Category Archives: the nature conservancy illinois

Tallgrass Prairie Adventures

 “Let us go on, and take the adventure that shall fall to us.” — C.S. Lewis

******

If there’s one phrase my family knows I can’t stand, it’s this one: “Killing time.” Why? Time is precious. It’s irreplaceable. Each day is an adventure, if you let it be so. Why waste a moment?

SPMA72819WMONE.jpg

I think of this as I walk my dragonfly monitoring routes on the prairie this week. The wind has come up. Instead of gazing over my head for patrolling green darners and black saddlebags, I’m looking lower, in the grasses and prairie wildflowers. There, many of the regular high flying dragonflies hunker down, sheltering from the breezy heat.

Floweringspurge72819WM.jpg

Each season, dragonfly monitors—people like you and me—go to a city park, prairie restoration, forest preserve pond, or local wetland with the intention of regularly collecting data about Odonates. Monitors—dragonfly chasers—spend a good chunk of their summer hours in mosquito-filled areas, counting dragonflies and damselflies and making hash marks on a clipboard. We note what species we see, and how many of each species appears on a certain day in a particular place.

RattlesnakemasterSPMA72819wm.jpg

It sounds a little nutty, perhaps, to spend our days counting insects. But dragonflies and damselflies are a good thermometer for the state of our waterways. Their numbers and species diversity have messages for us about the health of our natural world. All we have to do is listen. Pay attention. Show up.

Female Blue Dasher Belmont Prairie WM8716.jpg

Speaking of thermometers: It’s hot. Sweat trickles between my shoulder blades. I check my phone and see the temperature is 88 degrees. The relative humidity of the Midwest makes it seem even hotter, keeping most visitors off of the prairie trails.

Grayheadedconeflower72819SPMAWM

The dragonflies, which maintain body temperature through thermoregulatory behavior, have various gymnastics to help them stay cool.  This female eastern amberwing dragonfly below is obelisking.

EasternamberwingfemaleobeliskingWMSPMA72819.jpg

By positioning her abdomen straight up, she reduces some of the direct summer heat hitting her body. Sometimes, you’ll see dragonflies point their abdomens downward for the same reason. Or, if it’s cooler, they’ll use their wings as solar collectors, like this 12-spotted skimmer below. Gathering sunshine.

12spottedskimmerGEBackyard719.jpg

This season, I find the blue-fronted dancer damselfly population has erupted out of all imagining. I walk, and I look, and I try to keep track of what I’m seeing. Hash mark, hash mark, hash mark… . I can barely keep track of them, emerging from the grasses on both sides of the prairie trail; a virtual ambush of bright blue insects. Under my feet. Hovering knee high. Blue-fronted dancer damselflies everywhere! Hash mark. Hash mark. I finally quit tallying them at 88 individuals.

BluefrontedDancerSPMA7519WM.jpg

So much dazzling blue! The danger is that as I see so many of one species, I overlook some of the other species that aren’t as prolific. Like this violet dancer, mixed in with the blue-fronteds.

violetdancer6718SPMAwm.jpg

Or an American rubyspot damselfly, hanging out by the stream.

AmericanrubyspotSPMA718WM.jpg

Damselflies are so darn tiny. Part of the day’s adventure is to slow down and really look. Carefully. Closely. But I’m always aware of what I’m missing, even as I see so much. All these incredible dragonflies and damselflies! But–that bee over there. What species is it? And what about that butterfly? What’s moving in the grass by the stream? The July prairie explodes with wildflowers all around me as I hike. How can I focus?

NGFFKNOBCCarea2018WM.jpg

It’s easy to be diverted. On one route,  I narrowly avoid stepping on a bee fly sunning itself on the gravel two-track.

Bee fly SPMA72819WM.jpg

On another trail, I kick up little puffs of butterflies—maybe pearl crescents? Tough to ID. They rise, then settle back into the clover as I pass.

Pearlcrescent?SPMA2018WM.jpg

I stop to watch a ruby-throated hummingbird swoop across the trail, then hover, sipping nectar from the dark reddish-brown flowers of a tall late figwort plant, towering over my head.  I didn’t know hummingbirds visit these tiny blooms! In the gusty breeze, the oddball flowers rocket wildly back and forth, but the hummingbird maneuvers right along with them. Later, I visit the Prairie Moon Nursery website and read more about this wildflower’s value to butterflies, bees, and—yes—hummingbirds. Who knew?

Latefigwort72819SPMAWM.jpg

There’s always something different and exciting to learn as I walk my dragonfly monitoring routes on the prairie. Always a small adventure of some sort, waiting to happen.

In rain-rutted puddles, bullfrogs leap across the water with an EEK!”

American bullfrog NG71519WM.jpg

The common yellowthroat sings his wichety-wichety-wichety from the walnut tree by the wooden bridge over Willoway Brook. I inhale the scent of a hundred thousand wildflowers and grasses; the smell of prairie soil that’s alternately been baked in a hot summer oven and soaked with rain.

As I finish my route near the stream, a red-winged blackbird hovers menacingly over my head, daring me to come closer. Are they still nesting? Must be! He shrieks loudly as I cover my head with my clipboard—just in case—and hurry a bit toward the path leading to the parking lot.

CulversRootSPMA2017WM.jpg

So much to think about. The writer Paul Gruchow once observed, “Curiosity, imagination, inventiveness expand with use, like muscles, and atrophy with neglect.” One of the pleasures of dragonfly monitoring is the practice of paying close attention to everything on the July prairie. Flexing the muscles of my imagination. Resisting the urge to become jaded and cynical—all too easy in the world we find ourselves in today. Trying to choose where I focus.

WildquinineSPMA72819WM.jpg

Even a simple hike on the prairie, counting dragonflies, can be an adventure. The writer Annie Dillard penned one of my favorite quotes: How we spend our days, is, of course, how we spend our lives.  I think of this as I watch a black saddlebag dragonfly cruise over my backyard prairie patch, or admire the way the cup plants cradle water in their joined leaves after a torrential downpour, inviting goldfinches to take a drink. I try to ask myself regularly: How am I spending my hours? How am I spending my life?

Every day I struggle to be intentional. To make room for curiosity. Imagination. The life of the spirit. The poet Mary Oliver wrote, When it’s over, I want to say: all my life/ I was a bride married to amazement/ I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

NG2018summerWM.jpg

Instead of “killing time,” I want to cultivate a sense of wonder. To look at every moment as an adventure. To make room for reflection. To walk, and always—always! —be astonished at what I see.

And how can we not be astonished? Look at those dragonflies, those wildflowers!  Listen to that birdsong. Watch the tallgrass ripple in the breeze.

What a beautiful world.

****

British writer C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) penned the opening words in this blog from The Chronicles of Narnia, a series of classic children’s books. My favorite book in the series (although it is tough to choose!) is Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Lewis was a contemporary and friend of J.R.R. Tolkien, and part of a writers group known as The Inklings. The books are great for read-aloud, if you have children or grandchildren elementary age and up.

Minnesota writer Paul Gruchow (1947-2004) who wrote one of the quotes that appears in this post, is one of my favorite writers about the natural world. If you haven’t read Gruchow, try Journal of a Prairie Year, or Grass Roots: The Universe of Home. Both terrific reads. I also love his Boundary Waters: The Grace of the Wild.

The late poet Mary Oliver (1935-2019) penned the beautiful poem, When Death Comes, quoted at the end of this post.

*****

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): bridge over Willoway Brook at the end of July, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata) with unknown grass, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; rattlesnake master (Eyrngium yuccifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; female blue dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis) on rough blazing star (Liatris aspera), Belmont Prairie, Downer’s Grove, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; female eastern amberwing dragonfly (Perithemis tenera), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; 12-spotted skimmer (Libellula pulchella) on prairie blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya), author’s backyard and prairie planting, Glen Ellyn, IL;  blue-fronted dancer damselfly (Argia apicalis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; violet (or variable) dancer damselfly (Argia fumipennis  var. violacea), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; American rubyspot (Hetaerina americana), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Nachusa Grasslands in July, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; bee fly (possibly Bombylius major), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; tough to ID, but possibly pearl crescent butterfly (Phyciodes tharos), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; American bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus or Rana catesbeiana), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; Culver’s root in mid July (Veronicastrum virginicum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; looking back at a dragonfly monitoring route at Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL.

More about Cindy’s speaking and classes at www.cindycrosby.com 

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

***

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.

P1040187 (1).jpg

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.

P1040182.jpg

The old is finished.

P1040109.jpg

The past months melt away.

P1040170.jpg

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

P1040252.jpg

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.

IMG_8801

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?

P1040143.jpg

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

P1040215.jpg

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.

P1040166.jpg

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?

P1030737 (1).jpg

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

P1040111.jpg

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

img_2069

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

p1040261

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

P1040167.jpg

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.

IMG_6065 (1).jpg

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.

P1030746.jpg

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.

p1040233

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

***

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.

***

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.

IMG_3151

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.

IMG_3410

 

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

IMG_3872

 

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

IMG_3399

 

Time for everything to begin again.

IMG_7673

 

To burn off the old; to spark something new.

IMG_3745

 

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

IMG_3769

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

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

IMG_3154

 

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.

IMG_6222

 

We accept that things will change.  IMG_7100

 

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

IMG_7899.jpg

 

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

IMG_3453

 

Watch the prairie go up in flames.

IMG_3623

 

We wait to see what will appear.

On the other side of the fire.

IMG_9064.jpg

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.

IMG_2368

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.

IMG_2334

IMG_2357

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

IMG_2367

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

IMG_2383

…find the remains of her dinner in the snow…

IMG_2378

…a reminder of how fleeting and precious life is.

How violence and beauty coexist in the natural world.

IMG_2371

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

IMG_2293

…marvel at the ice forming on the grasses…

IMG_2303

IMG_2305

Take time to notice the kaleidoscope of the sky.

Sunrises.

IMG_2333

Sunsets.

IMG_7567

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

IMG_0827

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

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

IMG_1047

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

IMG_3972

Appreciate the play of light and shadows on snow.

IMG_3189

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.

IMG_2372

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.

IMG_2338

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.

IMG_1316

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.

IMG_1279

It’s quiet here.

IMG_1389

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

IMG_1361

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.

IMG_1306

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

IMG_1357

One blocks our way.

IMG_1376

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

IMG_1359

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.

IMG_1281

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

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

IMG_1309

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.

IMG_1301

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.

IMG_1384

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

IMG_3324

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.

IMG_3177

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.

IMG_3197

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.

IMG_2491

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.

IMG_3332

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.

IMG_3316

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

IMG_3068

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.

IMG_3093

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.

IMG_3088

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.

 IMG_3031

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.

IMG_3127

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.

 IMG_2794

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

IMG_2930

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.

IMG_2957

IMG_2946

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

IMG_2924

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?

sp-ladiesslipper51214
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.

ladiestresses2014

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.

orchid_for_cindy CREDIT BRUCE MARLIN

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.

A Little Prairie Music

My first introduction to a foreign language came when I took piano lessons at six years old. If you were in band in high school, or play a little guitar, you know what I’m talking about.

Allegro. Crescendo. Fortissimo.

Fast, gradually louder, very loud. Musical terms. Almost all in Italian.

Watch the prairie through its four seasons, and you’ll begin thinking in musical terms. Speaking a little Italian. Imagining visual music.

Early winter shows off the punchy staccato of tick trefoil seeds, waving like notes six feet high.

IMG_2388

Under deep snow, the shadows repeat the round bergamot seedheads. Eco, Italian for “echo,” means notes are quietly repeated. Indigo lines and shape-shadows mirror the prairie in the wind-swept drifts.

IMG_2720

In the spring, the prairie is acceso, ignited, on fire. The flames crackle and leap across the acres of tallgrass, consuming last year’s memories of the prairie, stimulating growth and offering a new beginning.

firesp2013-two

The prairie is brilliante in summer; it sparkles with color and energy.

IMG_3173

Then comes a gradual decrescendo — softening — into fall.  Autumn is legato, as the tallgrass ripples and waves, a smooth connected ocean of motion.

IMG_1068

Prairie music is played a piacerethe performer is not required to follow it exactly; the prairie is free to improvise. Every season in the tallgrass  is different. Every year, the music changes.

Visual music, for the imagination.

(Photos by Cindy Crosby: From top to bottom: Tick trefoil, The Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum; snow shadows, SP; prairie burn, SP; pale purple coneflowers, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; road through the tallgrass, NG). 

Bison and the Prairie Puzzle

“To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” Aldo Leopold.

I enjoy puzzles. I like the way the full image emerges as I slot each shape into its correct niche. While slowing down and paying attention to the puzzle pieces, I sometimes mentally work through some other knotty problem or issue.

IMG_2292

However, one of the most frustrating moments in finishing a 1,000 -piece puzzle is realizing you lost a piece along the way. Or several pieces. Sure, you got close. But that one elusive piece keeps the image from what it should be. It nags at you.

I think of this as I hike Nachusa Grasslands, a 3,500-plus acre site managed by The Nature Conservancy in Illinois. Nachusa Grasslands is tucked into a patchwork quilt of farms about 90 minutes west of downtown Chicago. Over its 20-plus year history, it has assembled more than 700 native species through restoring habitat.

IMG_5651

You can see everything at Nachusa from threatened eastern prairie fringed orchids to the uncommon ornate box turtles. Close your eyes, and listen to the cheerful warble of dickcissels (shown above). In summer, the prairie blooms wash over the landscape in a changing kaleidoscope of purple, gold, pink and white. The grasses – big bluestem, Indian grass, switchgrass, little bluestem — blend together in the fall and early winter in sweeps of breathtaking color.

IMG_1369

700 species! That’s enough to complete any prairie, right?

And yet.

A piece of the puzzle was missing here. A big piece.

IMG_0385 2

Bison bison. That’s the scientific name. We know them as American buffalo, which disappeared from Illinois about 200 years ago. Now, since late 2014, through the efforts of restorationists and people who weren’t afraid to dream big, they are at Nachusa Grasslands.  With the bison puzzle piece in place, other lost “puzzle pieces”  — species —may be attracted and restored. A little intelligent tinkering.

When I began hiking at Nachusa several years ago and heard about the plan to restore bison, I wondered. Would the preserve suddenly seem like a zoo? Or one of those exotic animal farms you drive by in rural areas with zebras and llamas? A curiosity?

When the bison lumbered out into the tallgrass to graze, my fears were assuaged. They looked like they belonged there.

cindy-bison014

As they do.

(All photos by Cindy Crosby. Author’s puzzle; dickcissel at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; NG in December; bison at NG; bison at NG)