A Tallgrass Season on the Brink

“Winter is on the road to spring.” — William A. Quayle

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March is all about transition.  As I write, it’s -1°F. Prairie ponds are frozen; patches of snow linger. In only a few days, the temperatures will soar 50 degrees.

Spring. It’s coming. Two more weeks!

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Skunk cabbage jabs skyward now in our region—or so I’m told. And yet, no matter how I’ve slid and scrabbled through the icy muck in my usual skunk-cabbage-speared haunts this week, I can’t find a single leaf rocketing through the soil. I console myself by scrolling through old photos from previous years, and admiring it nostalgically, like this photo from a previous year.

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Skunk cabbage is the first native plant to bloom each year in the Chicago Region, according to Illinois Wildflowers. It’s the tipping point between winter and spring, although I’ve found it in “bloom” as early as December. But not so this year. We seem a bit like the proverbial Narnia of C.S. Lewis’ children’s book series—frozen in a perpetual winter.

Hiking the prairie in early March, it is tough to believe anything will ever have color again, isn’t it?

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At Nachusa Grasslands, the “sand boil”—a natural spring—is bubbling away, and the stream flowing from the source runs freely, despite the Arctic weather.

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Clouds of mosquitoes and biting flies colonize this spot in late May and June. If heavy rains fall in the early summer, it can become semi-impassible, choked with lush foliage by August. In early March, mosquitoes are only a bad dream. Splotches of ice hopscotch across the grass hummocks and make my hike a slow, uncertain stumble. I’m proud of myself. I only fall once.

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Despite the chill and gloom on the prairie, spring is signaling its imminent arrival. Sandhill crane traffic on the aerial northern expressways is heavy. I don’t always see their confetti-ed exuberance overhead, but their creaky cries are unmistakable.

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Blooms? Well, some plants are trying. In a sheltered south-facing spot against a wall, the non-native but always-welcome snowdrops are in bud and trying halfheartedly to bloom. Indoors, in our prairie greenhouse cooler, we unveiled the results of sowing pasque flower seed this past autumn. Asking me to name my favorite prairie plant is like asking me my favorite flavor of ice cream.  Too difficult to choose! The pasque flower is high on my list.

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Maybe it’s because of pasque flower’s early bloom time, early to mid April in my part of the Chicago Region. On one prairie planting where I’m a steward, all but two of the pasque flower plants have been lost over the past 50-plus years of restoration. Will we lose them all? Not on my watch, I’ve determined. After collecting a handful of seeds last spring and propagating them in the greenhouse…

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Five. Count-em! Five. Not bad for a notoriously difficult seed to germinate. Now, the learning begins. Because they are such early bloomers, do we put these baby seedlings out this spring? With temperatures hovering around zero, this week is out of the question. But when? I don’t know.

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This is where I rely on the network of people who have wrestled with the same questions.  Even if a prairie problem is new to me, it’s probably been answered by someone else. It’s a good lesson in the need for community.

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Spring seems to be having a bit of trouble germinating this year, just like the pasque flower seeds.  On March 4, we broke a 129-year-old record for the coldest high temperature in the Chicago Region: 12°F degrees. I’m not sure it’s something to celebrate.

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It seems further confirmation of a long road ahead before warmer days and wildflowers.

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The cardinals sing me up each morning, their spring mating songs clear in the shattering cold. Sunday, March 10, we “spring forward” in Daylight Savings Time in Illinois, and gain a little extra light at the end of the day, or at least, the perception of it. March 20 is the vernal equinox,  the first day of astronomical spring.

Any sign of spring, natural or artificial, is welcome. I’m ready.

You too?

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William Alfred Quayle (1860-1925) was the president of Baker University, the first university in Kansas, and an Episcopal bishop. He was also a prolific writer of  spiritual texts about the natural world, such as God’s Calendar (1907) and In God’s Out-of-Doors (1902). The complete quote by Quayle from the snippet that begins this blog post is: “Winter is on the road to spring. Some think it a surly road. I do not. A primrose road to spring were not as engaging to my heart as a frozen icicled craggy way angered over by strong winds that never take the iron trumpets from their lips.” (“Headed Into Spring” from The Sanctuary, 1921).

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): pond at College of DuPage Russell Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), Lake Marmo, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) leaf, College of DuPage Russell Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; sand boil, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; sedge meadow, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), author’s prairie patch, Glen Ellyn, IL;  pasque flower (Anemone patens or sometimes, Pulsatilla patens), Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL; pasque flower (Anemone patens or sometimes Pulsatilla patens), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), College of DuPage Russell Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; pond-side prairie grasses, College of DuPage Russell Kirt Prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; white oak (Quercus alba), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; road to Thelma Carpenter Unit, Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL.

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Many thanks to the good folks at Illinois Botany FB page and @Dustindemmer on Twitter who offered advice and help on the pasque flower, from seed collection to planting out. Fingers crossed!

Where the Wild Things Are

“In wildness is the preservation of the world” —Henry David Thoreau

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This past week, I enjoyed mingling with more than 2,000 other like-minded folks at the Wild Things Conference here in the Chicago region. The synergy created was a radiant spot in a cold, gloomy February. So many people invested in the natural world! So many who gave up their Saturday to learn and share more about wild things. It gives me hope for a brighter future.

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This February, I find myself needing reasons to hope. I enjoy winter. But I’m ready for spring. The signs are beginning to pop up. Lately, as we sleep with our window cracked open to the frigid air, I wake to cardinals singing their spring songs. They drop in for breakfast at our backyard feeders.

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The first sandhill cranes are winging their way high over the region, heading north.  It’s a sure sign that despite the brutal temps and snow, change—spring— is coming.

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The birds always know, don’t they?

After the Wild Things conference, Jeff and I did a reverse migration and headed south to spend a few days on the Florida beaches. We left 50-mph winds and zero temps, shaking snow off our boots, and stepped into another world of sandals and sunshine. It was appropriate that a “mackerel sky” was starting to form on our arrival.

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Are you familiar with this old rhyme?

Mackerel sky, mackerel sky, sometimes wet and sometimes dry.

Or a slightly different version:

Mackerel scales and mare’s tales, make tall ships carry low sails.

Supposedly, seasoned sailors know when a “mackerel sky” forms—-cirrocumulus or altocumulus clouds (the puffy ones) in rows, sometimes with mare’s tales (the wispy cirrus clouds) showing high winds aloft, a weather change was on the way.

So, we weren’t surprised when storm clouds moved in a few hours later.  The birds knew! There was a frenzy of activity beforehand, including a beach-combing blue heron, looking for lunch.

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The skies over the Florida sands  are full of wings. Some birds, like the osprey, we have back home. In the warmer months. I occasionally see them high over the prairies and hear their unmistakable cries.ospreyCaptiva219WM.jpg

Gulls, like this one below, are familiar Chicago residents as well.  Only the backdrop is different.

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I always struggle with gull ID. I brought my old battered National Geographic Field Guide to Birds of North America  with me, but there are pages and pages of gulls. I squint at the gull on the beach in the bright sun, then thoughtfully turn the pages of the guide. Ring-billed gull, perhaps? What do you think?

Other birds here, like the white ibis, remind me that no matter how many birds I recognize from the prairies back home, this is a different world. At least the ibis is an easy ID. The beak is a give-away. And look at those baby blues!

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When I think of the wildflowers of the prairie in February….

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… and contrast them with Florida’s February blooms…

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…it might seem like hands down, Florida would have my heart. Here the February air smells like sweet flowers. We’ve been sniffing all the blooms, but have yet to find the particular flower source. Hibiscus? Nope. Bougainvillea? Nope. A mystery.

At home on the Illinois prairies, the winds smell of snow. Color is a distant memory.

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But as much as I enjoy the heat and the sun, I miss the wild things of home. “We can never have enough of nature,” wrote Henry David Thoreau. True whether we’re in a convention center with 2,000 people talking about mosses and birds at Wild Things, hiking alone on a prairie in winter, or puzzling over a gull ID on a beach in Florida.

I’m grateful for the wild things —wherever I find myself. You too?

***

Henry David Thoreau (1817-62) is best known for his classic, Walden. His words, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately…” are some of the most famous lines in nature literature.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): thimbleweed (Anemone cylindrica), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; male and female northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis), author’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL; sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis), Jasper Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area, Medaryville, IN; sky, clouds, and sand, Captiva Island, FL; great blue heron (Ardea herodias), Captiva Island, FL; osprey (Pandion haliaetus), Captiva Island, FL; possibly ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis), Captiva Island, FL; white ibis (Eudocimus albus), Captiva Island, FL, round-headed bush clover (Lespedeza capitata), Belmont Prairie Nature Preserve, Downer’s Grove, IL; hibiscus (Hibiscus, species unknown), Captiva Island, FL; the invasive Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

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Join one of Cindy’s Classes This Week!

Nature Writing–online and in-person, The Morton Arboretum. Begins Tuesday, Feb.26 online! Register here.

History of Wilderness in America –Feb. 28, The Morton Arboretum, part two of two classes. (Closed)

Dragonfly Workshop, March 2, 9-11:30 a.m., Nachusa Grasslands, Franklin Grove, IL. Free and open to the public, as well as for new and seasoned monitors. Pre-registration required: Email phrelanzer@aol.com.

A Prairie Ice Age

“Love life first, then march through the gates of each season; go inside nature and develop the discipline to stop destructive behavior; learn tenderness…; listen to the truth the land will tell you; act accordingly.”–Gretel Ehrlich

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This week, it was anyone’s bet what the day would bring. Ice storm. Snow storm. Rain. Sleet.

Did I mention a day of almost 50-degree temps? When you live in the prairie states, there is never a lack for conversational topics. Nod, smile, comment on the weather. It’s one of the superficial daily trivialities I missed when I lived briefly in the South. The lack of weather chat there—that prattle I’d taken for granted as a Midwesterner—made me long for my roots and brought me back home.

This week, an ice storm shellacked prairies with a half inch of crystal coating. Everything glittered for  two days. Magical. Even under gray skies.

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When the sun came out, things really sparkled, suspended in time and place.

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The snow was mirrored in the sky. Clouds trailed white scarves across the blue.

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Switchgrass, shorn of much of its beauty since autumn, suddenly attained new glamour.

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Plants turned alien under the ice.

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Grasses glinted gold-foil metallic. Bent and broken under their arches of ice, they wait  for the coming fires of the prescribed burns, less than a month away.

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Squirrels, suspended in space, paused in their wild scrambles on impossibly-thin branches to consider the mercurial goings on of February.

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Trails glowed.

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Bur oaks? The stuff of fantasy.

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Each prairie plant, dipped in ice, bowed under the drippy weight.

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As I hiked the prairie, my mind kicked into glassy overdrive.  Glisten. Crystalline. Shimmer. The words kept coming—tumbling over and over in my head. None of them seemed adequate to describe what I saw. So much extravagance!

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Even the praying mantis egg case in its frozen luster merited a second look.

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Abrupt changes of weather offer fresh shots of paying attention. A reminder of how quickly things change. A memo of how beautiful the world can be. You think that was amazing? Look at this! Each freeze/thaw brings new delights. Each snowstorm causes me to catch my breath, and not just from shoveling.

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Each change of weather causes me to reconsider the familiar.

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I live, slightly on the edge of expectation, wondering what Mother Nature will throw at us next.

You too?

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The opening quote is from nature essayist and poet Gretel Ehrlich’s (1946-) The Future of Ice: A Journey into the Cold. Her 1985 debut (and my favorite of her works) is The Solace of Open Spaces, in which she chronicles her time spent working on a Wyoming ranch.

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Preorder Now! Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit by Cindy Crosby and Thomas Dean releases on April 22. $25.95, hardcover, full color photography.  Pre-order at The Morton Arboretum Store or through Ice Cube Press.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): ice storm video, Glen Ellyn, IL; bridge at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, close to prairie plantings, Downer’s Grove, IL; little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; Schulenberg Prairie and savanna at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; unknown ice-covered vine, Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) at The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; trail through prairie plantings at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa), Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL;  bee balm (Monarda fistulosa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; bridge over Willoway Brook tributary seen through savanna at Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Chinese praying mantis (Tenodera sinensis) egg case, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; icy grasses at the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; ice storm at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL.

Join Cindy at Upcoming Events and Classes This Week:

Wednesday, Feb.20, 1:30-3:30 p.m.: Wisconsin Wetlands Association Science Conference, Middleton, WI: Don’t Talk Like a Scientist! Registration here.

Thursday, Feb. 21 &28, 6:30-9 p.m. A History of Wilderness in America, at The Morton Arboretum. We’ll be discussing Wilderness and the American Mind and how our ideas about wilderness have changed through history. Still time to register here.

Saturday, Feb. 23, 11-11:45 a.m.: Wild Things  Conference: The Tallgrass Prairie: Grocery Store, Apothecary, and Love Shop: Donald Stephen’s Convention Center, Rosemont, IL. Register here.

A Prairie Valentine

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Extreme Prairie Weather

“Adapt or perish, now as is ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative.”–H. G. Wells

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How do you cope with wild swings of weather? How do you make it through a tempestuous, fickle Midwestern winter?

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Here in the Midwest this week, we’ve seen swings of temperature from -25 degrees  below zero to 50 degrees or more. When I hiked the Schulenberg Prairie on Saturday, February 2, this was the view from the prairie bench:

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Compare it to this same view when I hiked the prairie two days later, on Monday, February 4:

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Oh, the difference two days makes in February!

I’ve coped with all this weather change armed with my arsenal of hot drinks, a stack of library books, and a pile of afghans. You too? But I’m not sure I can say I’ve fully “adapted.”

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We worry about our non-native plants—and sometimes, with good reason—because they aren’t adapted to our harsh conditions. These garden plants come from far-flung places, where their beauty and exotic good looks brighten up our yards here. I’m a sucker for some of these plants (Moonflowers! Zinnias! Gallardia!), although I garden mostly for natives.

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There is something wonderfully comforting about the Illinois prairie and its suite of plants. Sure, some of them disappear from season to season, obliterated by unusual weather conditions.  But most of our native prairie plants are made for a rollercoaster climate.

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How do prairie plants navigate extreme weather? What makes them different than the orchid flowering on my kitchen counter, or the scarlet runner beans in my summer garden? Let’s take a hike on the February prairie together and think about some of the  ways native plants cope.

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Deep Roots

The February prairie may look desolate, in its transitions between freeze and thaw; frigid and mild.

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But underneath the surface, there is a lot going on. Many of the barely-there, brittle grasses and wildflower fragments you see around you in February have deep roots. Roots that plunge 15 feet or more deep. These roots hold the promise of spring. The promise of renewal.

Can you imagine? Like a time bomb of the best kind, ready to go off at the right moment.

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The growing points under the ground and deep roots help ensure survival from year to year. When fires sweep across the prairie—once caused by lightning strikes and Native Americans, and now set intentionally to mimic the historical ones —its no problem.

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These adaptations are mostly about what’s invisible to us, under the ground. But what about the visible?

Narrow Leaves 

This article from the Illinois State Museum helps us understand why so many of the prairie plants  have narrow leaves. Yes, it’s no accident! Skinny leaves, because of their slim profile, lose less water to evaporation than our more broad-leaved plants. Cool!

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But wait! What about those broad-leaved prairie plants? How do they cope? Which brings us to…

Orientation

Compass plant is famous for it. Prairie dock does it as well. Turning north and south—orienting your leaves to lose the least amount of moisture—is a great adaptation by certain prairie plants to avoid losing moisture to a brutal prairie sun. Sure, it’s tough to notice this in the depths of February, when compass plant leaves are barely hanging on…

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…or the prairie dock leaves are battered and torn.

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Easier, perhaps, in the heat of a July afternoon. In the 1800s, some naturalists thought this positioning was because  the plants had taken up enough iron in the soil to become magnetic. Now we know this leaf position is another way for plants to brave the harsh elements of a Midwestern summer. Read more about the prairie dock and its leaf orientation in this excellent article by plant guru Christopher Benda,   His article also includes information about long taproots, another prairie plant adaptation.

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As someone who often struggles to adapt to change, I admire the strategies of these plant survivalists. They live in one of the most vulnerable places on Earth—the tallgrass prairie. Yet, they know how to cope. I’ve only touched on a few of their adaptations. There are many, many more to explore.

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This week, as the temperatures have see-sawed back and forth through extremes, I have a new appreciation for prairie plants. You too? Why not go for a hike and admire these prairie plants in person?

Maybe they will inspire you, as they have me. That adaptation to difficult conditions is possible. And—you can learn to accept change.

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The opening quote is by Herbert George “H.G.” Wells (1866-1946), a prolific writer often referred to as “The Father of Science Fiction.” Wells is best known for his books, The Time Machine, War of the Worlds, and The Invisible Man. A trained biologist, he brought his knowledge to bear in The Island of Dr. Moreau, in which he writes of a doctor who tampers with evolution in animals.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): bridge at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Downer’s Grove, IL; Schulenberg Prairie bench on Saturday, February 2, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Schulenberg Prairie bench on Monday, February 4, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; author’s backyard prairie during the Polar Vortex (temperature -25 degrees), Glen Ellyn, IL; silhouettes of prairie plants on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray day on the Schulenberg Prairie (looking through the savanna), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; reflections on the Schulenberg Prairie trail, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; late figwort (Scrophularia marilandica), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prescribed burn on the Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) leaves, Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; prairie dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL. Schulenberg Prairie savanna on February 4, 2019, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Under the Prairie Ice

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

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Polar Vortex! In the Illinois prairie region, all the chatter is about the week’s forecast: wind chill temperatures of 50-plus degrees below zero. Brrr! It’s a good time to dream a little bit about the summer to come.

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One of my favorite tasks as a prairie steward is monitoring dragonflies.  People often ask me in the winter, Where are the dragonflies now? How do they survive the brutal cold? 

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Some, I tell them, like the green darners and black saddlebags, have migrated south to reproduce. Later generations journey back north again, much like the well-publicized monarch butterfly. But most of our dragonflies are still here—in the nymph stage—under the surfaces of streams, ponds, and pools of prairie wetlands, waiting for spring and warmer temperatures. Under the prairie ice.

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Dragonflies and their population changes tell us a lot about our water quality. Dragonfly responses to climate also help us understand what we see happening in the see-sawing temperatures and weather changes in the world around us. Good reasons to care! With this in mind, citizen scientists monitor dragonflies of all species, tracking their numbers each year.

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We need our dragonflies. I’ve spent a lot of time kayaking and looking for dragonflies and damselflies on Silver Lake at Blackwell Forest Preserve in Warrenville, Illinois, just for fun.  But now, in this January cold, the lake is full of ice fisherman.

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Just across the preserve, not far from the ice fishing houses, is my destination—the Urban Stream Research Center. Here, one of our most vulnerable insect species, the Hine’s emerald dragonfly, is being reared.

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Some people dream of meeting sports heroes. Others, their favorite rock star. Me, I dream of seeing the Hine’s emerald dragonfly (Somatochlora hineana) winging its way through a prairie preserve. It’s our only federally-endangered dragonfly. Finicky? Yes! It has a lot of special requirements, including shallow flowing water and time spent in burrows made by the devil crayfish. 

During the winter months, I pore over my favorite dragonfly field guide by Kurt Mead part of the North Woods Naturalist Series

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… and open it to the Hine’s emerald dragonfly spread. Then, I think what it would be like to see the real thing.

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Today, I’ll get part of my wish.

Heading up the project in its third year in the Chicago Region is DuPage County Forest Ecologist Andrés Ortega. His enthusiasm for dragonflies and passion for the project are evident from the first moment of my arrival at the center.

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Andrés reaches into a refrigerator, and pulls out a dozen vials of tiny Hine’s emerald dragonfly nymphs.

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The dragonfly nymphs are in “diapause,” just as nymphs are outdoors. These nymphs enjoy cool refrigerator temps of about 40 degrees Fahrenheit;  their normal overwintering temperature, Ortega tells me.

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The eggs were gathered from gravid female dragonflies at known breeding sites in DuPage and Cook Counties, Andrés tells me.  Once netted, the tip of the female dragonfly’s abdomen is dipped into water—a process that simulates ovipositing—causing her to release her eggs. After the eggs are harvested, they are taken to a research laboratory in South Dakota. Here, they hatch and are cared for through their first months or even years of nymph life.

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Then, they are driven to Illinois and hand-delivered to Ortega at the Urban Stream Research Center.

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These are ferocious little critters. Andrés tells me they keep similar-sized nymphs with other similar-sized nymphs, as larger ones will enjoy the smaller ones for dinner if thrown together. Cannibalism! It’s a bug-eat-bug world out there. Staff carefully control the water quality (which should not be too clean) and water temperature.

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In the spring, the nymphs will be released into the research center’s indoor raceways. These are long pools that mimic stream-like conditions. The temperature of the water in the raceways is carefully calibrated to reflect the rising temperatures outdoors.

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Raceways are custom made by employees expressly for the dragonfly rearing. Sand, rocks, frayed rope pieces, and plastic aquarium plants offer hiding places for the nymphs. In about mid-May, the nymphs will begin feeding from a menu that includes small crustaceans and midge larvae. The screens and netting will keep midges from escaping and interfering with other research work at the center, such as mussel propagation.

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It will take the dragonfly nymphs about four to five years to reach maturity, from the egg stage to the beautiful creatures of the air I see in my field guide. When ready to emerge, they will be released into suitable nature preserves in the state.

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Ortega tells me that less than one percent of the Hine’s emerald dragonfly nymphs survive in the wild. Pretty slim odds, aren’t they?  I’m grateful to people like Andrés Ortega. He is one of our unsung heroes, doing the hard work of keeping part of the natural world from vanishing forever.

The next time you see a frozen prairie stream or pond this winter, think of the many different species of dragonflies waiting to emerge, just underneath the surface. Who knows? This might be the year we see more of the Hine’s emerald dragonflies, cruising through prairie wetlands. I’m planning to show up and look.

How about you?

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The Aldo Leopold quote that opens this essay is from Round River. Leopold is often referred to as the father of wildlife ecology and the United States’ wilderness system. Please visit The Aldo Leopold Foundation’s website to learn more about Leopold and his work, which is carried on today.

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Grateful thanks to Andrés Ortega for his tour of the Urban Stream Research Center; his patient answers to all my questions;  his reading and suggested edits for this blogpost (all remaining errors are my own); and his terrific work with dragonflies. Contact him at aortega@dupageforest.org.

Many thanks to super nice guy Kurt Mead, author of Dragonflies of the North Woods, Third Edition (2017), and Sparky Stensaas, co-owner of Kollath+Stensaas Publishing, who approved using the cover and pages with the Hine’s emerald dragonfly for this post (and also thanks to photographer Troy Hibbitts whose Hine’s emerald images (thehibbets.net) appear on those pages. If you are interested in dragonflies, you should own this beautiful guide–it is indispensable for Midwestern dragonfly chasers, even if you live a little further south of the North Woods (I live in Illinois).  Order from your favorite local bookseller, or online here.

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Mt. Hoy, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; cold day at Springbrook Prairie, Naperville, IL; hundreds of Canada geese (Branta canadensis) on open water of Springbrook Creek at Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL;  male calico pennant (Celithemis elisa), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL:  ice fishing shacks on Silver Lake, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; Urban Stream Research Center, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; Cover of Dragonflies of the North Woods, Third Edition, by Kurt Mead (2017), courtesy Kollath+Stensaas Publishing and Kurt Mead; interior spread, Dragonflies of the North Woods, Third Edition, by Kurt Mead (2017), courtesy Kollath+Stensaas Publishing and Kurt Mead. Andrés Ortega (Homo sapiens), ecologist, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; vials of Hine’s emerald dragonfly (Somatochlora hineana) nymphs, Urban Stream Research Center, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; Hine’s emerald dragonfly (Somatochlora hineana) nymph, Urban Stream Research Center, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; Hine’s emerald dragonfly (Somatochlora hineana) nymph,Urban Stream Research Center, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; Hine’s emerald dragonfly (Somatochlora hineana) nymph, Urban Stream Research Center, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; water system, Urban Stream Research Center, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; raceway system, Urban Stream Research Center, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; life support system, Urban Stream Research Center, Blackwell Forest Preserve, Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, Warrenville, IL; Fox River, Geneva, IL.

Life in the Prairie Cold

“There was nothing so real on the prairie as winter, nothing so memorable.” — Martha Ostenso

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Seven degrees.

It’s that time of year on the prairie. You know. That time.  Frigid temps. Icy trails that make it an effort to get from point “A” to point “Z.”  Add a brutal wind, and it lessens any desire on my part to emerge from piles of blankets on the couch, or to leave my stack of library books and mug of hot chocolate.

There are reasons to go outside, however. Especially for those of us who love snow.

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Or wonders in the sky. The lunar eclipse, or what was popularly called the “super wolf blood moon eclipse,” lured me out to my back porch after dark this week. In the western suburbs of Chicago, we had a savagely cold night for viewing, but oh! What a view! The moon seemed to chase Orion across the night sky as it progressed through its different darkened stages. Crisp stars sparkled as a backdrop for the eclipse. I returned inside long past my bedtime.

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It was a good reminder: When you forgo being outside in January, the life of the natural world goes on as usual. It doesn’t miss your presence. But you are the poorer for missing the moment.

One particular afternoon this week, despite the breathtaking cold, Jeff and I hike the Springbrook Prairie Forest Preserve,  an 1,800 acre-plus natural area that is, one of three regionally significant grassland bird communities in the state.

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Springbrook Prairie is home to short-eared owls, and is a confirmed site for nesting turkey vultures. Bobolinks and dickcissels can be heard singing in the spring. Springbrook also hosts the state-endangered northern harrier.

Today, however, nothing much moves in the wind except the brittle grasses and spent wildflowers.

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Until…

A hawk flies up out of the tallgrass in the distance. Could it be the northern harrier? We hike faster, crossing our fingers.

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It settles into a tree. We move in for a closer look.

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Red-tailed hawk.  Common? Sure. Still magnificent. Although not the northern harrier we’d hoped for.

The rest of the bird life of Springbrook is noticeably silent. The Arctic winds that cause us to wrap our scarves more tightly around our heads are most likely the reason. But there is life here besides the red-tailed hawk. A ball gall next to the trail reminds us. Somewhere inside the gall, a tiny insect larvae is waiting to emerge. Pretty smart, I think, to spend days like today encapsulated in a warm sphere.

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The sharp wind seems to be in my face, no matter which way I hike.

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It sculpts blue shadows in the snow, carves ripples into the white stuff; scoops out gullies.

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Tiny prints necklace the prairie, made by a tiny mammal. Brave—or hungry—to be out in this bitter cold. I remind myself I need to re-learn mammal tracks.

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There are cars in the parking lot of the preserve, but we don’t see a soul on the trails. Springbrook Prairie is so vast! Few prairies in Illinois today offer these sweeping vistas in every direction. As we hike up a rise, we see clouds piled up in the east, more than 20 miles away over Lake Michigan. Part of the lake effect.  

Looking north, the preserve’s wetlands are partially frozen and and quiet.

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In the west, the prairie could be a landscape painting. Or an old sepia photograph, perhaps.

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A living painting or photograph, that is. The ball gall, the hawk, and the mammal tracks remind me of this. Under the ground, the deep roots of prairie plants wait. In only months, they’ll push green spears through the soil and completely change this icy world of the prairie I see today.

I realize I can no longer feel my fingers. Wind-burnt, frozen, we begin the hike back to the car and turn up the heater as high as it will go. Grateful for the warmth. But still…glad to have been a part of the life of the prairie for a moment. Content to have been present to our “landscape of home.”

And… ready for that hot chocolate and those library books.

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Novelist and poet Martha Ostenso (1900-1963) immigrated with  her family from Norway to Manitoba, then Minnesota. After living in New York City, she moved to Los Angeles and became a screenwriter. She died of complications from alcoholism.  The Wild Geese (1924) is her best-known novel, and, as her publisher writes, “Set on the windswept prairies, it is…a poignant evocation of loneliness… .”

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All photos copyright Cindy Crosby, and taken this week at Springbrook Prairie Forest Preserve, Naperville, IL, except where noted (top to bottom): snowfall at the intersection of the collections and wetland prairie plantings on the West Side of The Morton Arboretum in Lisle, IL; super wolf blood moon eclipse over author’s backyard prairie, Glen Ellyn, IL; gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata), trail through the tallgrass; red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis); red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis); ball gall on goldenrod (probably either Solidago canadensis or Solidago altisissima) made by the goldenrod gall fly (Eurosta solidaginis); bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) in the tallgrass;  blue shadows and spent wildflowers and prairie grasses; possibly mouse or  vole tracks in the snow; prairie wetlands; looking west on the prairie.

Thanks to Jennifer Crosby Buono, who explained the lake effect snow cloud formations to me that we saw to the east, and provided me with the link in the post.

For more information on galls, check out this interesting article from Entomology Today.