Category Archives: wolf road prairie

Hiking Wolf Road Prairie

“Always be on the lookout for the presence of wonder.” — E.B. White

*****

Happy February! January 2022 has come and gone, and with it the realization that I haven’t set in motion some of my New Year’s resolutions. I thought I would have accomplished more of them by now.

Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL.

But—I’ve been reading Atomic Habits, a new book about getting stuff done, and I’m a little less discouraged by what I haven’t accomplished yet. I’ve got a plan for February. There’s always tomorrow.

Rosette gall, Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL.

One habit that hasn’t been difficult to maintain is hiking, despite the cold. This weekend, Jeff and I headed for the Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, a remnant black soil prairie not far from our home.

I love the juxtaposition of city and tallgrass at this site. The sky seems so immense.

Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL.

So much sunshine! So much snow. It almost calls for sunglasses. We shield our eyes with our hands instead.

Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL.

The clouds look newly-laundered in the cold, fresh air. It’s a lovely day to be outside, despite the chilly temperature.

Wolf Road Prairie is crossed with sidewalks, the ghost skeleton of a subdivision that was almost built here in the 1920s. The Great Depression put an end to it. Jeff always loves scraping aside the snow to find the old walkways.

Sidewalks under the snow at Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL.

Because of the Save the Prairie Society, a group of people who saw the value of this remnant, Wolf Road Prairie was preserved instead of developed again in the 1970s. Rather than a subdivision, we have this wide-open space, with more than 360 species of native plants.

Unknown aster, Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL.

I don’t have anything against subdivisions. I live in one. But as I hike, I am grateful for the vision of those who recognized this high quality prairie remnant for the special place it was, and ensured it lives on. We have plenty of subdivisions in the Chicago region. Almost all our prairie remnants like this one are gone.

On our hike, we bump into Wyatt Widmer, the site steward, and a group of volunteers out cutting brush and herbiciding woody plants. It’s inspiring to see them caring for this 82-acre preserve; the prairie—and savanna and wetland—that has brought Jeff and me so much pleasure for so many years. People are an important part of prairie.

Rose mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos), Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL.

Seeing them working is a timely reminder that the prairies which seem so “natural” are kept healthy and vibrant today by dedicated staff and volunteers and the sweat equity they invest. Today, without people to put fire to the last of the prairies, weed and cut brush, and collect seeds and redistribute them, what’s left of our Illinois prairies would eventually disappear. Prairies need our help.

White wild indigo (Baptisia alba), Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL.

As I hike, I think about the prairie where I’m a steward. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to finish my management plan with my co-steward and the natural resources staff at the Arboretum where I volunteer. It feels a little overwhelming to get it done. Our 100-acre prairie has endless numbers of potential projects. What to tackle first?

Evening primrose (Oenothera biennis), Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL.

After conducting a plant inventory in 2016, our group is anxious to replace some of the plants that have gone missing; get them back into circulation. But how to choose? Where to start? We also have a brush problem. A reed canary grass issue. And sumac? Don’t get me started.

Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL.

Seeing these volunteers and the site steward working at Wolf Road Prairie prods me to finish that plan. February is a good time to dream, to make lists, and to be pro-active, rather than re-active. February is a good time to get things done.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL.

I want to be intentional about how the new season on the prairie unfolds.

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL.

But of course…

Probably motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca), Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL.

…the prairie has a mind of its own.

Nodding wild onion (Allium cernuum), Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL.

No matter how many lists I make, plants I order, or projects I envision, Mother Nature will have a say in what happens this year. There will be random events; occurrences I can’t plan for.

Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL.

Drought, windstorms, flooding, hungry mammals, and yes—Covid—may all play a role in our 2022 season. Even the best planning won’t ensure 100% execution and success.

Pasture thistle leaves (Cirsium discolor), Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL.

But a plan is necessary. And part of my management plan is to be flexible.

River grape (Vitis riparia), Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL.

To adapt to whatever comes in 2022. To remind myself that when my planning fails, there’s always next year. Keep moving forward. Step by step. Little by little.

Bird’s nest, Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL.

Good reminders, for the prairie and for myself. We’ll see how it goes.

******

The opening quote is from E. B. White (1899-1985), who was the author of several beloved children’s books including Charlotte’s Web. Writers also know him as the co-author of The Elements of Style. Early in his newspaper career, he was fired by The Seattle Times, and later went to Alaska to work on a fireboat. When he eventually joined the staff of The New Yorker, he was painfully shy, and would only come into the office on Thursdays. There, he met his eventual wife Katharine, the magazine’s literary editor, whose son Roger Angell from her first marriage is the baseball writer and fiction editor at The New Yorker today. In the introduction to Charlotte’s Web, White is quoted as saying “All that I hope to say in books, all that I ever hope to say, is that I love the world.” It showed.

******

Join Cindy for a class or program this winter!

February 8-March 1 (Three evenings, 6:30-9pm): The Foundations of Nature Writing Online —Learn the nuts and bolts of excellent nature writing and improve your wordsmithing skills in this online course from The Morton Arboretum. Over the course of four weeks, you will complete three self-paced e-learning modules and attend weekly scheduled Zoom sessions with your instructor and classmates. Whether you’re a blogger, a novelist, a poet, or simply enjoy keeping a personal journal, writing is a fun and meaningful way to deepen your connection to the natural world.  February 8, noon Central time: Access self-paced materials online. February 15, 22, and March 1, 6:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. Central time: Attend live. Register here.

March 3Tallgrass Prairie Ecology Online –online class with assignments over 60 days; one live Zoom together. Digitally explore the intricacies of the tallgrass prairie landscape and learn how to restore these signature American ecosystems. Look at the history of this particular type of grassland from the descent of glaciers over the Midwest millions of years ago to the introduction of John Deere’s famous plow to where we are today. We will examine different types of prairie, explore the plant and animal communities of the prairie, and discuss strategies specific to restoring prairies in this engaging online course. Come away with a better understanding of prairies and key insights into how to restore their beauty. You will have 60 days to access the materials. Register here.

October Prairie Adventures

“What day is it?” asked Pooh. “It’s today,” squeaked Piglet. “My favorite day,” said Pooh. ― A.A. Milne

*****

The trees blushed into their autumn hues seemingly overnight, delighting leaf-peepers in the Chicago region. Under an onslaught of 35 mph wind gusts and chilly rain on Monday, these same trees gleefully tore loose their red, gold, and copper leaves, sifting them into the streets and sidewalks.

WMunknowntreeMA102119WM.jpg

The rain drizzled to a stop. Sunlight shafted through big-bellied clouds moving fast across the sky.  Light glinted in the swirling leaves, littering the road. It feels like fall at last.

east side MA102119WMpsd.jpg

Suddenly, the birds nests we hunted for all summer are starkly visible. There is the oriole’s nest-purse! Right over my head! And  —So that’s where the squirrel built her drey! Tree branches stand out in start relief, some with miniature worlds to discover.

mossesandfungionoakSPMA101619WM.jpg

In the 1942 book, We Took to the Woods, Louise Dickinson Rich tells of living deep in the Maine forest. She writes that she doesn’t mind the long hike to town to get the mail, as she anticipates visiting with friends. And then — “There are the woods themselves, which I like better in winter than in summer, because I like the type of design that emphasizes line rather than mass,” she writes. “The bare branches of the hardwood trees look exactly like etchings.” In autumn, I feel the same as the trees strip down to silhouettes.

novemberbisonnachusa11418WM

Woolly bear caterpillars are everywhere, it seems, especially if you have the focus to find them. A good way to “see” them is to take a child with you. I hiked the Schulenberg Prairie this week with my six-year-old grandson Tony looking for the last dragonflies. Only a lone green darner was hanging around, but he found eight Woolly Bears in under an hour.

TonySPMAdragonflychasing101519WM.jpg

Until this October, I didn’t know Woolly Bears climb plants! Tony and I found this one  below, that had “slinky-ed” its way up into a stiff goldenrod plant.

woollybearonstiffgoldenrodSPMA101519WM.jpg

Later last week, I took a lovely group of women out to collect little bluestem and stiff goldenrod seeds.

seedcollectingSPMA-northernkanecountybookclub101819WM.JPG

They found at least two more Woolly Bears clinging to the tops of prairie plants, again, mostly stiff goldenrod. Maybe Wilhelm and Rericha’s massive reference work,  Flora of the Chicago Region, will need to add this “insect association” to its list!

Interesting. The Woolly Bear is folklore-famous for its ability to forecast the weather. Of course, its all in fun, but I always like to see if the prediction matches the actual weather that follows. All the Woolly Bears on the Schulenberg Prairie this season seem to have predominately rust-colored bodies, with a bit of black.

Woolly Bear 101719WMSPMA copy.jpg

According to Farmer’s Almanac, this means a mild winter. Further reading says the Woolly Bear’s direction of travel is also a factor; if they are moving south, it means a cold winter; north is a mild winter.

No word on what it means when they crawl upwards.

*****

Jeff and I hiked Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve this weekend, and while we didn’t find any Woolly Bears, we did find some other fauna. Jeff was looking for a map…..

102019WolfRoadPrairiemapboxWM.jpg

When he opened the box, there were none. But some enterprising prairie fauna had moved in.

SurpriseMiceTwoWolfRoadPrairieWM102019.jpg

Sweet! A map mouse house. We carefully closed the lid and left the tiny critters to their naps. The prairie is always full of unexpected surprises.

This was our first time hiking Westchester, Illinois’ Wolf Road Prairie in the autumn, and it was a delight. Entering from the south, you find the celebrated old sidewalks left from the subdivision that was platted and partially laid out, then abandoned back in the late 1920s during the Great Depression.  The savanna breaks into the open prairie, with the city as a backdrop. So many remnants now have this juxtaposition; the urban and suburban with the last pieces of tallgrass untouched by the plow. It’s a celebration of the determined people who saved these precious patches from development.

wolfroadprairiesavannacity102019WM.jpg

As you hike, you’re reminded of the relentless reclamation of nature, when She is given the chance. The sidewalks, now almost 100 years old, are breaking up under the slow pursuit of the grasses and in one spot, the more aggressive roots of a lone cottonwood.

cottonwoodwolfroadprairie102019WM.jpg

Everywhere you follow the sidewalks, you see the hard-won efforts of prairie restoration stewards in the diversity of native prairie plants spread out in all directions.

blazingstarWolfRoadPrairie102019WM.jpg

We stripped some Indian grass of its seeds and took a moment to admire them before scattering them into the prairie.

indiangrassseedsWolfRoadPrairie102019WM.jpg

The prairie dock leaves showed the transition between the seasons.

prairiedock102019WM.jpg

The rusts of little bluestem colored the tallgrass; the late morning sun backlit the seedheads, throwing sparks of light.

JeffhikesWolfRoadPrairie102019WM.jpg

Overhead, a half-moon shadowed us as we hiked back through the savanna to our car.

halfmoonWolfRoadPrairie102019WM.jpg

The prairie moves from wildflowers to wisps and puffs and kernels of seeds.

Trees transform themselves from welcome shady refuges with blurred edges to stripped down, sharp-cut “etchings.”

I’m embracing the change.

****

Playwright and novelist A.A. Milne (1882-1956), whose quote opens this post, was a British author who penned the wildly popular Winnie the Pooh children’s books. He and his wife, Dorothy, had a son named Christopher Robin, who resented the Pooh books. The rift ended in his estrangement from his parents. The real-life Milnes are chronicled in the 2017 movie, Goodbye Christopher Robin.  Disney eventually acquired all rights for the Winnie the Pooh books and characters for $350 million in 2001. In 2005, Winnie the Pooh generated $6 billion dollars for Disney.

*****

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Unknown tree along the East Side route at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; road through the trees, East Side Route, Lisle, IL; mosses and fungi on an oak branch, Schulenberg Prairie Savanna, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bison (Bison bison) at Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL (photo taken in 2017); chasing dragonflies, Schulenberg Prairie Visitor Station, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; woolly bear caterpillar (Pyrrharctia isabella) on stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; seed collecting on the Schulenberg Prairie in October, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; woolly bear caterpillar (Pyrrharctia isabella), Schulenberg Prairie path, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; map box, Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL; mouse family (maybe Peromyscus leucopus), Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL; skyline behind the Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL; sidewalk and eastern cottonwood tree (Populus deltoides), Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL; blazing star (Liatris spp,), Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) seeds, Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL; Jeff walks the sidewalks of the Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL; half-moon over the savanna at Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL.

*****

Thanks to Robert Helfer for connecting me to the weather.gov article on Woolly Bears! I really enjoyed it.

Thanks to the Save the Prairie Society, who has worked so hard to care for the precious Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve community. What an accomplishment!

******

Cindy’s upcoming classes and speaking events:

Saturday, December 7, 1:30-3 p.m.: Join Cindy and The Morton Arboretum’s library collections manager Rita Hassert for Sterling Stories from the Arboretum Stacks, at the Sterling Morton Library, Lisle, IL.  Register here. A lovely afternoon enjoying little known Arboretum’s stories, and a quiet respite from the holiday hustle and bustle.

Sunday, December 8, 2-3:30 p.m.: Tallgrass Conversations at Prairieview Education Center, 2112 Behan Road, Crystal Lake, IL 815-479-5779 Book signing after the talk! Free and open to the public.

Saving Prairie

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

******

Wolf Road Prairie! How could anyone resist visiting a nature preserve with a name like this one? It seems ripe with possibilities for adventure.

The sunshine over the 80-acre preserve is welcome, although the wind makes the temperature seem colder than the high 20s.

WolfroadprairielandscapesnowWM11319.jpg

Jeff and I drive around the preserve, unsure where where the trails are. We can see prairie plants, so we know we’re in the right place. Hmmm.

WolfroadprairiecompassplantWM-11319.jpg

Time to ask directions. A helpful member of the  “Save the Prairie Society” is shoveling snow, getting ready for an open house at the historical structure on the property. He greets us warmly, and shows us where the trails begin.

wolfroadprairie11319wm

We see right away we’re not alone on the prairie. Look at those tracks! Rush hour.

WolfroadprairiemousetracksWM11319.jpg

Little critters have left their imprints, like sewing machine stitches, across the prairie.Who made the tracks? We wonder. Prairie voles? Mice? Difficult to tell.

We cross through a wetland…

Wolfroadprairiecattails11319WM.jpg

…and see other signs of the preserve’s inhabitants.

A nest of a bird, long flown.

Wolfroadprairienest11319WM.jpg

I’m puzzled by the interesting galls on the sunflowers. My gall knowledge is limited. Sunflower crown gall, maybe?

wolfroadprairiewmcrop-sunflowergall?11319

There’s a goldenrod bunch gall–sometimes called a rosette gall—I recognize on the other side of the trail. Like a dried out winter flower of sorts.

wolfroadprairiegoldenrodgallWM11319.jpg

I make a mental note to refresh my gall knowledge—at least of the goldenrod galls! There’s so much to learn while hiking the winter prairie. Always something new, something different. Later at home, I’ll chase down different bits of information, based on our hike. Crown gall. Bunch gall. Adventures of a different kind.

As we hike the south-side prairie savanna remnant…

Wolf Road Prairie SavannaWM 11319.jpg

…we find sidewalks, left over from a pre-Depression Era time when this acreage was slated for a housing development. The contractors got as far as putting in the sidewalks before the project was scrapped. Jeff, who’s a history buff, is delighted.

SidewalksatWolfRoadPrairieWM11319.jpg

I’m excited, too. According to an excellent article by the Salt Creek Greenway Association, the preserve was threatened again by a proposed housing development in the 1970s. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources and Forest Preserve District of Cook County were able to acquire the acreage and save the fine examples of savanna and black soil prairie remnant.  What a success story!

In January 2019, the story continues. Although the cooler palette of Wolf Road prairie in winter tends toward white, brown, and blue, with bits of pale yellow…

Wolfroadprairie11319WMsnowshadows.jpg

…little bluestem warms up the tallgrass with reds and golds. Its last clinging seeds sparkle in the sunshine.

Wolfroadprairie-littlebluestemWM11319.jpg

Winter on the prairie brings certain plants into focus. Little bluestem is only one example.

In the summer, I appreciate pale purple coneflowers for their swash of pink-purple color across the grasses. In January, I find myself focusing on a single plant’s structure.

wolfroadprairieWM11319-Palepurpleconeflower.jpg

Culver’s root, bereft of summer pollinators and long past bloom, takes on sinuous grace and motion in stark relief against the snow.

WolfRoadPrairieWM-culversroot11319.jpg

Even the rough and tumble goldenrod assumes a more delicate beauty in silhouette.

WolfRoadPrairie-goldenrodWM11319.jpg

I imagine what this prairie, savanna, and wetland preserve will look like in a few months. Covered with wildflowers. Limned with birdsong. Full of diverse color and motion. Still, seeing Wolf Road Prairie under a layer of snow in the sunshine has its own beauty.

We almost lost this prairie. Twice.

wolfroadprairiesignWM11219.jpg

I’m grateful to hike it today.

Wolfroadprairietrail11319WM.jpg

In a time when so many of our natural areas are threatened, Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve stands as an example of what can happen when people care. What other prairies or natural areas should we speak up and protect today, which might otherwise be lost, underfunded, or developed? These are adventures in caring. Adventures in making a difference.

Somewhere, a new prairie adventure is waiting.

*****

The opening quote is from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, a book in the series “The Chronicles of Narnia,” by C.S. Lewis. I love this series, and read it out loud to my adult children when they were growing up.

All photos this week are from Wolf Road Prairie Nature Preserve, Westchester, IL; copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): sky over the wetland; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) in the prairie display garden; hiking the north side of Wolf Road Prairie; small mouse or vole tracks in the snow; cattail (Typha latifolia, Typha angustifolia or Typha x glauca); unknown bird’s nest; possibly sunflower crown gall (a plant disease); goldenrod gall bunch or rosette—made by a goldenrod gall midge  (Rhopalomyia solidaginis); prairie savanna with bur oaks (Quercus macrocarpa); old sidewalk under the snow in the savanna; snow shadows on the prairie;  little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium); pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida) seedhead; Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum); goldenrod (possibly Solidago canadensis); sign for Wolf Road Prairie; trail headed south with little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), a rusty orange haze along the trail and in the distance.

Thank you to the members of the Save the Prairie Society and Heritage Project Committee who so generously pointed out trails, gave us a tour of The Franzosenbusch Prairie House Nature Center and Museum, and were warm and welcoming on our visit there. Check out their Facebook page and other social media.