Category Archives: winter

A Prairie Valentine

How important it is to walk along, not in haste but slowly, looking at everything and calling out Yes!”– Mary Oliver

*****

Ask for their top 10 list of February destinations, and most of my friends would tell you “anywhere warm.” I agree. Toward the end of a Chicago region winter, I’m  ready to shed the shivery cold for a few days and escape to some far-flung beach down south.

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But the beach in February is not my number one destination. I include walking trails through prairie remnants in winter a little higher on my list.

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Tonight, Jeff and I are walking the Belmont Prairie in Downer’s Grove, Illinois. It’s small, as prairies go, but as a remnant—part of the original Illinois tallgrass prairie which escaped development and the plow—it’s special.  Writer John Madson wrote in Where the Sky Began that his “feeling for tallgrass prairie is like that of a modern man who has fallen in love with the face in a faded tintype. Only the frame is still real; the rest is illusion and dream.” Remnants remind me of those “faded tintypes.” Ghosts.

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Very little of our original prairies have survived; about 2,300 high quality acres are left in Illinois. Another reason to be grateful for Belmont Prairie’s 10-acre remnant.

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The grasses are weather-bleached and flattened now. You can imagine how references to the prairie as a sea came to be. Walking the trails here, amid the waves of winter tallgrass, can leave you unsteady on your feet, a little like wading through the surf and sand.belmontprairiegrasseswaves2919WM.jpg

A creek glistens. Puddles of snowmelt glow.  I’ve been re-reading Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series this winter, and the creek puts me in mind of Galadriel’s silver elvish rope that helped Frodo and Sam continue their quest to darkest Mordor. Magical. A tiny sliver of creek is also iced in on the right—can you see it in the grasses? Barely visible, but the setting sun sets it alight.

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As we hike, Canada geese begin to settle in, pulling their V-string necklaces across the twilight overhead.

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Geese have a bad rap here in the Chicago suburbs, but I admire their sense of direction, their seamless ability to work as an aerial team, their perfectly spaced flight pattern. Their confidence in knowing the way home.

Honk-honk! The soundtrack of dusk.

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A crescent moon scythes its way across the burgeoning gloom.

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Still enough light to see. The reflections of ice spark the last light.

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Poke around. In the mud and snow pockets, trapped in north-facing crevices, there are signs of spring to come. A few spears of green. Water running under the ice.

BelmontPrairiesnowmelt21019WM.jpgLook closely, and you may find a few tracks. Mammals are out and about in the cold. Birds.  In my backyard, close to the prairie patch, we’ve been feeding the birds extra food during the bitter temperatures, and they, in turn, have graced us with color, motion, and beauty.  As I scrubbed potatoes before having some friends over for dinner this weekend, my mundane task was made enjoyable by watching the interplay at the feeders outside my kitchen window. Scrubbing potatoes became meditation of sorts. Outside were squabbling sparrows.  The occasional red-bellied woodpecker. Juncos–one of my favorites–nun-like in their black and white feathered habits. The occasional burst of cardinal color.  Darting chickadees. Nuthatches, hanging upside down, zipping in for a peanut or two. Downy woodpeckers, like this one.

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The seeds on the ground attract  more than birds. There are gangs of squirrels, well-fed and prosperous. If I wake early, I might spot a large eastern cottontail scavenging seeds, or even a red fox, whose antics with her kits have delighted us in the neighborhood over the years (and kept the resident chipmunk herds in check). Once in a while, over the years, we’ll surprise her on our back porch.

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Another backyard visitor through the year is the opossum, who finds the seeds under the bird feeders a nice change of diet.

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The opossum’s face looks a bit like a heart, doesn’t it? It reminded me that Valentine’s Day is Thursday. Time to find or make a card, and perhaps shop for a book or two for my best hiking partner. Speaking of him….

As Jeff and I head for the parking lot at Belmont Prairie, the great-horned owl calls from the treeline that hems the tallgrass. I hear the soft murmur. Who-Who- Hoooo.

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Jeff and I once found a great horned owl here—perhaps this very one— in daylight, high in a tree on the edge of the grasses. I owl-prowl sometimes through the woods, hunting for bone and fur-filled scat pellets under trees. Find a pellet under a tree, look up, and you’ll occasionally get lucky and see an owl.

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I think about Mary Oliver’s poem, “Little Owl Who Lives in the Orchard,” which begins….”His beak could open a bottle… .” As someone who teaches  nature writing in the Chicago region, I love to read this poem to my students. The sounds of Oliver’s word choices  (“black, smocked crickets”), her contrasts of terror and sweet, and her descriptions  (“when I see his wings open, like two black ferns”) remind me of the joy of words, images, and our experiences outdoors.

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Oliver’s poem about the owl ends; “The hooked head stares from its house of dark, feathery lace. It could be a valentine.”

The owl calls again. I think of the people and prairie I love. And, the joy that sharing a love of wild things with others can bring.

It’s a happiness not quite like any other. Try it yourself. And see.

*****

Mary Oliver (1936-2019), whose words from Owls and Other Fantasies opens this blogpost, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet (1984, American Primitive) and winner of the National Book Award (1992, New and Selected Poems). Her admonition, “Pay attention. Be astonished! Tell about it.,” is some of the best advice I know. She died in January.

.***

All photographs copyright Cindy Crosby, from Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL, unless noted (top to bottom): beach umbrellas, Sanibel Island, Florida; sawtooth sunflowers (Helianthus grosseserratus); Canada rye (Elymus canadensis); parking lot at sunset;  grasses on the prairie;  creek through the prairie; Canada geese (Branta canadensis) heading home; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) at sunset; crescent moon over the tallgrass; ice in the grasses; creek ice with new growth; downy woodpecker (Dryobates pubescens), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; red fox (Vulpes vulpes), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; sunset over the prairie; Belmont Prairie treeline;  treeline at the edges of the prairie; Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) with common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) pappus.

A Sense of Wonder

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. ” –Rachel Carson

***

We often talk about the five senses. But there is a sixth sense as well; rarely utilized. A sense of wonder.

How is your sense of wonder at the end of 2016? A little jaded? A bit cynical?

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If so, try this.

Go for a twilight hike on the prairie with a child.

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Let the child be your guide. See what they notice? Even dried seed capsules, like those of the evening primrose, seem touched with wonder.

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There is no need to teach or instruct. Just observe. Marvel together at the signs of prairie voles, which tunnel through the snow. Discover their “luge”chute trails fingered across the prairie. Explore the tunnel holes. How deep do they go?

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Inhale, air sharp with cold.

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Does it smell of bee balm, all pepper and mint?

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Now, look up.  At this time of day, you might see a “sundog” — those thumbprint rainbows–riding the sunset.

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Look down. Taste a little of the cold, clean white stuff. Let it tingle on your tongue.

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Twirl the brittle ribbons of big bluestem leaves, which take on new grace in last light.

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Break off a grass stem. It’s the perfect writing instrument to draw on snow.

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Queen Anne’s lace, an unwelcome intruder on prairie restorations, shocks with its eye-popping winter silhouette. A child doesn’t distinguish between invasive plants and native plants. So you are free to admire its intricate architecture together (even while you plot the weed’s demise come spring).

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Stained glass has nothing on the last crumpled leaves of figwort, backlit by the sunset. Listen to it rustle in the breeze.

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Squirrels print blue-shadowed butterflies across the prairie savanna. Where do they lead? Go, and find out.

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Paths around the prairie were mowed before the snow, ready to act as barriers for the prescribed burn come spring. The chopped grasses look like toothpicks stuck in a sparkling sandy beach. Tan cigarettes stubbed out in an ashtray? Or — what do they remind you of?

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Discover small, colorful things: a jumble of fungi, moss, and lichens blurred together on a broken branch.

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Guess who made tracks at the edge of the stream? Hmmm.

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A mink… I think. Getting a drink?

No matter how much you hike the tallgrass prairie, there is always more to discover; to see, touch, smell, taste, and listen to. Every time you spend time there, you’ll experience something new. Something wondrous.

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As you hike, reflect. What road will you choose to travel in the new year? The way of cynicism about people, and disappointment in the world you find yourself in? Fear and anxiety about the future? Or the way of anticipation and wonder at the marvels all around?

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It’s up to you.

****

The opening quote was written by marine biologist Rachel Carson (1907-64), and comes from her book, The Sense of Wonder, which inspired this essay. Carson is best known for Silent Spring, which helped spark the conservation movement. The Sense of Wonder chronicles how Carson introduced her adopted son, Roger, (orphaned when her young niece died unexpectedly) to the marvels of nature. Carson overcame many discouraging professional obstacles–and heartbreaking personal tragedies–to create meaningful work on behalf of the natural world and to inspire us to pay close attention to its marvels. If you haven’t read The Sense of Wonder, it takes less than 30 minutes. A good investment of time, and a simple New Year’s resolution to keep.

***

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): sunset, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: hiking at twilight, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; common evening primrose (Oenothera biennis), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: vole tunnel, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sundog over author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL;  snow drifts, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem leaf (Andropogon gerardii), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; drawing with grass stems, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; fox squirrel (Sciurus nigertracks, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; mowed grasses, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; lichens, moss, and fungi, Schulenberg Prairie savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; mink (Neovison vison) tracks along Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sun halo with sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis) over author’s backyard prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL; road to Thelma Carpenter Unit, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. 

Invincible Summer

“In the midst of winter  …

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I found there was within me …

 

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an invincible summer.

 

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And that makes me happy.

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For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me …

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within me, there is something stronger …

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 something better …

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pushing right back. “

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom):  prairie grasses, Meadow Lake, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  prairie grasses, Meadow Lake, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie ice, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), Meadow Lake, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bison, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL;  Schulenberg Prairie savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  Willoway Brook, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; sky with tall prairie coreopsis seedheads (Coreopsis tripteris), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Quote is from Albert Camus’ Return to Tipasa, 1952 or Lyrical and Critical Essays (1968) (several variations appear in translation) The first portion of the quote is well-documented; the second is more difficult to verify.  Camus and I don’t always agree, but I love this particular reflection.

Ten Reasons to Hike the Prairie in January

Your car won’t start. Going outside means donning a scarf, gloves, hat, coat, and at least three layers underneath. The driveway is a sheet of ice. You’re out of sidewalk salt.

Welcome to January, a month a lot of suburban Chicago folks love to hate. It’s tempting to skip our trips to the tallgrass prairie. Too cold. Too slick. Short days. No flowers.

But missing prairie encounters after the turn of the year means losing out on some magical moments.  Consider these ten reasons to hike the prairie in January.

#10. Ice, ice, baby. The designs change from minute to minute.

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#9. Snow becomes a journal for prairie stories you missed. Invisible critters become visible.

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#8. Structure.

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#7. Unbelievable skies.

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#6. Snow pooled in the grasses gives the prairie a new look.

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#5. Noticeable transitions.

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#4. The color blue.

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#3. Unexpected contrasts.

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#2. Intriguing seedheads

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#1. Slow hikes.

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Yes, it’s treacherous underfoot. But walking carefully, picking our way through ice and snow, offers opportunities to slow down and to pay attention.

Thanks, January.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby. (Top to bottom) Snow and ice rim Willoway Brook, which runs through the Schulenberg Prairie at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; squirrel tracks, SP; tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum), SP;  prairie grasses, lake, and sunrise at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; grasses, SP;  Schulenberg Prairie savanna; Clear Creek winding through Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL;  robin on smooth sumac (Rhus glabra), SP; round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata), SP; hiking the Schulenberg Prairie in the snow.

(*SP is an abbreviation for the Schulenberg Prairie)

Chasing the Light

The earth is tilting. Can you feel the shift?

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On September 23, the autumn equinox brought together day and night of equal lengths. The slow slide down the dark tunnel began. Each day, a few minutes shorter. Each night, a bit longer. Do you sense the battle between the light and the dark?

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The dark seems to be winning. Hello, season of slow decline.

As the light slips away, I soak up as much as I can. The first snowfall is a bonus.

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The world brightens under the snow and seems to glow.

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The blanket of white catches sparks of light; ignites the prairie.

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Unexpected sunshine hangs crystal earrings from unlikely grasses and dry forbs; dresses them with diamonds.

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The cold ices the pond, which glitters in the brief light of late afternoon by my backyard prairie.

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The light pools in Willoway Brook, reflecting the savanna by the Schulenberg Prairie.

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Such a season of contrast, of opposites.

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Close by the tallgrass, I find a vole hole and tracks, evidence that I’m not the only one who wants to escape the dark.

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Even the empty milkweed pods, bereft of their silky floss, seem luminous in the low-slung sunlight.

IMG_1554I’m thankful for whatever glimpses of light I can get. Whatever holds the light and reflects it. 

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Small solaces as the world seemingly plunges into darkness. But I’m grateful for these moments. Each reflected glow. Each spark of light. Every small bright spot.

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I know what’s coming. The darkest day, the winter solstice. December 21, the shortest day of the year.  Soon. Very soon.

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Until then, I’ll keep looking for the light. Wherever it may be found.

All photos by Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; author’s window to the prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; SP at TMA; TMA; bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), author’s prairie, GE; asters, author’s prairie,  GE; author’s prairie pond, GE; SP savanna, SP at TMA; New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus) SP at TMA; vole hole and tracks, author’s prairie, GE; milkweed pod (Asclepias syriaca), author’s prairie, GE;  author’s prairie, GE;  SP at TMA; author’s prairie, GE: SP at TMA; SP at TMA.

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)