Category Archives: the nature conservancy

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.

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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.


The old is finished.


The past months melt away.


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


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.


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?


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


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.


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.


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


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


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


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.


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.


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. 

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.




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




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



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.



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.



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.



Soon, you whisper.

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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.


Morning dawns on the prairie.


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.



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



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



Time for everything to begin again.



To burn off the old; to spark something new.



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


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

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



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.



We accept that things will change.  IMG_7100


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



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



Watch the prairie go up in flames.



We wait to see what will appear.

On the other side of the fire.


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. 


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.


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.


It’s quiet here.


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


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.


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


One blocks our way.


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


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.


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

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


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.


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.


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:

Remembering A Prairie Poet

From: The Prairies by William Cullen Bryant

The prairies. 


Lo! they stretch, in airy undulations, far away…


As if the ocean in his gentlest swell, stood still, with all his rounded billows fixed, and motionless forever.  


Motionless? No — they are all unchained again…

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The clouds sweep over with their shadows…


 And, beneath, the surface rolls…


And fluctuates to the eye.


Dark hollows seem to glide along and chase the sunny ridges.


In these plains, the bison feeds no more.


Still this great solitude is quick with life;

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Myriads of insects, gaudy as the flowers…


And birds, that scarce have learned the fear of man are here.


The graceful deer bounds to the wood at my approach.


The bee, a more adventurous colonist than man, with whom he came across the eastern deep…


Fills the savannas with his murmurings.


William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878) was a keen observer of the natural world. He was editor of the New York Evening Post, and one of the first American writers and romantic poets to be recognized internationally at that time. Martin Luther King, Jr., quoted this immortal phrase from Bryant, “Truth, crushed to earth, will rise again.” The above excerpts are all taken from his poem, The Prairies.

All photos by Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Autumn on the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; October, SP; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) seedheads, SP; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), SP; clouds, SP: prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum); grasses, SP; grasses, SP; bison, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; grasshopper, SP; milkweed bugs, SP; red-tailed hawk, SP; fawn, SP; bumblebee in cream gentian (Gentiana flavida), SP;  savanna, SP.

A Lot of Gall

All that is gold, does not glitter. Especially in September… when the goldenrods bloom.


Ahhhhh chooo!  I don’t like that plant. Goldenrods make me sneeze! So you might say.

Not so fast. Goldenrods get a bad rap for fall allergies, although they are unlikely to be the culprit for your itchy, watery eyes. Goldenrod pollen is insect pollinated and has a difficult time finding its way to your sinuses.


Ragweed is the likely suspect, as it blooms about the same time as goldenrod and is wind pollinated, making it more likely to be inhaled. Blame it if  your eyes water and your sinuses are congested.

Now that you’re not nervous about getting acquainted with goldenrods, take a closer look. Do you see interesting-looking formations on some of the plants? Those are goldenrod galls. An gall is simply an abnormal growth, and in this case, caused by an immature insect.

The two most common goldenrod galls you’re likely to see on the Illinois’ prairie are the ball gall…

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…and the bunch gall.


The ball gall is made by the tiny goldenrod gall fly. She lays her eggs on a goldenrod stem, and about a week or so later, the larvae hatches. It chews a tunnel into the stem where it sets up housekeeping for up to a year. The goldenrod stem gradually swells around the larvae, providing a safe spot for it to live and feed. Think of it as a spherical bed and breakfast.


If you enjoy fishing, as I do, you’ll know a ball gall is a good place to find bait. Cut open the ball gall, scrape out the larvae, and you’re in business. Woodpeckers and hungry, insect-loving birds are also in the know. You’ll sometimes find them pecking at ball galls, looking for dinner.

Bunch galls look almost as pretty as flowers.IMG_9156

Bunch galls are formed by the goldenrod gall midge, a tiny fly which lays its eggs in the leaf buds. The larvae short-circuits the normal growth of the plant, resulting in a an explosion of leaves that sometimes look like a stacked rosette, as you see in the photo above.

If you’re lucky, you might find a ball gall and a bunch gall on the same goldenrod plant.


And — no worries. Although they do take nutrients from the goldenrod,  most goldenrod galls are believed to be harmless. The plant is irritated, but tolerates them. Sort of like you might put up with the out of town relatives that were supposed to come to your house for the weekend, and stayed for a month.

Looking for different goldenrod galls on the tallgrass prairie is a great excuse to go for a hike on a sunny day in September.


But really…who needs an excuse?

All photos by Cindy Crosby. (Top to bottom): Goldenrod (Solidago spp.) and big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Russell R. Kirt Prairie, College of DuPage, Glen Ellyn, IL; goldenrod, Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ball gall, RKP; bunch gall, RKP; ball gall, RKP;  bunch galls, RKP; ball gall and bunch galls, RKP; autumn at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

Some of the information in this essay is taken from the following sources: Brandeis University:;;;;;  Web MD:

The quote that begins the essay is from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.

A Jingle for Gentians

Blue ones


cream ones


some are sort of pink.

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Deep in the tallgrass

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they’re gone in just a blink.


Unlike some other blooms

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They may be a tight squeeze

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That’s why gentian pollinators

tend toward bumblebees.

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Amazing diversity


bison, butterflies, and flowers,


One of the reasons why the

prairie’s where I spend my hours.


If you haven’t been out yet

in the tallgrass  this season


I hope you’ll find that gentians

give you a reason.

***(Cream ones blooming now….. blue and pink ones in bloom soon…)

All photos by Cindy Crosby: Top to bottom: prairie gentian, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum (Gentiana puberulenta); cream or yellowish gentian (Gentiana flavida), SP; stiff gentian (pink) (Gentiana quinquefolia), SP;  bottle gentian, Nachusa Grasslands (Gentiana andrewsii); cream gentian fading, SP;, tall coreopsis (Coreopsis tripteris), SP; bumblebee in cream gentian, SP; bumblebee outside of cream gentian, SP; bison, NG; monarch on rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium), SP; woman working on prairie, SP; common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) and tallgrass, NG.