.

It’s catching. I find myself jumpy, anxious. Feeling like nothing will change. Up against a wall of doubt.

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When the world seems like an impossible place, I go to the prairie. This time, instead of going alone, I go with friends. I need the reminder of how much we need each other.  A reminder that we’re not alone in the world.

The late summer and early autumn greens and reds of the grasses are draining away, creating a new palette of rusts, tans, and browns.

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It’s quiet here.

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Until, suddenly, pheasants fly up – two, three – six! One lands in a tree.

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I admire their vibrant colors — that scarlet head — even while acknowledging that pheasants aren’t native to this place. But there’s room here for them.

We have so much.

A Cooper’s hawk settles in near the black plastic mulched plant nursery, where plants are going to seed, which will be used for future restoration efforts. I love the plant nursery, with its sturdy rows of prairie plants. It’s a visual reminder of how we deliberately cultivate hope for change in the future.

The hawk stares me down. Even when we think we’ve got the way forward all figured out and organized, there’s always a wild card.

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Look! Just around the corner,  a herd of bison spill over the grassy two track.

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One blocks our way.

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We keep a respectful distance. The bison stay together, tolerating our presence.

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I admire their shaggy chocolate coats; their heft and muscle. Their coats gleam and shine in the late afternoon light.

They know where the juiciest grasses are, even now.

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We watch them for a long time before we move away.

The slant of the November sun backlights the prairie like a false frost.

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The milk-washed sky brightens; the smell of old grass and decaying chlorophyll  lifts in the autumn chill. I inhale. Exhale. The autumn prairie is changing, seemingly dying.

It’s not the end. Just a transition to the next season.

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Fur and feathers…and a sea of grass. My fears are not gone, but they begin to dissolve in the late afternoon light. There is so much to be grateful for.

So much in this world that gives us reason to hope.

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All photos by Cindy Crosby from Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (The Nature Conservancy) 

There is a beautiful (copyrighted!) poem by Wendell Berry, The Peace of Wild Things, that I find a good antidote to difficult times. Find it at The Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/171140.

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) 

Prairie Literature 101: Reading the Tallgrass

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Temperatures in the Chicago region continue to plummet below zero. The ice-slicked prairie trails glisten, hard-packed and unforgiving. It’s hazardous hiking even for those of us who are passionate about the tallgrass.

Time to curl up with a good book.

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Two of my favorites, Journal of a Prairie Year and Grassroots: The Universe of Home—  both by Paul Gruchow — have been excellent companions during this week’s bone-chilling weather. Journal of a Prairie Year is a quiet, month-by-month documentary of Gruchow’s walks that begin in January and end in December; Grassroots, a prairie memoir of sorts, contains his seminal essay on tallgrass, “What the Prairie Teaches Us.”  Few people have loved and written about prairie the way Paul did, and his passion for the tallgrass lives on through his words.

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Kudos to The Nature Conservancy for their work, documented in two beautiful coffee-table type reads, Big Bluestem: Journey into the Tallgrass  (Annick Smith), and Tallgrass Prairie (John Madson/Frank Oberle).  Each is filled with gorgeous photography and eloquent writing. When the gray days seem endless, I browse through the color photos of lavender coneflowers and orange butterflyweed. Spring feels a little closer. As I leaf through the images of prescribed burns and smoldering flames, I also feel a little warmer.

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Louise Erdrich’s essay Big Grass, appears in The Heart of the Land, a general nature collection from The Nature Conservancy. It’s perhaps the most emotionally-charged piece of writing I’ve ever read, and I assign it to students in my nature writing classes. And any of us who has ever planted a patch of prairie has Stephen Apfelbaums’ Nature’s Second Chance on the nightstand or close at hand for reassurance and comfort. We find he’s encountered the same resistance from neighbors and nature as we have.

Want to know more about the history, biology, and politics of prairie? Grassland, by Richard Manning, is where I turn. In the same book stack is John Madson’s Where the Sky Began, many prairie lovers’ desert island book and one I find as comfortable as my favorite old fleece socks. Madson’s closing lines are a quote from Thomas Wolfe’s book, Look Homeward, Angel: O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again and are some of the most heartfelt words ever appropriated to describe prairie restoration.

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I’ve only found a single anthology devoted to prairie; editor John T. Price’s The Tallgrass Prairie Reader from University of Iowa Press. One of the gifts of his volume is its diverse prairie literature arranged by the century in which it was written. The reader comes away with a new understanding of how tallgrass has been viewed over hundreds of years. I’m delighted to have an essay about the Schulenberg Prairie included in his collection; Price, Thomas Dean, Lisa Knopp, Drake Hokanson, Elizabeth Dodd, and Mary Swander all have terrific contemporary pieces about prairie represented here.

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Prairie restoration is about restoring habitat and increasing diversity: pulling weeds, collecting seeds, and cutting brush. But preserving prairie also happens through planting words and images in hearts and minds. Each winter, when I hang up my hiking boots for a few days and huddle by the fireplace with my stack of books, I’m grateful for these “restorationists” who do just that.

 (All photos by Cindy Crosby. From the top: Willoway Brook in the Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; author’s stack of books; photo spread from Tallgrass Prairie; critter tracks, Glen Ellyn, IL; The Tallgrass Prairie Reader; coyote track, Quarry Lake at West Branch Forest Preserve, Bartlett, IL.)

Orchids: A Prairie’s Best Kept Secret

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My husband, Jeff, surprised me on Valentine’s Day by taking me to the Chicago Botanic Gardens for the opening of the Orchid Show. Instead of a dozen roses, I got 10,000 orchids and a little blast of springtime color and scent on a frigid February 14.

There are hybrid blooms of every possible hue, it seems….including some in impossibly bright colors, like this orange orchid and lime green orchid.

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There are crazy patterns, which makes me think of zebras and clowns.

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clown orchid 2015

These hybrids are stunning. But my favorite orchids aren’t coddled and pampered like these orchids under glass. The orchids I prefer are outside, braving the elements on Illinois’ tallgrass prairies.

Illinois is home to around 50 different species of native orchids; a drop in the bucket, really, when you think of the approximately 25,000 natural species worldwide. One of the most eye-catching is this small white lady’s slipper orchid, found in the moist tallgrass in early summer. The white slipper demands your attention, doesn’t it?

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Other native orchids take more patience to discover, such as these ladies’ tresses orchids below. Stand downwind of a drift of blooms on a warm, early autumn day, and you’ll inhale a light sweet scent, evocative of vanilla.

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A native orchid that is #1 on my bucket list to see this season is the threatened eastern prairie fringed orchid, protected under the Endangered Species Act and  at home on the tallgrass prairies of Illinois.

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To stumble across any of these native orchids unexpectedly on the prairie is to discover something magical. You glimpse one bloom half-hidden in the grasses. Stunned, you fall to your knees. You look closer, then all around you. There’s another bloom, and another, and another. These orchids were here, in the tallgrass, all the time. How did you miss them before?

For what seems like minutes — but stretches to an hour — you watch insects work the blossoms, imbibing nectar and ensuring pollination.  When you reluctantly stand to leave, you wonder. What other discoveries are there to be made, here in the tallgrass? You resolve to pay more attention to the world.

Maybe these native orchids are not so spectacular and showy as the hybrid orchids in a conservatory. Perhaps their colors and patterns are not as glamorous and glitzy.

But in their own way, they are more beautiful. They belong here.

One small, miraculous part of the place we call home.

 Photos: Image of eastern prairie fringed orchid used with permission of Bruce Marlin. Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. Please check out his website at: http://www.cirrusimage.com/

All other photos are by Cindy Crosby (from top): purple orchids, Chicago Botanic Garden Orchid Show; orange orchid, CBG;  lime green orchid, CBG; striped orchid, CBG; clown patterned orchid, CBG; small white lady’s slipper, Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ladies’ tresses, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.